When I close my eyes, I see the dresses and the gowns. The paper dolls and the Barbie dolls; the pretty bows that tied me down. Then I see my face, staring down at my shiny shoes. . .they took me to a place where they gave me pink instead of blue.” - Tina Schlieske, “Paper Dolls,” Monster Album, 1994
My friend Pamela was about four years old, tumbling away happily in her living room, when she found herself shaken from her childhood reverie by her father’s voice. “Cover yourself!” her father shouted. “Young ladies don’t show their underwear to the world.” Her father’s words stung then, leaving Pamela confused and feeling shamed.
Welcome to girlhood, circa 1960’s, when wearing dresses was mandatory, and monkey bars and swings filled the playgrounds – a mean temptation that required creativity and presented us with our first catcalls. “I see London, I see France. . .”. Yes, our underpants were of paramount importance in the scheme of things, inhibiting our movements, stifling our physical expressions, and causing us to worry, at the tender age of five or six, how best to cover up to avoid the shameful display of our undergarments.
Today, only a handful of schools mandate skirts for girls, but the shame factor that’s been part and parcel of girlhood for centuries has lessened only by small degrees.
Biological imperatives aside, the traits attributed to girls are often a source of shame. Sensitivity is mocked as weak. Empathy is often viewed as “girlish” and unfitting for a competitive world. Gentleness is seen as less effective than brutal frankness. Those who have these traits, whether they are male or female, are often seen as less competent than those who have a harder-edged, less sensitive, personality.
In fact, the crux of sexism (and homophobia, racism, and almost every other hateful attitude towards difference) can be summed up in one word: shame. Whatever does not fit into the dominant paradigm must be cast out, ridiculed, and shamed into its submissive place.
We know it, we’ve seen it, but how do we process this information?
“It’s like the McDonald’s story about the woman and the coffee,” my friend Barbara says to me. “What you’re talking about, shame and sexism, becomes a water cooler joke. People hear the stories, but they don’t really understand what’s involved, or how long-term the damages are, and the whole matter ends up being diminished into some yarn about entitlement, with people blaming those who got hurt, and even feeling sorry for the ones who caused the hurt in the first place.”
Being familiar with the case of Stella Lieback, I understood what Barbara was saying. McDonald’s did, in fact, sell coffee at 190-degrees, thirty degrees higher than normal, and capable of burning skin down to the muscle layer in two to seven seconds. Lieback’s injuries required skin grafting and took almost two years to heal. Yet, Lieback’s case is often called up as an example of trivial lawsuits.
“When you talk about the lives of girls, and the shame they learn, and the sexism they face as they grow older, it’s often dismissed, or treated as something we should just get over,” Barbara continues. “It becomes a joke – women seeking some sort of due they don’t deserve, with men being “forced” to play along. And really, so much of what passes as social change or enlightenment is just smoke and mirrors, still. Look at what happened to Anita Hill in the 80’s. Look at how the media treated Hillary Clinton when she showed emotion this year. Women are still being trivialized and ridiculed at every turn.” Barbara, at 56, had excellent parents who encouraged her to excel, but she was not immune from feeling shame about her sex in girlhood.
“There was always the “cross your legs, be a lady” thing,” she says, “but it went so much deeper than that. We could be smart, but we weren’t supposed to act it, because that would be arrogant or unfeminine. On dates, we were advised not to show our appetites, not to laugh too hard, and to let men lead. We were, it seems, always having to act something, instead of merely being ourselves.” Barbara, who has been married for close to thirty years, recalls her first year of marriage with a bittersweet laugh.
“I went to sleep with my makeup on. There was no way I was going to let him see me without ‘my face’ on. . .and no, I didn’t think I was ugly. I just. . .I guess I thought I always had to be as pretty as I could. Weird, huh? The funny thing is, since then he’s always thought I look better without makeup.” Despite her awareness, and the support of her husband, Barbara still struggles with issues of beauty and femininity. She doesn’t feel “right” going to the store without makeup, and feels “naked” without her jewelery.
“The cover-ups,” says Kathy, “that’s what I remember most.” Kathy developed early, sprouting breasts in fourth grade. “Trying to find clothes that covered my bra straps, and getting my bra strap pulled from the back anyway. And oh my God. . .the shaving! The short gym shorts we had to wear, or the bathing suits. I was mortified by the thought that my pubic hair would show, and as mortified by the stubble and the razor burn.” Kathy’s experience points to the fact that the development of girls is more public than that of a boy’s, a situation we both agree is made worse by advertising.
“If you were to listen to all those feminine product commercials as a child, without a good grasp on the facts of biology, you’d think women were these continuously leaking, bleeding, smelly creatures that constantly needed to be on guard against drips and odor. I know that’s how I viewed them and even now, in my forties, all those messages have had an effect.” Combined with schoolyard jokes about girls smelling like fish, Kathy, like many girls experienced an anxiety about her developing body that boys, in general, didn’t and still don’t.
Outside of growing taller and getting deeper voices – both of which are praised in our society – the turn from boyhood to manhood is a relatively quiet and private affair, edged with pride and a sense of accomplishment. Girls, on the other hand, grow their breasts under the watchful eyes of classmates, and grow hair where it is deemed unacceptable.
The faces and bodies of pubescent girls and women, with their “unwanted body hair” and menstrual cycles, are a marketing goldmine. Dozens of magazines exist for the sole purpose of selling them on fashion, cosmetics, perfumes, and beauty products. Between the slick ads, diet tips, and sex advice, there may be an article or two on self-esteem or empowerment, but look where it’s coming from — between pages of size 2 models selling the concept that everything about a woman, from head to toe to attitude, needs to be changed, buffed, dressed up, fixed, or enhanced in order to achieve true beauty, find love, or win acceptance in society.
Pretty is as pretty is marketed. The airbrushed model of womanhood exudes confidence, but this lies in her ability to betray and hide the truth of her humanity. Only in the perfection of this betrayal does she emanate happiness. At size 0-2, she has kept the girl and abandoned the woman. Her straight teeth have been capped or bleached to ultra-whiteness. No stray hairs grow from her waxed figure. Her skin does not wrinkle or dimple – she is a well-manicured, unblemished, soft-skinned, long-lashed, long-legged, full-lipped beauty.
To undo her takes work. To undo the damage, and ease the anxiety the marketing doll has caused, can be a years-long, even a life long, endeavor.
My friend David, after telling me all the reasons he was crazy about his girlfriend, once complained, “but she won’t make love unless the lights are off.” She was witty, brilliant, kind, just an exceptional person, he explained, but she had this hang-up, and he couldn’t understand why, or why his assurances weren’t enough. After all, he told her how beautiful she was all the time.
It was hard to explain to David how all of his words, no matter how personal or strongly felt, were already undone a thousand times over by Cosmo, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie, Massengill, and others – and how the indoctrination into shame that began when we had to learn to navigate the monkey bars without showing our underpants metamorphosed into a shame of our imperfect bodies and our womanly selves.
“Why do women put themselves through all that?” David asked.
We don’t. We don’t “put ourselves through all that” any more than we put ourselves through growth spurts or physical development. Much of the shame we know is not consciously learned, but inherent in the messages given to girls and women from the cradle to the grave.
When the mannequin becomes the model, and the model becomes the treasured icon, what is feminine becomes not only what we fear in its natural state, but what we fear we will never measure up to in its enhanced form. We will never be polished enough, thin enough, fit enough, or perfect enough to earn the fearless confidence of the mannequin-model.
It takes strength and awareness – and a strong desire to grow past shame – to unlearn the lessons and mitigate the damages. To make love in the light of day, knowing we were never meant to be mannequins, but real women – organic, warm, sensual, curvaceous – and of far greater beauty and worth than the social paradigms and mass marketers would have us believe.