‘It was a liberating act to throw them away: I had been held captive’
I sat near a girl and her mum in the coffee shop recently. She would have been 10, 12 at most. She had on wedge shoes, tight leggings, a handbag, and flicked her long, blonde hair around like a cast member from Gossip Girl. I was so sad. Where are her running shoes? Why does she care about her hair? Why does she need a handbag? To stash her lipgloss? Where is she learning to dress and behave like this?
The endorsement of profligate spending habits, the lavishing of attention on the self, the preoccupation with other peoples’ lives, the obsession with celebrity, success, money and beauty above all else. Where did these ideas come from? From whence did they germinate and propagate throughout the world in turn telling us, ‘This is the way to look, to act, to be!’?
One might suggest that these are notions as old as Adam. That humankind has always looked to the “other” (beings, things, icons) for validation, security, community and guidance. That stories need to be told to connect us and that the pursuit of upward mobility is a natural state of being. And that the advertising, media and entertainment industries cannily cottoned on because commerce is king.
But never in history has the “image”, of self and of others, been so intensely present, forcing us to compare, assess and validate ourselves by these externalities seen on the screen and in print. In turn, the selves projected out into the world are edited, controlled and Photoshopped, and one’s internal politics are governed increasingly by a conscience distorted.
There need to be options for girls. Most will simply never measure up to TV/celebrity/model standards, the prevailing benchmark for women in our culture, as far as their physicality is concerned (and we know it is a concern: the surveys continue to tell us, but you only have to sit back, listen and observe). These external pressures should not be reason for them to loathe themselves. What is the answer?
One friend of mine, a mother and journalist, has a policy in her home called “bin juice”. If there is ever any negative talk around body image in her home, the immediate response is, “Bin juice!”. She herself, like me, has struggled with body image issues. It is personal; a source of ongoing shame that needs to be negated each time it rears its (ironically) ugly head. Now she will not tolerate “bin juice” in her home. She is starting a new family culture.
Yes, it starts with us.
We all have the potential, in small ways or large-scale, to rail against the culture and create a new status quo. The main problem is the sheer financial power and momentum behind institutions and industries that rely on bodies as a commodity. They are hugely influential in the public sphere. Take the Logies, for instance. What would Australian entertainment’s night of night’s be without the red carpet, the dazzling dresses, the makeup, the glamorous ladies, soon after populating all the magazine pages?
In consuming these images via television, the internet or in the magazines, though it might sound trite, we are participating, to an extent, in the perpetuation of the body-beautiful stereotype, as well as the idea that men can wear the same suit but stand-out because of their personalities, whereas women need to compete on physical points. In this act, their full personhood is essentially stripped of them, while at the same time we create and consume still more unattainable beauty benchmarks.
It’s exhausting, isn’t it? Round and round on the merry-go-round we go, until our heads are in such a spin that we do not know where we started out: ‘Where is my starting point?’, you might ask. ‘I don’t think I like this ride anymore.’ It’s not the individual women, by virtue of their chosen profession or entertainment associates, who are the problem: it’s the tangled web of industries all vying for our attention, our dollars and our sense. They are experts at captivating us. But we are collectively wising up.
Many women I know, including myself, have a no women’s/celebrity magazines policy in their home. It was a liberating act for me to throw mine away, though the reasons for doing so are manifold (personal, political and spiritual). I had built up a wall of them and I was held captive, oppressed by their sheer presence. For a very long time, I had justified my consuming them (in a way that should require a prescription) on the basis that “I need to be abreast of the culture” and “Hey, I run a media blog!”
Regrettably, because of my own influence, my nieces started to think it was okay to buy them. Girls will always want to emulate those who are closest to them, who show them love and attention. We are approval seekers.
And here’s the rub: I think some women can tolerate exposure to everything the entertainment, pop-culture and media industries can dish up for them with little effect to their personal wellbeing (as far as survey results go, we find there are few). There are others who skip past the culture with barely a sideways glimpse in its direction and carry on with all of life as if it did not exist.
These blessed women have never become indoctrinated into “glossy culture”, with its models and fashionistas and pricey clothes and tips on makeup application and the best new accessories and ‘all-hail-the-celebrity!’. But sometimes in life – like the Goldman Sachs banker who had an epiphany and resigned over the company’s “toxic greed” only to be met with a patronising “Well, durr” in response – there is a reason we enter into it, eventually finding ourselves complicit.
We have not yet seen the proverbial light, and we need to come to our own conclusions, awaken consciousness, about such things to grow as humans, which we are all entitled – indeed, should be encouraged – to do.
Why might someone choose to stew in a culture that benefits them little? That forces one to reflect on their body, their clothing, their achievements, their relationships and feel only inadequacy or anxiety? And that, in turn, causes to project these anxieties onto others? Or to think of others in the same way? To lead them also astray? What turns them into something their childhood selves would have despised or been saddened by?
Like someone possessed to spend their life savings at Star City, perhaps they simply do not value their own life enough, nor see the possibility that they might live a different way. A way that is even more satisfying and gratifying than what the culture is prepared to serve them. But there is an “out” as well as an “in”. You can turn off. Not buy. Bin ‘em. Pick and choose according to who you are and what you value.
The world has an amazing ability to numb our senses, our minds, our hearts into a state of apathy where we are prepared to just accept the status quo and onwards we go or else try to fit into it like a square peg in a round hole. But in order to create change – real, lasting, meaningful, thirst-quenching change – there must be the ability to reason, options to chose from and also the will to pursue that which we have decided is the better choice.
If I am to give up smoking, for example, knowing that it is injurious to myself and those around me, I must know how good it will make me feel to liberate my lungs and receive the appropriate support and edification to give up. If I am to give up eating fast food, then I must learn to love preparing good food for myself and my family and similarly gain knowledge and support where it is lacking. These things can take time. In some peoples’ lives, a “wake-up call”, like a heart attack, a diabetes diagnosis, or the birth of a baby might give us us a new appreciation for how precious life is and the determination to change on a faster schedule.
The former Fox film executive Scott Neeson had a profound experience in this sense and moved to Cambodia to concentrate on philanthropy. But there are some whose vested interest (or blind self-interest) is in keeping our options limited; there are others whose creativity for thinking around the status quo has been limited by the relentless 24/7 news environment or the world of commerce and the fashionable thinking of the day and the internet information exchange.
In order to think outside the culture, and carve out a self-identity apart from it if we feel our real selves have been suppressed, we sometimes need to step out or back for a while and ponder questions such as ‘Is this how I want to live my life?’, ‘Is this helping or hindering me?’, ‘Is there another ‘me’ I would like to be?’.
It must be a conscious decision: we cannot be forcibly pried away. And it does not necessarily require physically removing yourself (for example, you may have a job to hold down). It can be a process of elimination whereby habits and thoughts and feelings are more consciously reflected on. Feelings are fickle things, so it must go deeper than that. There is a “rightness” of heart and mind and soul that comes when you feel you are becoming who you are meant to become (the process may never reach a finite point, but there must surely be this progression).
But while I can escape from the culture, shutting it out or picking and choosing things for consuming, the dominant culture still remains to be absorbed, growing in strength and power. Inevitably, we must enter back into the fray where the world exists (seemingly tilting off its axis), hopefully having learnt something and created for ourselves more solid foundations, a firm sense of self apart from the culture; better equipped to tackle the the lure of the desirables all around us that coo and call in weak moments when vanity and the ego and the desire to be just like everyone else is vying against your better sense.
You are better able to discern the good from the bad; the worthy from the worthless, but we remain imperfectly human, given over to moments of hypocrisy, weakness and relational infidelity (one’s life quest might be to overcome these very things and replace them with sure-footedness, strength and loyalty).
As culture reflects our human progression, too, even those who choose to eschew it because it offends sensibility or triggers some lesser part of themselves to commit an act of personal treason, there are pointers within the culture that alight the collective heart and remind us that, ‘Hey, it’s not all that bad after all’. A story of a victory of humanity over circumstance, like that of Aung San Suu Kyi, or the ANZAC spirit that permeates the news media each year on April 25 come to mind. Such people and events reconnect us with what we truly value as humans; what we value AND what we despise; what we can let go of and what to reprise.
The world is a diverse and interesting, promising and hope-dashing place, and we are all products of upbringing, culture and our times, for better or for worse. None of us is free of the stain of making a mistake, of calling someone out when we were wrong; of daring to think ourselves superior in some way when the truth is that we are vulnerable; most of us have unwittingly, or by choice, fallen prey to the prevailing cultural snares or into the traps of our own shortcomings (they have a habit of playing off each other). All of life must forge forward, and we learn as we go.
But we have to also accept culpability when it is the right thing to do.The turning point in my thinking about the dominant culture for girls came about 2007 when I was a stand-in panellist on the Girlfriend magazine Model Search. (As an aside, in contrast, the Girlfriend of the Year competition, which celebrates girls’ gifts, abilities and talents all the more, has sadly never attracted as much revenue as the lucrative Model Search). On that occasion, after hundreds of hopefuls had ushered past, six finalists were announced.
But two girls shared the same name of the final finalist. Two approached the stage. One was turned away.
I cannot imagine how mortified that girl (whose name I conceal) would have felt that day: a teenager publicly embarrassed because she hadn’t measured up; hadn’t made the cut. I felt immense shame and rage at the injustice of it all, my hands forever stained to have played a part in the stage show. I phoned her mother and we organised for them both to visit.
In the event of this pathetic but earnest consolation, organised as much to appease my ill feelings as to build up the girl’s self-esteem, I was humbled by the humility, willingness and positivity of her and her mother. She shared with me all the good things she was doing in her life, and the positive, affirming way that she’d been raised. Her personality popped and buzzed and fizzed over. To be in her presence was a delight. The world seemed to say, ‘It’s going to be alright’.
But it would be a terrible shame to leave this life thinking that you could have helped to make at least a small change, especially when you yourself had been complicit due to ignorance (and, to this end, we must grant each other some pardon for failing to prevail against circumstances that set the wheels in motion). John Newton knew that, that’s why he penned “Amazing Grace”. I do not like to heap blame on others, to judge or condemn, and in the event that I have in the past, I have nearly always reaped discontentment in return.
When I hear of teen modelling competitions now, I can feel only sadness. Why are we still here? Why hasn’t something changed? Has the talk not been loud enough about the damage such things are doing to girls? Who are we loving more: the images girls are told to aspire to (and the income they generate as they circulate endlessly from magazine to internet and perpetuate over and over again), or the girls whose entry cards end up on the cutting room floor? Have we not loved girls enough to create a sweeping change? Or do we, as a culture, accept that the pretty girl still wins the on the day and that she is an entirely different and superior species or commodity to the regular girl next door?
I wish I could have stopped time and suggested that two girls, not one, sharing the same name would be finalists that day on the Model Search stage. Similarly, I wish I had reached out to that girl in the cafe, and her mother, and said, “Hey, how about we hang out sometime and I’ll show you how to climb a tree or write a poem – pack your backpack and we’ll make a day of it!”. Perhaps I will get that opportunity again some day? Every opportunity lost to tell a girl that there is so much more to her than how she looks, and to show her what life could look like outside the world of celebrity and fashion, is an oversight.
It’s hard for mothers to push back against the culture when they see their girls adopting behaviours and attitudes in conflict with their best intentions. It is a minefield out there. So there must be support from families, schools and teachers, communities, churches and other organisations to help them fight the onslaught with counter-cultural messages, activities and role modelling until the collective consciousness awakens to the damage it is doing, not just today but generationally.
It is a travesty to think that every day there are girls who cannot enjoy who they are or how they look due to external politics and economic self-interests (so expertly articulated by Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth all those years ago) that creep surreptitiously (or ostentatiously, as is the case with reality TV) into her life and subconscious. But I believe this current generation is smart; it’s one that can learn from the mistakes of before and rise above to declare war on that which distorts, robs and plunders their self worth.
As the “starfish story” goes, there is value in changing just one girl, but think of what the world could be if every girl could escape the trappings of culture. To find within herself the strength and self-knowledge to be exactly who she was created to be and to learn to hold onto what’s good while confidently declaring all the rest “bin juice”.
Erica Bartle is editor of GirlWithaSatchel.com and a former deputy editor of Girlfriend magazine. She has tutored in writing at Queensland University of Technology and has written for publications including Eternity newspaper and Sunday Life magazine.