So much good analysis in this piece from Jessica Valenti in The Nation – “The Upside of Ugly”:
But this is the problem with teaching young women that the key to happiness and success is self-esteem.
If our end goal for girls is simply to have them feel “confident”—especially about their looks—then we create a trap where anything that makes a girl feel better about her appearance, no matter how harmful, is a reasonable solution. (How many times has plastic surgery been preceded by a “I’m doing it for me!” explanation?)
There may be a bit of head-shaking over young girls going to drastic measures to feel beautiful, but we never seem to question the idea that feeling beautiful is a worthy goal in the first place. We should tell girls the truth: “Beautiful” is bullshit, a standard created to make women into good consumers, too busy wallowing in self-loathing to notice that we’re second class citizens.
Girls don’t need more self-esteem or feel-good mantras about loving themselves—what they need is a serious dose of righteous anger. But instead of teaching young women to recognize and utilize their very justifiable rage, we tell them to smile and love themselves.
As my friend writer Jaclyn Friedman once said to me, the problem isn’t that girls don’t know their worth—it’s that they absolutely do know their value in society. Young women know exactly how ugly the culture believes them to be. So when we teach girls to simply “love themselves”, we’re implicitly telling them to accept the world as it is. We’re saying that being beautiful is something worth having when we should be telling them a culture that demands as much is toxic.
Categories: gender & feminism, media, parenting
You might think that a fly-in-fly-out plastic surgeon visiting desert islanders wouldn’t be raking in the dough. However, according to some of the comments…
Yep, righteous anger about this is the healthy emotional response.
I was put on my first diet at the age of twelve, by my mother. I was encouraged (and at times forced) by my mother to continue dieting for most of the following decade. This was in the interests of me having a “normal” teenage life, doing things like dating, holding hands in the movies and so on. It didn’t work.
My teens were miserable. I was always trying to comply with the dictates of the beauty myth, while running up hard against my own limitations all the way. I didn’t get encouraged to do what I was good at (I used to win prizes in national mathematics competitions in high school, but I don’t recall ever being told I was “good at maths”, for example) or what I enjoyed. Instead, I was basically told (via example, via direct media message, via indirect social pressures etc) that as someone who was growing up to be a woman, this endless chasing after the “ideal” figure, face, fashion and footwear was all I could aspire to.
I’m not surprised my major means of rebellion was to over-eat, and to continue over-eating. I think a part of me knew I’d never win, so why the hell should I bother trying?
I finally stopped dieting at about age twenty-two or twenty-three, after having read “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf, and discovering that even for the “pretty girls” this whole beauty thing was just an endless treadmill with no escape. I gave myself permission to eat, drink, and be merry, and to ignore the dills who sneered at me for not trying to be conventionally attractive (hells, even if I had been trying, no matter what I did, it would never have been enough). I settled down and started to figure out what I actually did want out of life.
I wound up getting together with the bloke I’m still living with now. I was twenty-six. He still thinks I’m beautiful (or rather “boofuls”) as I am. We have our ups and downs, and our relationship doesn’t resemble anything out of a glossy magazine, or anything like that. But it’s ours, and we’re happy with it.
This would’ve been a more effective story if the impetus hadn’t been a skinny white girl. Sure the social ideal of beautiful is ridiculous and offensive and, frankly, boring. But if you’re a girl who’s not white or thin or able-bodied then learning how to love yourself and feel beautiful is a radical act. Saying, “I love myself” in that context doesn’t mean accepting the world as it is. It means an epic paradigm shift in your own brain that says, “actually the world is wrong.”
Yeah, see, no. Violence is not a “tool necessary to succeed”. Fuck that.
I can so relate to this. My mother used to tell me all the time that I shouldn’t feel bad about my body, that I was beautiful the way I was. But at the same time, she shamed me for eating (“Stop eating, you’re being greedy and embarassing me!”). I too overate, could hardly stop myself. And I knew that I wasn’t beautiful as I and all the kids around me understood the term. Now, I am not sure how possible it is to convince girls to let go of the pursuit of traditionally understood beauty. But some righteous anger might well help.
I assumed it was a fist raised in defiance, not for punching.
I think a core part of the argument here is the need to disassociate “I love myself” from “I feel beautiful”; Valenti’s point is largely that the two are treated as necessarily synonymous when they shouldn’t be. Of course you’re quite right about it being an important radical act to demand that ideas of beauty expand, along with demanding visibility.
tree, I agree 100% with your comment. (I’ve said something more substantive over at blue milk, feels a bit narcissistic or something to comment twice, but since I referenced the second part of your comment I thought I should do so here where you will see it!)
orlando, I agree that’s probably the point, and it’s a point I agree with (mostly), but my problem is that it doesn’t come through clearly.
I think a fist raised even in defiance is violent imagery. Why is it defiant except if it says something like “I could hit you if I wanted to”? One can be defiant without violence (I’m thinking of the lyrics to The Cat Empire’s “The Chariot”, now!).
Aagh part of my comment got stuck in my head, sorry for spamming you all. But I meant to say that while you can have defiance without violence, that doesn’t mean defiance isn’t violence, especially where the defiance is symbolised by an image that has some innate violence (as I think a fist does).
Isn’t the implication behind the fist raised in defiance the that it can be used for punching as well? Kind of like (but in a less threatening manner) holding up gun but not actually shooting.
I don’t quite get this bit. Don’t you need the self-esteem/self confidence in the first place to have the righteous anger, otherwise you can’t be sure you’re right?
Um, so I had some more thoughts — and a Margaret Atwood reference — and I wrote about them at my journal. I’m not sure it would all fit in a comment here. Must stop dithering and click the ‘post comment’ button. Curse you, anxiety!
Ophelia Benson has a relevant post: Girls, Like Boys, Feel Fully Human
tree, I liked how highlyeccentric summarised over at your place: , and feeds into a tendency to get sucked into a mindset where
Fuck that noise indeed. This is women being relegated to “the sex class”: the toxic attitude that women who lack sexual appeal to men are therefore worthless. Valenti and bluemilk are IMO both aiming to critique the widespread acquiescence to that social valuation, but that doesn’t appear to be the message that everybody is receiving.
This happened to me last night and in my poor memory I flashed back to this post (read on bluemilk yesterday):
At my casual book club, the host knew more than half of us hadn’t read the book. She’d received a thruth-style card game from a friend so filled some conversation time with the various “would you rather” questions. “Which hell would you choose?” seemed to be the theme of the pack. The third question she picked was “Would you rather be fat with a pretty face, or have a hot body and be pig ugly?” Comments from the room: “Oh, you could just lose weight!” “No, fat people can’t ‘just lose weight’ – it’s really hard” “Plastic surgery!” “Oh, but I’m poor! My mum will love me!”
When pushed for an answer the best I could do was “Ugly, because fat people are treated like crap.” I wish I could’ve thought of something better, something that rejected the question without rejecting the host.
Sounds like no fun at all, Ali 😦
Some science on the social attitudes towards women: “How Our Brains See Men as People and Women as Body Parts: Both Genders Process Images of Men, Women Differently”
I like that they’ve done a study on it but don’t find it particularly revealing – at least it authorises what we know. Women are very effective at judging women, competing and passing judgement. The separation of person from body shows up in our judgements in a whole range of areas – job interviews, mothering, health, victim blaming, etc. I just wish I had some phrases that would kindly teach how awful it is to be so blithe about these jokes, coz it’s really no different to guys making cracks about women, and when they’re directed and large or short men it’s just as, if not more, ignored.
At least we talked about how bogus the BMI is.
Just came across your blog on a google alert. I have recently entered the blogging world. I am passionate about motivating children and enabling them to be ‘free’ in every sense of the word. I agree with blue milk’s comments that a culture that puts a girls beauty above her value is toxic. I think the role of the modern male or rather the lack of it does not help. There is so much commercial ‘seediness’ and outright pornography around that reduces females to body parts. As a father of four boys, I have continuously taught them a sense of their own masculine self esteem. To behave with dignity and responsibility in their relations with females. To treat females as people and not as ‘body parts’. It is a mission I will continue in enabling our children to be free.
Fixed a few things for you. That might be a really good place to start with the dignity bit.
@Ali – That doesn’t sound like a fun game at all! And not even much of a question: “Would you rather fail to live up to society’s idea of hotness, or fail to live up to society’s idea of hotness?”; “Would you like people to judge your worth based on your appearance, or judge your worth based on your appearance?” – the answer being “F**k society’s idea of hotness”.
That. I wish I’d thought to say that. Or a variation of either really. 🙂
WTF is “masculine self-esteem” anyway? Sounds like another perpetuation of gender stereotypes to me…
#20 @tigtog First, my apologies for misuse of language.
Second, my apologies for not researching your blog more thoroughly
Your blog Terminology 101 has now brought me up to date, and I agree it is a excellent place to start.
Mike, thanks for that.
#21 @Rebekka Again my apologies for misuse of language. I can see I have a lot to learn and catch up with.
Thank you for helping me on this journey.
Mike, I’m sorry I was harsh in the way I phrased it – but I am curious why you think there is a particularly masculine form of self-esteem and why it would be different from female self-esteem?