by KATE FRIDKIS
I saw this commercial last night. The same one kept playing on the TV show I was watching: An extremely thin strawberry blond model in underwear and a bra, dancing awkwardly. The camera zooms in on her breasts. Lingers. Zooms out. She places her hands over her face and appears to giggle in glee. She looks a little uncomfortable. She’s supposed to be having a dance party in her lingerie, alone. Because girls are always stripping down to dance alone, laughing and posing. We all know that.
Sometimes people think it’s silly to blame the media for all of the issues with body image girls have. We have free will. We are our own people. Plus, the media is this giant thing — too complicated and convoluted to diagnose. I like to think of it as an endless shallow puddle of oily water that we’re all always standing in. Sometimes we’re wearing good, sturdy boots. Sometimes … not so much.
I had the weirdest thought, watching the commercial for the third time. “I don’t want her to see this.”
OK. Um, who? Am I being haunted right now? Why is the cat not having more of a reaction?
My daughter. My future daughter. The one I don’t know if I’ll ever have.
I didn’t want her to see the spindly model in her underwear dancing for the camera, ungainly and uncomfortable and pretending to enjoy herself. I didn’t want her to come to any automatic conclusions. I didn’t want her to have to “not to even think about it” — then have it wash over her when she looks at herself in the mirror.
They picked that model to show us what is cute and sexy and pretty and girlish. What breasts should look like. What fun should look like. What being a girl is like. They picked the best example of it. I know, because of all the money they must have spent to make that ad. When you put so much money into something, you want to get it right. And if right is that model, dancing, I don’t want my daughter — who doesn’t even exist yet — to see it.
But the model’s so skinny, I keep thinking, unoriginally (don’t worry, I know how unoriginal it is), but it’s almost the ordinariness of the observation that makes it meaningful. We keep making this observation over and over, but here she is. So skinny that I’m worried. I know, I’m not supposed to be. Some bodies are naturally like that. It’s true. But then there are too many statistics about models.
I’m not supposed to think anything negative about her fragile, straining ribcage, but the thoughts come anyway. Because even if this is natural for this young woman it will probably not be the natural look for my daughter. And even if she is, through some genetic contortion, extremely tall and thin, I have a feeling her breasts will not be somehow full. It does happen, yes. It sometimes happens. But not so very often that it should seem usual.
Watching the commercial for the third time, bored, I wonder why I’m not worried for myself.
Maybe some invisible line has been crossed. She’s too young, so I don’t compare myself to her. I’m pretty happy about the way I look these days, so I don’t compare myself to her. I write about body image a lot, so I pause for a second, before I compare myself to her. It feels familiar. There’s something a little off, like I might be walking into a trap. I stop, I turn around.
I am proud of who I am.
But it took a long time. And when you are just figuring out how to be a girl, what it means to be pretty, how important that is, how you’re supposed to look, the things that other people value, that this culture is obsessed with underwear and bras, whether or not we live in the Matrix- when all of that is just beginning- then OK, yes, I want to blame that commercial.
And all of the commercials like it. And the billboards and the magazine covers, and those guys who vote for the “sexiest woman alive” and the “top 100 beautiful women in the world” (only three of them are ever nonwhite, and none of them are ever dark-skinned, and none of them have bumpy noses, and none of them are ever, ever heavy). I want to blame every image of unusual, dieting, anomalous, dangerously specific beauty for showing girls what girls are supposed to be. For showing girls exactly what girls are supposed to be, so many times that we can’t help but learn.
And I want to cover my future daughter’s eyes, so that she thinks her Jewish nose is sexy. And her sweetly rounded upper arms. And her little breasts.
But it’s impossible. So, watching the lithe, helpless model gyrate, for the fourth time, I am scared.
How much of an impact do unrealistic portrayals of female beauty have on girls and young women?