Sunday, January 25, 2015

Beauty Myth, Flexed in Irony

“The body is the instrument of our hold on the world.”
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

 “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”  
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

The above quotes are throw backs to the  feminist studies classes I took in my undergrad years. (Sigh, electives . . .)  I haven't really thought much about that in the last 20 odd years but lately, I've begun to wonder: Perhaps  there has been a shift in the beauty ideal?

I am not talking about a 180. Just a shift. A slight move to the right. The right being the direction towards a beauty ideal that doesn't oppress but empowers women. Empowers women to not think in terms of beauty as an aesthetic but as tool in which they may sculpt whatever hold they want on the world.

My awareness of this subtle shift started last year with a pair of hot pink tie-dyed knee-high socks my husband bought Carmella for Christmas. He asked my opinion and I thought they were adorable and would look great on my daughter when she played lacrosse. She would standout on the field wearing funky pink knee-high socks. They were sporty and girly.  But most importantly, in these socks, I thought, I will easily be able to pick her out from the other girls: from all the other maroon and gold kits and blondish brown long pony tails. Usually, once I figure out which one she is, she has scored and is back on the sidelines and I missed the whole thing.

But Carmella, 13 at the time, didn't like the socks.  At all.

No way, she said, those will make my legs look skinny.

She said skinny like it was gross.

Skinny legs? A bad thing?

I'd never heard of such a thing.

She said that she liked the socks that hit at the calf.

"They make my legs look bigger, more muscular," she explained.

This was a surprise for me (and I noted that I should avoid socks that hit at the calf. Of course, I already knew this. . . )

But seriously, muscular is what teenage girls want to look like now? When did this happen?

This is a far cry from the waif ingĂ©nue and supermodel I grew up thinking was the ideal. I don't know when this shift happened. 17 years ago I started running to lose weight. I wanted to be thin for my wedding. I didn't really care about being fit. I wanted to be skinny. I wanted boney shoulders, string bean arms, a hollowed out collar bone, a thigh gap and pointy hips. I wanted everything Naomi Wolf said in the Beauty Myth was keeping me from being truly liberated.  However, being colossally ungifted at deprivation, waifdom wasn't going to happen through dieting for me. Energy, though, I had that in spades. So exercise, I decided,  was going to be my ticket to thinness. And running became the means of how I was going to get there since it was all that I could afford.

Originally, I had hopes that I would end up looking like a Victoria Secret model from all my running but all that happened is that I got my same body, a little smaller, but with more muscles. And the more I ran the more muscular (and hungrier) I became. Boney hips,  fragile arms and willowy frame remained unattainable. After awhile I gave up on the skinny and decided I would just try to be the best runner I could be and not worry about the other stuff. Partly this was because I so freaking hungry from all the damn running.  But also, because by then, I was married and a mother of two. I didn't have the time to worry about being skinny. I was an adult and I had priorities: I had to make sure I kept the children alive and figure out how to find time to get my run in. Actually, this is where I still am today.

Certainly, my pond is small. Maybe other teenage girls do still struggle with that skinny ideal. I only know what I hear and see with my daughter and her friends. I've never once heard them complain about their weight or mention what size they wear or watch what they eat. Because dear lord, these girls eat--which they need to. They are still growing and burn some serious calories on the field. Their conversations revolve around  who is strong, who is fast and who has good stick skills. They admire girls who are stronger, faster, better. They talk strategy on how they will get that way. They don't look at fashion magazines or talk about diets.

Kate Parker, an acquaintance who I met through blogging and triathlon/running is an amazing photographer whose photo campaign of Strong is the New Pretty matches what I see with my daughter and her friends. (Of course, if you click on that Huffington Post link  it is a little confusing since a number of the other articles show sexy women skimpily dressed. Boobs are still winning when it comes to marketing. I don't think this is going to change. )

Interesting to me is that I personally did nothing to intentionally propagate anything other than the female skinny status quo. Certainly, a number of my more socially and body image aware mommy friends worried about the skinny quo. They  banned their daughters playing with Barbie or Barbie's slutty knockoff the big eyed Bratz dolls.  They worried about the dolls perpetuating unrealistic body images to their daughters. I didn't worry about that or actually, I just didn't think a doll had that much power. Once, when Carmella was 5, in the throws of all that is princess and Barbie, I said, Honey eat your vegetables. Don't you want to grow up to be pretty like Barbie or Cinderella? And Carmella said, "Can't I just grow up to look like you? I don't want to be a doll."

So yes, I bought Carmella all of those dolls. Any doll. She wanted to play with dolls.  So I bought her dolls to play with. And though I am not a regular subscriber, I  read and will still read Cosmo, Glamour and Vogue-- magazines preserving the antiquated beauty ideals of women. (What can I say? A girl needs a little low-brow guilty pleasure sometimes.) I read these in front of my daughter, who as of this writing has yet to show any interest in them. In addition to that feminist faux pas, I am further guilty of dressing to the beauty myth--short skirts, high heels, mini dresses, tight jeans. And more than likely,  more than just a little inappropriately at times for a woman my age, never mind a mommy. In fact, it was only recently that  I was shopping with Carmella for bikinis and I was trying on some of the same swim suits she was trying on and I realized that maybe these suits are meant for teenage girls.  And then it occurred to me  that maybe it is time to find somewhere else to shop.  .  .  My point to all this is that I have been a terrible role model for my daughter in the sense that I have bought into the marketing and what (apparently) society wants us to believe makes a beautiful woman. I have been perpetuating the "beauty myth"!

But somehow despite all my missteps and stumbles away from feminism, I have a daughter who sees past it and wants to be strong? Wants to be fit? I can't help but think it is the running. If you know me, running trumps pretty much everything for me. Sometimes, yes, even good sense. . .

Its funny though because my competitive nature is a trait that I am embarrassed about. It is an ugly part of me but it is what motivates my running vigilance. Without it I probably would have quit long ago and given over to all that is diet and deprivation. Though it has never been outright said to me-- I have figured out that  most people (especially other women) find competitiveness a very unattractive trait in a female. The message is that wanting to win is fine but you should not be vocal about it or in any way ever be overt about it. I find myself apologizing and toning it down. Which might surprise those that know me that I say I tone it down. If you only knew. If you only knew. . .

*Sidebar Disclaimer: This is not to say I actually  ever win but I always want to and I am disappointed when I do not.

So there it is, the irony.  It is ironic that the very unfeminine and distasteful trait of competitiveness is the fuel in the engine that drives the car of discipline on this undulating road to physical strength. And that physical strength is what my daughter and other girls are finding is the pretty.

Please let that stay. Please let beauty be a muscle. Not a boney hip or a thigh gap but a defined quad casting a shadow over a knee and double heart-shaped calf. A carved out lat, not a boney spine.

But I am sure this will all change. Men are hardwired to a like a certain physique. Curves matter to them. And at some point most women start to care about that. I'm not a scientist but I think biology is hard to deny. But what I like right now is that the way my daughter thinks about her body is in terms of what she can do with it. What she can do with her body is what drives her body image--not how her body looks to other people.

And isn't that how it should be for everyone--men and women? Girls and boys?

So maybe there is shift in the feminine beauty ideal --at least for the female. Time will tell.

The reality is though, no matter how much you diet, slather fountain of youth elixirs, inject face-freezing toxins or pay to surgically have your body sculpted in the round of youth,  the beauty of youth will fade. But consider this: The beauty of a strong, fit body is that it is a body that endures. It is a body that allows you to experience all that life has to offer. That's beautiful.

Maybe it will always be true that pretty is as pretty does. ... But what if, what if  what pretty does is flex her muscles?

So to everyone--girls, boys, women and men, I say this:

Go ugly to be beautiful.