I should know better. I really should.
After all, I spent my entire adolescence not fitting the mold of the “perfect” girl. In a world of California girls – tall, thin, platinum blonde – I was short, chunky, dishwater blonde. I was a band geek. Got good grades. In short (no pun intended), I was so less than perfect I took pride in my outré appearance and actively worked to be different.
I spent the years of my daughters’ childhoods trying to convince them the gorgeous women they see in the media don’t really look like that – even Halle Berry has a hair/makeup team and has to be airbrushed. And they in no way represent average women. Most of us – admit it – do not wear perfectly applied make-up even to the post office, we don’t work out at the gym two hours a day to keep our figures – I’m lucky if I walk to the television, and only if the remote is missing. We don’t have personal chefs giving us a balanced nutritional diet guaranteed to keep our skin smooth, our hair shiny, and our butts tiny. How many of you had McDonald’s for lunch three or more times this last week? Don’t worry, we won’t mention names.
Knowing how hard life can be on those who are not perfect, I started early preparing my daughters in case they ended up just average, like their mom. I praised their brains, their accomplishments, and their compassionate works. I gave them positive uplifting books to set their self-esteem. I even forbade Barbie dolls, for gosh sakes.
When my oldest daughter went through her really chunky phase, I avoided mentioning weight, didn’t push the healthy snacks or exercise, and tried to let her know we love her for who she is, not what the mirror shows.
So why am I falling into that societal trap that says women must be thin and attractive, even after they’ve hit 50? After all, I earned these extra pounds – three kids, hours and hours of driving them everywhere, numerous plates that needed to be cleaned, untold amounts of chocolate to help me get through the day. Why do I feel I need a washboard stomach, firm breasts, and a tight butt?
It certainly didn’t come from my now-ex-husband. He liked his women round, he said. Something to hold onto and keep him warm at night. And the puppy I now share my life with thinks extra pounds keep her warm.
My daughters always told me I am one of the better-looking moms among their friends, and I certainly – according to a number of people – don’t look like I’m 50, with five grandkids.
And yet, I go into a store to try on clothes, and stare at the figure in the mirror and wonder who that fat old broad is. Where did she come from?
I grew up with television as a constant source of background noise. With that noise came images of what life should be like – including what we should look like. A patriarchal society, which is what we are, no matter how we try to deny it, tends to diminish the feminine to keep its power. The best way to control women is to brainwash them into thinking their sole purpose in life is to be attractive, because if you’re not attractive, you won’t catch a man, and that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it?
Even though consciously I have rejected that concept since I could walk, deep down – in the subconscious, where I can’t reach it – those images and expectations still wrap themselves in and around my brain, making me self-conscious when I turn sideways.
It’s insidious, this idea of femininity. Everything we see – television, movies, magazines – while they tell us we as females are empowered and “We’ve come a long way, baby!” are actually saying, “But not too far.” The words are there, but, as with children, what they say isn’t as powerful as what we see.
We can tell our children not to smoke, for example, but if we’re lighting up the cancer sticks, the words go in one ear and out the other. Children do what we do, not what we say.
So it is with the media. We hear the words, but we see the thin, beautiful, perfectly coifed image telling us we don’t have to be perfect to be happy. What we hear is empowering, what we see brings those subconscious feelings of inadequacy right into our brains, and makes us vow chocolate will never cross our lips again. Then, of course, knowing we can never look like that, we turn to the chocolate to make ourselves feel better.
I’ve been semi-successful with my daughters. Although all three turned out absolutely beautiful (and it’s not just a proud mom talking, trust me); the oldest is unaware of her beauty, and doesn’t worry about her looks. The youngest, 24 and almost out of graduate school, alternates between giggly girl and rough-and-tumble tomboy. We won’t talk about the middle girl, brainiac turned Barbie doll. I’m sure it’s just a phase she’s going through. I hope.
And what about me? I’m still standing in front of the mirror, wondering why I don’t look as good as Susan Sarandon or Sigourney Weaver. They’ve got a few years on me, but still look incredible.
Maybe shattering the mirror is the only way out. It’s certainly easier than shattering expectations.