Monday, December 6, 2010

Beauty as a Liberating and an Oppressing Force

(Image source: "How to design your own Barbie")

This morning I caught a segment of Dr. Phil's "Holiday 12" episode that ran on Nov. 29. Brief summary here, but the gist of it was that a woman who was overweight as a child suffered terrible psychological abuse from her parents. They made fun of her and withheld food from her because of her weight. My heart broke with her as she remembered those dark days.

This woman grew up to be what she calls a "Barbie." She had a photo of herself dressed up all in pink, and she really did look like the doll. But she gained a lot of weight after achieving "Barbie" status, and now is obsessed with food and her inability to control her appetite.

During the course of the show, Dr. Phil took that photo in a blown-up life size version and brought it on stage. Seeing the life-size photo, the woman broke down in tears. At that moment, Dr. Phil told her something very wise. He said that although he was going to help her with her diet (of course this is commercial TV, so he was promoting the "17 day rescue" or whatever; I'm not going to promote them by looking up the exact name or link), the thing she should remember is that she is the same exact person, thin or overweight. That she should be kind to herself and remember that the goal is not to become somebody else - the Barbie - but to remain herself, only to feel that she has more mastery over food, since right now it's controlling her life.

Watching a show like this, with a woman in such pain, it is tempting to go either to one extreme or another. One could say that Barbies and makeup and diets are an inherently oppressive force of women. Eating disorders, inability to marry or stay married, prostitution and human trafficking, and other social ills are all in my view related to an obsession with Barbie beauty. In this world, women's power and physicality is experienced as threatening - and women can't be equal in relationships but rather must be controlled like skinny unthreatening dolls. Women must be preoccupied with beauty, similarly, because if they think about real things like money and political control, they are a threat to gender inequality.

On the other hand, it strikes me that beauty - the pursuit of beauty, and playing with different forms of beauty - is something that women themselves truly enjoy. Having the choice to participate in beauty culture, through the experimentation with different brands, is a way for many women to express themselves. I don't think that replacing glamour with miserable unsmiling faces, bad clothes and obesity is going to make women feel any better.

The bottom line is, I was truly gratified to hear Dr. Phil speak such good words of advice to his guest on the show. It's fine and good to choose an interest in beauty, but let's not get so carried away with it that we ignore or destroy ourselves and our relationships.