Passionate Selfies

Why is it that girls are still being encouraged to take up less space, while boys are encouraged to bulk themselves up?

In my gender studies courses at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, we inevitably spend a fair amount of time talking about the insidious influence of the media on both girls’ and boys’ self-image.

Girls receive the message that the ideal girl is thin and pale, with long blonde hair and big blue eyes.  She’s sexy but not threatening—if she’s smart, she doesn’t flaunt it the way she does her big boobs and shapely legs.

Boys, on the other hand, are rewarded for being assertive and athletic.  It’s a good thing if they take up a lot of space in the room as well as a lot of airtime in any social context.

It is no coincidence that girls are disproportionately affected by eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia—psycho-somatic illnesses marked by a distortion of one’s self-image and a manic desire to become smaller.

Girls with these eating disorders imagine themselves to be fat, a horrible three-letter word, no matter how waif-thin they starve themselves into becoming.  Bulimics binge-eat and then purge, vomiting up their meal before it can be converted to the dreaded fat on their bodies.

Anorexics just starve themselves, and often add demanding exercise regimens to the mix to make good and sure they won’t be fat.

Meanwhile, boys abuse protein powders loaded with steroids to make themselves bigger and more muscular.

Yesterday I went to see a screening of the new short film “Selfie,” made right here in Great Barrington MA by filmmaker Cynthia Wade and photographer Michael Crook, who spent a week in our local high school talking about body image and self esteem with teenage girls.

Unknown-3The girls were encouraged to take “selfies” (ie, smart-phone pictures) of themselves, daring to focus in on the parts of their faces that they liked the least.

One girl complained of the roundness of her face, another of her bushy hair, another of her red cheeks, another of her prominent nose.

But through guided discussions about body image and beauty, and the process of creating a photo show of their “selfies” and video-taped interviews of themselves and their mothers for the film, they were made more aware of how superficial it is to obsess over the places where their own human faces fall short of the air-brushed ideal.

Obviously many agree, since the film is in the process of going viral on You-Tube, with nearly a million views in the past few weeks.  The 3-minute version is up to nearly 5 million views!

Unknown-4Beauty is so much more than what we can see, the girls and the film audience concluded.  It is not about conforming to some pre-established, often totally unrealistic ideal.  How boring would it be if every girl looked like Barbie, and every boy looked like Ken?

Yesterday’s New York Times discussed the “Selfie” film, along with a new trend among adolescent girls to share “uglies,” that is, selfies that are deliberately staged to portray the self-photographer as “ugly.”

The Times seemed to think this was an advance—that girls who were unafraid to show themselves making “ugly faces” into the camera were more liberated, less browbeaten by media stereotypes.

To me, a much more profound advance would be represented by girls whose “selfies” were not about their physical appearance at all.

What if women and girls channeled all that nervous energy over how we look into our work in the world instead?

Following the screening of “Selfies,” Berkshire International Film Festival Director Kelley Vickery presented the short film SEPIDEH, which created quite a buzz at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.  Made by Danish director Berit Madsen, the film is a documentary that follows the life of the titular teenager, an Iranian girl who grows from a young girl obsessed with Albert Einstein into a woman engaged to be married and heading to university to study astronomy.

Unknown-2In the film, Sepideh wears a hijab and no make-up.  She’s much more interested in studying and star-gazing than in making herself attractive in conformity with some pre-established ideal.

Her passion for learning and her determination to achieve her goals are paramount.  And in the end, these shining characteristics succeed in attracting to her a suitor who has every intention of helping her become the outstanding woman she is meant to be.

So should it be for every young woman.  Teenage girls should be focused on zeroing in on their passions, defining their goals, and going after them.

What could be more beautiful than a girl who knows what she wants, is fully ignited with a sense of purpose, and is pursuing her dreams at full tilt?

Starving women, American chic style

Barely have the baubles of the Oscars faded into Hollywood history, when the bleak news of the real world comes flooding back in.

School shooting in a high school cafeteria in Ohio.

Keystone XL pipeline permit back on the table.

Rick Santorum is arguing against the separation of church and state, and thumbing his nose at the idea that young people should go to college.

And in case you haven’t noticed, the snowdrops are blooming now in New England–about a month ahead of schedule.

But you know what I found most truly disturbing in my cursory glance at the NY Times homepage today?

The prominent Giorgio Armani ad campaign, depicting two different women, each one more pitifully emaciated than the other.

Look at those protruding collar bones!  The jutting cheek and jawbones!  The stick-thin arms and legs!

If this young woman was in Darfur or Ethiopia, we’d be wondering, with compassion, when she last had a meal.

But because she’s a highly paid model, we relax that compassionate muscle and not only don’t worry about her, but actively admire her beauty.

What kind of beauty standard is it when a young woman has to be literally wasting away to make the grade of approbation?

It would be one thing if the male models were similarly emaciated.

But no.  Look at the male Armani models and you find something else entirely.

These guys are solid, well-muscled, athletic hunks.  Nothing underfed or waiflike about them.

In fact, they’re star athletes!  That’s David Beckham on the left, and a couple of tennis stars below.

The point is that attractive men are strong, athletic and powerful, while attractive women are starvation-thin, and even if they’ve got some attitude, their jutting collarbones give them away.

You know they go and gag themselves to throw up their breakfasts every day.

When they eat breakfast, that is.

Meanwhile, Giorgio Armani himself looks quite hale and hearty.

Does he have a clue of the kinds of destructive stereotypes he is reinforcing by presenting his models the way he does?

There is nothing beautiful about skin and bones. Ask any concentration camp or famine victim.

It would be one thing if our society projected its thin beauty fetish equally on both men and women.

By presenting women as vanishingly thin, weak, waiflike creatures, while men are robust and muscular, the fashion industry sends an unmistakeable message: beautiful women are weak, admirable men are strong.

Don’t like it?  Who cares, you’re ugly anyway!

Well, Mr. Bones and Sixpacks Armani, since when are you the arbiter of beauty and strength on this planet?  I’ll take a strong woman over a waif any day, and I hope those hunky athletes would do the same.

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