If I could pass only one message of wisdom to my adolescent self, it would be this:
STOP READING FASHION MAGAZINES.
I used to torture myself on a weekly basis with the latest runway pictures, supermodel editorials and beauty features in Bazaar, Vogue, Yen and Cosmo. I’d starve and self-loathe to inch closer to the unattainable goal of waifdom, forcing my blessedly healthy teenage mind and body through years of demoralisation and damage. I’d obsess over photoshopped images of underweight models in exorbitantly luxe clothing and jewellery, bargaining with the universe to make me exactly like her.
I watched movies with Cool Girl / Beautifully Damaged / Deceptively Vulnerable Ice Queen protagonists and took internal notes on Ways To Be Desirable. Wear hair in messy bun. Wear adorably mismatched socks. Buy lingeree. Be aloof and cold / vulnerable and innocent. Be wild and impulsive / dorky and creative. Be a carefree tomboy / smouldering glamazon.
All of these things that I desperately wanted to attain – would have traded my own body for in an instant – are completely removed from my actual self, and in fact any real person. They are constructs: edited images of elaborately designed settings and heavily made-up faces and hair. Celebrities, movie heroines and television stars are characters created to engage with audiences (including my impressionable teenage self) by possessing qualities we desire, such as beauty, spontaneity, mysteriousness and sex appeal. These archetypal identities are so cogent and mesmerising that we are convinced they are attainable realities. In his book Money for Nothing (2007), media theorist Saul Austerlitz proffers that we in turn project our own self-image onto these constructs and make adjustments to assimilate – a theory validated by the Advertising industry’s best known strategies, particularly for selling products to women.
Hollywood cinema, reality television, advertising and popular media outlets historically present women in a shallow, limited way, usually fashioning female characters into passive, compliant, sexualised and disposable objects of desire. By shoving it down our throats from every possible platform, a series of roles have been created which we inevitably try to perform in order to conform to mass media’s idealistic contemporary identity – Cool Girl, Damaged Beauty, Sex Kitten, Trophy Wife. We don’t want to be like us, we want to be like them, because their perfect faces, perky breasts, effortlessly cool demeanour and happy-ending-romance story are almost all of what we see and are told is right.
One tenet of feminist ideology is exploration of the effect of mass media’s representation of women on the contemporary female experience. Theorists Laura Mulvey and Mary Ann Doane are key contributors to this discourse, placing the onus for imposing a severely limited range of roles on women on the ‘boys club’ that is, or at least, historically has been, mass media. Also perceiving mass media as operated by men with the primary objective of engagement with male audiences, theorist Joan Riviere proposes that in a mass media world, femininity is defined only by its absence of, or opposition to, masculinity.
The effects of this on our formation of identity are complex and variable – Doane claims that women can be compelled to exaggerate gestures of femininity, calling to mind contemporary normalities such as breast augmentation, lash extensions, garish make-up and the almost mandated, never-ending quest for hairlessness.
I cannot overlook mass media’s effect on school-age girls, either: anyone privy to the goings-on of high schools and their students will know that the objectification and sexualisation of women in mass media trickles into impressionable communities, resulting in a range of scandals of the nudity-on-social-media variety.
In her study of mass media and related technologies effect on contemporary identity formation, theorist Rosalind Krauss suggests that in a world in which disembodied versions of ourselves can be constructed with images, ideas and social or material associations – i.e. our social media profiles – that now the self requires mediation in order to be verified or completed (1986, p184). This theory is corroborated by ‘instafamous culture’ in which young women attain a type of fame predicated on their construction of an idealised lifestyle and selfhood, usually by exploiting their bodies. The culture perpetuates the notion that self-worth can and should be externally validated, in this instance by the number of likes on a photo and followers on a profile.
Earlier this month our news feeds were saturated with the story of an Australian teen who revealed that her instagram profile was conflated with photoshopped images and painstakingly curated product placements. Essena O’Neill went on to say that her ‘perfect’ slender figure is tortuously maintained by starvation and enhanced by state-of-the-art breast-boosting bra technology. These revelations, while staggeringly obvious to me as an educated 25-year-old woman, are far less clear to teenage girls, whose social vulnerability makes them susceptible to mental health issues such as eating disorders for which social media can be a breeding ground. But the reality is this: statistically speaking, only about 5% of women have the body type represented in fashion media, yet over one half of teenage girls and one quarter of university-aged women use unhealthy weight control behaviours such as fasting, vomiting and taking laxatives – 35% of whom will progress from ‘normal’ to pathological dieting or full-syndrome eating disorders.
And it’s for this reason that I deliver this hypothetical address to my teenage self, still under mass media’s spell, fruitlessly trying to match my appearance and behaviours to the falsehoods it peddles.
Beauty is subjective: everybody has different looks, figures, personalities and lifestyles that they desire and seek. I am gobsmacked by this reality at times: a friend of mine recently scoffed at my declaration that Kim K is irrefutably and extremely hot. She’s just not my jam, he said. Another male friend was discordant with my similar assertion that Heidi Klum was the perfect woman. These opinions were incomprehensible to me before I’d heard them – they have the sexiest possible figures, most flawless skin and hair, most covetable wardrobes and enviable, opulent lifestyles.
Of course we think like that – they have millions to spend on beauty and wardrobe, maintaining gorgeous bodies comprises a large part of their occupation, and a gaggle of PR agents, publicists and marketing professionals are paid to deliver their perfect public image right to our doorsteps.
Furthermore – and most importantly – they are not everyone’s type. It shouldn’t take a man’s opinion to make me realise that, either: decades of taking the mass-mediated archetype of female desirability as gospel is what’s backed us into this corner in the first place. Enormous breasts, a tiny waist, a big, beautiful behind and long, black hair is not everyone’s type, nor is statuesque and svelte with Scandinavian colouring. The rule applies to traits beneath the surface, too: some like bubbly, extroverted personalities while some find them irritating and tiresome. I, for example, have an unshakeable (and non-deliberate) penchant for European men, while I have friends whose dating records feature locals only. Hell, there are people out there who love rat’s tails and merkins, and who are we to judge?
What I’m trying to say is this: there is no point trying to be or look like someone else, because ‘beauty’, ‘sex appeal’ and ‘attractive personality’ are completely subjective. The qualities that are universally desirable are confidence, happiness and authenticity. We are drawn to happy, confident people whose qualities we are inclined to admire and emulate in the course of being happy and confident ourselves. Confidence is the greatest marketing tool for our authentic selves, and authenticity – being true to our personalities – is the only way that I have found to be truly happy.
After years of insecurity and self-loathing, I now consider myself enlightened through this knowledge. I love myself, exactly as I am. I’m a homebody no longer masquerading as a night-clubber; I’m a mesomorph no longer attempting to defy the laws of genetics; I’m a planner no longer pretending to enjoy utterly unplanned weekends or holidays. This is my own kind of cool, my own kind of beautiful and my own kind of desirable, and everyone has their own brand. If we had the reach and power of mass media our brand would be popular too. But to be honest, I don’t even care what everyone else thinks – since accepting myself as awesome, I am infinitely happier, and since accepting my body as beautiful, I am healthier. Confidence in myself allows me to dismiss any negative opinions or actions as ill-conceived, immaterial and/or false; and ceasing to act out of insecurity makes my actions and words authentic. No pretending, no lying and no self-hatred.
If I could have imparted this wisdom on my poor, hungry, confused, desperate, insecure, depressed adolescent self six years ago, I would have half a decade of extra happiness under my belt. I believe, though, that those years are responsible for the intensity with which I value myself and the understandings of my experience as a woman I gained which freed me from the futile quest to be someone else. Central to this is to stop allowing false and constructed images and ideas define beauty and start looking, lovingly, within.
Inset: Jose Gomez Fresquet (Cuba), Lipstick, c. 1970
Featured: Installation view (courtesy of Capricious 88 Gallery) of Swedish artist Cajsa von Zeipel’s Pony Tails: To Live, Play, Move and Clash As She Will (2014) at Capricious 88 in New York City. Von Zeipel’s work explores the objectification of women for visual pleasure, making a statement by showing them as sexualised, fetishised objects on display in an art museum. I first came across Von Zeipel’s art at Goteborgs Konstmuseum in 2013 where I saw part of her similarly topical exhibition Sex, Cigarettes and Angry Girls and snapped one of her striking muses for my Samling: