The recent uproar surrounding Ashley Judd and the ugly media speculation on her changing appearance and her thoughtful response really got me thinking about a conversation I had with a close relative (who wishes to remain anonymous). It started something like this:
“I need this new lip gloss.”
“What? Why? You have tons of makeup.”
“It will give me more confidence.”
“That’s what it says.”
She was not joking.
That was the beginning of the most disturbing conversation I’ve ever had with her. Voices were raised. Tears were shed. It was very uncomfortable for both of us. When we finally got down to the heart of the matter, she revealed that she thought of herself as some disfigured troll that couldn’t go out among normal, flawless humans without a coat of protective camouflage hiding all of her most hideous deformities, and that she actually needed this new lip gloss to feel better about herself. The Kissaholic Lip Gloss from Victoria’s Secret did not promise to boost one’s confidence as it turns out; it only promised to “increase lip volume for a fuller, sexier, more kissable pout”, apparently something my young anonymous female relative, who has very full lips to begin with, was in desperate need of acquiring. The advertising went on to say that it was “infused with an exotic blend of aphrodisiac ingredients designed to inspire desire.” How embarrassing to have to explain to me that she wanted, needed to feel desired by someone. And how embarrassing for me to have to explain that she had been duped by a marketing campaign aimed at her vulnerable heart.
I was in shock. Did she really think that beauty was all she had to offer anyone? Had I myself influenced this young woman in any way to be so dependent on her looks for her self-esteem?
I hoped not. I knew better. I had taken some enlightening college courses in the past and I was amazed at what I learned from a paper I read on toy advertising; how we as women are subjected to not only societal expectations, but blatant marketing strategies encouraging us even as young girls in toy commercials to find satisfaction and pride in our physical appearance and care-taking skills, unlike boys who are encouraged to take pride in skills like problem-solving and risk-taking. One of my favorite passages came from another paper I read entitled Analysis of Gender Identity Through Doll & Action Figure Politics in Art Education by Anna Wagner-Ott, an associate professor at California State University at Sacramento:
“It is from popular culture that most people weave their identities and establish their relationships with others and the environment. Mass media images saturate our lives, structuring much of what we know beyond personal experience.” (Duncum, 1997, p.70)
She wanted her paper to help other art educators to “gain insight into how cultural forms, marketing, and aesthetic productions are generating gender identities” and to help them emancipate their students from these contemporary forms of domination. Heavy stuff.
After studying these subjects, I wanted to make sure my own daughter knew that she was more than just a pretty face. I made sure I told her often that she was smart, compassionate, a talented artist, and a tough soccer player among many other things. I couldn’t help it that she heard from other people that she was also beautiful.
Then puberty hit and that struggle to find her unique identity within the crowd and “Mom you couldn’t possibly understand what I’m going through” period came along with it. Although I do know exactly what she’s going through, there is no way she’ll believe it and there’s no way I can make it any easier for her. My compliments hailing her many fine attributes now fall on deaf ears. She’ll have to survive her own battle of self-esteem.
So how do you fight against that overwhelming tide of societal norms and let your children know it’s okay to be exactly who they are and that they are more than a beautiful face? As with Ashley Judd’s comments, I am reminded just how much other young girls – other women – help perpetuate the obsession with YOUTH and BEAUTY and devalue those who stray from this path. How quick are we to say something snarky about someone else gaining weight or a cosmetic surgery job gone wrong? How many women hold real positions of power? What do we say about them? Do we value each other as women for traits NOT tied to appearance? Do we cheer other women on for their accomplishments or tear them down? If we want our daughters to be valued and teach them to find value in themselves, we need to lead the way. Do you agree? How do you teach your daughter to love herself for all that she is?
I leave you with a fantastic performance by slam poet Katie Makkai that I am stealing from another awesome blog. (thank you, Cassie.)