About a month ago, I agreed to help my friend out with his senior photography portfolio by modeling in a photo shoot he had scheduled over the course of a weekend.
He booked a hotel in New Hampshire with the hopes that we could utilize the sparkling white sheath of snow that was still masking the ground and get some “icy and elegant” outdoor shots.
To this day, I’m still not sure what his overall vision for the end result of the photographs is, but after knowing him for years, I have learned to never question the fact that his mind works in ways that we earthlings simply cannot always anticipate. His photography always comes out with the perfect blend of wit and ingenuity, sprinkled with an aesthetic intelligence I have rarely seen amongst even the most seasoned professionals in the field.
I was more than happy to play a tiny a part in helping him chase his dreams; plus it was a fun excuse to get away and have a mini-reunion with some of my closest friends from high school. There were eight of us adult models participating in the shoot, and there were also three little of my friend’s little cousins there for the fun as well.
Starting bright, and almost TOO early after a night of catching up with the ol’ gang, the hotel rooms we woke up in on the morning of the photo shoot were swiftly transformed into makeshift beauty salons and dressing rooms. One room was designated the hair styling zone, distinguished by its almost palpable air quality, and saturated with a visible haze of hairspray mixed with the scent of burnt hair. The bathroom was chosen as a perch for the make-up artist on site, who clearly picked the best-lit area of the available options (though I think we can all admit- most hotel lighting is a friend to very few).
Throughout the day, all of us models were made-up and had our hair done in shifts, until the finished product of polished-yet-quirky glamour was achieved. I was one of the last models to have my makeup done, and during the hours I waited, I noticed I had a mini fan club forming amongst my friend’s little cousins.
One of them in particular, (we will call her Emily*) seemed to take a fast liking to me.
Emily was about 5 years old and far from shy. In the way that children warm up instantly to someone whom they find intriguing, (or in age-appropriate terms: “so nice!” or “so pretty!”) Emily followed me around all day, asking an array of simple (“How old are you, anyway?), and more pressing, (“But WHY don’t you have a boyfriend?”) questions.
She would pace amongst the other models and me, offering unsolicited, but nevertheless welcomed hugs, high fives, and other endearing pleasantries.
When it was finally time for me to have my makeup done in the bathroom-turned-contouring-studio, I had a wide-eyed audience, eager to witness the “transformation” that was about to take place. Emily and her two little cousins, who hadn’t yet had their “makeup” done, sat on the edge of the bathtub while the makeup artist began making her brush strokes across my cheeks, eyelids and lashes.
“You’re so beautiful!” Emily blurted in a playful, giggly tone.
“Aw thank you, sweetie! You’re beautiful, too!” I responded.
“No! Not yet!”
The sentence wasn’t delivered with a meek or self-deprecating inflection, but one that simply indicated it as a matter of fact in Emily’s mind. She was not beautiful ‘yet’ because she didn’t had any makeup on her face.
After exchanging glances of heartbreak with the makeup artist, we both retaliated, almost in unison.
“Oh no! You’re ALWAYS beautiful! Makeup is just for fun. It is not what makes us beautiful or not; it’s just like a decoration!”
But it was clear. The seed had already been planted.
This five year-old girl was privy to the notion that a female’s visual aesthetic was something of substantial value, and she was not convinced that the latter was something she possessed inherently.
Of course, this interchange brought up feelings of cynicism within my ever-so critical mind in regards to the pervasive nature of beauty ideals and the way they are projected onto even our youngest members of society. Even deeper than that, however- as I replayed the scene in my head after the hustle and bustle of the day’s events, I could not help but stew over the idea of women constantly being subjected to a series of what I have come to refer to as “prerequisites to being.”
In her own eyes, Emily was “not yet” beautiful because she did not have an external medium- makeup, in this case- as a tangible source of validation. Clearly, this type of thought process was no fault of her own.
It was simply the byproduct of a society where women and girls, at large, are systematically programmed to approach self-actualization as a step-by-step process, laden with apprehension and questioning, rather than inherent assertion.
The problem with this type of thinking is that it often goes unnoticed in terms of our critical consciousness. After all, it is good make goals and follow the steps to get there, right? Maybe so. But, when it comes to one’s own sense of worth, no person should have to feel like he or she must methodically prove his or her right to simply be. Unfortunately, this is the sentiment too often ingrained into girls and women by society and mass media.
The danger with living life as a progression from one prerequisite to the next is that the mentality alone is enough to lead someone through an entire lifetime of feeling inadequate. Again, I am not saying that we should not be proactive in working towards our dreams (which do require us to hurdle through various phases and steps to get there). I am also not arguing against the fact that men too, fall victim to the mentality described, especially within the context of Western culture.
There are, however, some very specific examples of this type of submission of self that tend to be common to women and girls:
- I cannot feel beautiful until I have my makeup on.
- I cannot feel comfortable in my own skin until I lose X pounds or until I tone up this body part right here.
- I cannot identify myself as a sexual being until I have had some other lover effectively “awaken my inner tiger.” (Does anyone else vomit over that metaphor?!)
- I have not been in a serious relationship or pursued by another yet, so I must not possess the qualities of one who is desirable.
- I do not have EXACTLY 5+ years experience in that field yet, so I am not a qualified applicant for this job opening.
The examples are endless, but they all paint the same picture.
It quickly becomes alarmingly apparent that, what starts off as simple and silly as a young girl feeling un-pretty without makeup, has the potential to escalate into a lifelong pattern of subservience to futile “qualifiers,” serving as constant reminders that, in our natural state, we as women are simply “not good enough.”
This ultimately leads to struggles against forming intellectual, spiritual, sexual, and professional identities that are rooted in authentic self-affirmation.
Take it from someone who has fallen victim (countless times) to the habit of waiting to meet fictitious prerequisites and standards I have believed to be real: You will be waiting a loooooonggggg time, if not forever, to find a sense of peace within the epicenter of who you are, as long as you rely on these false measurements of your true value as a human being.
This waiting will keep always one from living with intention and clear direction, and it will also prove to be a victory for the systems of oppression that have implanted this cultural neurosis amongst women and girls.
It would have been a crowning achievement of a patriarchal society if someone like me had kept right on believing:
“Well, you know, I haven’t officially joined a chapter of N.O.W., gone to Washington to lobby for women’s rights, or been a public spokesperson on the matter, yet so I guess I MUST NOT BE A FEMINIST.
Yes indeed, it would have been a patriarchal victory if I had continued to let my very identity be molded and kneaded by any and all hands that were not my own.
Hell, the system would have been down one whole proud, outspoken, analytical, sensual, goddess worshiping, free thinking, cynical, (and consequentially) idealistic feminist. But, somehow I have found my way here by refusing to wait for any type of preliminary verification to being my damn self. Foiled again, aren’t we, patriarchy?!
Foil on, ladies.
In a culture where it is revolutionary for girls and women to simple BE in an unapologetic way, without first meeting any prerequisites or qualifications, I say it is time we all flock to the front lines, without apprehension, questioning, and especially without waiting.