Are we editing ourselves into anti-feminist oblivion?

Find the nearest chair because boy do I have some news for you! Another popular blogger has been caught photoshopping the utter living shit out of her poor beautiful body. I was reading an article about it this morning and what followed were approximately 39 pages of comments ranging from concerned to vitriolic and back.

If you have an internet connection and a whiff of interest in the fashion/beauty/celebrity world, this won’t surprise you. These kinds of call-outs are happening constantly and they don’t stop until Beyonce. Girl’s regularly carving out a thigh-gap for herself on instagram. :(

I’ll be honest, my knee-jerk reactions to these revelations tend to be extremely critical and harsh. But in a world where we are fed anti-feminist societal norms since we were running around the playground like happy little maniacs, it’s important to pause and consider where our criticism is coming from. And whenever I do, I find myself struggling to understand with whom the fault lies. The unobserved knee-jerk reaction isn’t one worth having. That’s the saying, right?

People are so angry that this particular woman has the nerve to lie about her size so blatantly and ubiquitously through every last measly channel of her online presence. They are upset about the message she is sending to young girls who look up to her. I understand and agree particularly with the second sentiment. But the more I read and read and read an uneasy feeling was creeping up in my stomach and I knew it wasn’t hunger because I had just filled up the pocket of my cardigan with chocolate-covered raisins.

First it was sadness. It makes me so incredibly sad that women feel the need to pluck squeeze hide diet exercise photoshop themselves into perfection. I feel a tenderness towards them, even the ones most intensely perpetuating it, and I think we all should. Because we feel that pressure too. I agree we should be held responsible for loving ourselves and not feeding into it, but it’s no surprise things get confusing when we are told, literally and subliminally through every avenue imaginable, that our looks have an incredible amount of value. We are the perpetrators of a fucked up society, yes, but we are also the victims.

So many commenters seemed hell-bent on shaming this particular person and while I understood the emotion behind it, something about it felt disingenuous. The same way the media can be “worried” about a celebrity’s mental health when really they are just exploiting them. We can call each other out until the cows come home, but at a certain point it starts to feel like more unproductive noise in a society where competition and schadenfreude are allowed to thrive under the guise of constructive criticism.

Question. Does anyone think that woman is happy? The incredible amount of insecurity and shame required to commit the time to remove 20 pounds from your body in every single photo taken of you could only lead to an exceptionally lonely and miserable existence. I can only imagine this girl cries herself to sleep at night, and I myself nearly cry just thinking about it. No amount of success is worth that. I do feel anger when people are given a pedestal, something powerful beyond measure in this day and age, and then do nothing to upset the paradigm. I really do. But there has to be some shred of empathy right? There has to be some finger-pointing in the other direction as well. After all, we edit our own selves to a certain extent, perhaps just not so literally.

My second feeling was guilt. Guilt for loving and feeding into an industry that is so deeply image-obsessed and potentially harmful to the self-worth of girls and women all over the world. As I’ve grown into an adult feminist rather than my teen version which involved hating on marriage and proclaiming I’d never have kids (oh, ignorance), I’ve found myself becoming increasingly furious about the expectations put on women. Once the equality goggles were firmly planted on my head, there were so many red flags I could barely see straight. I find myself offended so often it’s nothing short of defeating. But [lovingly] telling my boyfriend to screw off if he so much as mentions my hairy armpits is easy. The gray areas are much harder.  The times when my heart and mind don’t agree, when my knee-jerk reaction is in steep competition with my learned one, when my desires and ethics are in conflict.

Is it okay to be unsettled by the ideas being sold in the media as they pertain to fashion and beauty and celebrity while also loving the parts that don’t hurt me? It can be hard to separate a healthy interest from an unhealthy one when sometimes they feel so deeply linked.  I have a love, excitement, and appreciation for fashion, for instance, that I feel is true and genuine. Fabric wrapped around bodies makes my heart beat in a totally pure and insane way. But I also have affinities that are less pure. Affinities that are borne of my societal conditioning to value beauty and looks. My preference to have hairless legs when I’m wearing a skirt. My desire to stay thin. The excitement I feel when I get validated via compliments. My love of contouring makeup because it gives me cheekbones I don’t have.

But to make things more confusing, none of these are black and white. A friend recently told me she’s no longer interested in the of-the-minute fashion world. That her previous interest in it came more from a pressure to fit into a mold than from a genuine place. I admire her for letting it go and I think it totally makes sense. Just as equally, there is a difference between a celebration of the artistry of makeup and an obsession with its flaw-hiding tendencies.

But the line can be blurry.

How do we reconcile the unfair standards applied to women when we ourselves buy into them? Can we selectively embrace some and reject others? How can we separate a genuine love with an unhealthy dependence when conditioning runs so deep? Is it okay to love fashion but hate the way the industry makes so many girls feel? And if it makes them feel good, but based on a twisted set of standards, what do we do then?

I’ve found the feminist movement to be empowering beyond words. It changed my life. I want women to do whatever they want to do and be whoever they want to be. I want our qualities to be honored and celebrated. But for this to sprout progress and be truly impactful, it requires an undercurrent of self-respect that our society’s value system continues to discourage with stunning success.  “Doing what we want” today comes with a pile of contradictions and complications that I’m constantly grappling with.

I am saddened by the women who are lopping off their own limbs in photoshop to lose a few. I am saddened by the women who want to shame them in response. I am saddened by a society that encourages both of these things. But my empathy overpowers my sadness. I understand all of these women and I know there is power in our similarities if we use them to understand each other. But I’m struggling to figure out how to do that while still holding ourselves responsible. I suppose that’s the challenge of being the casualties of our own conditioning.

I just hope that as awareness of feminism spreads, empathy becomes a larger piece of the puzzle. Because I’m not sure criticism is working, even if it’s done in the name of the movement.

10 thoughts on “Are we editing ourselves into anti-feminist oblivion?

  1. I don’t know. I just think people post too many photos of themselves in general these days, there are bound to be some bad ones, especially when you’re a professional blogger, you are constantly looking at yourself. In the olden days a bad photo was hidden somewhere in an album and the nice one was above the fireplace at your grandmother’s.

    But aiming for an ideal look is of all times and all regions, whether that is Marylin Monroe, Twiggy or Cleopatra. I put on quite a bit of weight I wish I would lose myself. It doesn’t bother me all day every day, unless I see a bad photo of myself on Facebook. So yes, I think that woman is generally happy. She just does not want any bad photos of her floating around on the internet. That is just a little bit more difficult as a blogger. In the end it’s better to photoshop than to starve yourself.

    By the way, women are not the only ones under pressure. In internet dating men generally add a few inches to their height, muscles are pumped up and bald men will often try to hide this as well. Justin Bieber was also photoshopped. And I guess weight issues, bad skin or bad teeth are problems we all deal with.

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  2. My english is not good enough to comment the way I would like to (all serious/academic and stuff), but I thought I should leave a reply because this was such a good article.
    I completely understand your feelings regarding the current state of feminism, media, fashion/beauty industry and the way they all relate. The fact is that this is all too complicated and the mere fact that you can empathize with both sides makes you a hell of a human beign.
    Feminism is hard because it’s complex as fuck. It put us (human kind, but mostly women) in a better place, but as it developed and grew stronger as a movement, a lot of perspectives arose and they sometimes conflict, making things very hard to deal with. All that conflict of what you like to do (which usually has a lot to do with that damn patriarchy) and what you think it’s better to do given your feminist view of the world is totally understandable. Unfortunately this is a problem that can’t be solved, but empathy is a good way to start.

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  3. This was really well written, and I enjoyed reading it immensely, so thanks for that :) I’m studying abroad right now, and I recently had a guy tell me that the feminist movement will ultimately fail because we “can’t get our shit together and agree on what we want.” 90% of me was unimpressed and insulted, but 10% of me thought that he was just struggling with what you’re discussing here. Hopefully we can figure out a way to allow for contradictions and complexity without diminishing an important and valid struggle.

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    • You should have told that guy HE ISNT HELPING. And that it should be his movement too…his struggle too..his contradictions too. It’s not us vs them, it’s ours. I’d say the same thing with racism – it’s not just up to the minority races to “get their shit together”…it’s all of our struggle, it’s all of our conditioning, it’s the world we were all born into that we need to solve and fix. When you apply his logic to another context it’s even more insulting.
      We are all on a learning curve re: feminism, men just as much as women. I haven’t found a great way to spread the message aside from, say, hammering this shit into boyfriend’s head over and over until he finally understands and now gets offended as often as I do (which pleases me to no end). But his inherent good-guy-ness aside, it still took time for him to fully understand my point. To call himself out. To realize how messed up some of the stuff his friends say is. Shit, I’m still understanding…hence this entire post. Conditioning runs so deep it’s scary. I love and agree with what you’re saying! I think contradictions and complexity are beautiful parts of the world and an especially beautiful part of women, but it sucks when it discredits something important.

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  5. I’m lucky to be growing up in times when people like You, Leandra Medine, Lena Dunham talk about things that matter…it’s easy to get lost these days, when you’re not quiet an adult and you’re not quiet smart,yet.
    Thank you for doing what you’re doing
    Maria

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    • Hi Maria! I’m not sure I deserve to be in that company but I’d be insane not to take the compliment anyway! I’m lucky people like you are growing up caring about this stuff. It took me a while to feel how I feel and I’m still on my own journey. You’re getting a head start, so keep it up! Caring about critical thinking is the first step to being smart, so I think you’re doing just fine. :) Thanks so much for reading!

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