Anyone who has even a passing relationship with the media knows that the ways women are generally portrayed have little to do with the ways that most real women look or act.
Most women on television, in advertising, in movies, in magazines, and in video games are tall, tiny, and decidedly hot. Most women in real life are larger, not so tall, and beautiful in many ways…but not generally in the ways that supermodels are.
So we—men and women—have an expectation gap. Women who see these images are often left feeling inadequate and big. Men who see these images may have all kinds of reactions, including understanding the trickery that goes into this imagery. But some men might just want one of these tall, beautiful, hot women. Some women might just want to be one.
And why shouldn’t we? It isn’t a crime to be beautiful and sexy and free and full of life and vibrancy. We like this in people. We’re attracted to these qualities.
But what we often see in the media is a portrayal of a woman whose primary and sometimes sole attribute is that she’s got a great ass and a pretty face, and she knows how to work them.
A little side note. Having been part of “the media,” I am always loath to use the words “the media.” It’s a bit like saying “black people” or “white people” and then proceeding to aver some universal truth about that particular group. We’re all mixed up and nuanced. It’s difficult to say one thing that is wholly and completely true of any group. So I know there are exceptions. But let me just say this: This media portrayal of girls and women is dismal, dire, and devastating.
And that portrayal is messing not only with the minds and lives of girls and women, but of boys and men, too. How are we supposed to build healthy lives and relationships when our most pressing question about a woman is how pretty she is and how sweet her ass is? What about everything else that women have going on?
Women are CEOs and entrepreneurs and heads of state and high-ranking politicians and hugely influential entertainers and athletes and candidates for the highest political office in the country. Women are raising the next generation. More women than men are earning college degrees, and women are a growing segment of middle management.
But even with all these achievements, an enormous power gap remains. Women make up less than 5 percent of the power positions in Fortune 500 companies, and about 3 percent of those positions in the advertising, telecommunications, publishing, and entertainment industries, the very industries that are portraying women as delightful things for your pleasure.
I happen to have a pretty face and a sweet ass. Neither may be as sweet or pretty as they once were, but I have lived the life of an attractive woman. From the time I was a small child, people have commented favorably on my body and how I look. I have been given the seal of approval by hundreds, maybe thousands of men—and women, for that matter.
As a younger woman, I explicitly used this attribute to my advantage, sometimes without the best judgment. Once, I walked down a hall in high school toward two boys, hall monitors, who were sitting on either side of the hallway, expecting to collect a hall pass before letting a student walk through. I looked them in the eye and walked on by. One boy said, “Hey, where’s your pass?” I kept on walking. The other boy said, “Her ass is her pass.”
I could give you hundreds of examples of how I learned that the way I look is at least part of the reason why things work well for me. Of how “my ass is my pass.” As I grew up and figured out more about who I am, I learned to make things happen without relying on my looks. And, of course, as a woman in my forties, my ass isn’t going to get me down as many hallways as it once might have. But I followed the advice of my mother (my beautiful mother) when she told me that however much people are attracted to my looks, looks will inevitably fade. Best to find something else to focus on.
Still, it’s a complicated equation for women—and for men. It’s easy to say that this kind of approval or disapproval of girls’ and women’s bodies is outrageous; easy to think that we should be considering the whole of a woman. It’s easy, in theory, to get behind the idea that men and women ought to allow women to excel because they’re smart, they’re creative, and they bring great skill and wisdom to our lives—that we all should be evaluated on our skills and abilities.
It’s easy to say. But there’s more to it, isn’t there? Because when a beautiful woman—vivacious and fluid, smiling and open—is around, who isn’t attracted to her? Who doesn’t love that luscious combination? Can we still have this woman and recognize her talents, too? Can we find the ways to honor women who aren’t as sure of themselves, or who don’t have the looks that tradition or the media deem attractive? Or who are more businesslike or shy?
The other day, my teenage daughter (my beautiful teenage daughter) was going through a magazine with her friend, looking at the women and deciding who was hot. I know that girls have been doing this for generations. I asked the girls what else they thought about these women. They looked at me with blank faces. One of them said, “I love her dress.”
My daughter is hardly a media junkie. Her mother is hardly what anyone would describe as fashionable. But the message is clear to her even at thirteen years old: How she looks is important. Critical, even.
I did the best I could in the moment. Isn’t that all we can ever do? I didn’t lecture the girls about the shallowness of our society (or their indulgence in the same). I just looked at the hot woman with them for a minute and asked, “What, do you imagine, does she dream about doing?”