Myths & Lessons

This month I finished Naomi Wolf’s  feminist classic, The Beauty Myth. It had been on my need-to-read list for 28 years.

I should have made time for it sooner. Wolf’s main argument – that the sale of beauty is more about profit, power, and controlling women than it is about anything else – is such an obvious truth to my forty-something mind now, but in my twenties I was still under the myth’s spell. It was crazy. I was taking feminist courses, loving every minute of Adrienne Rich, bell hooks, and Catharine McKinnon, writing strong-woman poems – and still worrying about my thighs, comparing my body to other women’s, judging my physical self by how many approving glances I received, and covering my smattering of premature gray hairs with black mascara. I wasted so much time during those years that I will never get back, obsessing over things that could not have had less to do with who I was as a person. The beauty myth, engineered by powerful people and sustained by society at large, has stolen so much of women’s lives. What would reparations look like for women, I wonder, if we were paid in terms of lost time?

Another reparations question has to do with the loss of physical safety, mental well being, and financial compensation. A substantial part of Wolf’s narrative is about the harassment and violence women experience as a result of their physical bodies being scrutinized, judged, and dissected on a nonstop basis. It is interesting to read Wolf’s words in the context of the Me Too movement and to think about how much or how little has changed. Big names are being brought down but, so far, the assets behind the names seem to be staying largely intact. Meanwhile, the peace of mind and the careers of the women affected have been irrevocably damaged and, in some cases, ruined. What is the extent of the psychological and financial debt owed to women who have had chunks of their sanity and their futures stolen from them?

Every culture and subculture has its myths about beauty and every one of them punishes women who do not conform to the accepted ideal. Publicly shaming them. Insulting them. Shutting them out. Mutilating them. The goal – as Wolf rightly points out – is to control women and to distract them from the solidarity-building work they need to do to improve the quality of their own lives.

Twenty years ago, I wrote a poem called Life Lessons. Politically, it is a repudiation of the traditional socialization of girls that Wolf so vehemently condemns. On a personal level, it reminds me that, in spite of all the myths and the self shaming, all the insecurities and the covering up, somewhere in my twenty-something head, I was starting to “get it.”

Life Lessons

little girls should learn to swear before they learn to paint their faces
little girls should learn to run wild before they learn to part their hair
little girls should learn to fly before they learn to tie their shoes
little girls should learn to march before they learn to crawl

little girls should learn guts before they learn grace
little girls should learn to punch before they learn to kneel
little girls should learn to change a flat before they learn to scramble an egg
little girls should learn to speak their minds before they learn to surrender their bodies

little girls should learn to arm wrestle before they learn to act cute
little girls should learn “no” before they learn “please” and “thank you”
little girls should learn “I am love” long before they learn “I’m sorry”
little girls should learn that “happily married” is not one word and that “cunt” and “can’t” are equally profane

little girls should learn the power of self-defense before the religion of self-denial
little girls should learn that picking strong stocks is more crucial than mastering good flirts
little girls should learn fearlessness, selfishness, and irreverence before shame, acceptance, and docility
little girls should learn truth not lies, the truth about lies, and that truth never lies

we know what little girls should learn

but when


when will we teach them


Poem copyright 2000 by Stacy Torian. Originally published in the poetry volume Soul Speak.

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