Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Beauty Cult

Do I look like them yet?

Almost every night for the past two weeks, just before I go to bed, I have lathered myself in Jergens Natural Glow tinted moisturizer.  It's basically a body lotion with a small amount of self-tanner in it, so that after a few nights of use you develop a very light tan.  It's not as dark as typical fake-baking, and I think more natural looking.  The trouble with this stuff is that in order to prevent all the color from coming right back off, you have to wait for "several minutes" after applying before you can put on clothes over it.  They make it sound like this is no big deal on the label, but I don't find that my life affords me a lot of time to sit around naked and not touching anything.  As a result I end up doing this around 2AM, when everyone is asleep so that no one in my family is subjected to staring at me naked for a long period of time.  Then I sit there naked with the ceiling fan on high so that I can dry faster and just get to bed for goodness sake.  And while I sit, I wonder why in the world I am going through this trouble to have slightly browner skin.  

The short answer to that, of course, is that my brother is getting married on June 17th, and I am very concerned about my appearance for the occasion.  One is supposed to look their best for a wedding, it seems, but I had a baby last August and I am significantly overweight.  The other two bridesmaids do not have children, and while they are not super skinny either, I am the biggest by quite a bit.  I'm the fat bridesmaid that you try not to notice when you look at the wedding pictures and remark about how beautiful everyone looked.  The dress my future sister-in-law chose is OK, but not very flattering on me.  That said, I'm not sure I would have thought any dress was very flattering right now.  It just isn't a good time for me to be in a wedding, but that isn't exactly my choice.

So I find myself lacquered in smelly brown lotion every night and buying $50 undergarments that would make Madonna proud.  Which brings me back to wondering why I am doing this.  More importantly, while I probably will discontinue the tanning lotion after the wedding, why will I continue so much of the rest of my beauty regimen?  For that matter, why must I lose fifty pounds?  Why must I stand on the scale every morning, begging it to register a lower number?  Why are so many of us spending our precious time carving and sculpting and tinting our bodies to fit some culturally defined standard?

I just reopened Eve's Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body by Lilian Calles Barger, ironically while I was waiting for the tanning lotion to dry.  Barger argues that in all of us there is a desire to find and define an authentic self, and that this desire is placed inside us by our Creator to point us toward Him (Barger 28).  "The beauty cult" takes advantage of this universal desire, and through media and cultural expressions, teaches us that we can manipulate our bodies in order to bring us closer to self-actualization (Barger 15).  "In providing prescriptions for our disconnected selves, the beauty cult understands our spiritual need to be who we 'really' are and preys on that need" (Barger 15).  

We all get these cultural messages our entire lives, and though we're taught to approach and interpret them slightly differently, as women, we all must face them and choose our responses.  My life, as you may have guessed from my chosen content for my blog, can be interpreted as a series of my responses to the cultural messages I have received about my femaleness.  Despite all the opportunities and settings in which I have had to face the issue of the disconnect between my physical and spiritual self, I have never found an answer to this issue that works in the long term or across the many ways that the issue rears its ugly head.  As a young teenager I embraced cultural standards of beauty and sexuality.  I felt more confident the closer I came to meeting them, but of course I never met them completely, and so I maintained a constant level of discontent with my body, my appearance, and my sexuality.  Almost anyone can see easily that the cultural standard of beauty is unattainable.  Again from Berger, "Continual exposure to the media ideal skews reality for all of us.  Its effect on the average young woman is a body dissatisfaction rate higher than 60 percent in high school and 80 percent in college.  The obsession with weight starts early, with 42 percent of girls in first to third grades expressing a desire to be thinner" (19).  After my experience with sexual abuse in my early teens I also saw myself as damaged, and sought approval and greater confidence (or perhaps self-actualization) through my appearance.  Discovering that it was easier to gain the approval of young men than of my female friends who were struggling themselves, I displayed myself as a sexual object, and though I longed to be much more, it seemed to me that that was life, and that my need for confidence and individuality had to be somehow negotiated either through or around my physical body, which as Berger implies, was forever getting in the way.

As I got older I tried a few times to escape the body battle entirely.  There were two periods, early in my marriage and later during the postpartum period of my second child, where I adopted what I saw as my modesty uniform: long loose skirts, deliberately unfashionable; solid colored t-shirts, and sneakers appropriate for long hours on one's feet caring for small children.  I woke up each morning and put on this uniform, and it reminded me that I was not a part of that world, where a woman must seek approval and love through the modification of her natural body according to cultural standards.  Both times, however, my desire to be socially acceptable overcame my desire to leave the beauty mold behind me, and I went back to more conventional clothes and attempting to keep up with fashion trends.  Even in my "uniform," I couldn't escape the focus on appearance.  When I met other young wives and mothers, they frequently remarked about my clothes, and I felt as if my choice to dress so differently came between us.  I sought their approval, and in the end decided that I valued forming new friendships more than avoiding the beauty cult.  While there is a part of me that wants to go back to the uniform, it would be a false representation, because obviously I am not truly liberated from beauty standards, and I'm not sure that true liberation would be expressed this way anyway.  "But must we subdue the fertility of the female body and truncate our emotional life to function authentically in a male world?  Must we surrender to the images and meaning that our bodies have received in culture, embracing their assigned sexual power to further our own ends?  As we silence our body or manipulate its meaning, we end up more alienated than ever, live sculptures for the male gaze and caricatures of ourselves" (Berger 25).

All these struggles are why Berger's book stood out for me when I saw it in the bargain bin for $5.  The price, as it turns out, is a real insult to her research and the significance of the body in women's search for spirituality and authenticity.  I directly relate to the mental struggles she describes.  "Yes, we were good girls and followed the script handed to us by the second wave of the gender revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.  We attempted to redefine womanhood on our own terms with a 'You go girl!' attitude.  But we are still haunted by the question What is a woman?  In the last forty years women have attempted to unpack this for themselves: Is woman simply a womb?  a domestic goddess?  eye candy to be consumed by the male gaze?  Or are we more than our bodies?" (24).  

I shudder to think what I am teaching my daughter about the value of beauty, or what beauty even is.  I see her striving for it, and already I'm afraid, because as of yet I have no answers for her.  I want her to believe that true physical beauty can be seen in the great variety of appearances and abilities that God has given to His women, and that the purpose of her body is to bring Him glory, but I don't even know what that means for myself.  And as long as I am staring discouraged at the number on the scale every morning, and marinading myself in tanning lotion at night, she is watching.  To simply say that appearance doesn't really matter is certainly one option, but how long will it last?  It can't last forever because the hard truth is that appearance does matter.  True, the last time I checked the Proverbs 31 woman was not worried about how she looked in a bathing suit, but as I've said, standards of beauty are culturally determined.  Short of isolating ourselves in a way that is socially unhealthy and unrealistic, we can not avoid cultural scripts.  Somehow the body must be negotiated.  Our bodies must be incorporated into our understanding of ourselves.  I just haven't figured out how yet.  

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