Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why I Shouldn't Be Allowed To Read The Internet

It starts, innocently enough, with a link on facebook. Then I read one article which links to another which links to another which gets me to this.

And then I get all aggro again.

"Real Bodies Unite is appealing to all those women fed up of being bombarded with unrealistic imagery in the fashion and beauty industry, by launching a global campaign to raise at least 10,000 signatures for the use of body diversity instead."

Flashback: the year is 1991. A certain young feminist author with a hot, new, provocative book comes to talk to our eighth grade class (yes, I just outed my age). She talks to just the girls in the class about how Vogue and, I don't know, Beverly Hills 90210 are forcing us to hate ourselves and how we look and how those are the reasons we have poor body image. A certain student in the class raises her hand and politely (ok, probably not that politely) asks the feminist author if she is smoking crack. How on earth can a magazine make us do or feel anything we don't want? Vogue doesn't make this young lady feel bad about weighing 150+ pounds at 14 - she feels bad about her weight because she looks bad. Objectively. Whether or not Anna Wintour exists. It is possible that said young student is forcibly escorted out of the room and counseled by a teacher to maybe stop with the talking because the feminist author's message will be important to some of the student's classmates and she shouldn't ruin it for everyone.

20 years later and this theory has become widely accepted and a cottage industry.

It is neither the anorexic model, nor the agency that employs her, nor the magazine that prints her, nor the designer who hires her, who is at fault in the tiresome lady-body-image debate. We, the ladies. We're the problem.

Yup, I said it. Wanna be taken seriously, ladies? Accept responsibility for your own complicity in this. Reading the Real Bodies Unite mission statement (which I sincerely hope was written by a teenager, otherwise I cannot excuse the poor grasp of the English language) would have you imagining that the media (capital-M, lowercase-M, whichever) puts thoughts into your head. Thoughts you can't un-put there. Like Son of Sam and his dog. She/we are powerless when the media speaks. The thoughts are unthinkable. Good thing it's only telling us to hurt ourselves emotionally and psychologically, otherwise the courts would be jam-packed with defendants saying "Glamour made me do it."

Even as the crusaders admit that they know the representations of women in the media are "not real," they seem powerless to separate fantasy from reality. Herein lies another gripe: designers don't design for "real women." (For real we should assume heavyish.) Sadly, there's a Freakonomics problem here: heavy women aren't wealthy. Only wealthy women buy designer clothing. Ergo, designers have slender women modelling their clothing. Take a look at the society pages and you'll notice that those women (possibly real, even) are similarly sized and shaped to the women in the fashion magazines. If you are 300 pounds, statistics suggest you do not have $7,000 for a dress. Why would the person selling a $7,000 dress care if you identify with his model if you're not the intended audience any way? The $7,000 dress is a fantasy just as the model is. Why isn't there a movement whose mission is to compel couture houses to make dresses that cost $70? After all, by the same logic, it's unfair to the rest of us that they don't. That we expect women to understand that ownership of a $7,000 dress is a fantasy, but ownership of the body modelling it shouldn't be, is a leap I am unwilling to make.

Women in fashion magazines, movies, television, are professionally beautiful. Being beautiful in an unattainable way is their job. They work every day to be that beautiful. Were that my job, I would lift more weights, clean my face on a regular basis, not consider exfoliation to be "a hassle," and never eat a carb. But since I don't get paid to be attractive, it's bread and sleeping in eyeliner for me. If you, personally, don't like their occasionally boyish figures or outsized busts, it shouldn't matter to you that you don't look like that. There is a serious disconnect between complaining about how unattractively thin models are and then complaining that the selfsame things you find unattractive about them, being unattainable for you, make you feel unattractive yourself.

Does anyone really, truly, honestly think that if there were women of all shapes and sizes in the media, that we women wouldn't find something else to be self-hateful about? Is it really that simplistic? Get a bunch of regular sized and lumpy chicks on the pages of InStyle and we'll all live in Utopian body satisfaction world? To quote the girl from 1991: are you smoking crack?

Want a great example? This photo. Oh, look, girls who also have rolls in their stomachs when they lean over. Bravo! But do you notice what these "real" women don't have? Here's a cursory list:

Scars from ingrown leg hairs
Any body hair whatsoever or the razor burn/waxing bumps to prove they ever had any
Thin hair
Split ends
Visible stretch marks
Grey hair
Weird moles
Uneven skin tone
And so on, etc. etc.

Also these women may be non-thin, but none is fat. Also none is over 30. If you want to pay money to look at a non-thin-but-not-fat, over thirty woman with thin hair, stretch marks, scars on her knees from summer camp, broken blood vessels on her nose, and the remnants of a manicure from October, I'll start telling you where to send the checks. The women in that picture are no more representative of the rest of us than Kate Moss. They're merely 40 pounds heavier than Kate Moss. Everything else remains the same (it should be noted that I have no idea if there are Supermodels anymore, and Kate Moss is the last one I remember who was very skinny - I realize Kate Moss is now well over 30).

So putting beautiful women 40 pounds heavier than Kate Moss, but whose skin, hair, etc. is equally airbrushed, who have spent the same number of hours in the stylist's chair prior to being photographed, in magazines, as opposed to only showing women as thin as Kate Moss will do absolutely nothing to improve women's self-image issues. And anyone who says otherwise is an imbecile.

A dangerous imbecile who is doing exactly the same thing to women as he/she claims the media is: reducing an entire gender to a group of mouthbreathers incapable of making decisions -good and bad- for itself. Oh, don't blame that woman for her poor self-image; the magazine made her do it. She couldn't possibly be expected to stand up for herself on her own. We need to change the magazines so that the poor thing can get out of bed in the morning without wanting to take a razor to her fat, hairy wrists.

These purported feminists are doing more to halt women's progress than any fashion magazine could ever claim to do. I don't want my raison d'etre as a woman to be perpetual victimhood, nor am I comfortable with the notion that until some third-party changes its ways, I will be unable to change my own.

There is a self-image problem that exists for women, but the hard truth is that in many cases it is created by women. We are the consumers and the judges of other consumers. Beauty as a status symbol is a tenet upheld by us all and no amount of media manipulation alone will change that. Belief that we are all equally beautiful negates the very idea of beauty. Admitting that beauty is both subjective and rare doesn't hurt the feminist cause. Attempting to deny subjective beauty makes us both naive and fatuous. The actual challenge is creating a hierarchy where beauty is not the only barometer of success for women. Ignoring beauty as a factor in how we evaluate others does nothing to broaden the scope of our evaluations; it reinforces a narrow view of worth in women. If we, as women, are only evaluating ourselves and others by their beauty, we're the problem. And we need to change. Otherwise, the magazines could print blank page upon blank page, and we'd still be no better off.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Toughest Review I've Ever Had To Write

It's tangentially related to the honeymoon, but if you're truly more interested in photos of baby elephants (and who isn't) head on over to my facebook or flickr. Devoted partner and I are now proud owners of e-readers; he, a kindle, me, a nook. This has drastically changed the way we pack for trips as we no longer need to allocate 20 or so pounds for books. Prior to leaving for Corisca, I downloaded a pantsload of books to my nook so that the beach would not be boring. Consequently, we spent precious little time doing nothing on that trip, so my nook remained full. Part of this was my fault as I chose a 700+ page tome on the Algerian war which remained only half finished upon our return.

For this trip, I didn't need to add to my selections and, furthermore, the book I really wanted to read wasn't to be released until after we left. Sadly, the author's tour was also going to coincide with the trip and I would be unable to foolishly prostrate myself at the feet of my hero (devoted partner was less upset by this as I freely admit the carnal aspect of my hero worship).

So imagine my delight when, upon finally receiving internet access, I discovered the book was available for download. Oh, joy! I would be able to read the long-awaited novel whilst on the pristine beaches of Mauritius. But satisfaction delayed is often just as sweet, so I finished up with the Algerians first. Aside: yes, it was long, but A Savage War of Peace was also really really fascinating.

The sun was shining, I was in a new bright traffic cone orange bikini, and a man was bringing drinks to my deck chair. I was ready. Umberto, I come for you and your brilliant new novel, The Prague Cemetery.

For those who are possibly unaware, I own all of his books. Even the lengthy, of interest only to doctoral students of semiotics, philosophical tomes. I have read Foucault's Pendulum no fewer than 20 times. I even own a copy in Italian, a language I neither speak nor read. I am smitten by the kind of puppy love that only makes sense when it begins in adolescence. For his last book tour, I brought him chocolates and a 10-page, quite stalkerish letter (still waiting on a reply). My smitten is unwavering.

So, I cannot even begin to explain how devastated I was that this new book...oh god this is a steaming pile of, well I won't say excrement, discarded notes from all of his actually good books. Literally. As a reader of all of his books I could actually envision him going through old notebooks from 30 years ago and gathering up the stuff that wasn't good enough then and combining it to make this mostly unreadable novel. And not unreadable due to complexity or snotty vocabulary. Unreadable in its lack of plot, lack of character development, lack of interestingness, lack lack lack! The Prague Cemetery has none of the oomph. It feels so mailed in that I briefly wondered if it was a joke. A horrible joke perpetrated at my expense (narcissism, I know). I simply don't know what happened here.

The book is about the development of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion which isn't a bad idea for a book. For the first 100 or so pages, one could almost imagine that there would be light at the end of the tunnel (that is if one were so enamoured with the author as to think he could do no wrong). The protagonist has no redeeming qualities, you don't care about him or his story, and you wonder where his mental diarrhea comes from and how it can be so uninteresting. And then it just goes on and on and on. The epitome of sound and fury signifying nothing. Furthermore, the virulent anti-semitism one would expect from a book on this subject just rang so hollow because you could tell Eco's heart wasn't in it. And, unlike Stephen Colbert, he couldn't amusingly fake opinions so radically different from his own.

Upon finishing, and I did finish, I was overwhelmed by feelings of WTF? Why did you write this book, Umberto? It didn't seem like you were interested or invested in it. It read lazily. And you're not lazy. You're meticulous and brainy. I know you're a little pissed off that a no-talent hack like Dan Brown made like he invented Templarian mysteries, but that doesn't mean you should start phoning in your own novels. I wait upon these new tomes of yours with baited breath. I mean have you seen what my other options are for reading these days? And, let's be honest, you don't have that many books left. Would you really be happy if this was the last work you left us?

I'm not going to go overboard and say this ruined our honeymoon and the reason is, it just wasn't significant enough to do anything but leave a bad taste in my mouth (which I washed out with rum). It just made me sad. After plowing through J. Maarten Troost's Life on Planet China and Too Close to the Sun, a biography of Denys Finch Hatton, I had to start on Name of the Rose just to get the taste of Prague Cemetery out of my mouth (rum-soaked though it was). I hope we can reconcile soon. A small book of your essays would help.

Everyone else: if a die-hard fangirl like me can find nothing good to say about this book, you should probably leave it on the shelf.