Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Beauty Brawl

I wrote this on Thursday, February 5, 1998. Oh how time changes some things. But not others...

I sat in the library yesterday and this beautiful woman walked by my table. After she passed, the two girls sitting next to me began to comment, “Doesn't she know she shouldn't wear white after Labor Day?”

I felt the corners of my lips rise to smile until I saw the poor woman emerge from behind a stack of books, red-faced and embarrassed. The girls next to me suppressed giggles and I once again faced the cruelty of women.

There exists a fierce competition between women: a beauty competition that comes from a long history of reinforcement. If we continue to compete with one another, we strengthen the habits passed down to us by women throughout time who all competed for husbands to “complete themselves.”

How can women change in order to support and build one another rather than degrade?

When they dare, my male friends ask me why women compete amongst one another. Why will women constantly complain about men not being supportive, yet at the first opportunity to raise another woman's self-esteem dissolve into cattiness and snicker to their boyfriends or friends about the size of her breasts or the number of hours she may have logged at the electric beach?

This insensitive streak comes from within every woman, planted in the form of habit and springing forth as an obsession with beauty. Being held to a beauty standard that is unattainable breeds competition. Women compete over beauty because it is often society's only measure of a woman's success.

The “Beauty Competition” evolved from an ancient female role model raised on Marilyn Monroe movies. She went to college for her “M.R.S.” and strove for excellent domestic skills, grace, poise and marrying well. This era of woman unknowingly raised her little girls to be “ladies,” not speak until spoken to, groom well and not plan to ever have to take care of herself or be alone.

When I was a little girl, I watched my mother suffer through endless diets, a myriad of cosmetic surgeries and six different hair colors in an attempt to recapture my father's love for her. By the time I was 16, my mom had had her chin done, her tummy tucked and her breasts augmented. My mom watched all the other doctors leave their wives for thinner, younger and prettier women.

With society's obsession with a woman's beauty, it is no wonder that every woman is consumed by it. As a woman, I have always been aware of beauty. Obtaining it often defines me. I remember when I was 10 years old and my best friend, Bethy, and I were on diets and would wake up every morning at 6 a.m. to do the 20-minute workout.

Bethy and I watched my dad carry Playboys into the house wrapped in a thin layer of white plastic and brown construction paper. The secrecy provoked us to seek them out and hide under the bed with flashlights, giggling at the perfect naked bodies that littered the pages. The bodies were much like the Barbies we played with every day.

Even those homes uninfluenced by brainwashed parental figures were still subjected to society's expectations. As I walked home from elementary school, I often stopped at the newsstand on the corner of 84th and Cherry. The only women staring back were women famous for the men they married or the beauty they possessed. Jackie O., Princess Di, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Cindy Crawford, Brooke Shields. When my light went out at night, I would dream of becoming a princess, a bride, a model or the wife of a successful man.

I was 12 when I walked in on my sister over a toilet bowl pushing her finger down her throat until she coughed up blood and permanently scarred her knuckles. My other sister starved herself until she had to be institutionalized and forced to eat.

Society dictates that women simply have one arena for competition: beauty. Women define themselves primarily on aesthetics. Of course, society defines a woman's value on the same superficial standard.

Men compete on similarly trivial issues, but in far less visible arenas. Society superficially judges men by many trivial things - their job, car, girlfriend and money - invisible things.

Men share some of the blame for perpetuating women's beauty addictions. Men enable women to obsess by continuing to give respect and attention to women who define themselves by the way their hair curls or their dress fits.

They complain about how much money their girlfriends spend in the ultimate quest for affection, yet place pictures of their girlfriends' untouchable competitors on their walls and encourage them to go to the gym or dress more like the women on the pages of Cosmopolitan.

The saddest part of a woman's struggle for beauty is that most women don't realize their predecessors competed for husbands. If women knew where their obsession originated, would their humiliation drive them to change?

If women prize attention or affection from men, then I competed with my sisters - invoked their jealousy and risked prolonging their poor self-esteem so a man would pick me over them.

Once society establishes a pattern, it takes work to disassemble it. Regardless of the specifics of a woman's background, she has seen what I have - she is a creature of habit. Unless she stops herself and takes notice, she will follow the examples of the women before her.

I understand that a generation raised on ancient beliefs of proper upbringing, dating etiquette and “marrying well” could fail to recognize that the women they were raising needed to learn to treasure independence and self-sufficiency. We don't have to continue subscribing to this thought process.

We can start by ridding ourselves of the notion that we need men to complete ourselves. Perhaps we can accept the challenge to befriend other women. Most importantly, we need to make a conscious choice to stop degrading each other.

So, next time I find myself in a crowded room tempted to sum up, survey and judge the other women, I will remember my responsibility to break the old patterns. I will fight the urge to point out that her red lipstick does not match her orange dress. Instead, I will cross the room, extend my hand and offer my support.

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posted by Pop Culture Casualty @ 8/29/2006 05:41:00 PM |


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