You were born with potential.
You were born with goodness and trust.
You were born with ideals and dreams.
You were born with greatness.
You were born with wings.
You are not meant for crawling, so don’t.
You have wings.
Learn to use them and fly.
I am at the coffee shop. Winter has set in, my heart feels a little more sad as the snow falls, and it’s not a good idea for me to be home and alone with my thoughts. So, I have started hangin’ out at the coffee shop, buying one cup of coffee to justify my occupation of a chair for an entire afternoon. It makes me feel so writer-ish. I asked them today if they mind if us writer types hang out all afternoon, and they said they don’t mind at all. So, now you know where to find me on these winter afternoons.
Yesterday, I watched a documentary that I think everyone needs to see, particularly those of you who have daughters. The documentary, “Miss Representation,” addresses the issues presented by the media’s portrayal of women. The documentary not only dissects and discusses the many unjust ways in which women are portrayed, but also discusses at length the far-reaching, deeply wounding impact these images have on young girls and grown women alike.
You can view the trailer here:
The entire documentary is available on YouTube for $1.99, and I think it’s well worth it. It’s also available on Netflix.
As I watched the documentary, I felt at once horrified, sad, and sick. I feel concerned for our girls, and our boys who are being programmed to view the female gender as subservient and expendable, existing for little more than the fulfillment of a man’s pleasure.
Early in the documentary, young girls are interviewed, asked questions about their struggles to “fit in” in the merciless jungle known as high school. Many of them were reduced to tears, describing their fear of eating because people see them as fat, or their drive to eat more than they are hungry for because people see them as too thin, or their tendency to engage in self-harm because the pain of living in a world where they will never be perfect is too much. As I watched these beautiful young women talk about these struggles, I thought…Who told these girls there was something wrong with them? Who told them they were ugly, or fat, or too thin, or …whatever?
When I think of the headlines about women that so often grab the most attention, it paints a rather disturbing picture of the place that has been etched out for us in American culture. The headlines about women which seem to get the most attention seem to be either of the tabloid type (OMG! Hollywood Starlet Isn’t Wearing Panties! See PHOTOS!), or are concerned with the rape, torture, assault, or murder of a woman. Headlines regarding a woman’s success in business, her role as a leader in education, the vital role she plays in developing public policies that actually work for all concerned, and myriad other successes that women achieve every day often go unnoticed, if they become headlines at all. More money is made if women are consistently portrayed as little more than sex toys with a pulse than if women are portrayed in any light that is not somehow connected with their sex appeal.
I am 38 years old. By Hollywood standards, I have outlived my usefulness. I do not have a perfect body. I do not have beautiful, flowing tresses. My skin is flawed. I have a chipped tooth that I cannot afford to fix. I could, in essence, use a complete overhaul, and even then, whether or not I would be considered “attractive” by media standards is questionable. After all, I am 38 years old. That’s awfully close to 40. At 40 years old, women are supposed to just go away, if we are to believe the standards set for us by the media machine.
As I get older, I am seeing the dichotomy more and more. Men are celebrated for their ingenuity, their power, their business savvy, their leadership, their creativity. Rarely does anyone question if the man who holds such power, wealth, and success got to where he is because of his own merit. It is simply granted that he did.
A woman who achieves the same goals is portrayed in a negative light. Powerful women are consistently portrayed as ball-busting bitches who have given up love, marriage, and family for the sake of a career. They are portrayed as frigid. Women who are successful in business are portrayed as having screwed their way to success, demonstrating their greatest talents on their backs or on their knees, with connections and opportunities handed to them in infinite gratitude for their…expertise. Women who are given places of authority in public service are assumed to have been given those roles because it was required by law, or because the one who appointed them to those positions is simply trying to make a statement about equality. It is rarely assumed that a woman in a place of power, success, and authority is in such a place because of her own merit.
It would be easy to name countless movies, music videos, books, and so forth in which women are portrayed as either needing a man to make them successful, or finding success on their own merit but only after giving up on love and marriage and family. As the documentary nicely points out, even female heroes are portrayed in such a way as to please the male viewer in their appearance, their attitudes, and their actions. They are “fighting fuck toys,” and little more. The empowerment of women in media has all but entirely fallen by the wayside.
While this documentary doesn’t deal with the issue, the minimizing, if not complete dismissal, of women as equals is thriving in the Christian community. We have misogyny alive and well with men such as Pastor Mark Driscoll, a bestselling author, speaker, and all-around misogynist and homophobe, telling men that their wives are to be quiet and submissive, that they cannot be leaders in the church or in the public arena, and that this is God’s will. When a female has the audacity to stir the pot and make people think, such as Nadia Bolz-Weber is doing with her amazing book, “Pastrix,” she is referred to as a “whore” is who just preaching for the money (because everyone knows that pastors make TONS of cash!). When a woman points out the phobias and contradictions of fundamentalism with some honesty and humor, such as Stephanie Drury does with her blog, Stuff Christian Culture Likes, she is considered a pariah by many. Christian conventions book dozens of speakers, and less than a handful (4 out of 100+, at one convention) of them are women. There are many more examples of women in Christian community, such as Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey, who are raising their voices and challenging people to think and live differently. Yet, despite the progress women have fought so long and hard for in the Christian community, we are dismissed, minimized, mocked, and ridiculed for our efforts.
And our girls…and boys…are paying attention, receiving the messages loud and clear.
For young girls, the message they most often receive from the media is that they are not good enough. They are not thin enough, tall enough, sexy enough, their hair isn’t long enough, or curly enough, or straight enough, or shiny enough. Their teeth are not white enough. The number on the tag of the clothes they wear is too high, and they need to do everything they can to lower it. Girls are developing eating disorders are alarming rates, as well as resorting to self-harm, tolerating dating violence, and hating the girl they see in the mirror to a degree we have never seen before.
There is an especially unique experience in store for the young girl who is growing up in the Christian community, where the normal pressures exist alongside the pressure to be “pleasing to God.” The definition of what makes a girl pleasing to God is often in direct contradiction with the definition of what is pleasing to the world outside the church doors. It is easy to say that our young girls and women should simply adhere to the Biblical standard, but what is that standard? Even that isn’t clear. The lack of clarity in scripture, or worse, the in-fighting in the faith community regarding what defines a woman’s role, creates only greater confusion for the girl growing up in that community.
When I was a teenager, the Christian girl’s greatest hope was to learn how to be a good homemaker, find a decent man to marry, have babies with him, and live out her days in service to her family and her church. For those of us who didn’t quite make the cut, we are still left floundering for a place in the Christian community. The pressure to conform to a vague notion of what is feminine for the faithful doesn’t dissipate as we get older, it merely changes.
Our boys are learning to see women as objects like never before. I have a son who is nearly five years old. He is still at an age of innocence, and he doesn’t see a lot of difference between the boys he plays with and the girls he plays with just yet. To him, they are all there for silliness and mayhem, and if the boys are too busy for such things, he will happily find a girl to play with. In his mind, they are all equal. As he gets older, though, I feel concern for how he will view the world as the influences around him become more pervasive. I am taking what precautions I can. We don’t have cable tv. We don’t watch a lot of movies, as even children’s movies these days seem to portray females as being in need of validation from men in order to have worth and purpose. I am careful about the books we read together. Yet, there is a whole world out there ready to tell my son that women are tools for his use and pleasure, and once they have served their purpose, they can either be discarded, or kept around as servants. We do not live in a world that celebrates women as intelligent, capable, talented, savvy, and essential to the healthy function of a society. What is my son to take away from these messages? As a single mother, how do I best ensure that my son has good examples of what it is to be a man, giving him something to counterbalance the messages swirling about him?
I am 38 years old, and I still struggle with feeling as if my body should look this way or that way, and because it doesn’t, I feel ugly. I still have “problem skin,” and that makes me want to hide my face from the world. I have gray hair, and use carcinogenic chemicals to color it rather than accepting that I am getting older, my hair is getting gray, and that’s just the normal progression of life in this physical existence. I am well aware of the lines I am getting on my face, the changes pregnancy and childbirth brought to my body, and that it could all go away with a few nips and tucks and chemical peels, and…oh, if only I could afford a Mommy Makeover! It is amazing to me the lengths I would consider going to in order to achieve a body I could be pleased with, knowing full well that even if I were to get a lift, a nip, a tuck, an injection…I would still find things about my appearance that I don’t like, and I would likely be no happier after the procedures than I am now.
Case in point: A little over a year ago, I had surgery during which was removed a grapefruit sized growth from my abdomen. It was scar tissue that had accumulated after previous surgeries, and it was so large that it made me look pregnant, it was painful, and it was starting to inhibit my ability to function normally. After the surgery, my previously pregnant-looking stomach is as close to flat as it has ever been in my adult life. I am several sizes smaller than I was, and, clothed properly, I look alright. Yet, my joy over my significantly reduced size was short-lived because, while I was this size, I wasn’t that size, and that meant there was something wrong with me.
I should be well beyond this. I should be at a point in my life where I can feel okay about myself regardless of the fact that I don’t look like a model and never will. Yet, everywhere I look, there are messages telling me, “There is something wrong with you.” While women close to or over 40 are often ignored by the media, when they are featured in the spotlight, it is with a message that says to the rest of us, “If you just tried a little harder, you could look like her.”
All that makes me want to do is cry and eat cookies, because I will never look like the women on the magazine covers. I do not have access to a stylist, a surgeon, an aesthetician, a personal trainer, a chef, and a nanny to take my child when I just need a day or two or ten of “me” time so I can relax my face lest it become too wrinkled. I realize that standard of beauty is absolutely unattainable, yet, like the teenage girl still struggling to feel okay with herself despite the pimple she found when she woke up this morning, I still feel as if I must reach for the goal no matter how out of reach it is.
It’s absurd. I am better than this. WE are better than this. For thousands of years, women have been getting older, having babies and the physical consequences thereof, women have had large bodies and small bodies and bodies somewhere in between, women have had wrinkles, women have had gray hair and white hair and no hair, women have been elevated to a place of leadership, holding a status something close to sacred in many cultures, and have done so without shame. Yet, in American culture, females of all ages are told that we are not enough in and of ourselves, and we dare not age. We are given messages that remind us any time we choose to tune in which tell us that we need to be forgiven for being born female, and the way we can make up for our flawed gender is to be accessible to and willing to serve men in whatever capacity they deem appropriate at the time…whether it be a master chef in the kitchen, a token voice in the boardroom, or a whore in the bedroom.
Certainly, not all men see women this way, but those who do are wealthy, powerful, and in control, and it is men such as these who control the message.
So what is to be done?
The most obvious answer is that change begins at home. We can teach our sons and daughters to think differently, to do better, to treat themselves and others with respect, never minimizing another person, doing our best to avoid gender stereotypes, allowing our kids to see that gender roles do not always apply, teaching them to challenge the boundaries. Women can have careers and fix cars and do home repairs, men are able to take care of children and wash dishes and make floral arrangements if they so choose. There are differences between the genders, most definitely, but these differences do not have to be an excuse for one to marginalize the other. We can find ways to work in harmony to create a better world.
Beyond that, what can we do? Women, do you realize we collectively spend BILLIONS of dollars every year on beauty products, weight loss pills, and clothing guaranteed to make us look a size smaller and give our breasts a needed lift? What if we took even a fraction of that money and invested it in educational opportunities, small businesses owned and operated by women, and mentoring programs for the young girls in our lives? Imagine how much change we could create in the world if we put as much emphasis on the things of lasting value, the things that really do make or break a person, a community, a world, rather than worrying if this beauty cream is as effective as that beauty cream in eliminating our laugh lines.
And for the love of God, let’s not spend another penny on tabloids. Can we all agree that they serve no useful purpose? They peddle lies that damage all involved, from the ones they are lying about to the ones reading the lies.
I do not have a daughter, but I do have three beautiful nieces, as well as other young girls in my life. I see the world they are growing up in, the messages that assault their senses at every turn telling them that they are not good enough because… (insert reason here). I see these girls coming up in a world that does not value their intellectual accomplishments, or their accomplishments as leaders in their school and communities, or their accomplishments as athletes, and so on. While the pressure to be “perfect” is hardly new for women, I think the message has become more toxic than ever, and it casts a shadow over every aspect of modern life. We owe it to our girls to do better, to demand better, to make better choices in where and how we spend our money and our time so as to not feed the beast of capitalism which is diminishing and, yes, even killing our girls.
We owe it to our boys to create a world in which they are not trained to be victimizers of women and girls. We owe it to our boys to teach them that their masculinity is not connected with their ability to divorce their head from their heart, and to show them that there is something to be admired and emulated in choosing to treat all people, regardless of gender, with respect. We owe it to our boys to demonstrate to them that the things that make a man a man are not his ability to intimidate, threaten, abuse, manipulate, disregard, or overpower another human being. We owe it to our boys to do better, to lead by example, and expect more of them than we do.
We didn’t get to this place in one fell swoop, and it will not be undone so easily, either. However, I think we are at a place of either choosing to do what we can to fight this with everything we’ve got, or accepting defeat and relegating women to the role of Barbies with a pulse. It’s make or break at this point.
As for me…
I am working every day on telling myself, I AM beautiful. Not, I will be beautiful, if…. But I AM beautiful, just as I am. It’s alright if I am not perfect by media standards. I am intelligent. I am insightful. I am creative. I am loving and kind. I am a great mother, and I have a wonderful son to prove it. I have a lot of love to give, to the right person. I am a lover and a fighter, depending on the situation and whether or not I’ve had coffee yet. I am a great many things that could never come out of a jar of even the most expensive anti-aging cream or at the end of a surgeon’s scalpel. I am a great many things, all wrapped up in one, as well all are, and that’s something to be celebrated. What the packaging looks like is secondary to the gift contained, and the gift is priceless.