As I was packing up my childhood room back in New Jersey to move up to Boston, I came across old diaries and journals I had kept growing up. I decided to take them with me and crack them open as I was settling into the uncertainties of adulthood as a way to remind me of the girl I once was, and how she became the woman I am today. What I found when I read the pages of these notebooks surprised me—my 16-year-old self talking about all the ways she felt inadequate and questioning whether being intelligent was more important than being attractive. I read phrases like, “afraid I’ll never be loved” and “I don’t feel even remotely beautiful,” and I cringed at how difficult it was being a teenage girl trying to live up to unrealistic expectations. I graduated valedictorian of my class and received a scholarship to a top university, and yet, peppering the pages of my journals were exhaustive paragraphs about not feeling good enough—not being thin or attractive, wondering why my intelligence seemed to be more of social hinderance, and generally just wanting to be left alone instead of teased for my appearance.
When I stumbled across the documentary MissRepresentation on Twitter this month, I was immediately drawn to the message it is trying to spread. One of the things the film does is encourage a change in how women are portrayed in media and viewed by consumers. The solution to this issue is laid out by a change that must occur, not only in how women view themselves, but how men view them as well. It made me think about all the things I found in my journal entries and how, despite many of the unavoidable social influences we are bombarded by every day, young girls can grow up to be strong women.
I realized that growing up, I was surrounded by strong women—women who were not ashamed of their intelligence and thrived under scrutiny. They encouraged me to embrace who I was and to constantly push to be better. But I also found that it was the men who loved these women—my father, my uncles and family friends who we called uncles—that significantly shaped the view I had of myself as a woman in the 21st century. The men that influenced me respected the women in their lives, not simply for the way they looked, but the way they thought and the unique talents they had to offer the world. These men offered encouragement for success and support when it was needed. Their ambitions were not above those of the women they loved, but alongside them, believing that it was important for both of them to achieve their goals. They did not patronize or degrade, they found beauty in the class of a woman, not the amount of skin they could see showing or the sexiness of an outfit.
I also noticed how these men treated their daughters. My father threw baseballs with me in the backyard for hours because at one point I believed I could be the first female to play professional baseball. And when I verbalized my dream to be the first female President of the United States, he never told me it was a man’s job—he and my mother took me to Washington DC instead. Friends of our family encouraged their daughters to take leadership roles in school and at church, and I always found it refreshing when I saw another father tell his daughter she could not “go out of the house wearing that.” They encouraged us to find beauty in a person as a whole, not just by the clothes we had on our backs. Beauty, for these men, represented strength, and it was a lesson I was fortunate to be consistently reminded of amidst the constant bombardment of unrealistic social expectations.
As MissRepresentation reminds us, the images we see in ads and through entertainment are meant to sell. They are meant to be provocative and alluring to entice the buying of a product. But what is important for men and women to remember is that they are not a product, and beauty cannot be bought or sold. Beauty, often misconstrued and under-appreciated, comes from something more than appearance. And while it is important for women to value their beauty, it is equally vital that men see it in them as well, and remember that it does not come from a sexy bikini or push-up bra, but the whole person.