In Search of the Perfect Woman…(hint: she’ll never, ever exist)

One of my favorite movies is Cameron Crow’s, “Almost Famous.” As a musician and sometime musical historian, I found so many things to love about the film. The script was well-written, cinematography superb, the story was written with love for the characters, love for the music, love for the time period. In today’s world in which love is just a corny, impractical, idealistic notion that doesn’t bring in much money and, therefore, isn’t valuable, i.e., doesn’t sell magazines or products advertised on TV, I found the loving way in which this movie was made to be impressive (and rather lovely, I might add.)

The actors, of course, were all brilliant. Even those with small roles. I can’t forget the man who portrayed the hotel clerk who informed the aspiring journalist that his mom had called and that, “She freaked me out.”

So I was very impressed to have just read that the actress portraying the kid-journalist’s older sister in the film, Zooey Deschanel, had written the following letter to “Vogue” when she was only 17:

“Why would you want to limit the spectrum of beauty to an ‘ideal’ when you, as a popular women’s magazine, have the opportunity to expand it? I don’t think any woman should have to feel as if she needs to shove herself into an ‘ideal’ to be beautiful. Beauty should be something that is celebrated and something that is enjoyable, not something that people should feel uncomfortable about achieving. Most of the women, and certainly most of the adolescent girls, in the United States do not feel completely secure with themselves, especially with their appearance; is insecurity something you want to advocate? As American women, we don’t need discouragement but inspiration.”

–Zooey Deschanel, Los Angeles, CA

Indeed!  It seems the stereotypes of women who must be physically perfect, perfectly thin, skin perfectly clear, hair perfectly soft (no frizz!) and perfectly cellulite-free will never end. When will women stop buying those fashion magazines? When will women cease to being just sexual objects? When will we ever be people?

Perhaps never, I’d say, optimist that I am.  Because whether you are “beautiful” or not it seems that as a woman it is impossible to feel good about yourself.

The beautiful woman is resented by other women who are jealous. “Who does she think she is? She’s asking for it.” And she’s stereotyped by men who may enjoy her body and the general appearance of her physique but will not allow her respect in business circles.

Certainly the Anna Nicole Smiths of the world will earn a decent living–to the extent that they will use and be used by lonely/dirty old men. But what of the beautiful woman who refuses to give in? Who refuses to be objectified? Who says no to the old man and tries to make it in the business world while remaining herself, remaining physically attractive but not ready to “sleep her way to the top”?  My question is, do such women make it to the top?

My memory goes back to a seminar I attended years ago. It was a gathering of women musicians. The topic for discussion? Discrimination against women in the music industry. “Oh, you’re a girl!?” was the response one woman got when she showed up for a band rehearsal. They’d unwittingly allowed a girl to enter their inner circle.  While female singers are widely accepted, most of us women musicians, particularly those of us who play rock/pop music, face insurmountable obstacles to success. Some people just don’t believe women should play the guitar, bass or drums. It’s just that simple. Can we change people’s minds? No, they can only do that for themselves. Sorry, but we can’t change other people’s minds.

I once performed at a small club and a friend attended my performance. He told me that when he went to the men’s room another musician approached him, assumed he was a musician as he had long hair, and invited him to a jam session the guys were attending. I then noticed this musician handing out flyers to other men in the audience. Although I’d played that night and received a good response, the man avoided me. In fact, he excluded. I was not invited to jam, but my friend (whom he’d never even heard play, didn’t even know for sure that he was a musician) was invited. His qualifications? He went to the bathroom differently than moi.

But back to the seminar. Many women musicians spoke up about being excluded from jam sessions, from collaborating with other musicians, from forming bands, etc.  But there was one woman who’d been excluded from all this sexism.

Finally, after many women had spoken about their own horror stories as female musicians, she got the courage to speak up.  She seemed pretty much beside herself when she said:

“I don’t know what you women are talking about. I’ve never faced discrimination as a woman musician!”

Why, oh why, did I not speak up?  Because you see, there was something very different about this woman, a reason, perhaps, as to why she did not experience discrimination. No, it wasn’t her fantastic skill or her flair for irrelevant speech. It was something almost laughable and, frankly, I mentally kick myself now for not having spoken up against her accusation that we women were just imagining that male musicians were disrespecting or discriminating against us in any way.

You see, she was, herself, in fact a man.  Well, not really. But she looked exactly like a man. Short hair, flat chested and dressed in a plain shirt and pants, men’s clothing, she gave her femininity away simply by announcing it. Her voice was androgynous–could have been a man with a high voice or a woman with a low voice.  Her throat was hidden by a collar so we couldn’t search for an Adam’s Apple.

So there she was, this man-woman, androgynous creature, this woman who’d given up her femininity, her womanhood, so that she could be successful in the music industry.

“I don’t face discrimination!” She might have stated self-righteously, but was this really true?  If we need to give up who we really are, to suppress ourselves, and become like men in order to succeed then in what type of success are we really achieving?

I remember auditioning for an all-female band expecting I wouldn’t face the discrimination I’d felt from male musicians only to be told, “You need to lose weight.” They didn’t hear my guitar playing and weren’t interested in my guitar playing at all. My weight interested them more. At the time I may have been 10-20 pounds overweight so I wasn’t exactly a human balloon and wasn’t exactly what others would call unattractive either. In fact, many men enjoy my voluptuous physique. But it was women discriminating against me, enforcing the “Vogue/Cosmopolitan/corporate American/fashion industry/Hollywood code for female beauty upon me.

And my question is, why do women do this to ourselves, to each other?  If we really want the world to change, we need to be the change we seek.

Now, as the years have passed me by, I realize that I felt old when I was young, fat when I was voluptuous, and ugly, yes ugly when I discovered that everyone around me considered me to be the “pretty girl.”  When I lived in Los Angeles, I was told that I was a little “on the big side” of things when I fit into a size 4 skirt. (And that was for the part of a movie extra, an actor rarely seen and kept merely in the background of a film.) They decided that even though I was “big” they’d use me in the background of one of their crowd scenes because there just weren’t enough size zeroes that day.

And that size zero fascinates me too. It’s as though they want us women to disappear, to get smaller and smaller until we’re a zero, a nothing.  And then we barely exist at all.

Also in Hollywood, I watched a 19 year old girl turned away from a modeling agency because, as she was told, she was “too old.”

Oh, and believe you me, I have a lot more stories I could tell.  I’ve had the strange experience of talking to man who stared at my breasts (not my eyes or any part of my face, but my breasts) the entire time I spoke to him.  Once, I walked down a street in Los Angeles, wearing a t-shirt and jeans, not very glamorous I can assure you, and a woman who happened to pass me by stared at me up and down then glared at my breasts disapprovingly.  You see, I am what some people refer to as “well-endowed.”  That is just the way that God made me, nothing artificial there.  But it is amazing how much hate I’ve received from women who apparently, do not feel good about their own bodies and are reminded by how much they hate their own bodies whenever they see women like me. And there are the men who hate us for not being the sluts they’d like to call us. We refuse to “sleep around” choosing instead to earn good grades in college and pursue our careers. They hate us because we defy the angry stereotype they’ve created.

I suppose that beautiful women make them feel vulnerable. It must be hard for them to be attracted to women who are not attracted to them in return. And so they take back their power by demeaning the attractive woman. They call us bitches or witches. We’re unruly women, women who refuse to be controlled or used by men. They love the Anna Nicole Smiths of the world because they give in and allow men to use their bodies. But those of us who remain pretty and voluptuous but choose to emphasize and cultivate our minds rather than our bodies…well, we seem to pose some sort of threat.

And so it hurts to be beautiful just as it hurts not to be beautiful. But really what is ‘beautiful’ anyway?  The late, great comedian Richard Jeni once joked about how while we women neurotically fret about our physical appearance, men always think they’re attractive, even when they’ve become old, cranky, and pot-bellied.

“This is my theory: women use different mirrors than men. Women look in the mirror, and they always think that they look worse than they look in real life.       Guys look in the mirror, and they always think they look substantially better than they look in real life.  No matter how much of a three-toed, furry-knuckled troglodyte that guy is, he figures he is 4 or 5 sit ups from being in a hot tub with (model) Cindy Crawford…”  –the late, great Richard Jeni

This hearkens me back to yet another L.A. experience.  While shopping in a store, I was approached by an elderly man with a hunched back and uncontrollable tremor.  Hobbling up to me with his feeble, shaky hands barely grasping hold of his cane, he appeared to be in his 80s and resembled Dracula’s Renfield.  “Would you like to go out?” he asked me. Yep, he was asking me out on a date.  He saw what appeared to be a pretty, young starlet and thought that as an 80-year-old great-grandfather he’d be a perfect match for her.  But that’s not all.  When I politely declined, he actually got persistent.  “Are you sure?”  “Yes,” I replied.  “I’m sure.”

How is it that even the most stunning woman is preoccupied with that pocket of fat, or newly-formed wrinkle but an 80-something old man still thinks he’s “hot.”  I can honestly remember feeling old, fat and ugly when I was 12. Well, I’m a lot older than 12 now and, oddly, I’m starting to feel younger.  That’s because I rarely watch television anymore and I avoid advertisements like the plague.

I think we’ve all seen countless films depicting a hapless, unattractive nerd who somehow ends up with the most beautiful woman in the film.  The message is always the same: men don’t need to improve themselves or to be attractive in any way, but women, on the other hand, must always, always, always be perfect–even to attract the fat, sloppy, goofball sitting in the corner.  Yep, a guy can “let himself go,” grow that belly, burp loudly in public, and be a total creep but he dreams that the prettiest girl, the one with perfect skin, perfect teeth and hair, and perfect figure will choose him. He isn’t ready to make himself better for her.  He’s not working out at the gym or refining his manners but just expects her to do all the work of living up to his standards while she need not impose any of her own standards on him (lest she be called the “b” word–rhymes with “witch.”)

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