As little girls, Elissa’s friends were rambunctious and wholly themselves. They pursued their own interests with no concern for other people’s opinions. They drew comics featuring hilarious dialogue, danced and laughed simultaneously until they fell down in breathless mirth, conducted basement science experiments, and pretended they had super powers. Their mothers talked about how freely their girls expressed themselves, grateful to have strong daughters.
Then it started.
Like a relentless viral infection, one by one these girls succumbed to our appearance-obsessed culture. Elissa watched angrily as her friends were laden with heavy new concerns. They worried about what they looked like and what others thought of them. By 11, 12, or 13 years old they hid their unique interests and suppressed their considerable talents. Instead they maintained a near constant awareness of hair, make-up, clothes, body shape, who said what, and how everyone else reacted.
Threats, screaming outbursts, bleak despair became common. And that was just their mothers’ reaction to their daughters’ behavior. Helplessly witnessing what has become a female ritual of relentless self-scrutiny causes many of us to lose it. We know all too well that the effort to constrict oneself into a mold is exhausting.
But who can blame our girls, let alone the adult women who continue to suffer painful confidence wounds, when impossible standards are the norm? It’s almost as if we females are set up to fail at this appearance game. Oh wait, we are. Even the Beautiful People aren’t beautiful enough.
Celebrities “fail” too. Take a look at the already lovely Mena Suvari, model and actress whose acne is removed, pores eliminated, eyes brightened and skin smoothed.
Check out the before-photoshop pics of women like Kirsten Dunst, Alicia Silverstone, Christina Ricci, and others. Until they’re rendered plastic smooth and Barbie thin, they look somewhat like ordinary people.
And let’s not forget, reality shows have made transformation from ordinary to perfect an entertainment phenomenon in a society where make-overs for little girls and high heels for babies aren’t out of the question.
Image after image through their young lives, girls absorb an ever present lesson that females aren’t good enough as they are. Such lessons aren’t confined to images. Girls and women portrayed in movies are typically clad in sexualized clothes and lead one-dimensional lives.
What’s the effect?
Devastating, according to the American Psychological Association. Shame, anxiety, eating disorders, and depression. Girls judge their bodies harshly as young as the age of five. No wonder a girl might choose keep the vitality of her true self hidden.
But there’s another side, often overlooked. Because Elissa and a few of her friends didn’t suffer (at least fully) the perils of lookism. They barreled through their pre-teen and teen years fueled by interests strong enough to hold them steady. Elissa poured her energy into a number of pursuits. She was a docent at the zoo, raised white rats, studied an ever increasing range of scientific interests, and moderated an online forum. One of her friends took up photography, becoming proficient in pinhole camera techniques and making albumen prints, while also advancing in a hockey league. Elissa noticed that girls who didn’t engage in the looks-first game were often ostracized by their more mainstream peers, but they also had strong friendships beyond school. Elissa, homeschooled through highschool, was one of those friends. She says she felt freer to follow her own interests without the pressures of school culture and advocated individuality to others.
As a teen, Elissa was angry at the influences that swayed so many of her other girlhood friends. She scorned their preoccupation with boys, clothes, body image, and interpersonal drama. But now Elissa is in her early 20’s. She’s reconnected with many of these same friends and learned a little about the adversity they suffered as they made their way through adolescence different than hers. One of her childhood friends became a mother at 15, another made multiple suicide attempts, still another struggles with bulimia. Elissa is sure the strengths from girlhood are still with all of them. She just doesn’t know how to let them know that their looks don’t define them.
Here are a few resources to light the way.
All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype to Celebrate Real Beauty
Body Drama: Real Girls, Real Bodies, Real Issues, Real Answers
Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image
Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel
Resolving the Confidence Crisis
The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls
101 Ways to Help Your Daughter Love Her Body
Trying to Be Happy courtesy of Orm Huz