In the gaze of the other

"My mistress' eyes are nothing…"

The Beauty Myth–Think About it.

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While I’m in favor of encouraging women to feel confident and happy, I worry that today’s body positivity focuses too much on affirming beauty and not enough on deconstructing its necessity. Spreading a message that everyone is beautiful reinforces the underlying assumption that beauty matters.


So writes Lindsay King Miller in Taking Beauty Out of Body Positivity. While she lauds the ever inclusive embracing of all female body types, she believes that reinforcing beauty as a value criterion is detrimental. She discusses what “body positivists,” those trying to change the accepted notions of beauty, are currently doing to change current conceptions but cites the dichotomy of beautiful versus ugly as problematic to such a cause, how beauty always implicates ugly. Ultimately, however, she finds the expansion of beauty beyond Victoria’s Secrets models refreshing, and as a mother of two teenage daughters, so do I.


Raising girls in 21st Century America is complicated. Raising girls probably has always been complicated, but in this world of consciously and commercially reinforced stereotypes about body imagery, where young girls are vulnerable to the obsessive compulsion to conform to culturally dictated beauty standards, it is particularly troublesome. 


Unquestionably, there is too much emphasis on the female body as artifact of beauty and sexuality. It is also undeniable that many walk the earth unconscious of their inherited values and aesthetics, what culture has produced in them:  their tastes, predispositions and prejudices. Historically, women have been treated poorly as citizen bodies, practically erased representationally in the arts, for instance (See Syreeta McFadden’s The lack of female genitals on statues seems thoughtless until you see it repeated). So women grow up in a vacuum of realistic body portrayals to challenge social “norms.”


In my early mothering years, I didn’t want to raise two daughters without at least attempting to defy norms. When they were little, I bristled at the pink and purple princess culture vulturing girls on commercial television, so I attempted to shelter them, feeding them a steady diet of commercial-free Public Broadcasting educational television. However, living smack dab in the suburbs of Southern California, I found I could not blind them to imagery that I did not agree with or even downright feared. And though I wanted to run counter culture, I was actually driving home the very ideas I wanted to avoid. 


I knew what I vociferously avoided would be the very thing to lure my children. By avoiding princesses, I was drawing the curiosity of princess-dom to two children not living in isolation but among blossoming princesses.


So I decided the best tact was to expose them to all that I believed would indoctrinate them, commercial television and radio, the internet, Justice clothing store ads and other girly-centered media, and then use the exposure as opportunities to discuss options and causes. 


I have always spoken to my children with words to make them reach rather than me sink. I would often remark that the store Justice was painted in colors that draw prebuscent girls of their age, pinks, purples and pastels, and then ask them who decided those were girl colors. They may not have understood the questions then, but now as teenagers, they are vocal feminists and advocates for the non-conformists, especially defying normative behaviors expected of them as women. Their dress and actions do not always affirm their words, but there is a consciousness of the conspiracy that captivates their style impulses.


I remember the trickiest issue of parenting two girls was body referencing and diet. To tackle the thorny body image issue, I steered them early from identifying anyone by body type or parts, skin color or size. I modeled pointing someone out by location, i.e., that guy in jeans and a tee shirt next to the cereal boxes–not by body traits–that tall white dude down there, explaining that no one wants to be identified by something that marks them at birth, something they did not choose. I thought it was the clearest path to disassociating their body as their only avenue of identity–at least as a starting point. Of course it was more complicated than that.


Before my children could think and prefer, I had them enrolled in classes:  art, dance, gymnastics, soccer, science, theater and whatever else I thought would expose them to opportunities and practice habits and hobbies healthy for them, a path to learning. It was no surprise that two daughters of a soccer playing mom would love soccer. 


With soccer they learned about their bodies’ needs, dietary, sleep and exercising. It was a no brainer to let them eat a begged-for donut before a game and then ask them how they felt during the game compared to say a pre-game banana with peanut butter. They figured it out. They also learned about competition and their bodies, fueling for better performance. We never talked about their diet but fueling choices. We talked about what they ate as promoters of good feeling and health, not body shape.


As a result, neither have been overheard to speak of one another’s weight when the taunting insults fly in their daily needling and razz-rationing. I don’t know what they say when I am not around, but I suspect they rarely judge beauty on the basis of weight, at least. I have witnessed their scolding their peers for doing so.


When they were young, my message about body-intensive focus would be lost, I feared, in a society that prizes beauty as exceptional whether the craze is body shape svelte or zoftig, Twiggy or Marilyn Monroe. The tidal wave of social stigma was too forceful, I thought. They would find out winning the lottery of a culture’s beauty award, one has to have the right metabolism and bone structure, the right chromosomal admixture. One has to measure the self against others on arbitrary dice rolls of anatomy. I desperately wanted them to understand that where body beauty is often the goal for young women, intrinsically achievable happiness is sidestepped or forsaken.


I’m troubled with using “beauty” as a synonym for feeling valuable and powerful and magnificent. It’s not far removed from nominally inspiring, but ultimately shallow, slogans like “Confidence is sexy” and “Nothing is more attractive than happiness” that treat emotional well-being as an accessory. I seek happiness because it feels good, not because it makes my hair shinier. Happiness, confidence, self-esteem—these things should be ends, not means.


Yes, and so how do we teach our daughters about the relationship of beauty and happiness, ends and means? How do we keep the word in our vocabulary without having it used as a weapon or a criterion for worth?


It is not enough to say that “everyone is beautiful in their own way,” to quote an insipid, grammatically inferior Ray Stevens’ song lyric. Some “body positivists” would have media drilling the empowerment of all body types into cultural consciousness.To do so, expands the definition beyond meaning, dilutes its aesthetic etymology and weakens it as a tool for evaluation of non-humans. Beauty is not merely in the eyes of the beholder as there are objective criteria for evaluating beautiful art or poetry, for instance.


Miller offers another conception:


Instead of insisting that beauty is necessary for everyone, more body-positive activists are working toward making beauty optional—something we can pursue if it matters to us, but also something we can have full and satisfying lives without. We should affirm our bodies for what they can do, how they can feel, the tribulations they’ve survived, and the amazing minds they carry around, without having to first justify their existence by looking pretty.


This is not merely a manifesto for those perceived as old and ugly to feel better about themselves. It takes a body fullness that does not need outward validation, a self-sufficiency that manifests contentment and dispassionate awareness of cultural tagging. Critical thinking skills help to distinguish self from selling, what is sold to and through women.


Whether or not I have succeeded as a parent in a myriad of ways from teaching them to clean up after themselves to balancing a bank account, I have given it my all to encourage my children–all of them (daughters, nieces, nephews, students)–to think. And why I love my careers as teacher, writer and mother–for the seemingly insignificant but wholly critical contribution I attempt daily at raising awareness, teaching analytical skills by which to destroy the inherited, constructed world. It’s the least this world citizen can do.

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