Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’
Re: the Kelly Clarkson SELF cover kerfuffle.
Before I address SELF, to be fair, I want to refer to Lauren Collins’ article from the May 12, 2008 issue of The New Yorker entitled, “Pixel Prefect” because it has stayed with me since I read it.
In it Collins delivers the how-can-it-be news that even Christy Turlington isn’t Christy Turlington-y enough for fashion photography:
Pascal Dangin is the premier retoucher of fashion photographs. Art
Directors and admen call him when they want someone who looks less than
great to look great, someone who looks great to look amazing, or someone
who looks amazing already… to look, as is the mode, superhuman. (Christy
Turlington, for the record, needs the least help.) In the March issue of
Vogue Dangin tweaked a hundred and forty-four images: a hundred and
seven advertisements (Estee Lauder, Gucci, Dior, etc.), thirty-six fashion pictures
and the cover, featuring Drew Barrymore…Vanity Fair, W, Harper’s
Bazaar, Allure, French Vogue, Italian Vogue, V, and the Times Magazine, among others, also use Dangin.
We’ve come to expect this from magazines, but the layered irony of SELF’s message was too lush to pass up:
Irony One: You don’t even have to bring your self to the photo shoot. They’ll make you a fake one.
Irony Two: Clarkson is on the cover as The Most Inspiring Woman of 2009. For eating disorder inspiration.
Irony Three: The issue is focused on “Total Body Confidence.” Unless you have a real one.
Irony Four: The cover photo is the money shot. But since Clarkson is famous for her singing, off the shelf sales will largely be due to fans of her musical ability. Yet SELF takes the focus off her talent by making us focus on what they see as the money shot… a version of Clarkson that doesn’t exist. They don’t see the real woman as talented, pretty and skinny enough to bring in revenue.
In an interview on the Today Show with SELF’s Editor in Chief Lucy Danziger and the model Emme, the issue was debated. Emme suggested that because so many women are expressing outrage at all the retouching, we should use this as an opportunity to hear that women want to see a variety of body types represented in magazines. Danziger defended her position with illogical certainty:
“SELF says ‘Love your self’… We love [Kelly] for the confidence she exudes from within…You want a cover to capture the essence of you at your best so we’re saying to women, ‘Look: Everyone can love who they are from the inside out and want to achieve your goals.’”
What size is your essence?
August 3rd’s New York Magazine cover story by Jonathan Van Meter was on “The NEW New Face” women are buying from their plastic surgeons and dermatologists.
His article highlights the surreal visuals we now associate with youth and beauty, and the procedures women undergo to bear them. He writes:
Somehow the idea of maintaining, preserving, and restoring feels less like cheating. The New New Face promises to reclaim something that was lost. But does it? Even the most successful and beautiful result is something entirely different from what a woman looked like when she was 30. …The New New Face is a fantastic approximation! An uncanny resemblance! It is, at its best, a close copy of youthful beauty, not youthful beauty itself.
If the “old” plastic surgery look was an image in a circus mirror, the new new face is an image in a mirror with abstruse imperfections that puzzle the observer’s mind. Women who choose to have work done do so with the goal of looking better, and/or younger. But is that what they actually get?
In the questionnaire on Medical Procedures for Appearance and Aging in my Women’s
Realities Study, I ask the following question:
Generally speaking, do you believe women who have “had work done” tend to look (check all that apply):
A) younger and prettier
B) the way you imagine they looked when they were younger
C) basically the same
D) better in a way you can’t quite put your finger on
E) worse in a way you can’t quite put your finger on
H) like women who have had work done
78% of the respondents answered H. Tied for second place were D and F. Not a glowing affirmation of women getting the look they were hoping for.
I also ask in my study:
Do you see electing to have plastic surgery as a feminist statement in that women should be free to feel better about themselves in any way possible given how much youth and beauty are valued in our culture? Or do you see it as an anti-feminist statement in that it only perpetuates the value placed on youth and beauty in a way that does not allow women to be themselves and age naturally?
62% saw it as anti-feminist.
Whatever side of the argument you fall on, and whatever your personal beliefs, the premium our culture places on physical beauty is real and entrenched, and I don’t know if it’s even possible for women to escape its pressures. To enter into this argument means having to confront all the nuances of how we pursue “beauty”. How much of what we come into the world with is it acceptable for us to change? At what age? And from what motivation?
You know what the most provocative response to my questionnaire was? One of the questions asks women to go down a list of medical procedures and check the ones they’d had done. Among them are botox, thermage, tummy tuck, liposuction, nose jobs, and so on. The follow up question is: If you’ve had any of these procedures, please describe what influenced your decision to do so, and one 43 year old woman wrote:
I had buck teeth [and got braces when I was 11]. My looks improved greatly. I’d do it again in a minute. Why isn’t that included on your list?
How do we draw the line in our judgments? Is breast reduction accepted while breast augmentation is derided? Or is it the other way around? And where does hair color fit into all of this?
Do braces seem to fall into a different category because they’re gender neutral? Or do we not consider braces enhancing? Because with the exception of a severe cross bite, I can’t think of a dental impairment that would keep teeth from functioning well enough for someone to get by. If you can chew your food and nourish yourself, there’s no mechanical need for braces. It’s usually a cosmetic decision.
From the 11 year old girl who doesn’t want to be branded with a nickname because of her teeth, to the 55 year old woman whose altered face is unnatural enough that it can find no resting place in any age group, this much is true: The societal messages that confirm for girls and women their greatest value is beauty, are inextricable from the private worries of our individual psyches.
To what extent are we trying to protect ourselves in these ways, and to what extent are we complicit in making the problem even more complicated for ourselves and our girls? These are questions each woman has to consider for herself.
I don’t have the answers, and, at 46, I wonder if my thoughts on this topic will modify at all over the next 10 or 15 years. But I can tell you what soothes me right now when I’m facing some physical change due to growing older. I’m soothed when I look at my peers, and I see changes in their faces and bodies that reflect the changes in mine.
I can also tell you, that ever since I was a little girl, the woman I’ve aspired to physically model myself after is my grandmother.
Grown daughters yearn to know how their mothers’ sexuality informed them as women when they were at the most important crossroads of their lives. They want to know these things because they want to understand their mothers as women, and let that understanding flow over how they see themselves in their own lives.
Daughters are driven to yearn because their mothers keep many of these things secret.
Here are some quotes representative of what women from my Women’s Realities Study are saying in response to the question: What do you want to know about your mother but would never ask?
If she questioned her sexuality. [I don't ask because] she would know I’m questioning mine.
Who is my father?
Did she ever love my father?
That I think she had an affair.
Why she never told us about my oldest brother’s birth and how she married my dad after he was born…why she was so ashamed.
I would most like to ask my mother: Why didn’t you date other men? Why did you allow grandma to push you into a marriage you weren’t sure was right?
When she lost her virginity.
I suspect that she had an abortion during my teenage years and I want to know for sure. I am definitely not comfortable enough with her to ask her that.
If she had sex before she was married. If she’s ever loved anyone as much as she loves my dad.
How she deals with the painful body memory of rape. She was raped as an 18 year old. That is how she lost her virginity. I wish I could kick that man in the balls. [I don't ask because] I don’t want to make her sad/or have to relive the trauma.”
From what little I know about it, to distill it to its simplest explanation, my parents divorced because dad liked sex and mom hated it, and this made them both miserable and led to other deal-breaking events. I’ve suspected for quite some time that she may have been abused or raped in her youth, because it would explain so many things about her. This is a question I don’t think I could ever ask her. We can’t even talk about sex in a POSTIVE way, not even about normal happy sex, not even about totally-sanctioned-by-”God”-married sex. I could never ask her about if she had been raped or molested. Because if it’s true, it is her deepest darkest secret that probably no one on earth knows about.
This is often what happens. A mother lives out life-altering experiences within her sexuality, or violation of it, then casts them off into a Bermuda Triangle, making all the information they contain forever unavailable to her daughter, who then has to find her own way through some of the very same challenges her mother faced, without benefit of her mother’s experience.
Every mother and daughter is entitled to her privacy and it’s important for each of them to determine for herself what her comfort zones are and what she requires to safeguard them, especially around sexual trauma. My concern is that mothers hold these things inside simply because their mothers did – because they don’t know any alternatives to the silence. Our mothers are our templates, and much of how we cope reflects that.
Since women still aren’t fully embraced as sexual creatures, which sexually-oriented secrets does a mother keep because she’s made a conscious decision to uphold her personal privacy, and which does she keep, more by default than consideration, out of shame?
There can be an automatic assumption that certain information isn’t appropriate for a daughter to have. But sometimes the mother’s shame can blind her to her to what her daughter might want to know. And sometimes the daughter senses and inherits her mother’s shame around these issues, and ends up keeping the very same secrets from her mother, for fear of being judged.
These are the realities not exclusive to mothers: daughters might question their sexuality. Daughters can get pregnant under conditions that are less than optimal. Daughters might be uncertain if they’re with the right partner. Daughters do wonder how sex fits into all of the other complications of relationships or lack thereof. Daughters will likely come to see infidelity as the peanut butter to the jelly of supposed monogamy. Daughters do get molested. And 1 in 6 daughters will be the victim of rape in her lifetime.
Mothers pass down pot roast recipes to their daughters. But they’re reluctant to pass down crucial life content to help them and their daughters appreciate how women cope at those crossroads, and how that influences which way they move forward.
Since the Relationship with Your Mother questionnaire draws such rich responses, this will be the first in a few posts teasing out some of its thicker themes, beginning with what women aged 20-88 referred to as the controlling/judgmental/martyring mother.
Here’s a fairly benign sample of that mishmosh from my own personal collection, one I catalogued with my mother about 18 years ago, yet was able to reference immediately. The scene: my mother wants me to come home for Easter, and I don’t want to go, but after weeks of really annoying internal deliberation I decide I will because it will make her happy.
Mother: I called to see what you’d like me to cook for Easter dinner.
Daughter: I don’t care. Anything but ham.
Mother: Oh…Ham was what I was going to make.
I think there’s a valiant social history to these undermining qualities that deserves our respect. It makes me think of the mental agility Edith Wharton and Jane Austen’s women use to indirectly express and protect themselves within the limitations of their society. Women scrambling to feel control and to secure their standing among each other used to come out of financial necessity. Now maybe we still deploy artifacts of that legacy, with quiet yet masterful pieces like, “Is that what you’re going to wear?”
Bullies are born out of an attempt to feel powerful in the face of powerlessness. Controlling and judging personalities are born of a desire to escape insecurities in order to feel safe. Elements of this can be seen in the responses in which daughters compare their mothers’ bullying of them, to their submission with their husbands. And daughters reveal how they carry on these destructive traditions with their own children.
This is what it feels like to daughters who’ve been hurt this way. What follows are responses to the questions: What pushes you farthest away from your mother? and What personality trait of your mother’s do you have that you hate or disrespect?
She can’t stop criticizing me.
She is very controlling and judgmental. I hate hearing her badmouth relatives she doesn’t like. I am sure she does the same thing with me behind my back.
Her incessant need to demean.
Her criticism. It seems no matter what I do she can always find something that should be done better, rather than focusing on the good aspects.
When she tries to tell me how or what to do…and the way she excuses everything her husband, my stepfather does. I feel judged when she tries to tell me what to do. Like what I’m doing isn’t good enough…and her opinion weighs heavy on me.
Her belligerence toward me. Her submission to my father. Her attempts to make me want to be someone I am not.
Guilt. My mother’s ability to make me feel guilty about anything and everything. I doubt even the smallest decisions because she has made me defer to her on everything and thrown it in my face when it does not work out.
She is catty and I can be too. I hate it about myself so it really rankles me when she does it.
I can say cutting things to my daughter that I know she said to me. She can always point out people’s flaws, it’s not judging them but she labels EVERYONE.
I am too critical of my children. Most times when I give my children constructive criticism, I can hear my mother’s voice and feel that my children hear me in the same way I heard my mother.
Judgments. Insensitivity to problems that I deem stupid or wrong or not like I would handle it.
Guilt. Sometimes I try to control my children with guilt. It stand out because my mother has a way of saying things that make me feel consumed with guilt and my negative feelings toward her. Especially because I love her.
I have a tendency to withhold approval or snidely criticize. I hate that in myself and struggle against that impulse.
We can continue this cycle of emotional corruption in the mother/daughter relationship, or we can raise free-range daughters who carry a sense of security within them wherever they go.
Of the 34% of women who described having fabulous relationships with their mothers, the qualities they esteemed as making that possible were: being seen for who they are; not being judged; not being criticized; and being listened to.
For those of us for whom it might be impossible to improve our relationships with our mothers, it’s important to seek out girlfriends who have no need to compete or criticize.
And for the mothers out there, let’s try not to drive our daughters into psychologically bankrupting themselves through ordering a continuous delivery of boxed “PERSONALITY DEFENSE KITS” from the Looney Tunes ACME Supply Co.
While I was reading through the Huffington Post women’s responses to my Physical Appearance questionnaire, I kept hearing Larry David’s agent Jeff from Curb Your Enthusiasm saying, “It’s just a big bowl of wrong.”
It’s wrong the unfair premium our culture places on women’s physical appearance, and how it makes for tough going out there. Some fare better under this pressure than others, depending on what we learned from our parents’ attitudes toward beauty, or whether we’ve been somehow traumatized by commentary on our looks, but none of us is immune to its impact on how we see ourselves.
One message that emerged from what women had to say is the need for us to recognize the power of our words and behavior. We underestimate the wounds they inflict, and we underplay their capacity to heal. They both change us. Harshness can turn our bodies into a minefield for self consciousness. Kindness can favorably reconfigure how we see ourselves. The opposite poles of this reality are reflected in these quotes.
What is the most negative experience you have had with regard to feeling physically unattractive?
I was upset because a man I liked did not have feelings for me. When I confided in my mother, she said, “Well, men don’t like overweight women.” I felt humiliated, worthless and angry.
I’m one of those people who’s either considered gorgeous or ugly. There are people who have told me that I am butt ugly to my face.
I put on a bit of weight for a while about ten years ago and I noticed my confidence drop through the floor. Made me realize how shallow I am and how unimpressive some other aspects of my life are, e.g. my career! By the way, there are also negative aspects to being attractive. I’ve had open hostility from women I don’t even know because they assume I think I’m hot.
Silly things from adolescence…not being popular because I wasn’t “pretty” and not being paid as much attention by boys for the same reason. Nobody likes to feel rejected.
Being ignored and feeling invisible.
I work in a retail store and a man and his grandson came through my line. I treated them as I would any other person asking, “How are we doing today?” “Did you find everything you were looking for?” and all with a smile. As I was handing the man his change and telling him to have a nice day he said “Honey, you’ve got too much shit through your lip.” I felt his comment was uncalled for. He and I had not had a conversation about piercings nor did I hear any conversation between him and his grandson about them. Just because I have them doesn’t mean that I don’t have feelings or that someone can talk to me any way they want.
For a whole year in junior high school, a boy continuously verbally and physically attacked me. He would call me ugly, burnt black, skinny bitch while his friends laughed. Oddly enough, he was an overweight, extremely dark-skinned boy whom, if not for the fear of his size and temper, would be made fun of by others for his lack of physical appeal. To him, I must have represented the worst of him and his only way to deal with it was to attack me.
What is the most positive experience you have had with regard to feeling physically attractive?
A friend once told me that I had beautiful golden brown eyes and I had always just thought of them as brown. Then I actually looked at them and sure enough they were golden brown. He was just a friend, but it made me feel beautiful.
Normally it is hard for me to believe people when they say I am attractive. At my mother’s second wedding, I was talking with an old family friend who I hadn’t seen in years. She said to me “You look beautiful. You always looked pretty, but now you’ve really come into your own.” I really appreciated it because I knew she was not only referring to my physical appearance, but also the person I’d become.
My husband still thinks I’m beautiful and tells me so.
I’ve had a lot of great compliments. Someone once said I looked like a panther, someone else a French film star. Queen of the Elves someone else said. Very nice. I don’t think I’m all that but it’s very generous of other people to say things…
I found out later that some of my friends (and a few strangers) developed crushes on me during my senior year of college. I was surprised and very flattered. I’d never been the hot girl before!
I had pink hair at one point, and my husband and I were walking out of a movie theatre and there was a little girl walking by with her mom. Really loud the girl says, “Look mommy, she’s got pink hair!” and the mother says “Yeah, isn’t that cool?” And the girl says “I want pink hair mommy.” I loved that the mother didn’t pull the girl away or say something rude about me.
Like Lilliputians pinning down Gulliver, the smallness of our efforts can be collectively powerful against the enormity of physical pressure. We could be more explicit with each other even when we notice the quirky parts of what we see as beautiful. Here’s some of the beauty I see in those I love in case I don’t say it out loud to them often enough:
The lyric quality of Anne’s fingers when she’s telling me a story.
The way the light catches in the dark of Nancy’s eyes and how they make me feel her enthusiasm.
The way one of Lisa’s teeth slightly overlaps the other making everything she says that much cooler.
Louisa’s sexy red hair and the way she wears the New York Times as an accessory.
The warmth in Jane’s face when she says “I love you sweetheart” whenever we say goodbye.
The way Olivia’s profile when she’s sleeping momentarily erases every bit of suffering I’ve ever done.
This was the conversation at my dinner table last Wednesday night.
I worked until 6:30, and my husband and daughter were already home when I got there. I walked in the front door which opens onto a foyer, and directly opposite the door is a chest of drawers with a mirror above it. There, seated regally and plumply on the chest with her back to me, gazing at herself in the mirror, was our cat Purr.
Purr is an unusual cat in that she’s clumsy in an inner ear problem sort of way. We’ve seen her, many times, fall off surfaces that aren’t moving, and this endears her to us. She also lopes to the car like a puppy whenever we pull into the driveway, and we call her The Big Fat Rabbit, because in terms of physique, she has a rabbit’s figure. When she bounds toward the car to greet us we stoop down to her, and say in embarrassing voices, “Who’s a Big Fat Rabbit? Whooo’s a Big Fat Rabbit?!!”
So, at the dinner table I started to tell this funny story of Purr checking herself out.
“Guess what I saw when I walked in the door tonight?”
My 11-year-old giggled, “Purr! Looking at herself in the mirror!”
“You saw her too? How long was she sitting there…and what on earth do you think she was thinking?” I asked.
My daughter answered: “Does this fur make my butt look big?”
I didn’t think I’d ever wondered that in front of my daughter (out loud anyway), so I asked her if she’d ever heard me ask that question.
“Then where did you hear something like that?”
“The Disney Channel.”
Somewhere between Disney and my physical referencing of our cat as big and fat, we’d ventured into the uncharted territory of trans-species body image. The cat seems fine with it, but it made me wonder how I could help my daughter combat this particular kind of female self-examination that had trickled down to her.
“Does this make my butt look big?” is a question so routine it’s become fodder for comedy. Apparently even for children. We know our culture is fixated on critiquing women’s figures. Is it a fixation women want to perpetuate by continuing to ask questions like this?
Women sharing impressions of their physical presentation, or complimenting each other is fine. Who doesn’t love a compliment? It’s problematic when it’s the primary way we communicate with each other, and it’s harmful when it’s somehow degrading. It can be a part of what we talk about, but it doesn’t have to be so central and negative. We often give this type of communication priority, and when we do, we give it a place of honor and teach our girls (boys and men) this is the way it’s done. That’s how that question became a running joke.
My daughter is learning about solubles and solutions in science, and what she’s learning there dovetails with what I want to teach her about how girls and women can experience themselves. If you make lemonade that’s too tart, you can’t remove the lemon juice from the solution. You make it less tart by adding sugar and more water. So it is with ratios of human experience. We can’t simply remove the pressure our culture places on girls and women, but we can dilute its strength by fortifying the other emotional and mental ingredients in our girls and ourselves.
Here are some tips for diluting the counteractive attention that drifts down to our girls: Don’t dissect and judge your body parts or those of other women in front of her, and don’t do it to hers. When she asks for your opinion on how she looks, teach her to be true to herself, not to cultural stereotypes. Ask her what she feels good in, then ask what it is about that that makes her feel good. This way you’ll learn what’s important to her, and open up a dialogue around these issues. When you give a compliment, use language that doesn’t reinforce the equation thin equals best. Better to say “you look great” or “that really flatters you,” rather than “that makes you look so skinny.” The goal is for her to feel confident, not thin. In all cultures, even ones that embrace the full figure, the goal needs to be confidence.
Focus on her feelings and thoughts so that she experiences herself as three dimensional, and do it on all fronts, not just to stave off self loathing. Teach her to respect her own take on things; let your interest in her perspective nudge physical appearance off the alter of worship. Devote your attention to qualities you value that have nothing to do with her physicality, like her intelligence; empathy; humor; intuition; forthrightness; musical ability; or athleticism. And when you talk with her ask questions and make statements that draw these qualities out:
What’s your opinion?
What do you think?
What does it mean to you?
What do you feel?
How do you want to handle it?
What feels right to you?
That’s a great point.
I disagree, but I see your point.
Tell me more.
The fuller her range of confidence, the more able she’ll be to hold her own against all social pressures. Neither a girl nor a woman needs to ask anyone else for validation on how she feels comfortable in her body or her clothes. She can decide for herself how to feel her best. If a girl is supported in being whole, maybe she’ll grow into a woman who appreciates the softness of her curves, and the complexities of her mind and heart.
You’re on your own with your cat.
My daughter believes in the Tooth Fairy. At 45, I believe in The Cornstarch Fairy, who visits me once a week and adds a teaspoon of her thickening agent to my body while I’m sleeping. I’ll come back to the pertinence of these age appropriate fantasies in a minute.
As a psychoanalyst who works mainly with women, I hear lots of amazing and upsetting stories of all kinds. But over the last 20 years, there’s only one type of suffering I can honestly say I’ve heard reported every single day I’ve practiced. My female clients reveal it explicitly and implicitly, and my male clients regularly refer to it when talking about the women they love: women at odds with themselves due to some form of self loathing. What’s come to sadden me the most about these stories is that we learn this self-loathing from the women around us, most destructively, our mothers.
Throughout our history women have been undermined and restricted in movement by men, and having been so steeped in that mindset, we’ve learned to undermine not only ourselves, but our girls.
Historically, conventional beauty was, in some ways, attached to survival. If a woman were beautiful she had a better chance of securing a husband who could afford her things she couldn’t access on her own, like financial security and real estate. Today beauty is obviously still an asset, but women continue to chase physical perfection with a fervor that belies the strides made toward the equality of the sexes.
How women feel about their bodies physically, sexually and with regard to age, expresses itself on a continuum from mild to severe, from casual self-deprecating comments like “I hate my hair,” to the devastation of eating disorders. How we see ourselves in our own bodies, and how we see the physicality of women and girls around us precludes the fuller appreciation of who we are.
We teach self loathing to each other and our daughters through comments we make about ourselves and other women, and through our conversations with each other. And we do it all the time without thinking. I’ll give three examples of how this gets played out (all real with slight changes to protect anonymity).
1. An actress in her early 20s is at the premier of a movie she’s in. The film has been critically acclaimed by The New York Times, and she feels excited and proud. Her mother comes up to her when the film is over and says what a shame it was that her outfit in the movie made her look so heavy. In that moment, who the daughter is in the world evaporates. Her mother doesn’t see her. In those few words we see a mother who can’t access the fullness of who her daughter is, and a daughter who’s denied access to the fullness of her mother.
2. A woman in her 30s says that even though she loves her family, it’s hard to visit because she knows her mother will focus on her weight. This feeling is common in women and becomes tied in with the attendant fantasy any of us would have: I would be more loved by my mother if I were thinner. The mother wants her close, yet she drives her away.
3. I’m having breakfast by myself in a quiet hotel restaurant. There’s only one other person there, a middle-aged woman who tells the waiter she waiting for someone just as another middle-aged woman enters to join her. It becomes clear it’s a business breakfast, and that although they’ve had a phone relationship, this is the first time they’re meeting in person. As they greet each other, one of the women refers to being in town for her daughter’s college graduation. The other woman exclaims, “You don’t look old enough to have a daughter that age!” to which she responds that she has an even older daughter who just had a baby, so she’s a new grandmother. Again, the woman comments in an exaggerated tone, “You’re kidding! You don’t look old enough to be a grandmother!” Age takes center stage and everything else disappears. There is no acknowledgment of her experience of the graduation or the birth.
We each have chances to change this legacy, and it can be done in the minutia of the day. When my daughter looses a tooth, we can revel in it as a rite of passage, or I can make her self-conscious about the gaps in her smile. I can complain in front of her that aging has only to do with an intensification of self-loathing, or I can teach her that it’s a normal shift in living we all make.