2012. It is now virtually impossible to walk around a mall, through a school hallway, or simply down the streets without seeing a young woman desperately seeking approval by her peers. She is the 20-year-old self-consciously folding her arms across her waist, feeling insecure about her mid-section. She is the 12-year-old with wads of tissues stuffed in her training bra in hopes of resembling a mature chest. She is the 16-year-old spending her lunch period in the bathroom because she is worried that she will not fit into her prom dress. She is – quite literally – the greater percentage of females 8-25 years old, wasting thousands of dollars on tanning beds, wearing makeup meant for drag queens, and clothing that should never be seen outside the walls of a club or strip joint.
As young women, we are burdened with a media that saturates our beautiful brains with commercials and television shows that are chock-full of models whose waists seem to be the size of my wrist. We are bombarded with ads featuring diet pills claim to be capable of burning away 30+ pounds in merely a month. We watch as average-sized women examine their figures in the mirror, mentally dissecting themselves from head to toe, racking their brains for ways to drop a few pounds in order to fit in that child-sized bikini. How is the average, healthy, curvy female supposed to be comfortable in her own skin when she is told on a daily basis that “normal” and “beautiful” are equivalent to being a size zero?
The beauty trap is a terrifying thing for the female population, young girls in particular. Not only do we feel the need to make an impression on our male counterparts, but now it is just as important to "pretty ourselves" for our girlfriends – and in some cases – our parents. There is an unbelievable amount of pressure put on the shoulders of tweens, young adults and women alike. From the “dance mom” who seems to be living vicariously through her stick-thin, ballerina daughter, to the guy at school who comments on a girl’s “cankles”; the burden of the word “pretty” gets heavier and heavier by the day. It has become more of a competition of who can be the fairest of them all than an effort to simply feel good about ourselves.
Reality television shows such as "Dance Moms" and "Toddlers in Tiaras" are a prime example of the disaster that is our youth’s upbringing. Mothers paste their daughters’ faces with makeup, stick them in a tiny outfit, then send them onto a stage to prance around, flutter their eyelashes at judges, and look cute for the camera. The Moms hover over their shoulders as they eat, make comments when the child puts on a pound, and make them sit in time-out when they accidentally smudge their makeup from crying; crying after being scolded by their parents for some minor mistake onstage. What kind of message does this send to young girls? There is no such thing as perfection.
While this particular example may not be the norm for the majority of young girls today, many can still relate to the pressure. What mothers need to understand about the youth of 2012 is that every comment and action leaves a lasting impression. Whether a 12-year-old is told by a parent that her crooked nose can be fixed by a doctor in just a few years, or she listens to her 120lb mother complain that her rear-end looks huge, everything sticks. The “ideal image” is drilled into the mind at such an early time in life, that so many tweens and teenagers grow up spending their time trying to achieve it through unnecessary and unhealthy means.
The most pressing questions in my mind are why are we, as a whole, so consumed by body image? Why are we so absorbed in what other women think of themselves? Why are we comparing our own bodies to theirs? And most importantly, what is it about the women we see on TV, in movies, in magazines and on billboards that has us so convinced that they are what defines “pretty?” When did skin and bone become more beautiful than curves? When did painting on a new face become more attractive than going natural?
Last year, a makeup line was released aimed at kids 8-to-12, featuring an ANTI-AGING product! Need I say more? There is something terribly wrong with society, when a) someone actually came up with this concept, and b) there are parents who are buying these products for their children. When I was that age, my physical appearance was the last thing I worried about. I was more interested in rolling around in the dirt with my friends than cleaning my face with cleansers meant to prevent wrinkles.
My mother and father were perfectly fine with this. I am fortunate enough to have parents and grandparents who have always emphasized the importance of being active, studying, participating in extracurricular activities, building my resume and getting a job at which I can grow and be happy. However, there are a multitude of people who didn’t have that growing up and still don’t. Instead, they were told they needed to lose weight, that they should do something about that scar on their face, that they should get a different haircut. Now, it seems to be ten times worse for our youngest generation.
It saddens me when women that I find absolutely stunning can’t seem to point out anything but flaws in themselves. Why does my size-2, 5’10’’ friend have a meltdown when she gains 3lbs over the holidays? In my opinion, she could stand to gain a few more. Why does my mother often ask me if she looks fat in whatever she is wearing, when I honestly think she looks 200% better than the majority of women her age? Why do people with near flawless faces feel the need to cake on 15 layers of makeup before they leave their homes (so much that if I wanted to, I could literally scratch it off of their faces)?
The word “pretty” has transformed into something much larger than it should be. It is an adjective that so many thrive to be, a word that so many wish would be paired with their name. Not enough people realize that everyone is pretty in their own way. Now, “pretty” is a description that has guidelines. Long and highlighted hair; check! Clear skin; got it! Large breasts; getting there! Shapely eyebrows; right after they are tweezed! Firm stomach; just have to skip a few more meals! The measures taken to achieve this goal become more mind-blowing by the day. Women give up blood, sweat and tears, simply to have their name fall under the “pretty” category.
I write this article as if I am completely innocent. I do not mean to give readers the impression that I have never looked at myself unhappily in the mirror. I am guilty of wishing I could have a slimmer figure. I am guilty of taking the time to straighten my curly, frizzy hair. I put on foundation and eye makeup on a daily basis. I watch television and find myself envying the woman who seems to have the perfect body, effortlessly. I snack and regret. But, why? Why should I? The “perfect” woman is such a rarity. The modelesque figure can be applied to under 5% of women. These individuals just happen to be the ones in the spotlight.
As a 22-year-old woman writing to parents and grandparents, I cannot stress enough the importance of guidance. A young woman's life should not be focused on whether or not her stomach is flat enough, her thighs thin enough, her breasts big enough, or her face pretty enough. What girls need from the start is a positive example and reinforcement that they are beautiful the way they are. Turn off the television when she is watching schlock reality TV. Encourage healthy eating and exercise, but discourage her from dieting. Emphasize intelligence, not appearance. Have confidence in yourself, so she can watch and learn to embrace herself. Guide her, because if you don’t, the media will.
Katie Foley is 22, a writer, administrative assistant and web developer. She is also Lyn May's granddaughter.