Here we are, at the third installment of this series about Miss Representation, a documentary which explores the effects of various media on women. Tonight I’m writing about mixed messages—mixed messages the media sends to women of all ages, and mixed messages in the documentary itself. For example, there’s a part of the film where Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda (two separate interviews) rail against the unfair, unrealistic expectations that women must be young and beautiful and sexy and physically perfect in order to be valued… yet these two women are caked in makeup and hair spray. Again with the makeup thing… really? I know, I know… but I couldn’t help notice that two well-known and highly respected women who have, their whole lives, supported the ideas of equal rights, feminism, and self-expression, are worried about looking their age. ??? Have they, too, fallen under the same spell they’re criticizing? And if Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda can be duped, is there any hope for the rest of us? Ugh.
I’m sure I’m remembering the segments of the documentary out of order, but I recall a part where a series of images is projected—images of Bratz dolls and Sarah Palin, of Paris Hilton and Florence Nightingale, of Barbie and Daisy Duke and Hillary Clinton. There are also photos from various fashion magazines, and a demonstration of how photo editors digitally “enhance” (manipulate) the faces and bodies of the models. Why do we even need real-life models anymore, now that we have this technology? How has the modeling industry survived the advent of Photoshop? I mean, the models’ eyes get enlarged and widened, their cheekbones defined, their noses straightened, their waists whittled, their breasts lifted, their thighs thinned… all with a few clicks of the mouse. In the end, the images look only remotely like the original models. Sorry, viewers, but what you see is a carefully crafted illusion… not a real human being.
The dolls, sexy movie stars, and Photoshopped models send an immediate and lasting visual message, that’s, for some, more influential than a speech by Margaret Thatcher or an interview with Georgia O’Keefe. And while we know commercials are inherently deceptive and manipulative, even “reputable” news channels like to report on our female leaders’ appearance much more frequently than they would a man’s. So even female politicians, artists, doctors, scientists, humanitarians are reduced to their physicality, rather than elevated to their intellectual capacity. Why would a young woman aspire to become a leader if even the news doesn’t acknowledge female leadership? This leads me to what I think is the most disturbing portion of the film: “news leaders” like Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck calling women (like Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and others) “b*tches.” In one clip a news anchor asks if Sarah Palin had breast implants! I mean, I made fun of (then) Governor Palin’s “Russia” comment, but I didn’t call her a b*tch and question the authenticity of her body parts. I also remember an image of Hillary Clinton wearing something that revealed about a centimeter of cleavage. Like Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” this incident was quickly dubbed the “Cleavage Controversy.” Can you imagine hearing about Bill O’Reilly’s “Bulge Controversy”? Never. And have you SEEN Rush Limbaugh? How he could ever remark about someone’s looks is beyond me. Can someone Photoshop him?
I’m sorry – was that b*tchy?
The point is, women have bodies, and whether they dress themselves in business suits or bathing suits, someone will criticize their appearance and ignore the rest. And THAT is a mixed message. What’s worse is the effect this constant negativity has on the relationships among women. Women question each others’ ability to lead, because we believe women lack the emotional fortitude to be tough, firm, consistent, rational, logical. (I’m laughing now, thinking of my mom and how strong she is, in so many ways. Really, you have no idea.) The constant focus on female appearance has created a habit of unhealthy comparison. This “beauty competition” causes jealousy, which causes hatred, which is really just self-hatred. Do men have this dilemma? I’m asking sincerely, because I truly don’t know.
And so we’ve ingested the poison. We’ve been conditioned to hate each other. A common compliment among women is to say, “You’re so pretty. You make me sick.” That is self-loathing wrapped in flattery—another mixed message—kinda like a cockroach wrapped in bacon. Goes down so smoothly you don’t know what you’ve consumed.
All this, unfortunately, has a lasting effect. One that can be overcome with awareness, yes… but it’s hard to “un-ring the bell,” so to speak. Once an idea is firmly planted and grows into an ideal, it’s hard to uproot it. If I had to give a name to this burden, I would call it unworthiness – a sense that no matter what one does, it’ll never be enough. As one high school student says in the documentary – her name is Maria – “When is it going to be enough? How long is it going to be for someone to take a stand?” I’m sad that she feels so defeated at such a young age, and that she doesn’t see herself as someone who can take a stand.
I’ve always been tall and slender, just like my parents. Yes, I used to run a lot and completed a couple of marathons, but no matter my current level of fitness or what I eat, I stay pretty scrawny. I’ve gotten some flack from other women about this… I’ve been on the receiving end of “you make me sick.” Many people think that because I’m an ectomorph, I’ve had it easy. I haven’t. Like the film explains, women of all shapes and sizes will be judged for their shape and size until… until it’s no longer a value, I guess. So I’ve been judged, too.
Let me paint you a picture, lol: In ninth grade, I was 5’11” (like I am now) with a size ten shoe, and thirty pounds lighter with red, frizzy hair. I was Ronald McDonald. My two best friends in high school were David and Austin, because to the girls, I was that “weird girl,” quiet and awkward and lanky and bookish. I didn’t wear a bra until I was fourteen, and that was only because kids made fun of me for not wearing one. I didn’t need one, and I still don’t. I remember my friend Shannon in seventh grade coming to my defense, telling other girls that my bra was invisible… the latest thing! While other girls/women hated me for my thin frame, I coveted their curves and long straight hair. I would wear leggings under my jeans in hopes of filling them out just a little more. I never went so far as to stuff my bra because I would have been mortified if the sock had somehow moved to a strange position or, God help me, fallen out. But I certainly considered it. On the flip side, no men ever say to me, “Hey, baby! Nice protruding hip bones!” or “Look at the rib cage on her!” A mixed message: women seem jealous of my body type, but men seem disinterested in it.
Okay, my face is starting to flush because I’ve revealed A LOT in this post. I will add this: my body has served me well, and it continues to serve me well. There’s really nothing I can do to change what I have (or don’t have), and that’s fine. My short hair doesn’t get many whistles either, but I like it. I think it suits me.
But I’m still not leaving the house without makeup on.
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