I have a picture in my head of what I wish I looked like – my ideal self. Every time I look in the mirror, I turn this way and that, hoping that at the right angle my real self will look like my ideal self. Even though I normally am very satisfied with how I look, my real self never exactly corresponds with my ideal self.
For most women, this ideal self is formed by pictures burned into our brains by the media – by fashion magazines, artwork, movies and TV shows. I’m an entertainment addict just like everyone else so I really cannot judge people for exposing themselves to these images. But some reading I have been doing lately has helped me understand how these images are destructive to women.
Throughout the history of Western civilization, men have held the most power in society. Although women are gaining more power – economically, politically, socially – this is a very recent development and men still tend to have more power than women. So women, for thousands of years, have been socialized to believe that allying themselves with a man, usually by marrying him, is their best avenue to power and security. Rather than cultivating within themselves education, skills and experiences, women spend a great deal of time making themselves physically attractive to men.
But it is not just the great amount of time, effort, money, and emotional and psychological energy invested in the quest for beauty that is destructive to the American woman. It is the image held up as the standard for attractiveness which not only causes women much pain and distress (physical and mental) but undermines our autonomy and our potential to take control of our own destinies. The standard of physical beauty shifts from decade to decade, but a few factors remain common. In 1869, John Stuart Mill wrote that men “represent to [women] meekness, submissiveness, and resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man, as an essential part of sexual attractiveness.” Over a century later, we do still find young women fretting that a man will not find her attractive if she takes initiative. But these days the “attractiveness of submission” is conveyed to the female mind much more subtly. An attractive woman is one who looks like she’ll need a man’s help. An attractive woman is small, weighs about 100 pounds, has little to no visible muscle mass, is built delicately. She takes up very little physical space. The only parts of a woman’s anatomy permitted to be large and still thought attractive are specifically sexual areas. On a basic level, a woman considered attractive by today’s standards is one whose physical body says, “I am not a threat to your masculine power, and I will be very good at pleasing you sexually.”
Most women cannot conform to our society’s “ideal” body type without a great deal of effort, often to the point of starving themselves. So not only does this ideal body type hold up the appearance of physical weakness as a standard, it also forces most normal women who want to conform to it to mistreat their bodies, becoming sick both physically and psychologically to meet the unnatural standard (also sometimes undergoing painful and expensive plastic surgery). A woman with a naturally small frame can be strong, of course, and I am not criticizing anyone whose body type happens to coincide with cultural standards. But a woman who is starving herself down to proportions she was never meant to be is having her life sucked away, her strength undermined, as she fights desperately against her own natural power and beauty.
If we women are to embrace freedom and fight oppression in our own lives, we can start with the mirror. We can look at our bodies when they are healthy, when they are fit, when they are exactly the beautiful proportions that are natural to each one of us individually, and love them. Let’s not waste quite so much precious time, energy, effort, and money (all of which are power) on trying to meet someone else’s idea of attractiveness. Let’s not allow society to tell us that we must be weak to be attractive. Let’s not allow the beauty industry, the fashion industry, the entertainment industry, to induce us to disempower ourselves any longer.
I originally wrote this post on 02/08/2012 and posted it on my old blog; I’m reposting it here because I think it’s still important and true.