I’ve always found the mainstream media fairly easy to ignore. I never internalized images of women smoother and slimmer than I. They weren’t personal, you know? I understood implicitly that they were just doing their thing, or trying to sell me something. That they weren’t targeting me from on high. What did needle at me was their counterpoint. “Love your body” rhetoric was much more pointed. “Hey you. You with the body. Did you know everyone hates it? Did you know that our entire society wants you to fail?”
Until then, it had never occurred to me to construe slender women in advertisements as an attack on my self-image. Without such well-meaning but accidentally damning reminders, I might never have learned insecurity. Without Upworthy, without Dove, without “love yourself” plastered on mirrors and across sidewalks, I might not have figured out that women were supposed to hate ourselves.
I know they mean well. I really, really do. I know there are many young women need help ascending from self-hatred. But I’m not sure maintaining their bodies as public property is the best way to do that. To a shy girl convinced everyone is gawking at her, there’s not much of a line between “everyone thinks you’re ugly” and “everyone thinks you’re beautiful”. The subtext remains: “everyone has an opinion about your body and feels entitled to share it with you.” How about “it doesn’t matter what everyone thinks, because it’s your body, not theirs”?
Fixation on beauty is no different, really, from fixation on ugliness. It still turns you inward. It still narrows your world to the scope of your own body. It bothers me, deeply, that such cloying affirmations pass for “women’s news” (seriously, go to any woman-centric news source), while men’s news wins the dignity of being just news. A man’s world is endless, but a woman’s must be narrowed to the breadth of her form. A woman must know how beautiful she is, how choice and rare, before she can hope to function in the world. A woman is nothing unless she is beautiful. I realize I’m building quite a tinfoil hat here, but I can’t be the only one to notice that so much mainstream feminist rhetoric replicates the exact structures it’s trying to tear down.
It’s not that I don’t believe in beauty. If you’re reading this blog, that should be self-evident. I want to paint my face, lace my corsets, and light the fuck up. I WANT to be beautiful. Not everybody does. For every woman who needs the boost of Upworthy or “All About That Bass”, there’s another who prefers to conceal. Who would rather escape public scrutiny. A gaze is a gaze, no matter how complimentary. Running body commentary sticks with you, no matter its angle. When I was ten, I didn’t make the distinction. I internalized, instead, that everyone was staring at me whether I wanted it or not. I grew up to be someone who does want it, but that’s beside the point.
I don’t like hearing “everyone is beautiful” because beauty isn’t mandatory. Because whether or not I feel beautiful is no one’s business but mine and those from whom I choose to seek affirmation. Neither beauty nor ugliness is a public commodity. I don’t want to move through the world, through the culture, through the blogosphere constantly reminded that my body is under scrutiny.
We don’t say “everyone can run a 4-minute mile” or “everyone has a rich, harmonious singing voice.” We acknowledge that virtues are distributed differently, that it’s not a value judgment on those who lack them, and move on. Beauty is no different. It’s one asset of many, not something inherent to womanhood. It’s part of you, but it isn’t you, and I think those who equate body image with self image would do well to remember that.