Girls and women should be pretty. You need to be easy on the eyes, easy on the nerves — be nice, don’t argue. Even if you are smart, you shouldn’t get too smart — people don’t like a girl who speaks her mind too much or is too competitive with men. But being just smart enough is a tricky balance, so it’s probably best to focus on being pretty. Pretty and smart? Lol. That’s not a thing. Oh, you have two advanced degrees and a senior position at your organization? Well, of course you do — look at your amazing figure and flawless hair! Who could say no?
The above is not an exaggeration, just placed in a condensed timeframe with fewer euphemisms and backhanded compliments compared to what’s said in real life.
Everyone knows the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but we’re more inclined to use that phrase for tacky furniture or ugly art than for ourselves and others. We’ve been fed a very specific idea of beauty, which is this: not you. If you’re thin then you’re closer to the ideal; you’re on the right track if your hair is long and silky; and if you’re skin is light then you’re closer still. But we’re all lacking — it’s designed that way.
What does this funhouse mirror reflection of our aesthetic acceptability and mirage of a finish line do to our confidence?
I used to work at an organization that does a lot of great work for women around the world, helping communities to create more gender equity in order to improve their economies. I worked in the communications department, doing all things digital, including photography.
Our organization produced a guide to help other development organizations implement gender equity projects, then measure and evaluate their results. We organized a workshop where the gender specialists from other development organizations could come together and critique the guide, giving input for what else should be included or what was unclear. There were some suggestions, but overall the book’s authors were congratulated and thanked by their peers for the great work they’d done. There was resounding applause. I was there to take photos.
Near the end of the day, I was the only person left in my wing of the office. The leader of the gender equity guide came to my desk and asked what I planned to do with the photos. I was pretty vague in my response, as I wasn’t sure what we would do with them. They weren’t particularly interesting pictures, but I’d been asked to document the meeting, so I did.
“Please don’t put any pictures of me on the internet,” she said. “I’m such a hag.”
I was shocked that she would say such a thing about herself, and I was kind of at a loss for words. I told her that the photos and the workshop were great, but of course I wouldn’t upload anything she wasn’t comfortable with. My stammered but sincere compliments seemed not to land, but she took me at my word that no one would see her photos, and she left.
To think that she just shared research with other organizations that will make a difference in the lives of so many people, and she didn’t want visual documentation of that because of how she felt about her looks, was disheartening to say the least.
I was shaken. This woman is smart, has several degrees, and works with other women around the world to help them feel more empowered and equal to the men around them. She works everyday to make sure that women the world over know that they are valuable and capable. She’s a leader. She’s an expert. She’s a hag?
The staff at this organization I worked at did a lot of presentations, often requiring headshot photos. I was asked to do a headshot for two staff members. One was a very junior staff person, and the other at a very high level — the highest level one could achieve in that section of the organization. I took the junior staff person’s photos first. We took two or three shots, I showed them to her on the camera’s tiny screen, and she picked the one she liked best.
Next up was the more senior staff member. Before she even sat down, she expressed her regret for how badly she would look in the photo. As she sat, she made constant mention of her “unruly” hair, wrinkles, and how much she disliked her chin and neck. She compared herself to her younger colleague, stating that the younger colleague’s photos were so effortless and easy, while there was no angle or posture that could make her own photo acceptable.
I don’t remember how many photos we took, but it was far too many. And she looked great to me — she looked how she always does. When I would show her the pictures on the camera’s back screen, she would point out flaws that only she could see and insist that I delete the photos right then and there. Due to these invisible imperfections, we’d start the process over again.
Here was this smart, accomplished, educated woman, doing work that would positively impact people around the world, especially women. She’s ambitious. She’s a change-maker. It’s just too bad about her unfortunate hair, right?
How much do these women think about their looks? What they can’t eat? What someone thinks of their butt in those printed pants that they loved in O Magazine but now are feeling super self-conscious about? How do these thoughts affect their work? Their interactions with other people? Their loved ones? How has it impacted their happiness? Their ability to love themselves?
The words they used against themselves were hateful and degrading. They are kind women who would never say things like that about someone else. Yet they feel it necessary to treat themselves with the same kind of respect, care, and love that they would treat others who are important to them. If this is what they’re saying out loud, I thought, I think my ears would catch fire to hear what’s in their heads.
I think what bothered me so much about these interactions was that I worried that I was seeing my own future. That no matter how hard I work, how much education I receive, how much I achieve, I’ll always feel inadequate because of how I look. I’ve already had issues with how I look, and I still have them. I work on them every day. Every. Single. Day. It’s exhausting! And now I’m being told that it will never get any better?!
I’m not about that life. And none of us are doomed to live it.
Our society has a messed up idea that there is a “right” way to be, and we have some pretty ugly ways of beating ourselves and each other into submission. It’s a system that’s been set to benefit very few. Things do seem to be getting better. Kids these days are incredibly woke, schooling me on Instagram and Tumblr daily, and so I have hope for the future.
But in the here and now, I have to remind myself that there is no right way to be a person. Better yet, the right way is to be exactly who I am. And I have a much better chance of success if I’m not constantly beating myself up to reach someone else’s purposely impossible standard. And I hope that others can do the same.