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The Problem with Role Models (and Miley Cyrus)

29 Aug

We’ve all heard the message: Girls need role models. ASAP.

Enter Hannah Montana and her fresh-faced Disney counterparts. They’re predominately white, blue-eyed, skinny, and conventionally attractive. To top it all off, they’re pushing seventeen, but have thirteen year old mentalities when it comes to boys and real-world problems.

Because that’s what every mother wants their daughter to grow up believing — that in order to be like the “role models” they see on tv, they will need to be white, attractive, and perpetually thirteen.

It’s not just Disney displaying this image. If we look globally —

Here are the women of Girls’ Generation. They’re from the k-pop scene that have made waves in Japan and even the US (their album charted #126 on the top 200 billboard).

Most of these Girls were born in 1989. The youngest in 1991.

They look thirteen, minus the heels. That isn’t a coincidence. They are marketed that way. They could just as easily be dressed up like this.

pd

And suddenly they’re the Pussycat Dolls.

So why are these twenty-somethings marketed as if they are sixteen year olds pretending to be thirteen?

Because their brand depends on a “good girl” image, one that makes bank by its members being attractive, talented and fresh-faced. Otherwise known as looking innocent, a must-have if you’re selling role models to parents of younger girls.

Parents want their girls to say, “I want to be (Hannah Montana/Tiffany from GG/other role model here) this Halloween!” What parents don’t want to hear is, “I want to be a Pussycat Doll.”

We don’t want our girls acting like women, so our women have to act like girls.

But we want our boys to act like men and our men to act like men. Men are men. Women are girls. It’s frustrating. Which brings us to our favorite thirteen year old in a twenty-something body —

I don’t blame Taylor Swift for catering to a younger audience. I don’t blame her for media’s obsession with boys and more boys. It’s that obsession that birthed the Taylor we know today. She’s a product of what society deems acceptable: women as girls that like boys (*cough* men *cough*).

But that doesn’t mean that her song “22” sounds like a twenty-two year old’s life. It sounds like a fourteen year old’s image of what being twenty-two means.

Yes, there are still breakfasts at midnight (because you’re already trashed by 11:45 and craving IHOP).

Yes, tonight’s the night we forget about the deadlines (loan payments, car payments, projects at work that can cost us our livelihood).

Yes, it’s miserable and maybe, somewhat, magical? Maybe? (Some twenty-two year olds are moms, some take care of their sick parents or grandparents, and some are skating by on minimum wage — even if they are middle-class).

There’s really just not a lot of time to dress up like hipsters and dance around to a song about a club disguised as a song about a sleepover.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22.”

Jamie Lynn Spears, are you?

Songs like “22” and “good girl” idol T-Swift carve out the feminine place in the limelight. It’s a very dark place that won’t shed light on sexuality and other things on growing girls’ minds — but will remind them to think about boys, boys, and why they’re not already dating boys.

Twenty-two year old idols act eighteen, at best. Eighteen year olds act sixteen. Sixteen year olds act thirteen. And, here, twenty-two can also be thirteen. Either way, the scale points down.

This is an extremely damaging trend that doesn’t allow girls to understand what it is like to be women.  We go on and on about what it is like for boys to turn into men. It’s a power struggle that involves conquering other boys in physical/intellectual strength and/or conquering girls sexually.

But girls only become women when they’re too old to be role models for the youngest generation. They’re stuck at thirteen until then, unless they somehow manage to break that mold and become eighteen year olds (just old enough to be legal) in twenty and thirty-something bodies.

This happens when media catches on to the fact that these “girls” have adult bodies and, thus, can be scrutinized like other adult women based on their sex appeal.

The twenty-somethings who are allowed to act eighteen must (a) allude to sex  (b) be classy, not trashy  and  (c) be ready to ditch their role model status for a near-nude photo shoot at any moment.

Remember when this happened?

Suddenly Lea Michele went from high school sophomore on Glee to a high school senior for this shoot. (Fun fact: Lea was born in 1986!) And the media went abuzz with slut shaming and publicly stripped Lea of any role model status that Rachel Berry had.

The joke was on them. Lea Michele clearly didn’t want  the goody-goody title thrust upon her. If anyone still thinks Glee is a good show to find role models on, they’re seriously not paying attention.

So why is it okay for Selena Gomez to look sexy? Glee’s high school at least has sex. Wizards of Waverly Place’s didn’t. Why can she sing “Come and Get It” while bestie Taylor is stuck in middle school?

Because Selena merely alludes to sex with her peek-a-boo skin and PG lyrics. She doesn’t say, “I’m up all night to get some,” but she sure wants someone to come and get it.

And most importantly, her sexiness is for the audience’s pleasure. It is not a statement of her independence. It is not a joke. As long as men in their forties can lust after her, and her attire is considered fashion, not trash, it is a-okay.

It’s all about skirting that precious line between classy and trashy; sexy and slutty. It doesn’t matter that Selena appropriates and sexualizes the bindi when she performs Come and Get It. Pssh, we’re post-racial, remember? What even is cultural appropriation?

All we care about is whether she landed on the right or wrong side of that sexy line.

Beyoncé often skirts that line. She was criticized for her (lack of) attire while performing at the Super Bowl, but the general consensus is that she played it close enough to sexy instead of slutty. She’s still considered one of the classiest female performers out there.

When child stars leave their high school characters behind, we expect them to become ladies like Queen B. And that means to be sexy in a classy way. Women artists aren’t worth their salt if they aren’t able to be sexualized.

But being sexualized doesn’t mean that these stars can have the audacity to strip, gyrate on stage, and (oh, the truly nasty part) enjoy it.

When women are props, they strip and gyrate for the performing artist and audience’s pleasure. When women are the performing artists, they must live up to the impossibly high standard thrust upon them — be a lady first, a person second.

Even if men never have to act like gentlemen to be performing artists. Boys don’t need role models. Boys need idols. Boys need father figures. Boys need success stories.

Girls are the ones who need role models, otherwise they might grow up into fully-fledged people who do awful things like have sex and opinions. 

When traditionalists talk about role models, they mean “good” girls like on the Disney channel who only talk about school, boys, and pranks. Feminists mean “strong” women with class like Michelle Obama and Beyoncé. Both opinions leave a lot to be desired.

Why do girls need role models so badly that celebrities must be punished? Why do their choices affect our daughters?

Because we expect our daughters to grow up to be ________________.

Ladies.

Strong.

Virgins.

Intelligent.

Feminine.

Masculine.

Motherly.

Career-driven.

Anything BUT strippers, scantily clad teenagers, or sexologists.

Pick your poison.

When we say that girls need role models, what we are really saying is that we want to police how girls look and act. We are saying that our daughters cannot grow up believing that they are sexual beings capable of weakness, mistakes, and the capacity to be more than sexual objects.

For reference, sexual objects look like this.

Sexual beings look like this.

Both women shown sexualized (with the man who perpetuates rape in this summer’s #1 hit) are wearing nude underwear and not much else. One is accepted, the other is not.

Women being used sexually by men is normal. Women being overtly sexual? Nope, nada, no. Cut to commercials, please.

Miley’s performance was over the top. It was unusual. It was of all things, a spectacle. But it was not degrading for the reasons you think. Being sexual does not debase a woman. Being ridiculous at the same time does not justify gender-based ridicule.

Being sexual with a fully-clothed older male artist? Who sings about “blurred lines” and “good girls” who he knows “want it”? Without their voices ever being heard?

The awful, racial implications of black women with “the big butt” being used as literal props? “The big butt” being sexually used on stage? By the white woman who appropriates and stereotypes one facet of black culture? And makes $$$ because of it?

That’s downright degrading.

But only a small group of people are talking about that. The media is fixated on Miley’s butt, tongue, and foam finger.

Miley stepped outside of society’s little black box that keeps women in line. And she gave us the finger while she did it.

It was uncomfortable. Not just because of how awkward and choreographed it seemed, but also because we are simply not used to seeing women so out of control.

I have seen multiple comments online asking where her manager was during all of this. And blaming Daddy Issues on her behavior. Because women need to be managed. Women need to have deep-rooted issues with men to behave so unabashedly sexual.

They are saying these things because Miley Cyrus was and continues to be an idol. For female performers, this also means that they are role models, first and foremost. It’s an empty title thrust upon them with strict rules that must be followed or else we bring out the guillotine.

There’s no doubt that there are many girls who aren’t allowed to fangirl over Miley since her Disney departure. She sings about drinking and drugs! She cut her hair!

And most importantly, role models don’t do THIS on television.

But people do.

Miley was a person before she ever donned Hannah Montana’s blonde wig and stepped into the harsh light of what we call media. And she will still be a person long after her eleven year old fans have eleven year olds of their own.

So the next time someone brings up the term “role model,” do society a favor and kindly point them toward Miley’s foam finger.

The (lack of) Breasts in Media

17 Jul

And why I got a breast reduction at 19 years old.

There’s a common theme about women’s bodies in real life and in the media: they are not our own.

Open any magazine and see tabloids that sometimes laud, but more often shame (female) celebrity bodies. These are almost always paparazzi photos, taken either without the woman’s knowledge or consent, and debated by people that have no business giving opinions on someone else’s body.

beach bodies

Open the links online that take you to a series of Walmart goers whose bodies are shamed for being what they are: bodies, and for doing what they are doing: existing. Usually the “funniest” or “most disgusting” photos are of women, again taken without knowledge or consent.

Or read the articles online about men spying on women through their webcams, trading and selling access to women’s webcams, and calling these women “girl slaves.” The comments between men predominately involve the women’s bodies, not what the women do, or who these women are. It’s all about female bodies.

But it’s never about us.

If we were considered half as important as our bodies, we wouldn’t be caught in a losing tug of war regarding our reproductive rights, it wouldn’t be legal for a woman to be fired for “being too attractive”, or for larger women on trial to be given a guilty verdict more often than smaller women.

The evidence doesn’t matter, your honor. So long as she is living in that body, she’s guilty of something.

Living in a female body means always being guilty of something. Her stomach is too large. Her legs are too skinny. Her shoulders are too wide. Her lips are too thin. The same magazines that praise women for having trim figures criticize the celebrities who struggle with eating disorders for being too skinny. It’s a lose-lose.

And this is where breasts come in. No matter what size breasts you have, you lose. There is no way to “win” the female body lottery. If your genetics predisposition you to have an A cup, you are set up by society to want larger breasts that are more attractive to the male sex.

If your genetics give you an F cup, I think the school grading system will tell you exactly how to feel about this: you failed the genetic lottery. You won’t find bras at Victoria’s Secret that fit and make you feel sexy.

Because this is their definition of sexy:

v angel

Heavenly, isn’t it? Most certainly not a DD or larger.

So when my breasts grew from a B – C to a DD between fifteen and sixteen years old, I no longer saw (a very skinny version of) myself represented by the women in bra ads. Not just for Victoria’s Secret, but for Aerie’s bra and panty store, where many of my peers shopped. Even Target’s sizes did not allow for coverage and comfort.

bras

The $10 bras at those stores were not for me. Instead, I bought minimizer, granny bras from Dillard’s that shrunk my breasts an inch and 3/4. The straps were as thick as two of my fingers and cost a fortune each.

Wearing black became an everyday staple. My breasts blended into the black folds of t-shirts and jackets. When I got really desperate, I started wearing extremely tight sports bras over the already minimizing bras to flatten them further.

It was a very uncomfortable four years of my life. I was constantly aware of my breasts, that I was unable to wear spaghetti straps, and unable to wear the dresses that I wore before puberty took its toll.

I couldn’t go to pool parties or the beach without revealing what I truly looked like to my peers. I felt absolutely hideous. I didn’t know anyone else with my frame and breast size. I did know girls with larger breasts that fit their bodies. Their breasts were not eye sores like mine.

I never took off my bras except to shower. I avoided looking at my breasts in the mirror, or else I might cry. I was a  sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen year old with sagging breasts, stretch marks, and down turned nipples. All the sitcoms told me that women weren’t supposed to worry about things “not perking up” anymore until they were middle-aged or older.

How very wrong. And that was the thing that hurt most of all: I never saw myself represented in the media.

gq

“Big breasts are sexy” says everyone ever. A quick glance up will show that the women on GQ’s covers are not all that big-breasted. Big-breasted women are fetishist, on special issues, and special pornos, but never on the classy, objectifying covers. Not in the mainstream porn.

When a good friend of mine tried to assure me that big breasts are attractive in the halls of our high school, I told her, “There is a point when they are too big.”

My D-breasted friend didn’t disagree.

Looking back, I realize this was wrong. All shapes and sizes of breasts can be considered attractive; I just didn’t consider my size attractive, and the tv certainly didn’t either.

(There is also the big, underlying issue that a woman’s breasts aren’t for men. They’re a part of our anatomy that are sexualized for their pleasure, but they are still ours, first and foremost).

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say, but there’s a reason I didn’t consider my DD breasts anything other than large parasites attached to my chest.

We are told that larger breasts are what men want, so they must be what women want, but nearly all of the women on screen are small-chested. At most, you see C-cups.

I’ll name some famous faces with smaller to average sized breasts.

The ladies of Friends.

friends

The Pretty Little Liars.

pll

These Gossip Girls.

gossip girls

These Spring Breakers.

spring breakers

And these doctors.

grey's

Though Grey’s Anatomy deserves its own, positive post about the varying women its show allows, the ensemble still compromises of many small-chested, small-framed women.

There is what I call a lack of breasts in media. What our tv shows, movies, and red carpets lack is varying sizes of breasts (and bodies, in general).

A traditionally tv-sized woman with large breasts on tv?

I can only think of Sofia Vergara.

sofia vergara

That’s because Gloria from Modern Family is an outlier, and her character is known for her big breasts and body.

But Sofia Vergara has been quoted saying that she was told she would have to get a breast reduction to be taken seriously! Big-breasted women are bimbos and sex objects. They are certainly not people.

Well, the person who told her that she would not be taken seriously was, unfortunately, right. Modern Family takes Gloria about as seriously as they do their gay characters. Their gay characters just happen to get a little more room to breathe and grow in their characterization.

Because women on tv don’t have large breasts, unless they are bimbos for Barney on How I Met Your Mother to bang, or larger women in general. Those women are usually just comedic fodder for the “attractive” main character, anyway.

Media representation is important because the girls and women who don’t see themselves reflected in media suffer from otherness. This most acutely affects women of color, who are subjected to white beauty standards and colorism, and rarely see girls and women that look like them on screen and in books. And it’s the white kids watching who learn that they are the norm and that POCs are other.

This otherness affects larger women, as well, who are brutally fat-shamed by their own on-screen counterparts’ scripts. (Identity Thief. Even Bridesmaids. Melissa McCarthy deserves better!). And it affects women like me, who have never looked like the women on screen, and are a part of the 90% of women who feel down about their bodies.

The women on screen shouldn’t be cookie-cutter versions of each other. We need the big-thighed women, the fat women, the obese women, the skinny women, the big-breasted women, and all women in between.

Which is why I am thankful to have these two women on my screen (who clearly aren’t impressed with the rest of tv, either).

CHANDRA WILSON, SARA RAMIREZ

I still don’t see my body represented on screen, and I knew reducing my breast size wouldn’t make me look like Jennifer Aniston. Still, people asked me where it ended — after a breast reduction? After lipo? Did I want to be one of those women who have multiple plastic surgeries in their life? I was told I wouldn’t be happy after the breast reduction.

My decision to alter my own body was met with this disbelief, scorn, and caused a rift between myself and certain family members when I was seventeen. At that time, I had met with a plastic surgeon, discussed the costs and outcomes, and was thinking things over financially.

My father’s girlfriend said that I would regret the decision when I had sex because women who undergo breast reduction sometimes lose sensation in their nipples. I wouldn’t be able to breast feed. Sure, I never even said that I wanted kids or to breast feed them, but I was only seventeen, I couldn’t possibly know what I wanted.

And there would be SCARS. (Cue thunder)

My father said he would rather I go to therapy than have surgery. I told him  that therapy wouldn’t make my internalized feelings disappear. The small possibility that I would feel better about my breasts over time wasn’t enough.

My viewpoint was only getting worse as the years went on. What would happen if I did give birth to a child? Or gain weight? Would I be happier then, when they were bound to grow even bigger?

The back pain was my excuse when my friends couldn’t fathom why I was considering surgery. They didn’t know it, but their noses upturned, so I lied, and told them the pain was the main reason I wanted surgery. It was a secondary reason, but certainly not the first.

No one was happy for me, except my very best friends, only one of whom said they understood why I was choosing surgery in the first place. My mother and my boyfriend supported me.

But I worried about what my boyfriend would tell his family and friends when he would take care of me during recovery. My sister would quiet when I brought the idea of surgery up, and my grandmother would get a sad look in her eye even as her mouth said she supported me.

A relation told me after that they didn’t realize my breasts were so large, even after seeing me at my most casual for years, lounging around the house, wearing pajamas, and doing family activities.

Most of my friends were shocked to hear of my breast size, even as their eyes glanced over my chest. Most people nowadays are shocked when I tell them that I have had a breast reduction. Still, some voice concern over the decision. I’m certain that there are people out there that think I surgically altered myself to look more attractive, and that it is somehow not a valid reason.

That’s part of it. There’s also nothing wrong with that, no matter how much we like to shame women for getting botox or lipo, yet also shame them for naturally wrinkling and gaining a waist. But the biggest reason I reduced my breast size was for myself!

It’s about how I feel about myself and how comfortable I am in my own body. There are just some people who will not understand that.

This brings me back to what I said at the beginning — female bodies aren’t ours. So when I said that I was going to alter mine surgically, I was met with disapproval, opinions that I didn’t want or ask for, and, worst of all, silence.

When I first told my dad I wanted surgery before my eighteenth birthday, so that I could recover and enjoy that big milestone, he said, “I won’t sign off on that.” Parental permission was required.

When I told my dad at dinner (two years later) that my surgery date was set, he didn’t say a word. When I reminded him that my surgery date was coming up and that I would be in recovery, he didn’t say a word.

He did call my boyfriend after the surgery to see how I was doing.

Below is a rendering of a breast reduction, before and after, and the incision process.

breast reduction

I don’t look much different to the peers that never realized I was a DD-cup, but I feel more like myself than I ever did in the years before the reduction. I can go through an entire day without spending much time thinking about my breasts at all. The first time I slept without a bra on, it was odd, but liberating.

My breasts are still not considered small. If you’re wondering, I am between a C and D, closer to a D. I don’t love them, but I don’t hate them either. They simply are a part of me. A flawed, scarred part, just like the rest of me.

I’m very open about my procedure, my scars, and everything in between. I welcome questions and concerns, but I don’t welcome opinions that can’t change what I’ve already done.

Go on, tell me that I’m crazy for not wanting to be a DD. Tell me that I was well represented. Tell me I was wrong for making a personal decision about my own body.

My family doesn’t mention my past surgery often. It’s still a bit of a sore topic. So, the one time that I did bring it up after, I made sure they knew —

It was the best decision of my life.