Girl Talk: How much is a pretty picture worth?

Girl Talk: How much is a pretty picture worth?

For those of us who claim to be feminists and rail against the subjugation and objectification of women in society, not everything is black and white: the grey area is significant, as murky and muddied as a coffee you've let go cold.

To be zealous about one's values takes serious and often mind-boggling consideration. Is it okay to spend money on grooming, or does the preoccupation with one's appearance play into the hands of outdated notions of women's role as subordinate accessories, to be seen and not heard? Is it okay or a betrayal to buy gossip magazines that profit from the objectification of female celebrities? To watch films that portray women as sex candy? To partake in beauty, fashion or pop culture practises at all? HEADACHE.

On Friday I thought twice before posting a 'Cute & Chic' tribute to some of the young women who worked on Frock Paper Scissors. My reasoning: while I'm not opposed to celebrating sartorial creativity or offended by youthful beauty, seeing oneself celebrated in purely pictorial form can be detrimental to a girl's self-perception. I'll let you – and them – decide if I should post it or not.

Over dinner with a young couple recently, conversation turned to insecurities; physical or otherwise. To get the party started, we decided it would be super-fun to each disclose what part of our bodies we'd change if we could (I'd love to imagine it was a metaphorical exercise in solving the world's woes, but no... though I assure you we weren't as flip as this suggests).

Before we got too carried away, the most sensible, and youngest, member of our group determined that the conversation was ultimately futile: "I don't even look in the mirror that much – what would be the point? Once you start picking at yourself, you don't stop."

She'd consciously, and sensibly, decided she had better things to do with her time than scratch an itch that didn't exist. A win for women!

For many of us, that itch starts early: young girls praised for their adorable looks who find themselves Plain Janes when they hit adolescence; plump girls teased by boys who embark on lifelong battles with diets; little ballerinas whose maturing bodies don't fit the mould; plain girls with braces encouraged by their mothers to put on a little makeup; beautiful teens who become self-conscious of their looks because of the attention from men; plain teens who hook up with boys to feel beautiful... 

The more vulnerable are more receptive to the messages the world is prepared to sell them to appease those itches (you can have Christy Turlington's nose! lose weight and get the guy! blondes have more fun! big boobs means better sex!); the strong, like my friend, buffer themselves by dismissing the sales pitch and resolving just to be content with whatever package deal they were dealt.

I had my first (only) plastic surgery aged 11: my ear was pinned back. I'm not sure if I'd registered the Dumbo-ear as a complaint to my mother and father, but it was obviously cause for concern, so back it went. All I can remember is how painful it was (seriously freakin' painful) and going to school with bandages wrapped around my head (embarrassing!). Braces followed that. Then the Pill to tame the acne. Then the hair bleach. Subconsciously, I think I may have processed the idea that my natural self was not okay (gee, y' think?). Do I harbour resentment or bitterness? No, I think I'm past that. Mums and dads generally do the best they can. I'm grateful for that.

But there are plenty of things that can stimulate those deep-seated itches – a fashion magazine full of physically "perfect" models, a flip through a store catalogue, viewing Gossip Girl, girlfriends who've dieted themselves thin, style blogs, colleagues with to-die-for wardrobes, a passing comment from a jerk who should know better, a knowing look from your mother, Oprah, seeing yourself in a picture – and for every itch there's a treatment at the ready.

Countless surveys, including Who magazine's 2010 Body Survey and Mission Australia's 2010 National Survey of Young Australians, attest to the burgeoning discontent with our bodies, as do the booming weight loss ($745 million per annum), beauty ($5 billion on cosmetics and toiletries) and fashion ($12.2 billion) industries. Keeping up appearances is costing us a bunch.

But, thanks to reality TV makeovers, Boomers obsessed with youth, yummy-mummy Gen-Xers and celebrity culture, our preoccupation with beauty has only become more pervasive despite the advances of feminism. For all our freedoms, we persist in holding ourselves captive to superficial expectations, what Wendy Harmer calls our punishing regimen of "impossible perfection".

"You can't complain that men judge women by their appearance when we do exactly the same," writes Harmer. "Stop trying to self-improve. Oprah bangs on about living your best life, but what if you never have that "aha!" moment? That divine inspiration or epiphany? Could be because you're already living the life that's meant for you? You're already good enough. So are your kids. So are your friends and family. We all love you."

Ultimately, I think it's up to all of us to set the standard; to consider the practises, purchases, attitudes and behaviours that most honour women and build up our self-esteem while eschewing those that do us – and each other – no favours. If reading Vogue makes you feel awful; don't. But we also need to collectively ensure (and insure) the future for women in the western world is free from the debilitating images and messages that tell them a pretty picture is all they're worth. Even if it's not your personal experience, the strong should protect the vulnerable.

On Saturday night, I emceed Collective Shout's first birthday party and fundraiser. The event, orchestrated by a group of women passionate about the need to shelter children from sexualised and/or violent images and products, gave me great pause for thought: what can I do, what can we all do, to ensure young women don't get snared by the beauty trap? To keep my three-year-old niece from having "fat days"? To stop my seven-year-old niece from feeling insecure about her red hair and freckles? To keep them both from thinking that boys and clothes and plastic surgery will make them happier, nicer people? To ensure they don't become an anorexia, bulimia or self-harm statistic?

Part of it starts with modelling good behaviours – like a balanced approach to health, diet and exercise, as well as a measured interest in grooming and clothes – in front of them at home, and in telling them they are special because of who they are, not what they look like. Unconditional love and support, above all, buffers us from the world's warped messages.

But on a macro media level, it rests in celebrating women because they are smart, creative, generous, funny and amazing beings. To 'Cute & Chic' or not to 'Cute & Chic', or to 'Cute & Chic' in a non-objectifying way? I'm erring on the side of posting it knowing full well these ladies are more than just pretty faces.

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Serena said...

Brilliant post Erica! :)
Your friend really made me think - imagine what I could accomplish if I wasn't so obsessed with what was in the mirror or constant and relentless 'self-improvement'. I think I'll try and be a bit easier on myself tomorrow...I think we all need to be.

Cherry said...

Wow. This article and this quote in particular shook me.

"You can't complain that men judge women by their appearance when we do exactly the same,"

How true! Thank you for writing about this complicated issue.

Jane said...

Well put Erica & I'm surprised there aren't more comments - it's a big topic. Having 3 girls I'm mindful of praising their abilities & character & not focussing just on looks (though don't ignore that aspect). It's an uphill battle what with messages from mainstream media & life in general today, so we need to work to ensure our girls have the self-esteem to value who they are, not only how they look.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, brilliant post.
Lots to think about here.
I for one would love to celebrate these smart, creative, generous, funny, amazing young women, and perhaps learn a little about them.
Clever, Cute & Chic?

Elise said...

Fantastic post Erica. Such a vast and multi faceted issue. I agree with the previous comment Clever, creative, cute and chic??

Angela said...

I read this last night and again today and I still cannot think of an eloquent comment to match such a great piece. So - You Rock Erica! Keep on keeping on with these words!
Angela x

L said...

Yes, there must be a way to enjoy fashion without getting sucked into the "bad side".

Perhaps the answer is something to do with reclaiming our bodies. This is MY body. Noone else's!

An article in Jezebel the other day expressed it better than I can:
"Your body was made for so much more than being looked at, deprived of food, and enjoyed by others. [...] As women, we're inundated every day with the idea that our bodies exist for other people."

I treat my daughter so much better than myself. If my daughter could hear my thoughts she call me a bully. :)