Lately I think I’ve been giving way too much importance to how I look, at the expense of other things going on in my life… “fixated “is not the right word, maybe “distracted.” But I have been extremely distracted from developing all the ‘non-visual’ aspects of my being, and I’m starting to think this is going to be detrimental in the long run. Basically, I’ve been too vain to realize that I’m capable of doing things like, oh, I don’t know, organize a project, research a paper, plan an event, think on my feet (and better then a lot of my over-confident male peers, but that’s a different entry for a different day). I’ve been too distracted by the small handful of things I would change about myself visually to be able to give myself credit for everything else I have going for me. This is not such a good state to be in.
On the one hand, what’s wrong with wanting to look good? Don’t most people, even men? Or people who at least have the potential to look good, even if it takes a little work? I think about everyone from the ancient Greeks and Egyptians to modern day actors, and vanity seems to be just an inherent part of the human condition. Besides, is there any problem with having a visually agreeable face, body, and general personal presentation?
Well, maybe. The other day I went to make some copies and I found a newspaper article in the Feminist Majority mailbox about sexual harassment in Russia. Unfortunately I don’t have a link to it online. But it was the kind of thing that made me thank my lucky stars I live in America. Unfortunately, the percent of women who have had to sleep with a male superior to save their jobs or been raped in the workplace hasn’t dropped with the fall of communism. So in their cases (as in a whole lot of others), being an attractive, intelligent woman is actually a serious disadvantage.
A few days ago it occurred to me that I had spent an inordinate amount of time putting on makeup, and that I should just give up and go to class already. At that moment, for some reason, I thought back to when I read Voltaire’s Candide for a high school French class, and the scenes where Cunegonde talks about how turning into an old hag saved her from being raped over and over like she had been when she was young and beautiful. This is an extreme, satirical example to be sure, but it made me wonder: why the hell do we try so hard? I mean, I want to be healthy and attractive, and come across as someone who values herself and presents herself accordingly. But at the same time, there’s a lot of attention that I really don’t want, the more I think about it. And being taken seriously is an important thing.
One of the scariest dreams I ever had was when I dreamed that I actually was the sexiest woman in the world. I looked pretty damn good in a tube top and a mini skirt, but as soon as I stepped outside, it was like being a walking piece of meat surrounded by a pack of hungry dogs. Every male above the age of about fifteen would get a hard-on as soon as he saw me, people would come up to me and touch me and start making a whole spectrum of comments from the innocuous to the shockingly vulgar. Women would glare at me with contempt. During my dream I was trying to work my way through a department store, like a Target, and I was trying to find my sister and my dad. If I could just find them, they would hide me and I could go home! I don’t know if prophetic dreams are real or not, but I took it as gentle reminder from the universe not to put too much stock in body image…
I don’t think I harbor any deeply internalized fear or hatred of straight men (I know a lot of wonderful, respectful straight men who I’m very glad to have in my life), but I do wonder sometimes if I might be setting myself up for a disadvantage. At the same time, I’m deeply bothered by how society devalues women and the female body post-pregnancy and post-menopause (Adbusters recently reprinted a series of ads for post-partum plastic surgery packages –“my beautiful mommy!” –that were fascinatingly insidious). So it kind of feels like you just can’t win, no matter what you look like…
It’s generally accepted that a lot of students on this campus don’t put a whole lot of stock in fashion (or in personal hygiene for that matter). Granted, there a lot of perfectly normal-looking people around too, but I’m starting to wonder if the other girls that I used to snicker at from time to time (perhaps out of some sick need for approval and to compare myself) haven’t had the right idea all along. Not that I’m going to stop washing my face and wearing sweatpants everywhere, but there’s got to be some kind of happy medium.
The other day I took a nap and I dreamed I was in a plane crash. I survived, but I had burns and scars all over my face and arms. When I woke up, I was lost in thought for the rest of the day. What if that were to happen to me? It would be a blessing to have a second chance at life, but the second time around, looking good would not be on the agenda. I wouldn’t be disabled, just disfigured. Clearly, I would still want to value myself as a survivor, and I would want to have a successful career and good relationships. But how would my goals and my definition of success change if my personal appearance were no longer a priority?
Would I still try to eat healthfully, still be vegan and eat mostly raw foods? Probably, but I’d have to focus on the internal, long term health benefits; I’d have to shift my focus from how what I eat would make me look to how it makes me feel and improves my quality of life (not to mention the lives of all the animals I’m no longer responsible for). Would I bother exercising? Probably, but once again, it would be for the internal, rather than the aesthetic benefits. I imagined myself running by the lake, looking at the wildflowers and the kids playing, looking at the sunlight on the water, feeling my breath and my blood pulsing through me, maybe listening to some beautiful music or a good podcast, and just being happy to be alive. Or maybe doing yoga, feeling centered and stable on the inside regardless of what my body looks like on the outside. This, instead of wondering how many calories I might be burning (even if I’ve technically stopped counting them), or whether I’ll fit into that dress that was a little tight last week.
Would I still try to dress nicely? Absolutely. But to present myself as someone who values herself and has good taste, who enjoys having a unique personal style, and doesn’t feel any less important. But the most important thing of all: I would have to focus on all the positive things I still have in my life. I have a talent for languages, I love to write, I love to design and create things, I like working with groups and ensembles; I have a wonderful family and incredible friends, I’m getting a great education…I have a lot of things to be happy about and to enjoy and explore that have very little to do with my physical body. Which makes me wonder…why am I not doing this anyway? Do need to be in a plane crash to start thinking about myself holistically?
I think a lot of social ills stem from people not valuing each other as complete beings. It’s time for me to start doing that for myself. Maybe as I work on that, I can start doing this for the people around me as well. I still want to look good, I won’t lie. But there are whole a lot of other things I want for my life, and I can’t afford to let them slip by the wayside.