Celebrate What Matters: An examination of the sexualization of women in the media

I wonder how it is that as a society we’ve shifted from doing all we can to make women invisible, from denying their sexuality to now seeing an over-representation of sexualized (though not actualized) women everywhere we turn.  Billboards, posters, magazines, online ads, half-time shows, television commercials, television shows, book covers, CD and DVD covers, video games, movies, comic books, music videos… women are everywhere.  We are obsessed with the female form.  But only so much as it takes on one form.  We are infatuated with their soft, delicate features but only when they resemble a prototype.  And this is where the argument that women in the media are merely being celebrated can be refuted.   Because it isn’t women we’re celebrating, but rather narcissism and self-loathing (the two often ironically going hand in hand).

After all, if you can teach someone that appearance is all that matters by glorifying the concepts of ‘youth’, ‘beauty’, and ‘sex appeal’, then train them to hate themselves for not meeting the ideal set before them, you can convince them to spend (read: waste) an unjustifiable amount of money on: “beauty” products (as if beauty can be bought), make-up, apparel, diet regimes, gym memberships (which do come with legit health benefits), plastic surgery… whatever it takes to make a person look as they “should”.  And you can tame them so as not to bat an eye when the images they see are clearly degrading to women.  You can subdue their urge to question the implications of the messages promoted through the media or to reflect on how they are being told to feel about themselves.  You can persuade them to idolize women who seem to have it all.

Women are encouraged to want the body, the skin, the hair, the face, the boobs, the clothes, the everything they are not, equating what people see on the outside with who they are on the inside.  Men are not immune to this either (minus the boobs), but mainstream media doesn’t target them as directly or ruthlessly; their inherent value isn’t tied quite so tight to what they look like and their social role is communicated very differently.  It’s only gotten worse in recent times once companies figured  out they could exploit men too, thereby turning a bigger profit.

Corporations don’t care who they’re hurting or who is privy to their propaganda.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the blatant messages being perpetuated by the media which we regard as a herald of truth apropos of what our lives should be about.  Our children are receiving this message, too.  And this is what concerns me most.  Because children are the future and certainly I want my children to own their bodies with respect given to what their bodies can do for them as they move about this world, making a difference, being creative, finding their voice, and following their passions.

Life is not about hating ourselves for not looking as though we starved ourselves for weeks and spent every waking moment at the gym.  It’s not about loathing what we see in the mirror and spending hours doing all we can to look younger, more radiant, less tired and frazzled because, just, life.  It’s about finding the true beauty in those every day moments with total strangers, friends, loved ones.  It’s about turning to your children or those dearest to you and being awe struck by the love you feel for them, as well as all of the love they continuously show you.  Life is about sharing yourself with someone else and feeling seen... heard.  It’s about allowing ourselves to be that vulnerable.

Instead, what the media does is prompt us all to wear a mask to hide behind while planting a seed of self-doubt which quickly grows into a weed of self-hate.  We look at ourselves and ask, “Am I worthy?”  Worthy of what?  …Worthy of existing …Worthy of being loved …Worthy of being the most desired by someone else–“This Year’s and Every Year’s Sexiest Person Alive”…Of feeling cherished for who we are most supremely.  I think these are things we all long to be assured of.  But unfortunately, for the answer to our question, too many of us refer to the images we see constantly all around us.  And the answer we’re given when looking outside of ourselves will always undoubtedly and unflinchingly be… NO.

What I believe women secretly want is to wake up one day to a non-airbrushed, non-photoshopped picture of themselves without make-up or spandex panties, no push-up bra or any of the other tricks we keep up our sleeves–just their face and body as it is without the lies we wear–next to a headline that reads: “SHE IS WORTHY”.  But let me tell you something: even though that day will likely never come, YOU… ARE… SO WORTHY.  And that is worth celebrating.

 

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The Monster At The End Of This Blog

In “The Monster At The End Of This Book Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover” (from Sesame Street), a Little Golden Book I remember reading as a child and now read to my kids, the audience is begged not to turn any pages because Grover is terrified at the thought of there being a big, scary monster waiting on the last page. (I usually do my best Grover impression when reading this book to my kids, which I think I’ve nailed.) Besides warning us to stay away, Grover tries everything to keep that monster from rearing its ugly head. However, from building walls to tying pages together, nothing seems to keep the pages from being turned and what Grover finally realizes is that the monster he’s been so afraid of (spoiler alert!)… is him. That’s when he abandons his fear as he comes face to face with the only monster in sight–lovable, furry old Grover. Then he admits embarrassment after having caused so much commotion simply due to an extrinsic fear that no one but him could understand.

As a child I too was terrified of the possibility of monsters hiding under my bed or in my closet. But as an adult, the only monster I’m afraid of… is me.

I have been a monster. I admit to doing things to intentionally hurt others. A few of those things I can brush off as simply being part of growing up and learning how to process through my emotions. But other things, bigger things, more consequential things I have done as a mother to my kids.

The year following my ex-husband’s affair, during the bullshit that is the divorce process, I was a total mess. The anguish I went through was at the expense of my children so no one else could see that I was slowly unraveling. I’d scream and yell at them for no reason. Or at least, no reason good enough to make them feel so bad. I began spanking my son which is something I told myself I’d never do. He was 3-years old at the time, so melt downs and tantrums were inevitable, but not something I was equipped to handle. I’d grab him off the floor and carry/drag him to his room, sometimes plopping him down with no concern to hurting him, and then slam the door. I would yell in his face and on one occasion I slapped him (not with all my might, but that’s not the point). How traumatizing must this have been for him.  And his sister, just a stander-by, probably hating me for treating her brother that way. I hated myself for the same reason. Going through a divorce, feeling rejected and terrified and angry after my husband abandoned our marriage to start a family with another woman, on top of dealing with a tantruming toddler was just too much for me. I had become a monster.

But then things seemed to level off. My son got older and I moved on. I found love again. I found peace. But I’ve never gotten over the guilt of those days; those vital, young and impressionable days. The days I should have been reassuring my kids that although things were changing at a rapid pace (new home, new family, new siblings and live-in mother-type figure) I would always be there to comfort and love them. Not terrify and vilify them.

When I was going through counseling years later, I was asked why I hold on to feelings of guilt. I couldn’t answer except to say that I was hoping the guilt would be enough to prevent me from acting that way ever again. But that’s not how guilt works. Making someone feel bad doesn’t lessen the likelihood that they’ll repeat a behavior. In order for any change to take place there must be forgiveness. There must be an openness and willingness to accept our humanity, not resist it. We are all human and we are all capable of doing some pretty horrible things.

What I was encouraged to see is that guilt is a tool used to control. Through shame we seek to regulate the pain we and others feel. We award blame distinguishing one as right and one as wrong. I have historically blamed myself for every rejection I’ve ever faced. It seems I have a strong threshold for pain. If it weren’t for me, in other words, I’d be able to find someone to share my life with. In my head, I am always an outsider; always the unwanted one; inherently flawed. Rejection is my biggest fear and fear will bring out the monster in any of us.

When I acted like a monster to my kids, fear was at the root of all my destructive behavior. I was afraid of failing as a single mom. I was afraid I would never be able to offer my children the kind of family I have always wanted for myself. I was afraid no one loved me and no one ever could. If my husband who I had known more than half my life could just up and leave, what’s to stop someone else from doing the same?

People like myself strive to be perfect, aim to please, try to be everything to everyone. But faking perfection is friggin exhausting. And when we fall off some imaginary pedestal we look for others to blame so that for at least a moment we don’t have to face ourselves.

I’ve spent my life building walls and tying chains around my heart. Except now I’m willing to abandon my fear and start facing myself. I’m ready to stop pointing fingers and accept responsibility. It’s time to forgive myself so that I can teach my children to embrace themselves, imperfections and all.

Love is a tool used to scare monsters away. And I am surrounded by it. A week ago I was walking my son into his school. We were holding hands and preparing to say our farewells. “Who’s the best mommy?” he repeats out loud with a huge cheesy grin on his face. He thinks it’s me, regardless of all the ways I’ve hurt and frightened him. And that will always be enough to keep the monster at bay.