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.