“The most common way people give up their power
is by thinking they don’t have any.”
~ Alice Walker
Quote shown at the beginning of “Miss Representation”
Last week, I attended a screening of Miss Representation, an amazing and heartbreaking film about how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in the United States. The film touched on body image, sexism, racism, the systematic demonization of feminists, the nauseating objectification of women, and many other issues that outraged and sickened me. Images of high school girls crying because they hate themselves, political leaders being dismissed for their fashion choices,and bikini-clad body after roiling bikini-clad body made me dizzy with dismay. And, if I’m being honest, it made me call into question my work, my writing, and my goals. I want women to be empowered, and in a moment of panic I questioned the value of style advice as a tool for empowerment. After all, the problem is that women are increasingly taught to believe that the ONLY thing that matters about us is how we look. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to contribute to that insidious lie.
Luckily, as I began to hyperventilate, my friend Susan reminded me that, no, I wasn’t a cold-hearted, woman-destroying villain. She said yes, it’s complicated and yes, you’ve got to be very careful about what you say and how you say it, and make sure you understand why you’re saying it. But we’re a social culture, a clothed culture. There is value to looking amazing primarily because looking amazing can help you FEEL amazing. Feeling amazing can fuel amazing feats. The feelings and the feats are the point, and the looks can contribute to the process.
However, I realized as I walked back to my car with my head abuzz and heart thundering, that I have made some assumptions. And they are huge. And they are based on my own experiences and privileges, so I hadn’t realized I was making them. But now I do, so I’d like to explain:
I can do anything I want to. I have always known that. There has never been a day in my life that has extinguished that faith, or a crushing event that has defeated that belief. I am in an extremely fortunate position in that I’ve never been directly discriminated against for reasons of sex or gender, or if I have I have absolutely bulldozed whatever or whomever tried to stop me based solely on my anatomy. And that privileged combination has helped me to continue believing that I can do it. Any of it. And I mean ANY OF IT. I can do emotionally, intellectually, artistically, scientifically, and psychologically challenging tasks, and I can do them all spectacularly well. And there are billions of things I haven’t tried yet, and I can do those, too. And you can bet your sweet life that anyone who says I can’t is going to get an earful. And you can bet your sweet life that anyone who says I can’t because I am a woman is going to rue the day they challenged me so brazenly.
The primary assumption I have made is that you feel this way about yourself, too. I’ve always, always assumed that you all know you can do anything you set your minds and hearts to. I’ve assumed that you feel sure – right down to the marrow in your bones – that you are capable, strong, smart, brave, creative, valuable, and phenomenal in every way. You’d better believe I’m sure of that. Even though I’ve met only a handful of you, I know that you can do it. ANY OF IT. And I don’t mean “within your social station” or “if the stars align” or “probably.” I firmly believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way. It may not be direct or easy or quick and it may not look how you’d expect it to, but there is always, always a way to meet your goals. Whatever they may be. And I’ve assumed that anyone who tells you you can’t do exactly what you’ve always dreamed of doing because you are a woman is going to rue the day they challenged you so brazenly.
Based on this assumption, I have sought to arm you. I consider style, fashion, body image, and everything that contributes to how we feel about personal aesthetics to be mere tools. These things are meant to help you with whatever you’re doing with your life: Lawyering, mothering, running governments, farming, writing, cooking, teaching, innovating technologies, making art, doctoring, building businesses, and on into infinity. Whatever work you’ve chosen, whatever opus you’re creating, whatever battle you’re fighting, I want to arm you with confidence in your body and your style. Why? So you can stop worrying about your outward presentation and focus on what’s important.
Women are taught that our value is linked to our looks. Even that our power IS our looks, and everything else is secondary. And after that, we’re taught to worry and obsess about our looks and spend huge amounts of time, energy, and money attempting to maintain or preserve or improve our looks. Because otherwise how will we remain valuable and relevant? And that is one hell of an oppressive and screwed-up system for keeping women’s power in check. But we can find ways to subvert it. If we can reclaim the process of playing with our looks and transform it into a highly personal, customized, creative act, we can jettison some of that manufactured, superimposed obsession. If we make choices about what we wear and how and why and when, and make those choices mindfully and for our own reasons, we can take something oppressive and make it marvelous. When we love ourselves and love our looks, we are free to get on with the work of our lives.
The point is not to feel beautiful. The point is to feel powerful, capable, invincible. The point is not to feel pretty. The point is that you’re already pretty, and once you’ve accepted that, you free up an enormous amount of mental space for other things. And, in the vast majority of cases, those other things have nothing to do with shoes or moisturizer or nipped-in waistlines. Tools. They’re just tools. Weapons, even. They help you build and craft the external you, so that the internal you can do her work unimpeded.
I’ve never said any of this because I assumed you knew it. I assumed it was clear. But being reminded – in no uncertain terms – that women are being slowly but systematically stripped of power, stripped of influence, stripped of everything save sexual and aesthetic value prompted me to clarify. I want you to feel fabulous about how you look. But the reason I want that is not related to beauty or clothes or makeup or any of that. The reason I want that is because I want women to feel amazing about themselves – mind, body, and soul. I want women to love themselves, no matter what they look like. I want women to feel empowered, and I believe that empowerment follows confidence.
For years, I spent an appalling amount of energy actively, exhaustively HATING my body. When I stopped doing that, my own confidence grew exponentially. I want you to stop hating your body so that your confidence can grow exponentially, too.
And once you have that confidence, I want you to go out into the world and do what you’re meant to do. Because you can do it. ANY OF IT.