In elementary school, my childhood best friend and I would flip through the pages of Cosmopolitan Magazine and call “dibs” on the body parts we wanted. We played a game where the first person to call out a particular feature “won” the right to that feature.
“I want her legs” I would exclaim.
“Fine, then I will take her hair,” my friend would counter.
In this way, we would deconstruct the image of each woman and turn her into parts. Decades before I understood the concept of “objectifying women”, I learned the process.
Soon, we moved from admiring the attributes of the women in the pages, to comparing ourselves to them. This was followed by the devastating realization that we didn’t measure up. Flipping through magazines turned into sessions of self-loathing. My friend, being African American had another layer to deal with. According to mainstream fashion magazines in the 80s, she did not have the “right” skin color for beauty.
I believe that I am the subject of a massive brainwashing campaign that has assaulted my life. If you live in the Western world or have access to Television or Internet, chances are, you are too.
We are bombarded by images and products that are designed to first set a standard of beauty and then to capitalize off of that standard by selling products that are created to “help” us achieve or attract that standard.
If the standard was more realistic and attainable, the beauty and fashion industry, and advertising industry as whole, would go bankrupt because we would all be happy with ourselves and we wouldn’t need their products.
The media and the culture around me have been shaping my ideas of beauty from the moment I was handed my first baby doll, which I am confident was white with blue eyes. Barbie was the hallmark of the next phase of my beauty paradigm development. She was (and is) the embodiment of beauty as my culture believed it to be.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, if Barbie were a real woman, she would be 5’9″ with a 16″ waist (only room for half a liver and a few inches of intestines), and have a neck twice as long and 6 inches thinner than the average woman, which would render her incapable of lifting her head. With those proportions and a size 3 children’s shoe, she’d have to walk on all fours!
Nobody told me that the Barbie standard was an impossible one. I wanted to be her.
Thanks to these magazines, dolls and supporting commentary on the standard of beauty I received from family members, I discovered the power of a calorie and began dieting at the age of eight. I was 10 years old the first time I stuck my head into a toilet bowl. I hoped that I could purge myself of all of the dangerous and beauty-destroying calories I had just consumed. The failed attempt was a reminder that food restriction was the way to go.
I hid food in my napkins, spit it into my juice glass, or tucked it into my cheeks for later disposal to try to achieve the “clean plate” my family valued while avoiding the calories.
To make matters worse, demands that I “finish my food because there are starving children in Africa” were counterbalanced with comments about my pudgy tummy or thickening physique. I am embarrassed and deeply grieved to admit that I found myself jealous of the children in Africa I heard about. How much easier it would be to stay skinny if I weren’t surrounded by food?
When I began dating, I entered relationships with males who subscribed to and reinforced these same unattainable standards of beauty. Even if I were to lose enough weight to achieve a completely flat stomach, I would still fall short because this or that body part was the “wrong” shape, size or proportion. They agreed.
Getting into the sex industry only exacerbated the problem. In the ultimate form of objectification, my body became a product. Each night, my body was evaluated, bought and sold. At one point, I lived on a pack of gummy bears OR a small portion of frozen yogurt a day to stay thin. IF, I made enough money on a shift at the strip club, I rewarded myself with a small bag of pretzels.
To further complicate the issue, “beauty” is a moving target.
During the Italian Renaissance, full-figured women with large bosoms and hips and rounded tummies were the ideal. Reflecting this, Peter Paul Rubens painted portraits of full-figured women in the early 1600s. Today, “Rubenesque” is a polite way to say “big” or “plus-sized.”
In the Roaring 20s, in the dawn of the movie industry, a slim, boyish silhouette was the figure to have.
In the 1950s, rounded, hourglass curves were “in”, and icons like Marilyn Monroe and Betty Page were idealized.
This was followed by the Twiggy era in the 1960s where slim, androgynous figures were once again “the thing”. This period also marked a shift in the way we were taught to “control” the shape of our bodies. Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg, notes the following:
“It wasn’t just feminists who burned bras… Bras and underwear changed. The body becomes something for you to control from the inside, through diet and exercise, instead of exterior control through the corset.”
Next was the super model era of the 80s when slim and athletic was considered beautiful. Then it was the waif period in the 90s when the “I haven’t quite kicked my heroin addiction and I definitely don’t eat” look was in.
Today, it’s all about a flat tummy with large breasts and bigger butt, a look that many are turning to plastic surgery to achieve.
Even Barbie has kept up with the trends! When I compare my Barbie collection from the 80s with the dolls my daughter has today, there are some noticeable differences in her shape. (Why does my daughter own Barbies, you ask? That is for a whole notha blog!)
Right: My childhood Barbie, Left: My daughter’s Barbie
This morning, my husband and I had a long conversation about beauty. He talked about the ways he allowed the world’s yardstick for beauty to shape his own perspectives. He talked about the time He asked God for “new eyes” and how things changed.
I shared fears and frustrations. Among them the fact that he does fit the world’s standard of beauty. He is a humble man and probably doesn’t love that I am telling you this, but he moonlights as a model. How annoying is that!?
He has a 4-pack without trying. If he did 10 sit ups, he would have a 6-pack. And it just isn’t fair! His handsome face was almost a deal-breaker because I assumed that if he looked like that, he must share the value system that validates him. To put it simply, I thought he must be shallow. We all have our biases.
He told me about the model-filled pool parties he attended in his twenties and how the people there were some of the least “beautiful” people he has ever met. “That’s not real beauty, Harmony. It’s the lie we have been fed.” He assured me.
This beauty paradigm I have subscribed to, the one I have been brainwashed to accept has brought deep pain and great angst to my life. It has caused me to starve and purge, to judge and disqualify. I have wasted countless hours comparing, contemplating and obsessing over beauty.
Even if someone were to tell me that I am “pretty or beautiful”, it doesn’t do anything to diminish the struggle… if anything, it enhances it. These statements only reinforce the paradigm. It’s like saying, “Don’t worry, you do measure up”, in which case, aren’t we still using the same yardstick?
I have learned that the solution to this angst isn’t reaching the target. The solution isn’t losing weight or finding the right under eye cream or getting a tummy tuck.
The solution is changing the paradigm. Changing our entire belief system about what beauty actually is.
Today, I am praying the same prayer my husband prayed, “God give me new eyes”.
God give me eyes to see the true beauty all around me and in me. The beauty of kindness and generosity. The beauty of actions that lead to justice and freedom. The beauty of love and compassion. The beauty of hope in the face of impossibility. The beauty of a heart that dreams and a life that pursues a dream. The beauty of selflessness and sacrifice, of gentleness and integrity.
God give me new eyes.
Tag or share this blog with someone who embodies true beauty!
Harmony (Dust) Grillo
Harmony Dust founded Treasures in 2003 while completing a Master’s in Social Welfare at UCLA. To date, she has trained outreach leaders that have gone on to establish more than 97 sex industry outreaches on 5 continents. She has been featured in various media sources, including Glamour Magazine, The Dr. Drew Show, and The Tyra Banks Show. She is a sought after speaker and her memoir, Scars & Stilettos, gives an account of the journey of going from working in strip clubs, to leading an organization that reaches women in the sex industry on a global scale.
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