When I was 14, I learned about the harsh realities of what it means to be a woman. I was touring the offices of Entertainment Weekly for Take Your Daughters To Work Day (my mom has worked there since I was 8), and we stopped in the design department. Up on one of the computers was an image that would become this cover, featuring Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon. Fallon’s face had a few marks on it, instructing the photo editor to lighten up a shadow here and straighten a wrinkle in his shirt there. But Tina’s face looked like it was bleeding. Red circles were everywhere, indicating the lines under her eyes should be removed, her scar needed to be lightened, her lips plumped. This was all on top of the lipstick and mascara she is wearing in the photo, and while I’m sure they put some concealer on Jimmy, the photo shocked me into the realization that women’s faces are often not enough.
This was far from the first time I realized that I may be inadequate. When I was 8, my dad had me doing sit-ups every night so I could fit into a dress for my uncle’s wedding. My middle school friends frequently bemoaned their 103 pounds and advised me to stop eating lunch when I told them I was 120. My mom began offering to wax my arms at 12 and pay for electrolysis for my upper lip soon after. There were fawning quips of “All you need is a little mascara!” as if I was this close to pure, natural beauty. (This is not to say that my mom raised me to think I was ugly! I always felt pretty and loved! I love you, mom!)
This all came rushing back to me this morning as I read Fey’s Bossypants on the subway (I know, I’m late to the party). In it she lists the body parts for which she is grateful, which include her “gym teacher calves,” “wide German hips,” “a rounded belly that is pushed out by [her] rounded posture,” and “droopy brown eyes.” Get it? The joke is that these are not body parts most people would be grateful for! The joke, to her, is that she is not the ideal, and isn’t it so funny that the girl with the bad perm and hairy legs turns out to look like this?
Feminism started so that women could be considered for their brains first rather than their bodies. This is a good thing, and even though we’re not quite there yet (as a quick look at a Reddit feed will tell you), we’re a hell of a lot closer. The fact that women can even mention “flaws” in their bodies is a huge step. I mean, can you imagine Betty Draper saying “I have big hips and I think that’s beautiful”? This is all good. But what happens when we try to out-flaw each other?
It’s an easy pit to fall into. One of you rolls your eyes at your frizzy hair. The other says that’s nothing, check out these sexy belly rolls. Everyone laughs. Someone points out their upper lip hair that is sure to attract all the guys. We substitute negative adjectives for positive ones, calling our fat “hot” instead of “hideous.” We’re wearing our flaws as armor. If we make fun of them, no one else can.
God forbid a girl admit that she is attractive. Admitting you’re attractive means you’re overconfident. You’re blind, you’re a bitch, and you only care about your looks. All the smart feminists are hanging out at the self-deprecating party, reminding ourselves that our bodies don’t matter, or something.
I hate labeling things as “womens” issues (as if men don’t have body standards to live up to), but ladies, this may happen more often with us. And it’s easy to see where it comes from. We’re taught from a young age that beauty is something to be rewarded. Pretty girls get things, like rich husbands and big houses. Pretty girls don’t have to be smart or talented or driven, because they already have pretty. So the flip side became that the smart, talented, and driven girls don’t want to be seen as pretty. Pretty means we didn’t work for it. Pretty means some man somewhere lets us slide through. Pretty means we weren’t the outcasts who had to rise above it all to get where we are today. We’re not allowed to be both, and no one wants to be the pretty person who is also smart and successful.
I love Tina Fey. I love that plenty of girls aspire to be unfashionable workaholics instead of “Carries” because of her. I love when she said “the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.” But I hate that a woman who looks like that cannot just say she’s pretty. Not without the condition of her hips and her hair and her scar and all the work that goes into a photo shoot to make her look that way.
A few months ago, two girlfriends and I spent a long weekend in Philly and began comparing our bodies as we got dressed to go out. “Haha, my eyebrow hair is everywhere,” I joked. “At least you don’t have these sexy red arms,” retorted my friend. After a while we waited expectantly for our other friend to say something about herself, something to let us know she was on our side of thinking our flaws were bad but hilarious. “I don’t know, there are some things about myself that bother me,” she said, “but overall I think I’m an attractive person.”
My first reaction, to my best friend, was one of disdain. What a smug bitch, I thought, to think she has no flaws. She thinks she’s better than me! Of course she does, with her flat stomach and long, straight hair and smooth skin. She didn’t even put on makeup that night, she just braided her hair and sat drinking wine while my other friend and I plucked and painted our respective masterpieces.
The thing is, we didn’t need to. None of us needed to, but she was the only one who to realize that. Our looks don’t matter, yes, but our natural state is not “flawed.” She chose to call that natural state “attractive.” You may choose to call it something else. But whether you choose to brag about your natural waist, cry over your bushy eyebrows or make fun of your leg hair, none of us has anything to do with the rest of your life. If only the rest of us were smart enough to realize that.