Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Self-Image Mine Field

Last week I discovered the new advertising spot for Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, entitled “Onslaught.” In the short film, a sweet-looking, happy little girl gazes at the camera with hope and interest in her eyes. Then the commercial shows a torrent of rapid-fire images taken from billboards, print and TV ads for beauty products. There are countless sexy and beautiful women; a string of female talking heads promising “thinner,” “smoother,” “softer,” etc.; photos of diet pills; shots of a woman on a scale with her body size, waning, waxing, waning again; clips of women undergoing plastic surgery. It is indeed an onslaught of disturbing images, all sending the same message: you fall short of acceptable attractiveness and must dedicate yourself to doing whatever it takes to reach the impossible goal of perfect beauty. The commercial closes with another shot of the little girl with her school friends, and the tagline “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.”

Juxtaposed against the image of this innocent girl, the various shots and clips have a distinctly obscene air. And yet they are precisely what every woman in the industrialized world has seen daily, everywhere, all her life...so much so that we take them for granted when we are still as young as the schoolgirl in the commercial.

Upon first watching the spot, I was horrified and angry. I was upset for myself, realizing that from childhood and without knowing it, I had been duped into believing I couldn’t even dream of myself as pretty. I was angry on behalf of young girls today who if anything have an even more difficult time. And I resented our culture for having created just one more challenge every female must face.

Today’s women have a tough enough time shouldering the double-burdens of their domestic duties and, typically, working full time. On top of this they must struggle daily, sometimes hourly, with these constant reminders that they do not look good enough. Perhaps you are a fine wife and mother, perhaps your career is going well, but don’t forget that you are not thin and beautiful and sexy. You never will be, but even so, you must never stop trying.

Meanwhile, I suspect the male of the species will never be able to fathom the impact of the self-image minefield the media is for females. I showed “Onslaught” to my husband, and after it was over, he stood there looking at me rather blankly. “I think that commercial is really powerful,” I told him, hoping to prompt a response, and added, “it shows how hard it is to be a woman.” “It looks terrible,” he replied before leaving the room, but I couldn’t be sure if he had been moved or was just having one of those classic husband situations when a guy must try desperately to come up with the answer his wife expects. I got the distinct impression he had drawn no real conclusion himself.

I’m sure men must believe they have the same problem competing with Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and their ilk, but it’s really not the same. Men know full well that funny-looking guys get hot chicks all the time. They understand women have different standards. Meanwhile, they most certainly know that other guys, and authority figures like employers, teachers, cops and lawyers, don’t care what they look like. In other words, it’s possible for a man to succeed in every way, from his career to finding a mate, without doing more than staying clean, getting his hair cut, and not dressing like a homeless person.

How can men possibly understand? I’m sure they feel vaguely guilty, feeling that in a way, every time they are attracted to some actress or model they are perpetuating the problem...but really, they can’t help that, so how bad can a man feel about it?

Enough whining. We all see the problem, ladies, the question is, what will we do about it? I think Dove is on the right track, and the key is not to neglect nurturing the self-esteem of our daughters, each other, and ourselves. Sexual attractiveness does not make the world go round--in reality there are a thousand things that matter more. Recognize that the most precious qualities women have to offer are not their physical beauty, but rather the skills, talents and abilities with which each of us is blessed or to which we can realistically aspire. Be proactive about acknowledging to other females the various assets and gifts they possess. Go the extra mile with praise and encouragement. And don’t forget to praise yourself.

“Mythbusters” host Adam Savage likes to say, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” Well, it’s time women--and, dare I dream, men as well--rejected the “reality” the beauty industry has contrived. It’s time we substituted for their dreamland a world where women are for real, have bellies, and hips, and freckles, and gray hair. It’s time we laughed at the ridiculous Victoria’s Secret commercials and recognized that real men may fantasize about such females, but they befriend, work with, love, marry, and yes even have sex with, women who look just like us. And they are happy about it, too.

I’ll close with a cheerful little anecdote. I may have mentioned a time or two that I was married for 15 years to a gay man. You can just imagine what that did for my self-esteem! I was faithful, and therefore lived as a married woman does, not open to any courtship rituals. After my eventual separation from my husband, I entered the dating world at age 36, a not-quite-pretty, almost middle aged woman. Much to my disbelief, I found men flirting with me, flattering me, willing to date me...men as young as nineteen!

All those years married to a man not attracted to me, I had taken cues on my desirability from the beauty industry and figured I just didn’t have the stuff. Now that I got to “poll” real men, I discovered reality! And what a happy truth I learned!

Let’s all leave the minefield that so puts our self-esteem at risk, and get ourselves more in touch with reality. I think, ladies, we’ll be delighted to discover just how beautiful we really are.


Amanda "Z" Nelson said...

Excellent post!! Part of me feels bad about this whole problem and fears for the next generation of women being born into culture so obsessed with physical beauty. The other part though feels hopeful because there are so many fantastic female role models out there trying to change the definition of "female beauty." And while men may be a lot more shallow then women when it comes to appearance, the good ones always need more than just a pretty face and a hot body.

Diana Laurence said...

I agree, Z, that it is comforting that these days so many are making an effort to teach women better ways to achieve self-esteem. Tim Gunn comes to mind too...his "Guide to Style" show is certainly uplifting!