I was an awkward teenager. There is no way around that fact. You might be saying, “Everybody is awkward as a teenager!” This statement generally holds true, but there are always those few who slip through the cracks, and those crack-slippers were me and my best friends in high school.
I spent quite a few years pining after (what I believed to be) their perfect faces and bodies. I thought that if I could just fix certain things about myself, I would be as pretty and perfect as them. I thought that if I were as pretty and as perfect as them, all my problems would be solved, that I would be accepted.
The media that permeates our lives has a very narrow definition for women, beauty, and femininity. It berates women who show their flaws or imperfections, makes comedy out of women who display any sort of masculinity, and generally suggests that women only exist for the viewing pleasure of others. Though we may be given “quirky” female characters, like Zooey Deschanel’s Jess from New Girl, perfection and rigid femininity are still imposed upon them. There was an episode of Hannah Montana a couple of years ago (bear with me) where a major plot line included the main character wearing fake armpit hair to get rid of a boy she was seeing. That one episode disturbed me more than other media pressures had. On a show for children, a woman with visible body hair was a major laughing stock, something disgusting, comical, and ridiculous. And this was all being taught as perfectly okay by the family-friendly Disney Channel.
When I was a teenager, I turned to fashion and beauty magazines to find the solutions to ‘fix’ myself. I came to the conclusion that I needed to be smooth, hairless, sweat-less, perfectly dressed, and thin. I wore so much makeup to cover my acne that I was afraid to go swimming with my friends. My dark body hair offended me; I felt like any visible trace of it discredited my value as a girl. I tried to remove all the hair from my legs and arms, but I suffered from irritated skin and angry red bumps rather the smooth, poreless surfaces that I had seen in magazines. I turned down opportunities to run, play, and explore because I was afraid I would sweat through my clothes, something that was clearly not feminine. I wore clothing that I thought made me look hot and desirable even when it wasn’t practical to do so, like during the SATs or on a class fieldtrip.
The brand of femininity that I was striving towards was suffocating me. This is the same brand of femininity that is sold by popular culture and beauty magazines. It is a femininity that is only about perfection and being a valuable object of somebody else’s gaze. It is a femininity that requires you to be quiet and inoffensive. It is a femininity that preoccupies us with fulfilling its standards so that we don’t have time to think about anything else.
When I remember the way that looking perfect and feminine controlled my life for years, I suddenly want to take preteen girls and shake them. I see this trend of seemingly innocuous pressures grow — in kid’s television shows, in commercials, in manipulative marketing against vulnerable consumers — and I want to scream. Being a teenager might always be a bit uncomfortable and awkward, but it doesn’t need to set us up for a lifetime of disappointment about ourselves.
Once I realized and rebelled against the sheer ridiculousness of this particular brand of femininity, I began to love my body and myself. I no longer felt the need to dress to please others. I started to value experiences over appearances. I stopped shaving my body hair because I know that its existence does not define my worth as a woman.
I know now that I can be feminine without being perfect and without following society’s expectations about gender. My femininity includes short, bitten, unpainted nails and long dresses. It includes my manners for those who deserve them and my anger for those who tempt it. My femininity doesn’t allow my self worth to be defined by a pimple or some hair under my arms. It embraces my whole self, because my whole self embodies my femininity. It is all that I know and all I have rebelled against. Best of all, it is defined by me; not by Cosmo.
How do the media and standards of femininity affect your life? Feel free to share with us in the comments section.
Written by Brenna McCaffrey