Over at The Nation Jessica Valenti wondered whether beauty is a worthy goal in the first place. At best, beauty is a short-term solution. And not much of a solution at that, if the sole focus is a one-dimensionality that keeps us shallow.
Plus, Valenti says,
We create a trap where anything that makes a girl feel better about her appearance, no matter how harmful, is a reasonable solution. (How many times has plastic surgery been preceded by an “I’m doing it for me!” explanation?)
Throughout history women have been convinced they must have various physical characteristics or accessories that harm their health: tiny waists, small feet, high heels, girdles, corsets, boob jobs…
All at the expense of extreme discomfort, scrunched vital organs, pulmonary disease, varicose veins, a lack of vital nutrients, crippled feet and knees, deadened erotic sensation, a block to cancer detection, death…
It’s all made worse by calling variation from beauty norms a “deformity” – just to make a buck. Doctors have told some of my students that they needed corrective surgery for their breasts. And that’s how Nadia’s doctor described her “need” for an operation:
She wasn’t picked to have her surgery because she was bullied. She was picked because of her deformities.
No wonder Valenti groaned,
This is our culture now: teen girls thinking that the slightest perceived imperfection—any deviation from what they see in magazines—is tantamount to deformity and in need of surgical correction.
… We should tell girls the truth: “Beautiful” is bullshit, a standard created to make women into good consumers, too busy wallowing in self-loathing to notice that we’re second class citizens.
And in fact, being called ugly can be useful. Jessica was teased before she grew into her face, as she put it. But,
In a lot of ways I’m glad I was considered unattractive as a kid—there is an upside to ugly. I developed a sharp sense of humor, a defense against the taunts. I thought more deeply about how good and bad people can be. I started writing. I found feminism.
Some who commented on my first Nadia post had similar experiences:
I was teased relentlessly when I was her age for my big ears, flat chest, and the amount of body hair that I had. Today I am grateful for a mother who didn’t care that I was being bullied for such superficial things and did not allow me to make permanent changes to my body to escape bullying. Eventually I grew into my body and in the meantime, while it was painful, I found people who didn’t give a shit about those things, and now most days I feel completely comfortable in my body and my own unique beauty.
Some come to understand that the tauting isn’t about them but about the taunter.
I suffered bullying when I was a kid, and I discovered that people who do this kind of thing usually are trying to move attention from them; they usually have self-esteem problems.
Instead of agreeing that beauty is worth having, Valenti suggests we should be warning that a culture that demands as much is toxic.
Or, as another commenter suggested, maybe we can expand our notions:
I used to have a pretty narrow definition of beauty until at age 15 I started drawing the faces of the people I saw around me, often on the city bus on the way home from school. That is when I began to see a new world of beauty everywhere I looked.
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Fourteen-year-old Nadia Ilse got plastic surgery on her ears, nose and chin so kids would stop bullying her. She told Good Morning America:
I felt horrible. I felt like I was like dirt. They said that I have the biggest ears that they’ve ever seen. They called me ‘Dumbo,’ ‘elephant ears.’
Over time the bullying escalated. School became a nightmare, and she got so she couldn’t bear to look at herself in a mirror as she began to believe the slurs.
All this raises questions.
Like how the world seems to think that beauty – a plastic, superficial part of us — means something real. Like how moving a few millimeters of skin, bone and cartilage here and there makes all the difference. A few tweaks and kids go from bullying to accepting. And Nadia goes from crying herself to sleep and having suicidal thoughts to just going about her day.
Why do so many of us see the world in such superficialities?
I would like to ask the bullies if they would judge a person unworthy on such flimsy grounds if they were the ones whose ears were a bit large.
What if there is a God who purposefully creates people who go against beauty norms? What are we supposed to get out of that? Are we to develop empathy and compassion? Are we supposed to move away from the surface and superficial to see what really matters? Should we learn about what is real and what is ridiculous?
And should we really care what ridiculous people think?
Gore Vidal once said:
Don’t care about what others think of you. What matters is what you think of them.
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Boys on the Bus Grasping at Fake Power
You’ve no doubt heard about middle school boys harassing their bus monitor. Late last June four boys harassed 68-year-old Karen Klein about her weight and her family, and made violent and graphic threats.
Their punishment finally came — suspension and no more bus riding — and it’s got me thinking.
Too many of us hurt one another in desperate attempts to grab at what turns out to be fake power.
This case is classic. The boys wanted to feel bigger and more powerful by humiliating someone – in this case, someone who was supposed to have power over them – and bringing her to tears. In those moments they certainly felt big and strong. And then they bolstered their new-found muscle by posting a video of the abuse on YouTube so the world could see their supremacy.
But they weren’t truly empowered. The opposite, in fact. They ended up debased, expelled, and losing privileges.
Whether bullying, beating, raping, or killing, too many grasp at delusions of grandeur. But it’s not real. It’s not constructive. It doesn’t last. And it often backfires.
You see it time and again.
Rapists take over others’ bodies to gain a sense of power and control.
Batterers bat down the women in their lives hoping to feel like big men.
Gang members seek to gain control by beating and killing as they defend fake turf.
Feeling humiliated by the West, Al-Qaeda rose up to kill and destroy symbols of U.S. power on 9/11.
But have Al-Qaeda, gang members, batterers, rapists, or the boys on the bus gained any real power?
Looks to me like they return, over and over again, to their small selves and their depression. Or they end up in jail, dead or suspended.
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As Nadin Khoury walked home from school last January, a “wolf pack” of seven teens, aged 13 to 17, randomly attacked. As Nadin screamed for the boys to stop during his 30 minute nightmare, they kicked and punched him, hung him upside down from a tree, and ended by hanging Nadin from a six foot wrought iron fence.
Phoebe Prince’s horror began by merely dating a popular football player, provoking the wrath of “mean girl” rivals. “Irish slut” and “whore” began appearing on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter. Threatening messages showed up in texts. The mean girls scribbled Phoebe’s face out of photographs on school walls, knocked books from her hands, and threw things at her as other students watched and did nothing.
After months of bullying, Phoebe went home and hanged herself.
Why do kids act so cruelly?
The old view suggested bullying arose from low self-esteem. By establishing dominance over someone, a brute could bridge the gap between the lowly place she sat and the supreme rank she desired.
But recent research finds that kids who bully are higher on the pecking order, leaving Time Magazine running a piece entitled, “Why Kids Bully: Because They’re Popular.”
Or as a Huffington Post commenter put it, “kids bully because they can.”
I question both notions.
Recent research destroys the low self-esteem hypothesis.
But what about this newer idea that kids bully because they are popular? Or that strong social support allows them to?
Is persecuting people fun, in itself, so that people do it just because they can? An awful lot of people get stressed harming others. Even very young children have a basic sense of justice which is based on whether one person is hurting another. Bullying probably serves some other purpose.
Why do some bully? The real answer seems an odd mix of the old and new explanations. The somewhat popular Mean Girl has to bridge a gap between where she sits and where she thinks she belongs. She wants to be seen as more socially dominant than she already is. If she felt secure at the top of the ladder, she wouldn’t need to work to gain her position.
Those at the very top have no gap to bridge. They actually avoid harassing others because they don’t want to signal insecurity and weakness, suggesting they need to prove something.
When people act aggressively to move up the hierarchy, they are doing what sociologists call “the social construction of personal identity.” When others witness our supremacy, it feels more real. It becomes “objective.” No surprise that Nadin Khoury’s tormentors taped the abuse and posted it on YouTube – which led to their arrest. I guess the risk seemed worth it (or they were too stupid to see the eventual outcome) since identities feel more objective when others witness our power.
How do we address the problem? Some suggest focusing on the kids who aren’t involved. Cultivating their empathy so they won’t stand idly by.
Perhaps encouraging more constructive sources of self-esteem would be useful.
Or, drawing attention to the (relative) insecurity of the bully might help, too.