Women grapple with many secrets. Secrets we would never reveal. But I will let you in on my deepest, darkest inner demon: Ironically, an obsession with my outer self.
The beauty myth has plagued me for awhile. Since I was a little girl, I knew that some people believed your appearance on the outside was more important than what you are on the inside. After all, remember that classic nursery rhyme? Girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. So pink dollies, perfume, make-up are the prime instruments for play and experimentation. As I grew older, I began to realize how important it was to remain skinny. An obsession to be thin leads to many girls to have an unhealthy relationship with food, resulting too often in bulimia and anorexia. At a young age, I tried to mimic the fashion trends and the body weight in magazines such as Elle and Vogue. And I constantly tortured my hair with endless permanent waves. But I never did entirely grow out of my obsession with the external.
The beauty myth is still powerful. Should jeans be flair or skinny tight? Sultry mauve make-up or none whatsoever? A little overweight, or should I strive once again to be a skinny mini? Dye all my incoming grey hair or leave it to show a more distinguished look? Should I smile at all times–just grin and bear it–or show a usual grumpy face? Nine-inch high heels to appear taller, and protrude my buttocks, or are Birkenstocks better for my feet and general comfort? Save money for future nip and tuck for more withered elderly years, or savor the soft wrinkles? Retreat each night into my comfy flannels to be toasty and snug, or rev up my sex life and don a a naughty teddy?
The famous book, “The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Use Against Women” by Naomi Wolf argues that while women have made great strides in employment, income, and status, at the same time the criteria for women to adhere to certain outward appearances and conventions have grown more stringent.
So what should women do? Princeton University Professor Jeremy Alderman displayed images in his online world history class of the not often recollected 1968 women’s protest of the Miss America Contest. The protest was to compare the runway parade of women to the judging of animals at a county fair. These women protested the idea of women vying for approval from men by trying to conform to unrealistic standards and connected the competition to women’s oppression. They chanted “women are not meat.” And they destroyed “instruments of female torture”: high heels, girdles, high heels, bras, etc. This was one of America’s first look at “Women’s Liberation.”
Perhaps we need not protest another mass media event. Yet, taking control of our own image in a realistic and healthy way may, indeed, tame that inner demon.