Have you ever been lured by pretty packaging? Product manufacturers who aim for successful sales know the importance of packaging. Further they know that consumers make as many as 70 percent of their buying decisions in the store and can face up to 100,000 items that bid for their attention. Whether it’s a pack of gum, a tube of toothpaste, or a bag of chips, you can bet that countless dollars and hours have been invested into analyzing everything from the target audience to color palettes and shelf placement. The end goal, of course, is for the product to stand out on the shelf and, above all, to get picked up by the consumer and scanned at the checkout.
More than three-quarters of girls and young women admit to partaking in unhealthy activities when they feel badly about their bodies.
Now, what if I told you that your little girl is also a product? Her brand managers work around the clock to make sure she knows exactly what it will take to get noticed. If she is to catch the eye of her target audience, the packaging must be perfect. And by perfect I mean “flawless.” By the time she celebrates her twelfth birthday, she will have seen an estimated 77,546 commercials. Add to it the images she sees daily from magazines, billboards, and the Internet, and you can be certain that by the time she blows out sixteen candles, she will be clear of her role as defined by culture. Over and over again she will be told to lose weight, tone up, dress provocatively, and flaunt it. Pure and simple, she is an object for the male viewing pleasure. She is bidding for male attention among a sea of contenders. And her target audience is picky. He, too, has been inundated with images of picture-perfect women. He has zero tolerance for flat chests, chunky thighs, cellulite, blemishes, split ends, or facial wrinkles. Why should he settle for less than a PhotoShop best? He has come to believe that the airbrushed images are the standard of beauty.
Your daughter has been duped, and it’s up to you to expose the lie. If she conforms her identity to the culture’s narrow definition of beauty, you can be sure that it will permeate every corner of her life from this moment forward. Ninety-three percent of girls and young women report feeling anxiety or stress about some aspect of their looks when getting ready in the morning. More than three-quarters of girls and young women admit to partaking in unhealthy activities when they feel badly about their bodies. Fifty-eight percent of girls describe themselves in negative terms, including words like disgusting and ugly, when feeling badly about themselves. Nearly four out of ten engage in unhealthy eating behaviors, such as anorexia or bulimia.
Don’t be fooled. Your daughter will be exposed to the lie. Most will fall for it. Some will show outward manifestations when the foundation begins to crack. Others will suffer in silence. They will wear a smile on their face and appear unbothered by the pressure to measure up to this narrow definition of beauty. Their secret will be safe for now. The self-loathing they feel will only be revealed in private when they step out of the shower and catch a glimpse of themselves in the bathroom mirror. Or step on the scales at the doctor’s office. Or stand in the department store dressing room as they wrestle into the size they wish they were. Or sit by a pool with a girlfriend who caught the lifeguard’s eye when she strolled by.
Think about it. When was the last time you picked up a fashion magazine and read a subtitle that focused on inner beauty? Whether its advice on fashion, dieting, or pleasing men in the bedroom, the message to our girls is loud and clear. The packaging is of utmost importance. And the reward for a pretty package? A wink perhaps or a catcall from an onlooker. Some may even be labeled “hot” or “sexy.” The grand prize is that the “package” would succeed in becoming the object of the male desire. Isn’t that what it’s really all about? Here we are almost four decades past the women’s movement, and yet women have never been more objectified than they are today.
I was reminded of this recently after writing a post on my blog about the Vanessa Hudgens scandal. In case you don’t remember the story, Ms. Hudgens is the High School Musical starlet who had nude pictures leaked to the Web by an unknown source. Many news links offered public forums where their readers could post their own comments regarding the scandal. I was nauseous as I read comments from men both young and old who analyzed her each and every body part. Some commented on her breast size, and others expressed disappointment that she had not waxed her bikini line (and more). Mind you, several of the pictures were rumored to have been taken when she was a mere sixteen years old. Over and over again, men would say, “I would do her,” some even elaborating in detail. These are not porn sites, moms and dads. Many of these are reputable news sites that fail to monitor or censor reader comments. It offers us a glimpse into the fallout from a hypersexualized, porn-riddled culture.
Don’t be fooled. Your sons and daughters have been exposed (or will be exposed) to this filth at some point. Perhaps they are among the 7.08 million viewers who tuned in to watch the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards for Britney Spears’s rumored comeback performance. Or if they missed it, perhaps they were among the 1.5 million plus viewers who have watched it after the fact on YouTube in the days that followed. Suffice it to say, this was no comeback performance. In fact, when I watched it, I saw much more than a girl who stumbled around on stage in little more than her bra and panties and forgot the words to the song. I saw a girl, whose fame was built on the objectification of her body beginning at the age of fifteen, who had since become a poster child for all that can go wrong when your worth is based on the sum of your parts. Oh sure, it can be argued that she welcomed and even encouraged the attention, but in all fairness, did she realize at the time that the same male admirers who once hung her poster on the wall would turn on her the minute she gained a pound?
Am I the only one who wonders if her struggles with mental instability have anything to do with believing she is, in fact, nothing more than the sum of her parts? Now that her parts aren’t adding up like they used to, she is left wondering who she is and if she matters. In addition, I found it particularly disturbing when reading the comments about her performance posted on YouTube and other gossip news sites that much of the consensus seemed to be that she was “fat.” In reality, most women would be so fortunate to look like she did so soon after delivering two babies. This is yet another example of a culture that has imposed a narrow definition of beauty, which does not allow for the natural effects of child-bearing or aging. Women are expected to return to their prechildbirth bodies that show no evidence whatsoever of the beauty of motherhood. The culture’s definition of beauty does not tolerate stretch marks and excess skin that might cover up once firm six-pack abs. And the reward, you may wonder, to the woman who is able to birth multiple children, hire a chef to whip up low-fat meals, and rely on her trainer to whip her back into shape? If you are a celebrity mom who accomplishes such a feat, you might be featured on TMZ.com (a popular celebrity gossip site) under their category of “Hot Mamas.” A particularly “hot mama” may even be labeled as a “MILF” (Mother I’d like to f***) by TMZ or readers who relish the opportunity to sum up the featured celebrity’s body parts and submit their analysis. There are no shortage of comments from perverts ranging from “I’d do her” to “I’d tap that.” What a sad and pathetic state of affairs. And all the while, our daughters (and sons) are watching and taking notes.
Moms, can you relate to the pressure your daughter feels? I’m betting you can. And trust me, you are not alone. A study commissioned by the Dove Foundation found that 57 percent of all women strongly agree that “the attributes of female beauty have become very narrowly defined in today’s world,” and 68 percent strongly agree that “the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve.” Are you angry about the constant bombardment of this skewed definition of beauty? I know I am. In fact, I’m fighting mad, and it’s one of the driving forces behind the message of this book. Enough is enough. If this chapter incites you to anger, that’s OK. Oftentimes, anger is the stimulus to action.
The challenge to redefine beauty is nothing new. God cautioned His people long ago against judging a person based on the sum of their parts. When Samuel, the prophet, was called by God to anoint the next king to follow Saul, God chastised him for assuming that David’s older brother, Eliab, might be next in line to the throne based on his handsome appearance. In 1 Samuel 16:6, Samuel took one look at Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.” The verse that follows reveals God’s standard for judging beauty when He tells Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
Our daughters need to know that God’s standard for beauty is the only standard that matters.
Together we are going to tackle the culture’s lies in order that you might initiate some necessary conversations and arm your daughter with the truth about beauty—God’s truth. Whether your daughter has already built a foundation on the culture’s lies or is just beginning to be exposed to the brainwashing, trust me, the battle is not lost. Where God is present, there is always hope. Only by speaking up and addressing the lies head on will we equip our daughters. Our silence, on the other hand, will endorse the culture’s lies and leave them with the impression that they amount to nothing more than the sum of their parts. Our daughters need to know that God’s standard for beauty is the only standard that matters. Amazingly, His standard used to be the culture’s accepted standard. Today we are witnessing the results of a culture that long ago took its eyes off God as the standard for beauty, goodness, and morality.
Can you imagine opening up your daughter’s diary and reading “Dear Diary, help me to be pretty on the inside.” That’s what a mother in the late 1800s might be likely to find. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of The Body Project, researched girls’ diaries and journals from the late 1800s to early 1900s to track the shift in attitudes regarding appearance. She found that “before World War I, girls rarely mentioned their bodies in terms of strategies for self-improvement or struggles for personal identity.” She stated, “When girls in the nineteenth century thought about ways to improve themselves, they almost always focused on their internal character and how it was reflected in outward behavior. In 1882, the personal agenda of an adolescent diarist read: ‘Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self restrained in conversation and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.’”
Can you imagine how the diaries of today’s teen girls might read? I’m convicted enough at the thought of how mine might read in comparison. No doubt, the emphasis on inner beauty is long forgotten. In fact, most girls likely aren’t even aware that a time ever existed when a young lady focused on internal attributes. Interestingly, Brumberg noted that girls from the nineteenth century were discouraged from showing too much attention to appearance—to do so would be vanity. The book noted that “character was built on attention to self-control, service to others, and belief in God.” One can’t help but wonder if girls from the nineteenth century were familiar with the wisdom of Proverbs 31:30 that counsels, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” No doubt, becoming a woman who fears the Lord was the end goal of women in the nineteenth century. In a nutshell they prized virtue over vanity.
Today the tables have turned. The Dove Foundation survey mentioned above found that 60 percent of women strongly agreed that “society expects women to enhance their physical attractiveness.” Fifty-nine percent strongly agreed that “physically attractive women are more valued by men.” Finally, 76 percent strongly agreed that they wished that female beauty was portrayed in the media as being made up of more than just physical attractiveness. It sounds to me like women would like to see beauty become more about virtue and less about vanity.
A century later the word virtue is long forgotten and certainly not part of the average girl’s vocabulary.
A century later the word virtue is long forgotten and certainly not part of the average girl’s vocabulary. So when and how, exactly, did the shift from virtue to vanity occur? Believe it or not, your bathroom mirror can be partially to blame. In The Body Project, Brumberg stated, “When the mirror became a staple of the American middle-class home at the end of the nineteenth century, attention to adolescent acne escalated, as did sales of products for the face. Until then, pimples were primarily a tactile experience, at least for the girl who had them. But that all changed in the late 1800s with the widespread adoption in middle-class homes of a bathroom sink with running water and a mirror hung above it.” She further noted that “mirrors play a critical role in the way American girls have assessed their own faces and figures.”
As mirrors became popularized, women were able to scrutinize and compare their features with the women they saw in movies and magazines, not to mention one another. In the 1920s, American women began to take an interest in cosmetics. From facial powders to rouge, lipstick, and even eyelash curlers, women flocked to the local drugstores to stock up on these beauty accoutrements. The flapper movement further boosted sales of cosmetics among women and especially teenage girls. Blumberg noted that “sales of compacts (small handheld mirrors with a compartment for powder) soared because they allowed women to scrutinize and ‘reconstruct’ the face almost anywhere, in a moment’s notice.”
Shortly thereafter, home scales became available, and managing weight became a preoccupation among young women. Until then, the only place a young woman could weigh herself was the drugstore or county fair. Prior to that, dieting and exercise were virtually unheard of, and again, would have been considered a measure of vanity. In fact, I was shocked to discover in Brumberg’s book that when young women in the late 1800s left home, they would often write their mothers and speak of healthy weight gain and voracious eating habits. It was almost considered a curse to be slender! Slender girls were thought to be unhealthy and subject to worries of infertility. The ability to bear healthy children was of far greater importance than looking svelte in a swimsuit. As mirrors became more prevalent and the flapper movement gained momentum in the 1920s, women began to express worry over gaining weight, and soon after dieting or “food restriction” became a common topic. The shift from virtue to vanity has been a runaway train ever since.
Stop for a minute and imagine what life might be like without easy access to mirrors and scales. I, for one, stopped weighing myself some years ago in an effort to deconstruct the culture’s lie that my happiness is dependent on a certain number on the scale. Having struggled in my teen and college years with an eating disorder, I had cultivated the bad habit of weighing daily, sometimes multiple times within the day. Should the number exceed my defined range of acceptable by even a mere pound, it set the tone of my entire day. Now my focus is on looking healthy rather than stepping on the scale and allowing it to have the final say.
I am certainly not suggesting that we gather up our mirrors and line them up for target practice and toss our scales into the dumpster, but I am questioning the impact they have had on body image among women. Years ago I spoke to a group of young women who were in a sorority at a large university. One of the officers who had invited me had heard my story of misdefined worth in my own college years. She specifically asked that I share about my own experience with an eating disorder as many of the girls living in the sorority house were suffering from eating disorders that ranged from starving themselves to bulimia. In fact, so serious was the issue that they were experiencing plumbing problems due to the pipes prematurely corroding or the toilets stopping up from all the forced vomiting.
When I arrived at the sorority house on the evening I was scheduled to speak, she gave me a quick tour of the house. Along the way I couldn’t help but notice that there were mirrors everywhere. Entire walls had been turned into mirrors in the large meeting room and in the living area. In addition, full-length mirrors were staggered up and down the hallways and along the grand stairwell. When I made a comment about the mirrors being everywhere, she quickly replied, “Why do you think so many of our girls are starving themselves and throwing up? The mirrors serve as a constant reminder that they can never measure up.” At that moment I longed for the mirrorless days of the late 1800s, a time when virtue was considered beauty and vanity was considered sin. While it might not be possible to do away with mirrors, it is possible to do away with some of the expectations women have when they see their reflections in the mirrors.