Liberation from the Beauty Myth: A call for transformation
I couldn’t be more pleased to introduce you to my friend Becca from Exile Fertility today. As soon as I decided to write the 31 Days of Women Empowering Women series, I immediately thought of Becca and hoped she would agree to contribute her voice. Becca and I worked together in a large volunteer organization once upon a time, but it’s through the internet and across 3,000 kilometers that I’ve really begun to know her in a deeper way. She is a constant inspiration to me through her encouragement, her writing, her wisdom, and her faith. Today she writes about war and peace, beauty and perception, truth and lies. Today she writes about women finding freedom – perhaps in unlikely ways. I hope you’ll take her words, bury them in your heart, and let them change you. Love, A
The Beauty Myth.Have you heard of it?
Twenty years ago Naomi Wolf wrote a bookthat empowered women to think differently about their individual experience. She describes Western culture’s obsession with images of female beauty (in magazines, advertising, movies) and how those images are used to constrict and control, especially as women break through historical hindrances and gain positions of leadership and authority. She writes in 1990, but the same can probably be said today:
During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing medical specialty. During the past five years, consumer spending doubled, pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American woman told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal. More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our un-liberated grandmothers. (10)
Regardless of what we may look like, most women struggle with some insecurity about our bodies and appearances. We could use to lose a few pounds, tone up more, whiten our teeth soon, get a proper haircut – but even when we do, we still aren’t satisfied, or at least not for long. Wolf’s thesis is that this isn’t simply personal insecurity or neurosis – there is actually a larger force at work in the world which is specifically trying to keep women subdued and otherwise occupied.
An assault on women
There is an assault on our imaginations – we are given a very small slice to choose from when it comes to beauty and we are told that attaining this status is the most important achievement that we can ever accomplish. Sure, it’s great to advance in your career, to parent your children whole-heartedly, and be a person of great integrity – but what our culture tells us is the most important is for people to think you are beautiful – on the outside. But the Beauty Myth hopes we will never actually feel content with who we actually are, right now.
Why do advertisers use images of women that keep us feeling like we are never pretty/thin/attractive enough? Because they have stuff to sell and they need people to buy it. After the Feminine Mystique was dismantled and we lost our obsession with expensive new gadgets to keep our houses clean (and therefore holy), advertisers took on the final frontier: our bodies. We are encouraged to subtly compare ourselves to other women, to compete for attention, to work hard to look good, rid ourselves of baby weight immediately, to let numbers on a scale tell us how valuable we are. As long as we never embrace our own peculiar beauty for what it is we will be hungry for change and we will spend our money trying to look better and soothe our insecurity. The catch is, it will never happen. We will never look like the models we see (because they don’t actually exist in real life) and buying make-up/clothes/dieting regimens/hand bags/shoes will never actually soothe the deep anxieties and questions that we carry in our hearts. We don’t need more stuff. We need love and belonging: in community and intimate friendships and by truly embracing the unique people that we are.
Claiming our humanity and realizing our worth
Once we can give ourselves permission to truly belong, we can step out from under the caste system that is the beauty hierarchy, full of pain and competition and angst. Wolf writes, “The ‘beautiful’ woman does not win under the myth; neither does anyone else… You do not win by struggling to the top of a caste system, you win by refusing to be trapped within one at all. The woman wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her.” (290) The busier we are criticizing ourselves and measuring our bodies against other women (real or mythical), the less likely we are to speak up and take our rightful place in the world. Once we can honestly claim our full humanity, our inherent worth and importance, we can start putting all the money and energy that’s wasted in self-obsession and insecurity towards doing justice and mercy – in our families, our neighbourhoods and beyond.
When women gather and call for change
Advertisers want our money but there are spiritual forces at work that desperately want our female power to be wasted. You know why? Because so much can happen when women gather and call for change.
My history education growing up in an American public school was largely based around how violence brings change; the heroes we learned about were those who won the wars they fought (and then wrote the history from their perspective, of course). Rarely was a non-violent movement given much time in our classroom until we hit the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and Martin Luther King Jr’s leadership (and a brief shout out to Rosa Parks). Otherwise, it was all about war. My imagination was never given a chance to grow and I’m pretty sure it’s stunted. (Fortunately there is hope for my kids!)
When my husband was still a boy I had never met he spent a few weeks in Liberia, in 2004. He was doing some recording in a local dialect for a project and had little knowledge of the history that was in the making. He knew that civil war ended the year before, he saw the bullet ridden buildings and spent time with a man who lost his wife to violence, but it otherwise seemed very … peaceful. Shortly after we were married he bought a documentary called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” on the Liberian Woman’s Peace Movement, which was the major player in ending the fourteen-year conflict. We watched it together and everything changed for me. I’ve seen it over a dozen times now and every time I hear these women speak I learn something new and I’m challenged by how I spend my own time, money and energy.
(If you’re reading by RSS reader or email, you may have to click over to the actual post to watch the video.)
When I was pregnant with my daughter almost two years ago I wrote about gaining a new perspective from the Liberian women in Women, Weight and War. Christian and Muslim women joined together and risked their lives in non-violent protest, simply calling for Peace. They dressed in white, occupied the market in thousands, sang and prayed and danced together, and eventually put pressure on peace talks which led to a transitional government supported by the UN and then democratic elections. Liberia became the first African country to elect a female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who along with activist Leymah Gbowee, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Liberia has since had the longest period of stability and economic growth in memory. This documentary is being shown to groups of women in areas of conflict, to inspire and encourage and ignite hope and action.
Shedding the Beauty Myth and finding freedom
The world is waiting for women to step into our calling – as leaders, activists and peacemakers. We need young women and old, sisters, mothers, aunts and friends to throw off the restraints of the Beauty Myth and lead the way for the next generation of women. We are free to embrace each other rather than compare, to fight for each other rather than fight our way to the top of a beauty caste system that is meant to destroy us. We can busy ourselves with learning, communicating, raising awareness and growing deep friendships that break through invisible barriers. When we worry about our weight or acne or cellulite, when our clothes seem outdated and our breasts start heading south we can give ourselves permission to see anew. We already are beautiful, and pretty flippin’ amazing. And there is so much work that needs to be done in our circles, local and global, and we are the right women for the job.
Hang a picture of Leymah Gbowee by your mirror. Or take your mirror down all together. Rather than watch a show that caricatures women as thin and slightly idiotic, turn on the PBS Series, Women, War and Peace. Read the BBC news regularly, before a fashion blog or magazine. Start giving really good compliments to the women around you, about the stuff that really matters. Give money to groups that support and empower women in the world. When self-criticizing thoughts come to your mind, don’t let them stay. Declare them to be lies and choose a new mantra, maybe ‘I am enough’ (ala Brene Brown) or ‘This is the body, mind and heart of a beautiful woman right here. And I have a lot of work to do.’
Advertisers have taken on the final frontier in hopes that we will stay perpetually dissatisfied: our perception of our bodies. Conflict in the 21st century has no front lines anymore – it’s more dangerous to be a woman in a war zone than to be a soldier. The front lines today are women’s bodies.
As we declare our own bodies to be holy and lovely and good we can begin to speak/act/pray/give to see the bodies of women around the world treated with that same dignity and respect.
Bio | Becca grew up in Pennsylvania, married a Canadian, and they live with their two babes in Australia. She roams the neighbourhood looking for friends and haven’t had a full night’s sleep in years. The working out of faith and justice and beauty and non-violent parenting are on her mind. She talks about it heaps and sometimes writes about it on Exile Fertility and on facebook.
Friends, have you ever thought about the correlation between beauty (and the ‘myth’) and how that relates to our freedom as women? Or how it relates to finding and extending peace? Or maybe there’s a new mantra stirring in your heart… what is it?
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