I would like to form a reply to a question posed in this Los Angeles Times article by Mary McNamara. In her article, McNamara considers the extent to which society has overcome patriarchical gender roles. More specifically, she questions the symbolic consequences of lasting female images such as Wonder Woman, asking “how far [have we] come if we still need our female superheroes to look this good in a bustier?”
As I considered whether or not women are still limited in some way by their appearance, I immediately felt the wrath of angry feminists coming down upon McNamara– asserting that we “still need our female superheroes to look this good” is pretty bold. However, I’ve sided with with McNamara on this one after taking into account the actresses often cast in female superhero roles. While she mentioned Scarlett Johansonn as the Black Widow and Joss Whedon in “The Avengers” as evidence for her point, I looked to the iconic beauty of Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft as a clear testimonial to the fact that brain and brawn are not enough for even the most badass of women.
At the same time, it is true that the film and television industries hold to a different set of beauty standards than those which constrain us in real life. Sure, we can cite Ryan Reynold’s chiseled good looks in “The Green Lantern” to support the idea that male actors are held to the same high standard of beauty that oppresses women today. However, this line of reasoning overlooks the fact that outside of the movies, women are, in fact, not entirely equal to men. Real women– political figures, lawyers, soccer moms– are are still expected to wear makeup as a necessary part of their professional image.
At first, one might think such constraints aren’t felt so strongly on a daily basis. But think about any time that you have a presentation to give or an interview to attend. The effort that women must exert to look the ‘correct’ way is unfair. Even more so, it is confusing. While we must remain ladylike in some aspects of our appearance, we must also be careful not to be ‘too’ feminine. I can recall one summer, as my friend began her intern position at a big consulting firm, her mother convinced her to chop off her famously long blond hair for a shorter look in order to “fit in” with the men. Although this personal makeover was not company policy, something in society still pushed her to go through with a change that compromised her personhood. So even though my friend believed this alteration to be her own choice, can we really be sure that limiting gender norms did not influence her decision in a more profound way?
It seems that the subtle ways in which women are burdened is a form of culturally-embedded oppression. After all, the extra time and money women eventually spend shaving their legs, and putting on makeup only seems to hold us back from doing other things more worthy of our effort. Think about all the time you ladies wasted in front of a mirror, blow drying your hair, and wondering whether your jacket matched your shoes. I also bet that if you added up all the money spent keeping up your appearance (ehem volumizing shampoos, conditioning treatments, tonors, blackhead-reducing products, drying astringents, pore-minimizing lotions, … to name a few?), you would be shocked at how much you could’ve spent on so many more important things.
Even more so, I can’t help but worry about how much more men have accomplished with all those extra hours not worrying about the shape of their eyebrows or the size of their pores. While one might argue that it is a woman’s choice to paint her nails red, and that she likes wearing her uncomfortably-tight bodycon dress (because it makes her feel sexy), it is important to consider the consequences of upholding these narrow standards.
McNamara points out in her article that women have not yet gained equality due to the fact that “the legality of abortion, the equitable availability of birth control,” and “the definition of rape” are all issues still unresolved. This brings me to my own question, fueled by McNamara’s: If we, as women, truly wish to combat this unfair double standard, can we consciously continue to dress ourselves up the way we do? Or is our adherence to the controlling image of the flawless, beautiful woman thwarting us from moving forward?
The feminist within me answers this question in the affirmative. If ‘having it all’ includes having good looks, then some women are accordingly excluded from the charmed group of females. There are old women. There are women who have three kids and a full time job and thus don’t have time to work on their bodies. There are women who possess some sort of physical deformity or condition which disables them from fitting the mold in some manner. It is clear that the ‘ideal’ co-constructs the imperfect, the unsatisfactory, and the faulty—categories which damage women’s self-esteem everywhere. Such categories are only perpetuated by those women who continue to attempt to live up to the impossible standard.
For this reason, my feminist gut tells me to cut off all my hair, throw away all my heels, and maybe even burn a bra or two. I wish to do this all in the name of feminism, to prove that I am more than my appearance. But I somehow cannot let go of feminine habits and concerns. They are all I have known, ever since the day my mom put me in my first frilly dress and all the parents called me “cute. McNamara alludes to this “tension between image and ability” as a possible limiting mechanism for women, which I clearly have demonstrated. But I also wish to reevaluate this tension possibly as a positive, empowering one. To feel both beautiful and smart is defiant. It takes the timeworn image of the weak, impressionable woman and shoves it in the face of every man who doubted her strength or smarts. After all, dressing me up in frilly outfits was not all my mom did for me. She also enrolled me in school, pushed me to work hard, and made a perfect role model as one of the only female consultants at her firm. And she did this all dressed in a hot pink Versace suit. Although she battled some criticism and even sexual harassment along the way, she proved to me that my appearance does not define me.
To conclude, this is the message I wish to leave you with: Do not let anyone or anything define you. Instead, take an active role in your life and define yourself. Anyone can judge me for my long hair and my short skirts, but it is only I who can limit myself.
By: Nicole Grinstein
(Photo by unclesporkums1 under a Creative Commons license)