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Reclaiming Our Conversations about Women

Posted by Lilli Schussler Jul 7, 2014 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A few weeks ago, Kate Middleton’s sister Pippa sat down with Matt Lauer of the Today show for her first-ever TV interview. Deemed a “worldwide exclusive,” this story should have delved deep into Pippa’s interests, aspirations, political insight, or at the very least, her personal relationship with her sister Kate. However, a large portion of Lauer’s questions concerned Pippa’s body. At the end of the interview, Lauer references a speech that Pippa once gave, in which she describes fame as having an “upside, downside,” – and, “you say it,” he laughs, coercing her to finish the sentence. Reluctantly, she complies, sheepishly muttering, “a backside.”

News events that focus on females’ appearances are so ubiquitous that their problematic nature is often overlooked. When sifting through the media in search of such articles, it becomes clear that they are far from hard to find. For instance, a web search for the key words “Hillary,” “Clinton” and “clothes” yields millions of results, with initial headings like “Why does Hillary Clinton Wear Such Bad Clothes,” and “Fallon Mocks Clinton for Dressing Like a Man.” A web search for “Bill,” “Clinton,” and “clothes” yields even more results, however the initial resulting content has little to do with Bill himself (instead, discussing Monica Lewinsky’s lingerie and “fashion faux pas”).

These are only a few examples in a sea of many. The abundance of this type of “news” demonstrates the emphasis that society places on women’s bodies and physical appearances. Society continues to critique women based on their looks and value them based on their alignment to stereotypically attractive characteristics. Such emphases overshadow more valuable traits like character, interests, and intelligence.

Discouraged after my media search, I began to feel a little hopeless. Luckily, this five-minute period of despair disintegrated when I received a link to a NYtimes article from my mom about the importance of eliminating ‘body talk’ (I swear she can read my mind). The article explores several different summer camps that emphasize valuing peers for who they are on the inside and not what they look like. One camp in New York, Eden Village, doesn’t allow campers to comment on other campers’ bodies, clothing choices, or general physical appearances. Instead, children are encouraged to make observations about their peers’ personalities and “spirits,” a task that doesn’t always come naturally. Instead of permitting campers to rely on superficial interactions, Eden Village rejects the use of this social crutch and pushes them to connect on a deeper level. In this safe haven, campers get a refreshing break from the appearance-based messages they are exposed to on an everyday basis, and are pushed to appreciate their peers for the valuable attributes found at their core.

Emphasis on physical appearance doesn’t just come from the media — it comes constantly from ourselves, as well. This article forced me to consider the role that image plays in my own interactions. In a large portion of my conversations, particularly with other women, I instinctually comment on a certain aspect of their physical appearance- “you look so stylish today,” or “your hair looks amazing — what did you do to it?” When meeting others, physical compliments are an easy and reliable way to form a connection. Despite the fact that fashion is undoubtedly an important form of expression and a way to inspire others, the sheer number of image-based comments felt creepily second-nature, like a reflex that I was barely cognizant of.

When I told my image-obsessed 12 year old cousin (who, to paint a better picture, has been reading Seventeen Magazine since elementary school and has a wardrobe comparable to Kylie Jenner) about the “no body talk” camps, her reaction wasn’t exactly the enthusiastic one I naively hoped for. “Come to think of it, your soul is really shining through today,” she said, rolling her eyes for a second before returning back to the latest photo on her Instagram feed. Yet, as ridiculous as it may seem to adolescents (or rather to anyone), the idea of breaking down our obsession with image is crucial to increasing our own confidence, self-acceptance, and gratitude for others. It may seem that snap judgements about physical appearance are somehow innate to humanity, and that no matter how hard you try not to notice your coworker’s fabulous new maxi dress, you can’t help it. However, I believe in the importance of maintaining control over our thought processes. Our perspectives are malleable, and with time and effort, our frameworks can shift. My first attempt at changing my own behavior felt incredibly unnatural, each refrain from complimenting felt like an interruption to the flow of my habitual conversation style. However, a conversation with a ten year old the other day reminded me of its true importance. Instead of taking the usual route to instant tween bonding- “adorable shirt,” or, “cute backpack,” I asked her if she had any specific hobbies. When she complimented me on my turquoise nail polish, I said thank you, moving on to ask her what books she was currently reading. Over the course of our conversation I learned that she loved to skateboard, had just started the Harry Potter series, and was fascinated with Salvador Dalí (so basically, she was the coolest ten year old I had ever met). Granted, it wasn’t the deepest conversation, but I was able to learn much more about her than I normally would have, grasping a deeper sense of what made her unique.

So where from here? I encourage us all to examine the role that physical appearance plays in daily interactions. Its ubiquity may surprise you. And for those of us who are particularly motivated, I challenge you to go through a whole day without commenting on any aspect of anyone’s physical appearance. Who knows — one day may turn into a week, a week into a month, and suddenly, this practice may even change the way you perceive the world. Find inspiration in how your friend supports you in a time of need, how a stranger anonymously returns your lost wallet, or how your brother’s positivity always reminds you to appreciate the small things. Compliment someone on their recent accomplishment at work or on their powerful listening skills. Outer beauty is certainly worth appreciating, but the most inspiring parts of humanity come from the deeper, meaningful moments that allow us to really connect with and understand others.

Nora Fleming is a rising senior at Tufts University studying Psychology and Sociology. A mentor with SWSG during the school year, she is thrilled to be working with the Boston office as the program intern this summer. Although her post-graduation plans are indefinite, she aspires to continue promoting the empowerment of young girls in whatever form it may take. When she is not working with SWSG, she enjoys listening to music, exploring new neighborhoods, and drinking lots of coffee.  

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