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Talking about The Beauty Myth, Pt. II – Let’s Get Personal

The last three chapters–“Sex,” “Hunger” and “Violence”–of Naomi Wolf’s seminal text were at least twice as compelling as the first half  of the book (bogged down as it was by sloppy “Culture” and irrelevant, albeit interesting, “Religion”), primarily because Wolf finally interrupted her endless litanies of ad copy and study results to share her own, private experience with the beauty myth (TBM). So, instead of taking a clinical approach to analyzing Wolf’s findings, I’m going to emulate the most successful parts of her book and tell my story of growing up under TBM.

A still from the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty shows the princess in the woods, resting her arms on a branch, surrounded by birds.It’s remarkable how young girls are when we begin to be inundated with ideas about how we should look. By age 6, I had absorbed (mostly from Disney movies, Full House and a collection of old, bloody versions of Grimms Brothers fairy tales) the idea that blonde hair was the most desirable of all the colors, and I would often ruminate about how lucky I was to have yellow hair (the word I would use now would be “privileged,” but my hair has darkened significantly).

I used to take naps on my mother’s bed, but “napping” and “watching TV” were interchangeable. I remember being alone and watching two TV shows that had a major impact on my self-image, even at elementary-school age. One was a semi-trashy daytime talk show, probably Ricki Lake or Sally Jessy Raphael, on which several women were sharing tips about makeup and aging.

Later, I asked my mom if I could wear her lipstick and she just sighed and said, “You’re far too young to need that.” The operable word in that sentence is “need”–from then on, I labored under the assumption that all women need makeup someday, that it was as necessary as shampoo or clean underwear.

[pullquote]I labored under the assumption that all women need makeup someday, that it was as necessary as shampoo or clean underwear.[/pullquote]

And history keeps on repeating itself: when I last saw my sister-in-law, who is 13 now, she asked if I wore makeup and what kinds of makeup I had. I explained my all-or-nothing approach to makeup (basically, I either wear powder/mascara/lipcolor or am too lazy to apply anything) then concluded, “Of course, you don’t need to be worrying about makeup yet.”

I immediately felt awful, because I had just planted that same seed of doubt that Sally Jessy Raphael and my mother planted in me! Of course, the advice of one older sister-in-law isn’t going to counteract the images she sees on TV and online and on bus ads every day, but I wish I had chosen my words more carefully.

The second, and far more disturbing, TV show that marked me was an episode of Oprah about women who thought they were incontrovertibly ugly. One woman had undergone at least four rhinoplasties, but was comfortable enough to appear on Oprah’s couch and talk about how she was looking forward to her fifth. However, another woman suffered from what I can only assume was extreme body dysmorphia. She never left her house, but chose to speak via videochat with Oprah. Her face was blurred out to viewers outside the studio audience.

Despite the blurring on the woman’s face, I could see that she was white, blonde, and probably relatively thin. None of her features, as far as I could tell, looked distorted in the slightest. Oprah told the woman that she and everyone in the studio audience thought she was beautiful, and everyone clapped and cheered while the woman cried. After she dried her eyes, everyone (including me) was expectantly sucking in their breath, hoping to hear her finally accept her beauty. She simply said, “But I know I’m ugly.”

[pullquote]She simply said, “But I know I’m ugly.”[/pullquote]

That disturbing episode haunts me to the present day. At the time, I was supremely confused as to why a woman who was normal-looking would think she was a monster and hide away from the world like that.

Now, her experience, taken in light of TBM at large, just drives home how beauty standards really aren’t about what a woman looks like, but how she feels. Constant messages that we’re ugly sap away at our souls until there is nothing left for us to give–not to ourselves, not to our friends or families, not to any of the innumerable worthy causes we could be championing, feminism among them.

I don’t have time to outline all the vagaries of my relationship with my body, so I’ll give you an overview–by age 9, I thought I was overweight and I didn’t like the way my face looked. In seventh grade, a bully (who, interestingly enough, I later found out ‘liked’ me) called me Bozo the clown, a slight against my nose, and that started what’s been a years-long obsession and dalliance with the idea of rhinoplasty (if I could go back and punch that kid, I would). I had acne in my teens and I always thought it was somehow my own fault–I didn’t eat right, I didn’t exercise enough, I was just an awful person, deep down.

Today, I vacillate between having great self-esteem and feeling like, “I just can’t face the world today, not looking like this.” I always face the world anyway, but not before indulging in one of my patented, years-old self-hate-fests, staring in the mirror and listing off every possible thing I can criticize.

[pullquote]Today, I vacillate between having great self-esteem and feeling like, “I just can’t face the world today, not looking like this.”[/pullquote]

I do this knowing full well that most of my accusations are not rooted in reality. My parents, my husband, and my friends have all expressed concern about how harshly I judge my weight, my complexion, my features, etc.–there are very few parts of my body I haven’t expressed dissatisfaction with at some point.

But I just can’t stop doing it. I think that’s the truly evil part of The Beauty Myth–practically as soon as we can comprehend images, women are told to expect failure, to look forward to a lifetime of ugliness and pain. I can’t speak for everyone, but in my case, prolonged exposure to that pain has made it so routine that, in a twisted way, it’s like I don’t want to let it go. I don’t want to look in a mirror and actually love my body, because that’s uncharted, scary territory.

So that’s where I’m at right now–I understand the effect that The Beauty Myth is having on me, and I’m slowly making progress towards rejecting it, but I’m by no means cured, not yet. And I have so many more stories about the negativity of The Beauty Myth that I could ramble for thousands more words, but instead, I’ll open up the floor for everyone to share their thoughts in the comments.

9 replies on “Talking about The Beauty Myth, Pt. II – Let’s Get Personal”

It wasn’t until watching the BBC documentary “Too Ugly For Love” that I could put a name to my body dysmorphia. I am completely that woman on Oprah. I know what I know.
If I hadn’t learned to shut off expectations of a “normal” life progression I would be completely crippled by my issues as well.

I used to be bulimic and I feel like I’ve made a huge amount of progress. I can look in the mirror and not start obsessing over shadows and whether my hip is curving out enough and whether I’ve gained weight since yesterday. I’m in a place where I mostly like my body, or am at least neutral towards it.
However, my best friend has an eating disorder and while she’s doing her best to fight it, it’s still pretty triggering — all my mind can think is, if she’s not good enough, then what am I? At the (starvation-induced) weight she is right now, she fits the beauty standard extremely well — the approved body shape and proportions and blah blah blah. I hate it that I’m aware of that, and I hate that I feel the pressure to fit it as well — it’s like this sick cloud on the edge of my mind. The only thing I can do is avoid my friend and read fat acceptance stuff, which tends to help. I plan to be comfortable with my body even if I gain a bunch of weight, and fuck the beauty standard — I’m attracted to plenty of people who would be considered ugly, fat, or weird by the same standard and I should apply the same view to myself.

“Today, I vacillate between having great self-esteem and feeling like, I just can’t face the world today, not looking like this.”

THIS. This is me, every day. I never know until that first look in the mirror which “Me” I’m going to be dealing with on that particular day.

And here’s the part that I loathe to admit, but know I must. My new work environment has caused more of those ‘can’t face it’ days than I’ve had since I was in my 20s. Just this week I heard one girl ruminating how OLD 40 is (I five months away from my 40th) and today one girl was loudly expounding on how ugly a girl on American Idol was because of her nose. I can’t help but wonder what they’re saying about me–my overweight body, my not-so-hip wardrobe, my slightly Winston Churchill-ish nose. And I hate it…I hate that I even care or consider it. I hate that I don’t feel comfortable saying to these girls that they’re doing nothing but tearing down another human being because of things that in the big-picture aren’t even relevant.

Oooh yeah. I don’t know very many people in real life who will put other people’s appearances down, but whenever I click on a gossip site article and commenters are saying stuff about how “terrible” a celebrity looks, that really gets to me.

I’m just glad we both have our good days, and hope those continue to expand in number until the bad days are few and far between.

I kind of understand the mirror thing. For me it’s a weird fear that if I love my body the way it is, I won’t be able to lose weight, but at the same time when I get unhappy with my body I want to eat in a combination of depression and defiance. It’s kind of a mess.

I’m trying to prepare my little girl, so she will have some tools to fight TBM. When she says stuff like “Will you put my hair in a ponytail so I will look cute,” I remind her that she is cute whatever her hair looks like. Even her brothers help by reminding her that she doesn’t need anything special to be pretty. And then we tell her she’s smart, or creative or strong, so that she won’t think that pretty is the best she can be. It feels like walking a tightrope sometimes, and then I just relax and remind myself that she is awesome.

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