The Mirage of Female Body Image

What did you want to be when you were a little girl?

When I was about ten years old, I dreamt I would be a ballet dancer.  A ballerina, with a white tutu and pink pointed dancing shoes, lifted by a male dancer and placed gently back on my toes, after which I would easily perform rapid pirouettes. I wasn’t the only one infatuated with this perfect figure; a bunch of us, chubby, flabby girls, would stand outside a ballet school, watching the fortunate few engaged in movements which we would never be able to perform, not even after years of training.

I carry this memory as every woman, I believe, remembers her early childhood image of femininity. It may seem remote and irrelevant, but it defines our fundamental perception of what a woman should look like, and it is the first image against which we measure ourselves as sexual beings, as women-to-be.  This childish idea will probably change throughout life, perhaps even transform into something entirely different, but still, it is planted there, marking the root of the comparison with the woman of perfect appearance.  Setting our own body against this feminine model underlies the core of our female body image

I always felt it was bad luck that my rudimentary experience of femininity was a ballet dancer. She is, almost by definition, unlike anyone else – ordinary women can never reach her physical perfection in terms of flexibility, balance, and lightness of movement. Against her fragile appearance we all seem heavy and clumsy. And also, the classical ballet danseuse reveals almost no explicit sexuality, at least not in a plain corporeal manner, which could be embarrassing or vulgar. The ballerina is aestheticism without the flaws and imperfections of the human body; an almost spiritual manifestation of feminine beauty.

I used to think that sounder, more balanced cultures create ideal figures that are not so utterly remote from ordinary men and women. An icon of beauty will always look better than most people, but in a way that leaves room for a feeling that she or he can be imitated, at least to some degree. Ancient Greeks praised a well-toned symmetric female body, in the Middle Ages full, white- skinned women were idolized, the Renaissance created masterpieces of the soft, subtle female nude – but the ballerina, alas, could never be imitated as a model. Her charm is her exceptionality, a dream-like female figure, one that seems weightless and almost incorporeal, a dainty and pure ideal woman.

I was reminded of this frustrating childhood memory when I met my niece, about ten years old, at a family reunion. She sat next to me, embarrassed and sweet, smiling shyly to conceal her braces, wearing a tight shirt that revealed signs of early puberty. To make conversation, I asked her if there is anyone she adores, a singer or actress, someone who is her role model. “Rihanna” was her immediate response, “I want to be like Rihanna”.

An old frustration surfaced, envy took over me. How fortunate is this young girl that she doesn’t have to struggle with an idol so utterly different from herself, with an image of a woman she can never ever be. She is spared a comparison with a female figure who doesn’t just look better than herself but is incomparable. Rihanna is, of course, extremely talented and good-looking, very few can compete with her. But this young pre-teen can grow up perceiving herself as gradually becoming like her role model, without a childhood memory of embedded inferiority.

What is it about her that you like, I asked.  Would you like to have a singing career? She smiled bashfully, but then went into an expansive description of Rihanna: how tall she is, the color of her eyes and of her dyed hair, her weight, the size of her clothes, the exact measurements of her body, her shoe size, her preferred diet, her exercise routine, and also—what type of men she is attracted to. This very detailed description left me speechless.

So is she better off than I was at her age, comparing myself to a ballet dancer? A concrete concept of beauty is rooted in each one of us — a person we know, an artist, a public figure – someone who perfectly fits our personal idea of good looks and attractiveness. But in spite of the fact that she, or he, has well- distinguished features, the image of beauty is also somewhat abstract. In our mind, the person that we want to resemble is a silhouette, an outlined figure that we fill with our own mental perception of good looks.

Youngsters these days are exposed to loads of information, which once available, cannot be ignored. They can no longer fill in the silhouette with their imagination. It may seem as if female role models are more accessible, more similar to ordinary women, but perhaps the excess of information makes their impact even more frustrating than that of my ballerina.

My young niece isn’t hoping she will be a successful artist, feminine in a strong and sexy fashion, revealing her individualism in provocative ways, and conducting herself in the business world. She is eager to be 1.73 m. tall, weigh 57 kg, have green eyes and black dyed hair, bra size 34b, body measurements of 75-60-80 and size 9 shoes.

I am not sure this is any better than my infatuation with the nearly fleshless ballerina.

 

4 Comments

  • Emanuela Rubinstein says:

    Marlene, I saw this comment now. It is a shame that girls are pushed to this place that they need follow in a very accurate manner a role model. I thought is it deifferent now, but the conversation with my niece taught me a lesson.
    I am a ‘victim’ of seven years of piano lessons… I find it hard to appreciate classical music. People don’t accept the fact that sometimes you need to let go, let the child choose his/her way without endless pressure.

  • Your penultimate paragraph is very fine. It really locks in the essay’s meaning. The photo is ambivalent, sort of cute, except that a whiplash second look makes me realize it is sad and pathetic. So much ignorant effort adults are putting this little girl through. Good to think about all this. I never took dancing or ballet lessons. Piano lessons helped me appreciate aesthetics and artistic patterns. I didn’t think about my body until, in the early teens, I was made to feel that my weight was a problem. As I grew older this problem was connected, by me and others, to success or failure in getting a boyfriend and later a husband. I’ve never lost the satisfactions of artistry and aesthetics nor have I lost the worries about my weight.

  • emanuelarubinstein@gmail.com says:

    Hi there,
    I wanted to respond immediately, but your comment is really thought provoking.
    First, I think you agree with me that too much information on “Rihanna” is destructive, even if the person herself is a good role model. Clearly we can’t be the exact same person.
    But as for the girl next door – you made me think of my own “next door girl” when I was a teenager (a long time ago). All I can say that is retrospective, I think the ballerina caused more damage to my self-esteem. As years go by, I think eventually we look on our schoolmates differently, and life provides plenty of opportunities to reexamine them. But the ideal figure of a woman that was planted in my mind somehow lasted much longer.

    Thank you for you comment! It really is a pleasure.

  • sarah c. says:

    –Before you read this, I wanted to apologize for how lengthy it got! It seems you tapped into something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, mostly for the sake of my young cousins!–

    Hi there,

    I stumbled upon your blog after seeing a comment you made on NYT.com about Somaly Mam. Anyway, I just wanted to say I really enjoyed reading this post. I hadn’t recently thought about the ballerina as an archetypal figure of beauty but I think you have brought up a thought-provoking juxtaposition between your idealized ballerina and your niece’s beloved Rihanna.

    When you described the ballerina as “dainty,” “weightless,” and “incorporeal,” I immediately pictured the work of Degas. While ballerinas were often his subject matter, it rings true that they retain that ethereal, seemingly intangible nature which blurs their role as defined models. Often, those figures were not precisely delineated, but rather enchantingly surrounded by flowing, gauzy materials adding to the pleasant, painterly flow of their movements and ultimately obscuring the exactness of their physiques and realities. It’s as if the element of intangibility or the inability to fully capture/imitate them (in art or life) resonates with both Degas’ depictions and your suggestion of ballerinas as the beacon of femininity and beauty. My point is that I thought this was particularly intriguing in the age of rampant self-comparison within my generation and those younger than me. Perhaps my idolization of ballet as a child waned as I entered middle school and high school, where peers, the corresponding Queen Bees, and social media grew to most directly shape my idea of attainable beauty and “coolness”–the ultimate measure of peer acceptance.

    The ballerina versus Rihanna speaks volumes to the impact of access to, and availability of, thousands, if not millions, of sources of comparison/idols for a young girl such as your niece. While she gravitated towards Rihanna and soaked up endless details (I chuckled that she even knew her shoe size), I think there’s a more pressing problem creeping into the next generation and my own (I’m 23). When I was in lower school (late 1990s), Mary Kate and Ashley Olson were all the rage. I knew what clothes they had, what sorts of cute boys they dated in their movies, and how they did their hair. The information was available to a considerable extent even before the Internet (which I assume was your niece’s source for Rihanna 101, although it seems she’s more prepared for a dissertation than a freshman seminar). Pre-internet, I’d take notice of what the cool girls in school had: certain pencils and erasers, alternating colors of nail polish, etc. which–as these things go–shaped my 8-year-old desires, wants, and definitions for what was “cool.”

    But something changed with not only the introduction of the Internet but also the rampant adoption of social media. Now, my observations of what made Sally Smith “the coolest/prettiest/most popular,”–aka my insecurities–were available 24/7 even after the school day’s final bell. As if seeing her incredibly cool, sparkly folders in math class five days a week weren’t enough, I now could go home and access hundreds–if not thousands–of photos of Sally, all of her friends, her trendy outfits, etc. The list is endless.

    The previously unattainable, undefined silhouette of the ballerina is now exactingly, excruciatingly filled in; the modern day young female (or anyone with insecurities or ideal images of XYZ component of desirability) can tell you everything you would ever want to know about their ideal ballerina equivalent including–and certainly not limited to–her measurements, likes, dislikes, number of likes on her Facebook or Instagram, etc. as evidenced by your niece. This ideal ballerina/cheerleader/Queen Bee has become a precise construct of what’s desirable as well as something even more detrimental: a constant reminder of the laundry list of qualities you lack, vacations you haven’t been on, or dance competitions you could never qualify for, let alone win. Most significantly in today’s age: this laundry list is quite literally carried with us at all times via social media on smartphones. Girls that are unsuitable for ballet no longer have those brief, painful glimpses in to the intoxicatingly glamorous world on the other side of the dance studio’s glass, just as my Sally Smith takeaways from a school day would no longer by out of sight by the time Mom would greet me in the carpool line. Those windows are in our pockets, those takeaways on every computer screen, those sparring reminders permeating our realities.

    This unhindered access to endless, precise definitions of “ideal beauty,” social clout, peer acceptance, and the grueling self-reflection that follows, makes me think nostalgically to those days of undefined silhouettes although I must concede that I may be too young to have ever fully known those days. Ending any day–now or then–in front of a mirror would function as a painful reminder of our insecurities. And yet, at least those insecurities weren’t augmented by direct 24/7 reminders of what we aren’t and what we lack, affixing and cementing them into our constructs of self image.

    The elusive ballerina and Rihanna at least have one thing in common: they aren’t the girl sitting next to us in middle school, the cheerleader getting every boy’s attention at lunchtime, the fellow college student getting the job you wanted, or the peer getting engaged to what seems to be the perfect guy (for which if I had doubts, I could turn to his 2,000 photos online to be reminded of his classic good looks, Harvard degree, perfect family, and philanthropic pursuits aka heart of gold). The elusive ballerina and Rihanna are lofty, idealized receding horizons of perfection and success. At least I can acknowledge that and justify my shortcomings as being compared to the supremes…the outliers. I can intellectually comprehend their unattainability.

    It’s far more painful to reconcile my peers’ realities, successes, enviable qualities (albeit, meticulously crafted social media portrayals of such) with my own. Sally Smith lives down the street from me; my envy for Rihanna’s Grammy and/or the fictional ballerina’s perfect figure pales in comparison to the sting of Sally’s admittance into Stanford, for which she found out while on vacation in Aruba, the photos of which look magical, on which she got 400 “likes” on Instagram.

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