A Grown-Ass Woman

Facebook memes, professors, and the women we are supposed to be

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This week, I made the mistake of opening up Facebook. I know I should delete it, but I occasionally check it for town gossip. Which real estate agent dressed as a Border Patrol agent for Halloween? Which restaurant just posted an offensive meme about Black Lives Matter? Log into Facebook and find out.

This time, I checked it and saw a meme comparing Kendall Jenner to Alyssa Carson, a 20-year-old NASA enthusiast who has attended many space camps. 

The image has pictures of both women side by side. Jenner is in a bathing suit and her image is crossed out. Carson is dressed in a blue jumpsuit with a space helmet under her arm.

The caption reads:

LEFT: American model Kendall Jenner in a swimsuit showing what for many is the perfect body in a woman. A few days ago this picture went viral.

RIGHT: Alyssa Carson, the 19-year-old astronaut who became the youngest person in history to pass all NASA aerospace tests and who is now preparing to be the first human to travel to Mars. Heard of her? 

I think it’s about time we rethink our ideals and aspirations as a society, don’t you?

Our daughters need role models to look up to not look at. Get better role models.

The image was shared uncritically by a professor at a local university. And seeing it immediately made me want to punch the internet. While Carson is a space enthusiast and uses her enthusiasm to encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM, she is not part of any NASA training program. The phrasing of the meme is actively misleading — “now preparing to be the first human to go to Mars” just means that she hopes to one day. Which is a great goal, if that’s your goal. But there is also absolutely nothing wrong with being a famous model, which is also great work if you can get it.

Both seem to be the same kind of enterprise. Brutalize your body so it can be shot into a space by a rocket, or shot in a space by a camera.

The juxtapositioning of the images is designed to clearly communicate what women ought to be. One can safely assume that Carson also wears swimsuits, but that’s not the point. The point is to drag two women into a conversation that they were not having. The language copies the language of empowerment, but it’s still a trap. Be one woman, not the other. Look like a kid playing NASA dress up, instead of an entrepreneur making bank on Instagram.

The first Miss America pageant happened 100 years ago in 1921. The winner was Margaret Gorman, a 16-year-old girl, remarkable only because she did not look like the prevailing beauties of the day. She had long hair and wore long skirts at a time when women were bobbing their hair and hiking their skirts. 

Historian Kimberly Hamlin wrote of that first pageant, “The judges were looking for the contestant whose looks a persona radiated a particular type of womanhood—innocent, traditional, and non-threatening—and whose image would convey certain behavioral codes to the rest of America.” 

In her history of the Miss America pageant, Hilary Levey Friedman notes that the pageant was established right after the 19th Amendment was passed and that it immediately became a site for “people to project their concerns about women. The hundreds of women who competed in Atlantic City as bathing beauties were bold. They were appearing in public, and their bodies and looks were clearly assessed. This was forward and daring in so many ways. And, yet, they were totally silenced. They did nothing except stand, smile, and look pretty.”

The pageant was both forward and reactionary. It celebrated women in bathing costumes, but reinforced the standards of what beauty and a woman ought to be. Girlish, unadorned, non-threatening, and so very white.

Read: The End of Miss America

The meme posits the body of a grown woman against the body of a young girl. Carson is 20 years old. But the photo depicts her as a young girl. Jenner is 25 years old, but her picture is of a fully formed grown-ass woman. And she is X’d out. I think of Gorman, how her girl body was held up as an emblem of what a Miss America ought to be — virginal, youthful, non-threatening. Girls are allowed. It’s women this meme takes issue with. Women in all their fullness and complications. Their heavy beautiful bodies.

I recently re-read The Story Girl by Lucy Maud Montgomery. It’s a book that I have long cherished for giving me a roadmap out of the modes and modalities of the womanhood I was taught to aspire to — a mother, a wife, someone lovely, someone desirable, someone who could cook and manage a household. In it, Sara Stanley is none of those things. Instead, she tells stories.

As a young girl and eventually a teen, The Story Girl was basically a bible for bucktoothed girls. I read it my junior year, locked in the high school bathroom, when I had no one to eat lunch with. I read it in eighth grade when Tim B. told Jenny D. that I was too ugly to have a crush on. I read it again and again, after a woman at church told me my sister’s were so beautiful. And when I said, “I know,” she replied, “It’s so great when you can acknowledge other people’s beauty without jealousy.”

When I re-read it a few weeks ago, I was horrified at how focused on looks it was. How every child is so dramatically described, and even the boys, especially the boys, are always trying to overcome the burden of their appearances. And how — it’s so clear now, in a way it wasn’t then — the message was, if you cannot be ornamental, you must be entertaining.

I realize now, after years of therapy about my compulsive need to entertain and ease the anxieties of other people around me, that for what LMM and Sara Stanley and I felt was liberation, was another trap entirely. 

American womanhood is just falling from one trap to another.

If you can’t be pretty, be fun at parties. Don’t be beautiful, be smart. It’s all a shifting standard. Surely, Jenner’s business acumen, her knowledge of culture and ability to know what people want is an intelligence. Isn’t that as valuable as going to Mars? Whose intelligence is being privileged? Whose skills are devalued? Why is science a better use of time than fashion? 

I fell for the trap and made a Facebook comment. I hate making Facebook comments. It’s like my one rule, after “Don’t reply to hate mail unless you can think of something funny in one sentence or less.” But I did it. I said the meme was sexist and pitted two women against each other, one as more desirable than the other. And the professor wrote back that he wasn’t sexist. No, it was society’s sexist standards he was pointing out.

The old, I can’t be sexist; it’s society that is sexist

But that meme doesn’t offer the freedom he thinks it does. For some women, it’s a relief. But what of the others? The ones with bodies? The ones with business smarts and marketing skills?

Back in February, I received a Facebook message from an old professor. He was someone I respected. Someone who gave me books to read outside of class and never balked when I went overboard on an assignment. He taught me to think outside the rigid confines of the faith I had been raised in and gave me stories of wild female saints, who defied and burned for it. I felt like he was one of the first people who took me seriously. Who treated me as an intellect. And in the intervening years, I’ve visited him and sent him the occasional email.

In his message, he told me he thought I was too angry. That he didn’t recognize the person I’d become in my writing. 

The message crushed me. Not because he was right, but because it showed me he had never seen me as a person to begin with. A whole grown-ass person. Too angry? What was an acceptable limit of anger for a woman? What amount of feeling could I have that would have made him feel more comfortable with me? With my words? With my career?

I didn’t reply. There was nothing to say that hadn’t been said over and over again. By women century after century. 

As Rebecca Traister wrote in November:

Little girls are more comfortable because they are a kind of woman over whom parents, and imagined parents — and party leaders — wield literal authority. When we blur our view of real, adult women, and replace them with nonspecific children, still unformed symbols of potential, our imaginations can fashion these little girls as unblemished and future-perfect, the political equivalent of cinema’s manic pixie dream girl: the fantasized woman who meets our every desire, as opposed to the present woman who somehow, weirdly and inevitably, lets us down.

I do not know who my professor thought I would be. But I disappointed him. A week later, another male mentor wrote to say I had disappointed him too. I also did not reply. However I had failed, I had done so merely by becoming an adult.

It just reminded me that we raise girls to be limitless, but make it hard as hell for grown-ass women to do anything.

Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email which includes interviews, essays and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics and our bodies and more.