At the young, impressionable age of 14, I was headed out the door to an informal middle school dance. I was anticipating a fun, carefree night with my friends, so I had thrown on a loose-fitting t-shirt and a pair of jeans. I was comfortable and confident. That is, until my mom saw me and said, “You’re going out looking like THAT? I thought the point was to attract boys.”
My self-confidence was ruined for the rest of the night. I was nervous when I had been excited, and I fidgeted with my clothes all night. I looked at the girls who talked to more guys than I did and evaluated their outfits, their makeup, their hair. Why had my mom felt the need to say that? Anyone who knows me knows that looking “pretty” is not high on my list of priorities. I barely put effort into styling my hair in the mornings, and I detest any and all kinds of makeup. I prefer t-shirts to something more fitted.
For years, my mom has put tons of energy into changing my opinions. She has begged me to let her show me how to style my hair and to let her take me to get my makeup done professionally. She protests every time I go to school in sweatpants (even though I only do that four times a month or so). She explains that I “need to look presentable” and “make a good impression.” However, I am not lacking in friends. I’m not shunned because I don’t look or dress a certain way. And I was definitely not interested in attracting boys at that age. So why did my mom feel compelled to make sure I look attractive?
The answer is this: Our society told her to. My mother is a person who is heavily invested in current fads, what’s in style. As a florist, this is important to the success of her business. But then she comes home and talks about painting the walls gray – which I think would be a terrible color – because that’s what she sees in all the latest magazines. Hence, her idea of beauty has also been warped by the ideals of society.
“Beauty” is a fluid concept. For example, in ancient Egypt and China, the ideal woman was slender, but during the Italian Renaissance and the Victorian Era, she was plump, with a rounded stomach and ample bosom. In America, the ideal woman seems to change with the decade, going from thin to curvy to thin to dangerously thin.
It isn’t enough to have a certain body, though; one must also dress a certain way. Whenever I turn on the TV or read a magazine, I’m assaulted by images of women with flat stomachs, big hips, collarbones, thigh gaps, flawless hair, clear skin, beautiful makeup and the perfect outfit. Be it ads or celebrities, the idea is promoted that we must be beautiful if we want to find a man. Women past a certain age who have not found a man are condemned as “crazy cat ladies.”
My mother wants me to find someone to love, and she subconsciously believes no one will want to date me if I don’t put significant effort into looking pretty every day. The night of that dance was not an isolated incident. Due to the pressure from both my mom and society, I continue to struggle with self-esteem every day. I look in the mirror and mercilessly criticize everything about my appearance. My hair has a slight halo of frizz. I’m not in as shape as I want to be. My face is covered in blackheads. Any time I walk past a reflective surface I wasn’t expecting, I flinch back from what I see because I have been conditioned to believe I’m not naturally beautiful.
What’s worse is that those not matching the ideal are ridiculed and made to feel terrible about themselves. This shaming has led to unwise and even dangerous behaviors, from plastic surgery to anorexia. The average woman spends a large portion of her paycheck acquiring fashionable clothes, and hours arranging hair and makeup. Why do women endure this? Who cares if we look like models?
I’m not saying that men are terrible, or that they’re all sex-driven machines. However, I understand now that society tells women to look attractive because, for the most part, men run America. As a group, they don’t want to be surrounded by women who are average looking; so advertising is aimed at everything that will create the “ideal woman” – no matter the financial, physical or emotional cost.
Graphic by Pam Black