Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Beauty, Patriarchy, and Accountability

I’ve been thinking about the rather eloquent statement Ashley Judd released on the role of patriarchy in reinforcing the impossible beauty standard since it started making the rounds a few weeks ago.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  It is a personal and remarkably brave indictment of our society’s obsession with appearance, not only as it is directed at Hollywood darlings but as it affects all women (and increasingly, all men).  

My little feminist heart was just jumping out of my chest when I read the statement, and it’s possible that an “Amen!” escaped my lips as I got to this paragraph:
“That women are joining in the ongoing disassembling of my appearance is salient. Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.”
Now, it’s not the first time I have heard this argument that the patriarchal element in our society uses an unattainable beauty standard to keep women distracted, imprisoned by insecurity, and pitted against each other.   The obsession with being a certain weight, having the ideal bra size, having the right hairstyle and tan and manicure is an all-consuming process. It leaves little time or energy for engaging in the greater dialogue about how people ought to be treated, and perhaps even more sadly, it strips women of the confidence necessary to stand up and speak out against the very unrealistic standards they know they will never be able to achieve no matter how many diets they go on or how many brands of mascara they try.

I was so struck by the tragedy of this obsession with appearance when I read an excerpt from The Good Body by Eve Ensler in which she explains why she wrote a book about her stomach:
"Maybe because I see how my stomach has come to occupy my attention, I see how other women’s stomachs or butts or thighs or hair or skin have come to occupy their attention, so that we have very little left for the war in Iraq—or much else, for that matter. When a group of ethnically diverse, economically disadvantaged women in the United States was recently asked about the one thing they would change in their lives if they could, the majority of these women said they would lose weight. Maybe I identify with these women because I have bought into the idea that if my stomach were flat, then I would be good, and I would be safe. I would be protected. I would be accepted, admired, important, loved. Maybe because for most of my life I have felt wrong, dirty, guilty, and bad, and my stomach is the carrier, the pouch for all that self-hatred. Maybe because my stomach has become the repository for my sorrow, my childhood scars, my unfulfilled ambition, my unexpressed rage. Like a toxic dump, it is where the explosive trajectories collide—the Judeo-Christian imperative to be good; the patriarchal mandate that women be quiet, be less; the consumer-state imperative to be better, which is based on the assumption that you are born wrong and bad, and that being better always involves spending money, lots of money. Maybe because, as the world rapidly divides into fundamentalist camps, reductive sound bites, and polarizing platitudes, an exploration of my stomach and the life therein has the potential to shatter these dangerous constraints."

As Ashley Judd admits in her statement, this way of thinking has become such a well-oiled machine that it is not perpetuated by some distant other, not orchestrated by evil Hollywood or simply spun into existence by the vague but oft vilified entity called the media.  It is ingrained in us all.  I am ashamed to admit how many years of my life I have wasted in being preoccupied with the way I look.  I have complained to my mother, to my friends, and to my husband about the ways I believed my body just didn’t live up to the standard.  I have devoted hundreds of hours to feeling self-conscious about my appearance, I have hid in quiet corners during parties because I was afraid I didn’t look the part, and I have spent thousands of dollars hoping to find the perfect jeans, the perfect swimsuit, or the perfect shade of lipstick to help camouflage my clearly-less-than-enough self.

And what’s worse is that even after waking up to the ridiculousness of torturing myself over a beauty standard that is not attainable for anyone (why do you think even the celebrities and models get a Photoshop makeover?), I still find myself stuck in that critical, materialistic mindset. I make comments about how the actresses on TV are aging or have had work done.  I buy a new necklace when I feel sad.  I still have days when I spend more time thinking about how I look than the content of my character, the state of the world or what’s going on in the lives of people around me.