Last week, I read a beautifully written piece on The Toast about a young woman’s experience with beauty … how it feels to be beautiful versus not beautiful … how feedback on our looks seems to severely impact our choices even when we don’t want it to … and, most poignantly, how to deal with little girls’ ideas about beauty. Is there anything we can say or do to keep them from falling in the Beauty Trap just like we did?
It’s a lovely piece — you should go read it — but I gotta admit, it kind of bummed me out. Especially toward the end, where the author’s little sister is making up a story about a couple of fairies, one beautiful and not-so-good, and one good but not-so-beautiful, and she’s struggling with how to reconcile the ideas about beauty and goodness that are emerging in the tale. The author tries to help her out, but finds that she’s at a loss, too:
I look at the time and try to get off the phone. I don’t want to hear the rest, and I don’t have a counter story. Even in my make-believe world where looks shouldn’t matter and girls should be free to be who they are, unbound by appearance, I can’t escape beauty …
It’s the same bullshit story. It’s the same place my sister’s fairy story was going to end up. It’s the same place I was going with my fairy story. It’s the only place we know.
I loved this piece, because I get what she is saying. The hard truth of it. The inescapability. The feeling that for all our progress in the external world, not much has changed in how we see ourselves. Not for hundreds and thousands of years. When you realize that your culture has actively attempted to turn you against yourself from the moment you were born … well, it’s easy to go straight to despair. To assume that all this crap is embedded so deeply that there’s nothing to be done.
But, really, can we afford to accept that as truth? We’ve been brainwashed and now that’s it? I appreciated this writer’s honesty in describing the enormity of what we face, and she did so with a great deal of eloquence. But where is the next part of the story? Knowing what we know about how we’ve been infiltrated by the patriarchy, where can we go and what can we do?
These questions go a lot deeper than just figuring out a non-beauty-obsessed bedtime story. They go straight to the heart of figuring out what a woman is.
Is she, as our bullshit sexist culture teaches us, merely a bag of meat on a marketplace?
Or is she actually something more like a portal through which unique hilarities and adventure and discoveries and growth and goodness can come into existence?
I believe that this is a question each of us must decide for ourselves, and then, even more important, we need to try as hard as we can to live up to our decision.
I won’t deny that it takes effort to rise above a culture that wants to reduce all women down to a hot-or-not rating. It takes courage to reject the prevailing paradigm, to forge a different kind of story, to imagine and then live a heroine’s journey that’s centered around something bigger than being pleasing to others.
But it’s not impossible. There are billions of other stories we can develop — about soccer stardom or dragon-slaying or colonizing Mars or running away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or living off the land or studying gorillas or literally any other thing. We’re not really trapped in beauty. None of us are. We’re free to write any story we want.
So then why do so many of us behave in ways that are complicit with culture’s bullshit sexist story? Why do so many of us objectify ourselves so completely — more thoroughly than anyone else possibly could? Why do we live our lives as though we agree that, yes, we ARE less important, it’s only RIGHT that we should be subject to constant appraisal, and what we’re good for really IS about our appeal to other people?
I think it’s a simple lack of understanding. We think that the way we are right now is our destiny, and that destiny is immutable as stone. That we have no freedom or ability or hope to change, not even in the privacy of our own minds.
But I am here to tell you, that is also the voice of our bullshit sexist culture talking to you. You ABSOLUTELY can change the way you think about yourself. We ALL can. The ability to transform our patterns of thought is, in fact, one of humanity’s only true superpowers, and it’s available to anyone who makes a sincere grab for it.
Right now, I believe history is asking us to decide what we are … what women are. Bags of meat? Or something more?
And it’s not just about you and me being happier with our bodies and our lives in the here and now. I am not exaggerating when I say that it is about the future of womankind.
This is our generation’s fight. Our foremothers busted their asses to gain freedom in external reality, to vote and own property and exercise the right to do as they pleased with their bodies, and now it’s our turn to keep the emancipation party rolling. Only this time, our task isn’t to get anyone out there to recognize our freedom. It’s to recognize it for ourselves.
Our brains have a Beauty Bug programmed in them — it’s true. But it is possible to work around it. And once we learn how, then we can show our friends how to do it. And they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and before you know it, a million new stories will sprout up from the rubble of what women used to think they were, illuminating the truth of what we really are, and the path toward what we can be.
It all starts with believing it’s possible, and being willing to try really hard to get there.