Why do women care? What could we accomplish if we didn’t?
“Do I look old? I don’t really look old, do I?” Photo by debra123 on Needpix
I can’t find the original tweet, but I got flamed for having a ‘clownish’-looking face.
I thought my profile photo, in which I held a copy of my then-just-published novel, was a good one.
The Twitter twit thought otherwise, appearing out of nowhere to trash my face.
It came, ironically, from a woman whose inartfully made up face reminded me of Pennywise.
I didn’t get angry, but I did inform her of her own cosmetics misapplication because, damn,
Circus-worthy, according to
Pennywise has no business flaming others about their makeup!
A few years later, some Twitter dude took issue with something I said. Instead of returning with a reasoned response, he made fun of my hair in my profile photo, claiming I had ‘split ends'.
Well, I usually do, but apart from quarterly haircuts, shampoo and conditioner, my hair care regimen takes like five minutes which is about how much time I will allot. The super-smooth look you see in hair product commercials requires a lot more than just their shampoo.
Many women would have pitched a fit over ‘misogyny’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘sexual objectification’ and ‘unfair standards for women’. I recognized it for what it was: A mere cheap shot targeted at what the flamer hoped was a direct hit on my self-esteem.
Looks-shaming: Everyone can play!
I used to react more strongly when men looks-shamed me, but women are probably far guiltier and got more of a free pass. It’s easier to write them off as being jealous, or just catty. Or ridiculously unaware of their own bizarre-looking face.
In high school a bitchy girl named Kristi reminded me every day during study hall that I dressed like a weirdo. Whatever I was wearing, she and her nasty little friends (one male, another female) reviewed, carefully within earshot, everything I wore, to put me down and make me feel worthless.
It worked. I was sixteen years old.
In retrospect, although Kristi was, in my opinion, very cute and had a boyfriend, she struggled with a weight problem and today I see the insecure teenage girl hoping to feel better about herself by dragging another down.
A guy named Dan also reminded me daily I was an ‘ugly dog’ who would ‘never get a guy’ and who nicknamed me Wolfwoman.
He’s the only person I’ve ever wanted to kill. Literally. Back then, we only fantasized about it.
Dan was an even more insecure teenager, who grew up and refused to call me ‘ugly dog’ or ‘Wolfwoman’ at the five-year reunion even though I kept walking up to him after a few Fuzzy Navels with a big grin going, “Say it, Dan, say it! I haven’t heard it for five years! Say it!”
Why did I care so much?
For all the railing women do about ‘The Patriarchy’ and its high standards for women (Where do they come up with these standards anyway? Is there an annual Davos-style summit for The Patriarchy? Where does it meet? The Butler National Golf Club?), I bought into these beauty standards, fueled by the unrealistic images of late-’70s TV. The Love Boat. Shampoo ads with big-haired slim models (in college I’d learn they were artistically altered by clever photo enhancement techniques).
And, gods help me, that bitch Cher, with her own TV show, standing on stage every Sunday night, her famously fabulous Bob Mackie designs clinging to her bony hips and shoulders. She was all belly button and awkward, gorgeous angles. I wanted to look like her.
What I didn’t understand was Cher’s genetics mandated tall and slim and her Cherokee blood likely graced her with those gorgeous cheekbones.
I didn’t have the Internet, or enough awareness, to challenge such unrealistic images.
When someone wants to attack a woman with a quick low blow, insulting her looks, whether or not she’s OFU (Old/Fat/Ugly) is almost a guaranteed wounding blow.
We, along with our girl gangs, can almost always be counted on to react with outrage.
Why? Because no one buys into ‘The Patriarchy’s’ standards more than women.
Between Cher’s and Farrah’s bad examples of how I ‘should’ look, and reminders from Kristi and Dan that I didn’t, not even close, I suffered lowered self-esteem, a growing sense I wasn’t ‘good enough’ and kept hoping maybe when I got older I’d be that pretty. I joined millions of other young girls and women frowning in the mirror and criticizing each body part with the relentless eye of a psychopath.
Some women never challenge those norms, even those who rail about ‘patriarchal standards’. They budget for plastic surgery. They binge ’n’ purge. (I wasn’t disciplined enough for an eating disorder, thank Goddess!) They buy clothes, makeup and expensive skin treatments because someone said something mean and they believed it.
She decides, like I did, she isn’t pretty enough.
In its very worst manifestation, caring too much about one’s looks results in Body Dysmorphia Syndrome, when you pick out, obsess over and ‘fix’ flaws no one else can see. It’s permanently never feeling ‘good enough’.
Jocelyn Wildenstein, the ‘Catwoman’ New York socialite featured on bad plastic surgery websites, started out as a very beautiful woman who embarked on a lifetime of plastic surgery.
Wildenstein, then & now. Photos by celebrityabc on Flickr
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ 2018 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report, over 14 million procedures were performed on women vs. 1.6 million for men. At least some of these procedures will have been for reasons other than vanity, such as repairs from accidents or birth defects or body parts causing great discomfort, like oversized breasts.
Ironically, our pandemic social isolation may have eroded our ‘artificial’ self-image. Women reported they'd stopped wearing makeup, dressing carefully, or keeping up with their dye jobs, aided by shuttered beauty salons.
A few years ago, when I worked from home, I put on makeup every day because it made me feel better. Now I only put it on if I have a Zoom meeting or I'm going to the grocery store. But even then it’s a five-minute slap-on job.
Don’t like my split ends or wrinkles? Bite me.
What if this became A Thing? According to a study from The Skin Store, the ‘average woman’ will spend about $300,000 on makeup in her lifetime. Not sure who ‘the average woman’ is, but I’m pretty sure she’s way more privileged than myself and many others.
That’s a helluva lot of cruises and mortgage payments!
The 3-Step Suffering Removal Plan
Life offers countless ways to suffer, and I, like all of us, am an expert at amping it up. Suffering, as the Buddha pointed out when he discovered it on his first foray outside the palace walls, is an intrinsic part of life. The Four Noble Truths teach:
Arises from attachments;
Disappears when you abandon your attachments;
And The Eightfold Path provides the blueprint for how to free yourself from suffering.
For those for whom quarantine hasn’t yet induced them off the $300,000 Hamster Wheel Of P̶a̶t̶r̶i̶a̶r̶c̶h̶a̶l̶ Self-Imposed Oppression, here’s what’s worked for me.
I’ll apply the first three noble truths: Identifying, challenging, and changing perspective.
I identified my problem.
I would never please everyone. Despite a lifelong weight problem, I performed as a belly dancer for nearly twenty years at birthday parties and the occasional non-dirty stag party. So what if I wasn’t slim enough for some of them? No, I didn’t look like Cher! Hey, this was Connecticut, not L.A., and they were all so drunk they thought I was Cher anyway.
As a quick aside, I never had to deal with the sort of fat-shaming many others have endured. I was never obese. The sort of relentless shaming reserved for those with a more serious weight problem is outside the realm of this article. I can’t speak to that personally. Others are better-acquainted than I.
I stopped comparing myself to other belly dancers and women on the street (what Analog Gen-X had to do to keep ourselves down before Instagram) or wondering why I couldn’t look like them and resenting that they could. Wouldn’t my life be perfect if I looked like her?
Well, I didn’t look like Sasha, whose impossibly long slim waist moved like a dancing cobra and I didn’t have the lush German girl’s body or her lovely Teutonic looks but so what, I looked like me and no one was complaining and I was still the biggest flirt on the East Coast!
Many of these goddesses had the inclination to make more effort. I didn’t. I had other ways I preferred to spend my time. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with either choice, as long as you’re making it for yourself and not someone else.
Hard to know the difference sometimes.
Here’s what you don’t see: Even the most gorgeous performer or Instagram babe never admits how uncomfortably imperfect her off-stage, off-camera life is. I decided what I had was ‘good enough’. That’s where my own personal WYSIWYG was born.
2. I challenged my self-defeating conclusions. I asked, ‘Why do I care?’
Why did I take cues from ‘society’s standards’? Where did those standards originate? From others, in my head, or a bit of both?
How could I challenge them?
Who held me to those standards? Was there really some male club or ‘Patriarchy’, issuing orders from the ninth hole on that gentlemen’s golf course (“The Penis Facial. This is what you must do now to remain beautiful to our gaze”)?
Was I making myself the victim? Was I cranking up my pain by taking a thoughtless comment and extrapolating it to be an attack on myself and maybe even all women worldwide? Was I in fact victimizing not just myself but all women when I filtered everything through a lens of what I thought ‘society’ dictated?
“Get an eye lift, or we won’t like you anymore. And your cankles are gross. Fix them.” Photo from Wallpaper Flare
It was illuminating the day I realized: If all men disappeared tomorrow, would any woman get a boob job? The ones whose back was counting the days until those triple D-cups could get whacked down were doing it for themselves. The rest were defining themselves by male standards of beauty because women don’t intrinsically care about big breasts! Evolution gave them to us to feed babies, not male wank fantasies!
This led me to extrapolate — Who was I looking good for, honestly? Women? Men? Or myself?
Beauty ‘standards’ internalize misogyny, sometimes fueled by being raised in a male-dominated environment. We all consciously or unconsciously buy into traditionalist dictates, until we decide to challenge ourselves.
I searched within and explored why my beauty standards were what they were, where they came from, not ultimately to blame but because I couldn’t ease the pain without identifying the cause.
I had to detach caring what others thought, especially after I started using the Internet. There were plenty of damaged people wandering around cyberspace looking to drag others down even before the rise of social media, and especially after it became easier to publish photos. If I took every nasty comment personally I’d never do anything, say anything, or accomplish anything.
Now it was time for psychic surgery. No chicken gizzard fakery required!
3. I changed my perspective
I didn’t stop caring overnight, but I did stop caring.
Giving a big figurative middle finger to external opinions was difficult, but I brushed it off and kept on keepin’ on.
What’s more important to me than random strangers’ opinions is my work, my writing, my family and friends, my plans and goals. My hair isn’t YouTube-worthy. Deal with it. I’ve got a message to impart and people can listen or not. They can watch or not. If I make them hurl their tuna sandwich that badly they can go elsewhere.
You know who don’t give a rat’s patoot what people are saying about their looks?
Men who are killing it. They say, “I’m a wrinkled old fart, but I’m rich and my wife is 32.” Those may not be laudable values but they don’t give a crap if I think so. They’re getting things done anyway. The ones who do care what others think are often suffering the same mental pathologies as women. Male body dysmorphia exists too.
I take my cues from women on the ascendancy rather than selfie queens or random tweetflames.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was credited with her decisive leadership and empathetic communication for shutting down COVID-19 infection like Donald Trump with a news reporter. She wore casual clothes during her national addresses from her den. She had more important things to think about than what people say about her outfit.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, once described as ‘the most powerful woman in the world’, is a scientist with a doctorate in quantum chemistry. She handled the world’s most notorious orange-skinned bad comb-over'ed narcissist like a pro. She, too, was credited with keeping COVID cases lower during the final years of her administration and persuading Germans to cooperate early with COVID control efforts.
What do female leaders who have distinguished themselves on pandemic crisis management have in common with successful male leaders? They don’t care about the Twitterati’s irrelevant opinions about their hair.
The Goddess of taking crap about her looks is Hillary Clinton, and it didn’t stop her from running for the highest office in the land. Her critics cared far more about her pantsuits than she did.
I want Clinton’s psychological resilience, even though I will never run for office.
You don’t keep COVID deaths to <25 like New Zealand's Ardern did when you’re stressing about the nasty comment some jerk made about your tracksuit while you were addressing the nation from your den.
I warned myself when I started making YouTube videos: The comments will be vicious. I know what bottom-feeders troll YouTube looking to thumbs-down videos and leave nasty comments. (Bonus, though: YouTube doesn’t distinguish good from bad. It counts it all as ‘engagement’ which for their algorithms is good.)
I don’t victimize myself, I don’t blame ‘The Patriarchy’, and I don’t drag anyone else into it either. I’m responsible for myself and my standards.
Here’s the thing: It’s not just women targeted with unhealthy societal messages. All that male body dysmorphia comes from somewhere. For a case study on just how damaging unchallenged societal messages are for men, read Susan Faludi’s interview with ultimate he-man Sylvester Stallone for her 1996 book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man.
The book gave me a much richer idea of the difficult challenges of being a man, but the Stallone interview opened my eyes to just how much like us men are when they don’t challenge societal standards (Is there a Matriarchy?). Stallone idolized Superman when he was young, but didn’t understand the toll maintaining that he-man image took until he gained weight to play a schlumpy character in Copland. It did a real number on his self-image as a rock-hard superhero, especially when fans recognized him while he was making the movie and their faces registered dismay and disappointment.
All of a sudden, mirrors were no longer his friends. Nor did he receive validation from fans.
Not challenging one’s own assumptions is psychologically toxic. I began to let go of my fear of not being ‘good enough’ when I refocused from people I wished I was like to people I actually was like.
When I stopped to ‘look under the hood’ with others I found everyone feels insecure, and they, too, are targeted and absorb toxic messages of how they should look, feel, or be more successful.
Even Sylvester Stallone.
The key to not beating myself up became knowing what I valued, why I valued it, and how I created my own needless suffering. I can’t change the world’s, YouTube’s, or ‘The Patriarchy’s’ unachievable standards, but I can reject them.
Less caring = Less suffering
It’s my decision.
This article first appeared on Medium.