Women are repeatedly told messages from our culture regarding our place and our value in society. When women and girls internalize negative messages from the culture, a vicious cycle can begin where the culture sends the message, the girl internalizes the message and behaves accordingly, which then leads to the harmful messages being reinforced, both to society and to the girl herself. Then the cycle repeats. Thus, I would like to discuss this damaging cycle and suggest steps one can take to break it.
Firstly, we live in a culture that puts a lot of pressure on women to look absolutely flawless, to an unnatural degree. Almost all the women we see in magazines firstly have the advantage of a team of make-up and hair artists, good lighting, and a talented photographer, and, as if this were not enough, the woman's image is typically altered by photo-editing software. Thus, her waist might be made smaller, her bust bigger, her thighs reduced, her skin airbrushed, and so on. Some time ago Dove made this video showing the extent of this process.
We are bombarded with images of unnatural women in magazines, commercials, movies, and television shows. It can be intimidating being surrounded by such images of flawless beauty daily, and living in a culture with such a narrow definition of beauty that literally no woman can live up to. Thus, many feel enormous pressure to spend a great amount of time, money, and energy trying to attain to this physical perfection. But I hope that girls and women can resist such temptations. When I see a woman, perhaps in the grocery store, perfectly made up, perfect hair, tanned skin, wearing fashionable but uncomfortable clothing, and four-inch heels, my present reaction is to feel concern for her, because I wonder if such obvious time spent on her appearance is a mask for her low self-esteem. I hesitate to speak for everyone, but I know that for myself, when I had low self esteem, my appearance mattered a great deal to me, because my whole self worth was dependent upon it. The more my confidence grew, the less such pressures from the culture affected me. I'm not saying of course that we should disregard all concern for our appearance, but I think women and girls in particular should evaluate how much time and money they are spending on it. To what degree are our lives ordered on our appearance? I have seen women who actually look kind of plastic, almost unreal, they have put so much effort and money into their looks. So much does the culture reinforce the object-status of women, some have even taken on an appearance of an actual object. Though the culture is at fault for displaying women as objects, when women succumb to this pressure, I feel it reinforces this message, to ourselves and to the wider culture.
There is a maxim that says, "If you believe, but behave for a year as though you do not believe, you will not believe. If you don't believe, but behave for a year as though you do believe, you will believe." For women who have internalized the cultural messages regarding our worth, I think it is very important to pay attention to our internal dialogue and also our external behavior. For example, when we wear high heels or any uncomfortable apparel, we are behaving as though our comfort does not matter. If we spend an inordinate amount of time on our appearance, we are behaving as though our time does not matter. If we do not have the time or money to spend developing our skills and talents but we do have time to spend on large amounts of make-up and so on, we are behaving as if our appearance is more important than the development of our own passions and gifts. When we use hormonal contraception (a group one carcinogen) for birth control when natural and side-effect-free methods of planning our family size are available, we are behaving as if our natural feminine bodies are flawed and that our health is not important. I do not wish to "blame the victim" here, by making it sound like women are at fault for others treating us as if our health, our time, and our physical comfort do not matter, because I strongly feel that it is the responsibility of each person to treat others with the respect that is their due, regardless of whether those others communicate respect and confidence or communicate passivity and insecurity. However, I feel it is important to question the messages of the culture, to question our own internal dialogue, and to question if our behavior is liberating us from unhealthy self-talk or reinforcing those same cultural stories that play like a broken record about female inadequacy and worthlessness.
My hope is that if we can retrain our thinking and our behavior toward a healthier attitude of ourselves, we can convince others to question harmful attitudes as well and thus begin to build a culture that is more respectful of the dignity of all people.