A few days ago I read the article that Ashley Judd wrote about society’s obsession with image and the media’s judgemental slandering of people’s personal appearance. It struck a chord with me, so I decided to try and articulate my thoughts on this issue, and to respond to The Conversation…
I am a woman. I am 22, a biomedical engineering student, and I am by all accounts what society would deem a nerd. I am unfortunately not blessed with ‘Hollywood looks’, nor do I possess the leg length of Heidi Klum, but not dissimilar to every other female I have had my fair share of ‘image crisis’s’. I’ve sat on the floor of my room crying before my school formal (prom) because I didn’t want to go because I didn’t think I looked beautiful. I’ve stood in front of hundreds of people to talk about being an Australian Young Citizen of the Year when all I could think about was that my suit didn’t fit me right. At only 17, when asked why I studied so much, I proclaimed that I believed my brains were pretty much the only thing I had going for me. I chose to ignore my character, my infectious humor and many other qualities, purely because I felt that because I did not meet the ideals deemed beautiful by the media that that alone made me less of a person. I know that being a female biomedical engineer is about as rare as a size 8 supermodel, but the ‘perfect woman’ the media demands is also just as rare. We often begrudge the ‘beautiful women’ for their claims they silently suffer with having to maintain their beauty, but in truth, ALL women suffer. We suffer from trying to hold each other up to an ideal that is beneficial to none of us.
Two weeks ago I was called to address a parliamentary sitting, to talk about my work and inspiring young girls into science fields. I was introduced as ‘our beautiful Young Citizen of the Year’ My first reaction was a little flutter that the councilor thought I was beautiful, and then I realized he wasn’t very well going to say ‘our average looking young citizen with a pimple on her chin’. But then it also angered me, why mention my looks at all? Was it even necessary to reference my looks considering they have no correlation to my achievements? Whilst this was probably no more than an off-hand comment on the councilors part, its these off-hand comments that, if taken to heart, can have some disastrous consequences. We throw around criticism like it is our god given right to have an opinion on how somebody looks. And we do have a right to a personal opinion, but where we seem to think we get the right to publically express our opinion on such personal levels is beyond me. Women these days seem to have lost grasp on the basic morals that should bind us together. We seem to have replaced empathy, compassion, and understanding with an innate desire to scrutinize, judge, and criticize. And not just women, but men as well. Us women would be naive to think that we are the only ones scrutinized by society. As a female engineer in a ‘man’s profession’ I feel stereotyped and judged by society, but ask any male nurse and he will tell you the same. The media has done a pretty good job of telling us what we should and should not do, and how we should and should not look. And this is the main point I like to emphasize when talking about inspiring young girls.
Now don’t get me wrong, young girls are inundated with role models every day by the media, actresses, singers, fashion icons… but tell me the last time you saw a young female doctor, engineer, or scientist held in the spot light to the esteem of the media? And therein lies a problem. I’m not saying that Hollywood does not provide good role models, not at all, but it does tend to concentrate the view of success to that which revolves around beauty, money, and fame. In a survey conducted of 200 kindergarten students 94% of them said when they grew up they wanted to be famous, they didn’t specify in what way they wanted to be famous, but that they just wanted fame. But we can hardly blame the children, as this is what society dictates to us through the media. It tells them that the worlds most important, and influential people, are not the woman working for the UN or the Nobel Prize winning scientist or even the researchers finding a cure for cancer, but rather a woman who often can possess nothing more than a symmetrical face and a genetically favoured body shape.
These days it is too common to see girls trying to emulate the media superstars, but surely we want our children to strive for more than to be the next individual on Jersey Shore? I think its ok for kids to be inspired by famous people, but they need to be bold enough to be themselves. I meet a lot of girls who are extrememly intelligent and who love science, but they veer away from the science careers because they see it as something that ‘girls just don’t do’. They don’t see girl scientists in the media, so they don’t think its what they ‘should’ do. They are so busy trying to be what they think they should be, rather than just being who they are. To them, the vision of success is that of flawless beauty. Whilst I am not saying that beautiful women are not intelligent, not at all, I am however saying that beauty is no determinant on the intelligence, morals, and nature of a person, yet society chooses to first and foremost judge a person in terms of their appearance.
Last year at the Pride of Australia Medal awards, in which I was a finalist in the young leader category, I was on stage to be presented my award from Miss Universe Australia, Jacinta Campbell. I was so self-conscious, embarrassed, and nearly an anxious wreak having to stand near this stunningly beautiful girl, that I couldn’t even look at the cameras. At a moment when I should have been standing tall and proud at everything I had achieved, here I was crippled with fear of being judged on my image
I’m only 22, but I’m sure I’m not alone in the fact I don’t go out to clubs often because I don’t like feeling like I’m being judged by people I don’t know about purely what I’m wearing. And besides, guys don’t exactly come up to you and say ‘Hey babe, nice brains’. But let’s face it girls, we don’t really dress for guys…we dress for the other girls. Sure, guys will notice if you look good (physiologically speaking they can’t really help that) but they won’t notice if you’re wearing a last season dress, or the difference between your $100 shoes and the other girls $1000 shoes. It’s our fellow females who will notice, who will criticize and judge our appearance. They will notice my dress may be not quite the perfect tailored fit, they will deem I can afford to lose a few inches on my thighs, they will smirk at my attempt to hide a blemish on my face. All without them knowing me at all. It’s the judgmental looks, the snide comments, the whispered taunts that make women so cruel to each other. What ever happened to girl power? While we scald men for being vain and misogynistic, we as women are really no better.
So this is my call to my generation, to the women of today. I was once told that I couldn’t be who I wanted to be purely because I was a woman. I was told that I should play down my intelligence because ‘men can’t tolerate smart women’… So I am all too familiar with standing up for equality, it was not that long ago that there were no female engineers. But I am able to be who I am no because of luck or chance, but because of the women of the world before me, who decided they wanted something better, something more than what was dictated by society at the times. I believe that breaking down sterotypes and creating gender equality is one of the biggest challenges we face in modern society today. And like our grandmothers before us who fought for our rights, its time for us to stand up for the women, girls, boys, and men. No one is immune from the judgemental views of society and the media, but WE ARE society, so we CAN change this.