Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"The Stepsisters' Lament": Or, Why I Cannot Entirely Get Behind the "Real Women Have Curves" Movement

The “real women” movement is making another round on social media. This week, a BuzzFeed article appeared with BuzzFeed writers trying on Victoria Secret swimsuits and then showing what “real” women looked like in them. They said that their point was to show that beauty came in all shapes and sizes, whether you’re a size 2 or 22.

However, the article did not leave me feeling empowered.

Although their final words were “Go models! Go us! Go team, go! We are all amazing!” that felt extremely superficial to me, especially since many of the girls individually complained about their own bodies, the models’ sizes, and models’ lifestyle choices. Instead of female empowerment, I got the impression that this article was really a way for the writers to say, “Look, we are better than these models, because we are real women.”*

Okay, stop. Aren’t these models “real” women, too? I mean, I know that being called “fake” is one of the biggest insults our generation can throw, and I know that these models are airbrushed and photoshopped in these pictures and they have personal trainers to keep them perfectly in shape . . . but aren’t they women? Just because they are models does not mean that they aren’t real. This doesn’t mean that I agree with the media’s impossible conceptions of female beauty (I certainly have an axe to grind about that), but aren’t we all “real women,” regardless of how curvy or straight our figures are? And last I checked, cutting someone down to build yourself up is a hollow way to build self-confidence.  

I know that this is a complicated issue with centuries of baggage. I mean, we can look at history for a glimpse of how standards of beauty have changed: the Gibson girl, the flapper’s boyish look of the 1920s, the curvy 1950s housewife. Pick a century--pick a decade--and you’ll get a different definition of beauty. The only thing that doesn’t change is that society’s view of beauty is always out of reach. The media screams at women (and men, for that matter) to be someone they’re not—that we are too much, not enough, just take off those extra 5 pounds, just get that little black dress, get those razor-sharp abs and you’ll be happy, healthy, rich, popular, and you’ll find true love.

It’s a problem. Our society is inundated with messages that tell us to get, get, get, spend, spend, spend, be more, more, more or less, less, less than what you are and you’ll find the key to happiness.

But we exacerbate the problem when we compare ourselves with others, and then when we despise them when have something that we want . . . or else we applaud ourselves for being “better” than them. Fat-shaming and skinny-shaming both exist. And both need to stop.

I believe that we, as women, are our own worst critics—not only of ourselves, but of others. Of course it’s human nature—we seem to have this drive to pit us vs. them, and we hate it when others succeed (even if it’s not something we even wanted in the first place). I know that everyone—men and women—are capable of pettiness. Like I said, it is human nature. We seem to regress to our 7th-grade selves and simultaneously hate and try to emulate the popular kids, thinking that “they” somehow hold the secret to happiness, while forgetting that the key to human happiness was always in ourselves.

Before we know it, we are acting like the stepsisters from Cinderella. And I don’t just mean the Disney Cinderella you’re familiar with. I mean the Grimms’ Brothers version, which isn’t your typical Disney tale. There is blood—and a whole lot of it. Bear with me for a bit while I describe the story--there's a point, I promise.

The basic outline is the same—girl is mistreated by her stepfamily, she gets a ball-gown and slippers from a magic tree and birds, she goes to the ball, loses her shoe, prince searches for her, finds her, and they start a new life together. But the different details make the Grimm version, well, a lot more macabre . . . and the stepsisters don’t end up merely angry, annoyed, and heartbroken. They end up mutilated.  

When the prince comes by to have the stepsisters try on the slipper, the stepmother takes her first daughter aside and has her try on the shoe. The first girl almost gets her foot in . . . but her big toe doesn’t fit.

So her mother tells her to cut it off.

The stepsister and prince are about to ride off into the sunset when Cinderella’s bird friends alert the prince to the fact that there is blood in the slipper. So he takes the girl back home and this time the second stepsister tries on the shoe.

The same thing happens. The shoe almost fits . . . except for her heel.

And her mother tells her to cut her heel off. “When you’re queen, you won’t need to walk.”

So the girl cuts off her own heel.

The prince takes her home, but then again is alerted to the fact that there is blood in the shoe.

Finally Cinderella gets her chance to try on the shoe (but with all of that blood in it? Ewwww. The things we do for love). She tries it on, it’s a perfect fit, and they all live happily ever after . . . except for the stepsisters, who are angry, bloodied, and unable to walk. They have broken and mutilated themselves in order to obtain what they thought would make them happy—a prince, a title, power, wealth. And in the process of wanting to be something they're not, they end up unwhole. 

Since this is a fairy tale, there are multiple layers of meaning, and it provides commentary on society—even for us in the 21st century. Here are some things to consider:

1. First of all, why did the prince choose Cinderella? Because she was the most beautiful? The tale suggests that. And, you know what, that is extremely shallow. The prince has his own issues to work out. And so does society. That doesn’t mean Cinderella was better or worse than any of the other girls there. It simply means that she is who the prince chose. But Cinderella didn’t ask to be chosen. Maybe Cinderella went to the ball simply because she wanted a night out, or she wanted to dance. And maybe the prince was first drawn to her by her beauty, but maybe he fell in deep infatuation with her because she sang really well, or she made him laugh, or they both had a love for polished banisters, or she could talk political theory like nobody’s business. We don’t know. Just like we don’t exactly know why one girl is chosen as beautiful in society’s or a man’s eyes and we are not. But does it really matter? Some of us are naturally straight. Other gain weight easily. Some of us are models. Others are doctors, or writers, or business consultants. Some of us will be accepted by society. Others will not. Some of us will find love easily. Others will not. But society’s view of your worth or beauty does not add nor take away from who you are.

2. I feel really bad for the stepsisters. Their story is tragic to me. They are trying to fit this “one-size-fits-just-one” standard of beauty, love, and acceptance. And it’s just not going to work. They are never going to fit in that shoe. They just aren’t—they’ve grown into their feet and their feet aren’t changing sizes, no matter how hard they wish or try. The only way they fit into the shoe is by mutilating themselves and making themselves unwhole. It’s tragic because so many of us do the exact same thing. We give up important parts of us in order to fit the mold of the “perfect woman.”**

For example, I once knew a girl who told me that she was known as the “smart girl” in high school. She hated it, because she felt that the “smart girl” was not—and never would be—the “pretty girl” or the “hot girl” to the guys she knew. She felt unnoticed by boys and she wanted to be known as beautiful. And so, she changed in college. She dumbed down and tried to become what she assumed others wanted her to be so she could be called beautiful. And she was called beautiful. By many men. But they stopped calling her smart. As she told me her story she whispered, “I wish they would call me smart again.”

It broke my heart, because she had given up an important part of herself to fit a mold—a preconceived notion of “true” womanhood. This is not my story, but most—if not all—of us have done things like this. We give up a good part of ourselves in order to fit a mold—in order to fit a glass slipper we might not even truly want. When we focus too much on what we are not, we miss who we are. And when we try to force ourselves into a mold of beauty, we end up bruised, squashed, and mutilated.

3. The stepmother is the scariest person in this fairy tale. Why? Because she is the one enforcing and encouraging her daughters in these impossible standards of beauty. The stepsisters didn’t get the idea to cut off their heels and toes. That came from their mother. The stepsisters didn’t make Cinderella the household slave. That was their mother. For better or for worse, mothers play a HUGE role in the way their daughters view themselves and their place in society. And, regardless of how our mothers taught us about our bodies and healthy relationships, we can choose how we will teach the children we will raise, teach, and mentor about their own body images. We can teach them to be kind to others, to build instead of tear down, and to exude the beauty of confidence that will draw others to them so they in turn can heal, lift, inspire, and bless.

I once knew a fourteen-year-old girl with straight brown hair, big glasses, and a shy smile who was terribly insecure about her changing body. She was convinced that she would never live up to the expectations created by society, her peers, and her mind. I also know that what changed the way this girl looked at herself in the mirror was that her mother noticed that something was wrong, took her aside, and talked to the girl about what true beauty really was and where her worth truly began. It wasn’t in a dress size, shoe size, IQ, the number of school dances she went to, or the age when she had her first kiss. Her beauty and worth could not be measured. Beauty—true beauty—real womanhood—was in the curve of her smile, the light in her eyes, the furrow in her brows, and the crinkle in her nose. It was in the spread of her hands and the size of her heart and the swing of her hips. It was in the strength of her legs and the point of her toes. It was in the truth she spoke and the love she gave, even when nothing else was given in return except silence and scorn. It was the forgiveness she offered and the care of her touch. It was in the resilience of her spirit and the grace of her soul.

That little girl was me. And my mother’s example, encouragement, and goodness have taught me more about beauty and being a “real” woman than any manifesto, celebrity empowerment song, or social media campaign. I do realize that not everyone has a mother like this—a mother whom they can communicate with and trust. Nor do I have everything figured out. But I do believe that we can be in control. Healthy bodies, healthy body images, and healthy relationships start with us. We don’t have to put others down to make ourselves more “real” and therefore more “beautiful” than the other.

If I should have a daughter, I want her to know this. I want her to know that there is nothing quite so powerful as a girl or woman who knows that her main strength isn’t her beauty. But rather, true beauty is strength. Because once we know who we are and stop wishing for what we aren’t, we are better able to love others for who they are—and who they can become. We don’t compare ourselves to others. And we know that someone else’s beauty does not mean that they outshine us or we outshine them.  We see beauty everywhere, because we walk in the beauty of confidence.

Real women aren’t silhouettes.

We are powerful forces for good.

*I also realize that maybe all these girls wanted to do was start/continue the conversation about “true beauty.” Well, congratulations. I took the bait and have entered the conversation.

**I know that body dysmorphia, anorexia, and bulimia are very real and serious issues, and they deserve special care and attention . . . but I am not qualified to give that attention. I certainly did not write this blog post with the intent of making anyone who might have eating disorders feel ashamed. If you or someone close to you is struggling with any of these issues, please know that there is hope. You don’t have to deal with these difficulties on your own. There are people who can help you.


  1. I am very, very tired of the world "real" being thrown around with relation to "woman," "moms," "men," and "dads." Like, "this is what REAL mothering looks like [insert picture of messy house]." No, some parents keep their houses very clean (I am not one of those people, but my grandma certainly was, and she definitely didn't fail at all the other aspects of mothering because of it). And the headlines that say "so-and-so shows REAL women in [insert clothing or scenario]." I know what they MEAN, but what they mean isn't what they're saying. And as you point out, what they're saying isn't helpful.

    1. Yes, exactly! What they're saying is much more harmful than helpful to the conversation.

  2. Okay. So all of this just needs to be broadcast to the entire world right now, and then this gigantic issue would be done with. I'm not even kidding--you tackled such a sore topic with such delicacy and warmth and positivity all while laying down the truth that I don't think any further commentary on the issue is necessary. It maddens me that something so honest and uplifting can't be found in the mainstream media as easily as a Buzzfeed article or tabloid magazine, but thankfully, it's here. Thankfully you exist and you feel inclined to share your thoughts. I am so grateful to be among those who know you.

    1. Thank you so much, Camryn. I'm glad that my words were uplifting to you. Even if it won't get as much traffic as a BuzzFeed article, it is good to know that my words made a difference to you. As cheesy as that sounds. :)

  3. this is brilliant, megs. brilliant.