For one of our first outings together, my Little Sister proposed swimming. Outside Me said “sure” and Googled the nearest swimming pools. Inside Me said “argh!” and wondered if a burkini would be overkill.
Of course I have body image issues — how sad is it that I think that’s an “of course”? — but I don’t believe I exude that dissatisfaction. I hate that women pepper our conversations with constant references to diets and how fat our hips are — criticizing our own weaknesses before someone else can, buying into the idea that it’s our job to obsess over appearance, spending more on beauty products than education.
In the words of Katie Couric:
“If women spent more time helping a sick neighbour or volunteering at a homeless shelter, focusing on how to use all of their energy to focus on solving some of the world’s problems — if they spent a tenth of the time thinking about those things that they do thinking about their weight, we would solve the world’s problems in a matter of months. “
And yet. Trying to be a positive role model for an 11-year-old girl has made me more conscious about how self-deprecating I can be about my appearance (and intelligence, and coordination, and skills, and …). It comes so naturally, I didn’t realize it before having to deliberately swallow the negative words that bubble up in my throat.
We did go to the pool that day and I expended more energy in not thinking about how uncomfortably exposed I felt, or how embarrassed at my pasty white legs, than I did in the actual act of swimming. It was eye-opening in two ways: how ingrained my body-shame reflex is, and how no one else at the pool — in all their own imperfect glory — cared what I looked like.
When Miss Representation was first released there was a fundraising screening in Vancouver with proceeds to Big Sisters (that film is where the Couric quote comes from). It’s on Netflix now and I wish everyone would watch it with an open mind, with dukes down. But that’s my hope for pretty much every issue on cable news and the Internet, and I’m resigned to disappointment.
The documentary focuses on how representations of women in the media affect not just women and girls, but men and boys too. We are all hurt when half the population is diminished and the other half has its own unrealistic expectations to live up to. (Filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom is now working on a documentary about American masculinity.)
Much of what it highlights is obvious to anyone with an ounce of media sense: the constant comments about female politicians’ and journalists’ appearance, the flimsy roles and wardrobes for women in many movies, the sexualization of women in the music industry (hi Miley Cyrus!).
One of my first online experiences was delving into the House fandom. A small, disturbing undercurrent was the personal attacks directed at co-showrunner Katie Jacobs, a producer and director, when fans were unhappy with the content of the show. Fellow co-showrunner David Shore — the head writer — was not subject to similar attacks about his appearance or speculation about his marriage. As a Twitter friend put it, “you would’ve thought back then that Katie Jacobs’ hair made hiring decisions.”
There are more heinous examples of the venom directed at women online, from attacks on appearance to rape threats, but perhaps more insidious are the seemingly innocuous examples. I have never mentioned my boss online without someone using a male pronoun in response. I have never followed an awards show on Twitter without a deluge of comments about how fat, old, or ugly certain actresses are. I have never brought up an issue about the under-representation of women in an industry, or sexism directed at a prominent woman, or a prominent author making disparaging remarks about female authors, for example, without men telling me it’s not an issue.
I’m not proud of this but I opt out of a lot of discussions because I have the experience of being, and seeing other women, shouted down by men. As if anyone has the right to tell me what to care about. As if the person who yells the loudest has won. As if minds will be changed. Silence can’t counter the problem, but to enter into the fray feels futile at best, even more diminishing at worst.
But men are only half the problem. One of the defences of misogynistic comments directed toward, say, Anna Gunn, is that women are making them too. As if women can’t contribute to misogyny as much as men can be bullying of other men who don’t fit their own gender stereotype.
As if my own actions don’t contribute to society’s attitudes about what it means to be a woman.
As I’ve learned by consciously trying to be a role model for an 11 year old girl, and by publicity from AA, the first step is to admit the problem. I wish that admission for all of us, because changing societal norms is a daunting challenge … until we realize that by changing ourselves we are changing our society.
Above all, I wish for all of us the thought of an 11-year-old girl listening to our words and actions.