Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Books on a Train

I'm about 3/4 of the way through Naomi Wolf's 1991 bestseller The Beauty Myth, and it has been on my mind a lot lately. I would have finished it a lot sooner if it weren't for my new habit of only reading on trains--if there's one thing New York public transit has taught me, it's to always have a book on hand.

An unfortunate strength of the book is how relevant it continues to be, nearly twenty years after it was published. It is soul-crushing to have pointed out to a reader, in explicit detail, exactly how marketing and sales interests have worked throughout our lives to chip away at women's, and more recently men's, sense of self-worth until we lose sight of what is worthwhile in life and instead waste all of out time, money, and energy worshiping and attempting to embody intangible, impossible, unhealthy perfection. It hasn't gotten better since the '90's, women haven't stepped up and stripped off the shackles of perfection ideology, we're still strangled, distracted, and berated by the need to be objectively beautiful, still taunted and tsk-tsked like four year olds with beauty do's and don'ts that constantly contradict themselves and get more expensive.

That's something I've found funny--women did speak up and complain that it wasn't right that we were being targeted as objects of aesthetic scrutiny, that every element of our culture was pressuring us to not only buy beauty products and gym memberships, but to adhere to them religiously, feel guilty when we didn't, and allow ourselves to be chastised ruthlessly when we aged and fattened anyway. So the market responded--they roped men into it too. Now Everyone feels ugly, fat, and unlovable. Progress!

What really gets me, however, in this text, is exactly how relevant Everything she says is to me. I don't merely breeze through and occasionally stop and reflect when she's right-on--my progress through the book has been sluggish at best because I have cause to reflect at least twice in every paragraph. I find this personal accuracy on the part of Wolf both reassuring and distressing--I applaud her insight, but am irked by the fact that I gelled so neatly and uniformly into the mold she describes for modern women. Dammit, I thought I was an individual with quasi-unique concerns and interests, not some stamped out fembot with pre-programmed personality paradoxes and marketable mental hangups that were clearly itemized before I was born. But Ms. Wolf actually wrote out, verbatim, the circular reasoning that entered my head during puberty and continues to this day which has prevented me from accepting a compliment...when I was 7.

Nothing he can say about this is right. He can't speak. Whatever he says hurts her more. If he comforts her by calling the issue trivial, he just doesn't understand. It isn't trivial at all. If he agrees with her that it's serious, even worse: He can't possibly love her, she's fat and ugly. If he says he loves her just as she is, worse still: He doesn't think she's beautiful. If he lets her know that he loves her because she's beautiful, worst of all, though she can't talk about this to anyone. That is supposed to be what she wants most in the world, but it makes her feel bereft, unloved, and alone. (Wolf, 170)

This just isn't fair. How is it that in twenty years I haven't done something about what was going on, how my culture has not only played upon my insecurities, but Given me insecurities to play upon and make money off of? How I was given beauty magazines as a child and encouraged to learn from them what big girls cared about, as though it was privileged information for adults and I was being bad-ass by reading. As though Seventeen magazine isn't written with impressionable twelve year olds in mind. I felt fat before I had fat. I felt short when I was taller than every boy in my class. I felt ugly before my skin knew how to produce oil. I had those mass-market insecurities deeply ingrained long before I was a viable buyer. The last time I looked at a mirror and didn't suck my belly in I was an infant. I can actually recall being about five and having a cashier tell my mom I was a very pretty little girl, and automatically dropping my eyes, fidgeting, and saying "thank you" without any sincerity. Somehow even by then I'd been trained to not believe it, knowing that adults were required to provide children with empty platitudes and compliments.

I tell you something, I've never felt pretty. If I am, I don't know. I can clearly recall my first insult, but compliments bypass my self-esteem like the breeze. (for anyone curious, a male classmate called me "bug-eyed" in the lunch line one day in first grade shortly before flicking a rubber band in my face. When I sneered and turned my back on him, he spat his gum into my hair. It took my mom hours and a full jar of peanut butter to get it out. I still hate that child. Six years later another boy spat gum into my hair on the school bus. I punched him in the face, and although it bruised and clearly hurt he laughed, lest his ego also be bruised, and mocked me for hitting like a girl. When moments later I was reprimanded by the bus driver for fighting like a boy I was left baffled, and realized that both comments were degrading. That was about the point I started hating being a girl, and I've lived with it since.) Every compliment I've ever received has been meticulously analyzed by my Self-Hatred Committee (I think their offices are near my left ear) and has only reached my starving Ego with a lengthy note attached. "He says you're pretty because he thinks you're trash and wants someone easy to have sex with him." and "They say you're smart because it's an easier lie than 'you're pretty.' Read: you are ugly and stupid." are the two form letters that get pinned to compliments most frequently.

I'm insulted when people point out I'm pretty. I'm insulted when they don't. All in all, I hate it when people notice and/or fail to notice that I'm visible. When my other half thinks he's covering his ass thoroughly by saying that I'm both pretty and smart and neither asset detracts from the other and he in fact values both independently but finds that my intellect makes me more beautiful but I was pretty to begin with I am able to retort that he's a bastard who doesn't care about me because he acknowledges that I have an outward appearance at all. When he acknowledges that that's true only to the extent that if I had no outward appearance I'd disappear from view, I tend to agree that that would be best. He has since resorted to only giving me compliments when I'm too tired to argue.

This is frustrating to no end--I would absolutely love to be able to say "thank you, I feel pretty, I think you're pretty too, lets curl up and look at each other and enjoy it," and leave it at that. But, while currently that would be a logistical nightmare anyway, no matter what is said something in my head has to pipe up and contradict it, say he's lying, or simply remind me of the areas of my body I've been trained to despise. It's as though I've got a little Scorpius hovering on the edge of my consciousness, a pop-up ad in my soul, brought to you by Proctor & Gamble.

It isn't fun, it isn't easy, and its more common than influenza. Somehow a large group of people, purporting or perhaps even intending to be helpful, have encouraged me to see artificially enhanced young women as the beauty ideal and attempt to emulate them. They've convinced me to try to become them because that's what boys like, and have encouraged, through helpful language like "You have the power to be beautiful" me to hate myself when I fall miles short because I eat when I'm hungry, I don't have a team of dedicated photo artists on hand 24/7 to clear my skin, and I'm not being paid to work out and have pictures taken of me.

That's just it--beauty is not my job. Unlike models and porn stars, far from being compensated for my efforts to become pretty, I'm expected to pay for it, and take time out of my day in excess of my day job (or worse, take money out of my savings when the temp agency doesn't call) in order to attempt to achieve what "beautiful" women have made a career of doing. I'm sure many struggled and strove to get started, and smaller-time models probably have to pay for their gym memberships themselves, but they can see a direct cost-reward line between working out and getting paid. The rest of us are supposed to somehow work out, never eat, be productive in our fields, have energy for family and friends, be happy and interested in our worlds, and not go into debt over our heads. There are two approaches I could take to this--I could try and fail, or I could not try and also fail. I choose the latter because its cheaper and, as I'm not Catholic, I don't harbor guilt.

Which brings me to the issue of models and porn stars--the image they generate of pretty, skinny women participating in sexual acts, not for pleasure, but for pay, is frustrating. Women like sex, and as biologically the whole point of sex is the transfer of genetic material into a woman, you'd think that as a culture we'd make a point for the sex-act to be about pleasing women. Sexual encounters effectively end when the man comes to orgasm, right? We know he's going to keep at it until he gets off. That in itself is not noteworthy and it requires no extra effort on the part of a woman to achieve it. If you want to suck his penis, fine, but it's the same sensation that leads him to orgasm no matter where he gets it. Women...not so much. It does require extra effort to stimulate the same receptor cells and achieve the same physiological response that men achieve through coitus--due to some odd evolutionary snafu the clitoris is not directly involved in the sex act. She may enjoy penetrative sex greatly, but it simply does not stimulate the same nerve group or elicit the same spasmodic reaction as clitoral stimulation. It doesn't.

So you would think that, seeing as a man's orgasm generates the risk of pregnancy in a woman, so she is running a big risk by allowing him to come near her at all, he would be expected to do something to earn the right to. I.e. he should bring her to complete and satisfying clitoral orgasm before proceeding to use her body to bring himself to one. This still isn't remotely fair considering she's still risking 20 years of responsibility and lost self, or an expensive avoidance procedure, for that orgasm, but at least for the sake of leaving both participants satisfied it is a reasonable arrangement.

Unfortunately, when sexual activity is depicted on film for the sake of educating the men and women of tomorrow, this arrangement is never seen. Almost invariably the woman in the demonstration is subordinate to or a mere vehicle for the man's enjoyment. To draw the power structure visually, she begins and ends the encounter on her knees. Some demonstrations include brief, cursory woman-pleasing scenes, but the technique used (generally understood to facilitate the camera operator) is either so ineffective as to be pointless or appears painful. For the most part, however, the woman performer goes directly from orally stimulating the penis, to vaginally stimulating the penis, back to orally stimulating the penis, before the encounter ends with a mess on her face. While she may make a lot of noise during the encounter it is understood by both performers and audiences that she is not having a particularly good time but is, in fact, imagining the fat paycheck at the end of the shoot.

Which is fine, opponents to my frustration claim--porno is intended for male audiences, so why not pander to the audience?

Because men aren't the only watchers of pornography, and teenage boys are not the only people who are in a position to be influenced by it. Let's be honest with ourselves--security pages on the internet are there to inconvenience the very people who are most able to bypass them. If you put a lock on a cookie jar, you're going to wind up with it mysteriously emptied but the lock apparently untouched. Young teenage girls crave porn, and why wouldn't they? It's interesting, it's risque , and it helps them safely satisfy their very real and urgent sex drives--which started developing before the boys in their classes lost interest in cooties. Locking porn away from children is adults' way of pretending that their children are asexual, and will remain so until they're 30, married, and have children of their own. So the internet has done the next best thing--it has locked the porn away to appease parents, and made the lock page far easier to overcome than those pesky tops on the Vicadin ever were, to appease kids.

But what these kids are seeing is unhealthy--not because it's sex, but because it's an unhealthy depiction of sex. It's violent. It's demeaning. It's painful. Women are subjected to humiliation and apparently unsafe practices. Grown ups know it's all pretend--everyone there is getting paid, no one is getting hurt, and most of the performers respect each other as friends and colleagues within their industry. But even if kids know that, the imagery sticks far better than the explanation. What we need is to revamp the sex industry and encourage people to produce happy sex--scenes in which obviously consenting teams of normal, healthy adults engage in mutually pleasing activities that leave both clearly satisfied, depict accurate and helpful techniques for pleasing women, encourage the female performers to enjoy actual on-screen orgasms, refrain from putting women in subordinate or demeaning positions, reduce or even negate the emphasis on the blow job, remove the undertones of rape, sex as payment, sex as a means of getting better grades, sex as a behavior women consent to merely to appease men, and sex as a means of perpetuating the idea that women use sex to promote their careers, and when it's over, refrain from covering anyone in slime.

I don't care if your analyists don't think it'll sell. Porn doesn't sell anymore anyway. Everyone who's got half a brain watches it streaming for free and avoids the eyebrow-raising credit card charges and .tmp files. I'd be willing to bet nine-tenths of today's porn consumers have never paid for it and never will. The fact is, young people will get their hands on porno by any means necessary, so it is important that what they find presents them with a good first impression of sexuality. Please don't delude yourself into believing that with guidance and involved parental support young people won't seek it out and be influenced by it. If your fourteen year old tells you s/he's never looked at porn, s/he has learned how to lie. Or that with proper internet management we can keep kids from seeing content that's intended for mature audiences. If the audience was mature, they wouldn't seek it out. Porn isn't just for perverts anymore. Perverts have had to reach above and beyond sex to stand out from the crowd.

I applaud some recent efforts within the amateur community for their attempts to depict natural, happy sex. These unpaid or low-paid exhibitionists are more likely to have healthy body weights, are more inclined to perform only with partners who know them and their bodies well, and are more likely to look like they're having a loving, fun time. Keep it up! (C'mon folks from South Preston--you remember porn-n-hors-d'oeuvres nights. We heckled then--the comment "damn, those shoes are going to perforate that sofa," was one of mine--We can encourage now. We're apparently grown ups.) I think a genuine effort on the part of the porn industry to promote a healthy female body image and a healthy female relationship with sex would work WONDERS toward promoting healthy women in our society. (so of course it won't happen--if they like themselves, they won't buy our products! bastards.)


Kim said...

I don't really have anything to add, but I wanted to let you know that I read the whole thing. And I agree.

Ben said...


I know you know that anyway but I thought kim's comment looked lonely