Friday, November 29, 2013

Becoming Flesh and Blood

Southern women are expected to fit a certain mold. You wear a skirt or dress with a girdle or control-top panty hose, high heels, plenty of feminine jewelry, perfume, the works. Your hair is "fixed," hardened with hair spray, and your nails are "done." When you walk out the door, you assume the pose: head up, shoulders back, stomach in, fake smile pasted on. Poke out those boobs, ladies. And when you stand for a picture, have one foot slightly in front of the other to distribute your weight. If you have an excess of five pounds or greater, always have someone stand a little in front of you to hide those extra pounds. Never say what you really think or feel, and put on a slightly high-pitched voice when you pick up the phone. You are an image, not a person.

I would apologize for offending anyone by saying this, but fuck that shit. I'm tired of being an image. I'm just me.

I grew up as a "non girly-girl" who was constantly scolding for either not smiling or for smiling too hard. My mom would make me practice in front of the mirror so that my eyes wouldn't squint so much. None of my pictures were good enough with the exception of a few, and their existence was a burden. "Look at this picture - see how pretty you look? If you would just smile, comb your hair out of your face, and stand up straight, you would look that pretty in all your pictures. No, just look at the picture. That's all I want - just do that for all your pictures."

My wedding pictures are gorgeous. I'm not being vain; I'm just being objective and saying that yep, those are some damn good pictures, of both me and my husband. My eyes are full of stars, my smile is genuine, my body is relaxed (not quite poker straight, but the dress was forgiving). Everyone said I was "glowing."

My pictures will probably not look like that ever again. I will be just as happy when my children are born, maybe even happier, but I'll look like shit because I just had a kid. Happiness and joy aren't always clean and pretty. And joy isn't always happy either.

Therein is the trouble. In order to even look at the problem, the issue of becoming human, I am unable to think of myself. First I have to look at pictures and images of myself, and even that is painful.


In her sort-of-memoir Bossy Pants, Tina Fey explains why the image problem has gotten even worse, no matter how liberal or conservative, secular or religious you are:

"Back in my Wildwood days with Janet, you were either blessed with a beautiful body or you were not. And if you were not, you could just chill out and learn a trade. Now if you're not "hot," you are expected to work on it until you are."

Oh Tina. In New Jersey in the 70s, it may have been that simple, but it has never been that simple for a Southern woman, not unless you were poor and had to work so hard that you just hoped you could keep your teeth. All Southern women are required to be in a constant state of panic where looks are concerned, and if you're not panicking then that means you're "common." No woman of class would feel comfortable enough to walk outside without a full face of makeup. So it is now, so it was in 1940 when my grandmama was in college, and so it was in the days of Scarlet O'Hara. Forever and ever, Amen.

Southern women could never just "chill out and learn a trade," unless they had iron wills that kept out the steady stream of masculine and feminine disapproval. Masculine disapproval? Oh yes honey. Men would never say something to a lady's face, but behind her back they will look archly at a photo and say "If the barn needs painting, paint it." They will, according to a co-worker I had, touch their teenage daughter's legs and say "What is this? Is this stubble? Why is that there?" (The same co-worker proudly noted that he need never say this to her, his wife.) They will tell their younger cousins that leg shaving is an every day chore, no exceptions. They will wonder aloud why someone at church let her varicose veins show. No, not all men, but enough that it matters. And these men don't have to be paragons of fashion either - just ordinary men with "reasonable expectations."


When Simcha Fisher wrote her brilliant call to arms entitled "Pants!," there was some confusion about why, exactly, men were so concerned about the attire of women who are not their wives. The sentence most vilified, justly, was the writer's "Make it good for us" statement, which managed to be creepy and grammatically nonsensical all at once. Unlike some readers, I was not surprised. This is what happens when all women everywhere are given "reasonable expectations" for everyday use, and it is business as usual in the South. The difference between now and, say, 40 years ago, is that Tina Fey could walk on a New Jersey beach and know that some women are blessed and some are not. Now, we have the Jersey Shore, yo. Different rules than at a PTA meeting in Mississippi (I got a panic attack just typing that). But the principle is the same: women=images.The Southern woman has been exported nationally, with local color added depending on the region. And it makes me madder than hell.

That's right, mad. The angry feminist is raging, ahhhh! Run for your lives! No apologies, folks. There's good reason to be mad, when the poison has seeped into every facet of society. That's why liberals blame conservatives for slut shaming, and conservatives blame liberals for immodest dress, and they're both right. The closer we get to the utopia of Truly Feminine, the less real flesh and blood we have to cope with. If you are expected to be an image, then you will realize that flesh and blood bodies are unimportant - an impediment to be overcome. The logical outcome that no one is really "naked" in this world. All women are thoroughly covered: it's just that different cultural groups embrace different coverings.

During the last decade after 9/11, it was popular to decry the horrors of those who wear hijab. American women with chemically-treated hair, Brazilian-waxed pelvises, bleached teeth, and blue-colored contacts were happy to report that they were "free" enough to show their bodies.

Some days I want to be a conservative Muslim so I can throw on a burqa and say fuck it, I'm not shaving my legs or washing my hair today.


So here's my "call to arms." Stop blaming magazines. Stop blaming Pinterest. Stop blaming all the usual suspects, depending on "whose side you're on": Hollywood, Muslims, Christians, Protestants, Catholics, capitalists, liberals, conservatives, feminists, homosexuals, transsexuals, fundamentalists, working women, SAHMs, blah blah blah.

Start with your own word for "natural." What does that mean to you? Does it mean that your face is completely clear and "neutral" looking? Does it mean a total lack of wrinkles, freckles, pimples, crows feet, skin tags, hair? If you've got a dark complexion, does it mean you need to be "white"? If you're pale, does it mean you need a tan?

Mothers of little girls, this may be easier for you, because you don't have to use yourself as a reference point. Remember when she was born, all red and covered in goo, screaming her head off, squinty-eyed? Tell me that child was not the most beautiful, the most natural thing you'd ever seen.

When you're daughter comes home with a school picture and her smile is so big that it makes her eyes squint, be proud of that smile. That's a natural, happy smile. If you criticize it now, if you make her "practice smiling" now, don't be surprised when her teenage pictures are gloom and doom. Don't tell her that "you don't need to wear tons of makeup, I'm just asking you to cover up that shine on your nose," and then express shock and awe when she turns up covered in black makeup and goth gear.  You've already implied to your daughter that she is an image, remember? Don't be surprised when she decides that she wants to determine her own image, to rebel against your image of what she needs to be.

In other words, don't be a Gnostic. We women are flesh and blood, just as flesh and blood as men. We were redeemed by a flesh and blood Savior. We were born red and gooey, and we will die grey and decayed, and both states are natural. It's only in-between that we create graven images and hold them in front of our faces.

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