I teach at a Catholic high school, and on Ash Wednesday this past week, I challenged my female students to fast from hateful self-talk this Lent instead of giving up chocolate.  I tend to teach with transparency.  I teach who I am.  This week I found my first gray hair.  Instead of plucking it with disgust, I embraced it warmly as a part of my transforming self.  It is a challenge most women could benefit from.

In our society, we have an idea of the macho male and feminine beauty that is unattainable and limiting.  It does not work for real human beings.  We are more complex than the ideal, which is made up.  Media is making billions off of our constant striving motivated by insecurity.  Men should be tough, tall, dark, muscular, unaffected and assertive.  When men feel like they are falling short, many will act out in violence to regain their maleness.  They use violence, often against women, to trump what they fear is missing.

Women should be tall, thin, blonde, with good hair, white teeth, fashionable clothes, clean skin and large breasts. When women feel they are not measuring up, they often turn to self- violence.  So in both cases, women lose.  Self-violence is seen in anxiety, depression, suicide, eating disorders, dieting, obbessive comparing and hateful self-talk.  There is a monetary and psychological cost.  Think of the time and money put into hating ourselves and working to fit the ideal.  Make up, hair products, diet plans, tanning, work out programs.  If I could take the time I have spent blow drying my hair and put it into learning another language, imagine where I would be!  Where could I travel if I had saved all the money I spent trying to fit the mold?  Many women see their bodies as a project that needs improvement while young men are able to see their bodies as tools.  There are cognitive consequences.  Female students worry so much about how they are being perceived, less learning can happen.

And instead of getting better, it is getting worse.  The sense of male is getting more male, and the sense of female is getting more female.  GI Joe now has bigger muscles, and Barbie is skinnier.  Instead of breaking the gender rules, we are exaggerating them, making them harder to attain and making the consequences more severe.

Young women need to name the consequences of strict gender roles.  There are cognitive, monetary, temporal and psychological consequences for attempting to be the ideal female.  And we do not take these consequences seriously.  What if self-violence was taken as seriously as domestic violence?  If not now then when?  If not me then who?  Young women, all women need to have a revolution inside of ourselves and stop reaching for the female ideal.  We need to start celebrating us and start speaking kindly to ourselves.  We need to redefine beauty and stop self-violence.  Let the men flog themselves during Lent.  I say that women start truly loving ourselves.

  • Mary Hinkle Shore

    Thanks for the reminder, Ellie, and the inspiration to try this most alternative of lifestyles for many of us. Your post reminds me of something I read in Matthew Sanford’s memoir of finding yoga as a paraplegic, Waking. He was always pushing himself, pushing his body and mind, first in traditional rehab, then in yoga. After he broke his own leg while in lotus pose, he realized that ahimsa or non-harming in yoga applied to oneself as well as to other creatures. I keep trying to remember that.