Anything you want to be…

I am the child of a man who was born in 1928 and a woman born in 1931.  I am not their biological child, but I lived with them, was raised and loved by them from the time I was six months old.

I do not (mentally) belong to my generation in many ways.  I have a world view that often locates me closer to the parents of my peers than to my actual peers in age, and that was noticeable from a young age in me.  One of my teachers remarked at a conference with my parents (when I was in 4th grade) that I seemed to enjoy talking with teachers and adults more than associating with the other children.   Mom and Dad both voiced concerns after that conversation that they were too old to be raising children of my generation because they were afraid that they’d make my sister and I into social misfits.

That said… I have often read about people who talk about so-called “millennials” as having been raised with this cock-eyed optimistic idea that, “they can grow up and become anything they want.”  Well, I am here to tell you that it must have been in the water in the 1980’s and 90’s because my parents both believed that my sister and I could grow up to become “anything” we wanted, and I know they thought that because one day (during the election of 1992) I asked my dad if there were any women running for president.  He almost turned the car around looking into the back seat so quickly at me to ask why I wanted to know.  I just asked because it seemed to me that I’d heard a lot about two guys running for president but no women, and yet I had been raised with very strong women all around me.  A woman was my pediatrician.  Women were allowed to be deacons and priests in the Episcopal church already.  I was an acolyte, and a woman was our organist at church.  My mother was a teacher.  My aunts were both gainfully employed all of my youth.  Most of my teachers were women.  I was surrounded by successful, career-minded women.  It was logical to me that there must be a woman running for president too (behold the child mind that doesn’t grasp the two-party system, and let’s face it, I’ve never grasped it).  I will never forget how slow my father was to answer.

“There has never been a woman president.”

The next question was predictable and inevitable for me.  “Why?”  My father said that he honestly didn’t know why a woman had not yet been elected president.  Finally the last question of the interview was raised and I asked my father if I could some day be President of the United States.  He gave me a broad smile and said, “You can be anything you want to work hard enough to achieve.”

My sister and I were raised by children of The Great Depression, who believed in the power of hard work, and they invested heavily in that concept in their own lives.  They also believed, manifestly, in the idea that a given sex could never bar a human from their chosen aspirations if only they would work hard enough to achieve it.

Which is why, when I look at the following article, I struggle to believe my eyes.  I used to let my students come into my classroom during the lunch period if they wanted because I had prep periods during two of the grade-level lunches.  It was useful at first for helping students through passages, solo and ensemble practice or various other things, but I had a gaggle of kids who just used my room as a hang out during lunch.  During one of these lunch times I had a student  standing next to me at the piano watching me practice, and she could see the top of my head.  She said suddenly, “You have a lot of gray hair!”  I turned to her and remarked that she’s surely the reason my hair was turning gray, and they must’ve matched her mother’s.  This kind of banter was normal for that student and I, but what followed next wasn’t.  She remarked to me that a lot of the students thought I would look younger if I’d wear makeup to school, “You know, like you do at concerts.”  I told her that I didn’t want to put makeup on my face every day because there are known carcinogens in most of it, it’s expensive to own and use every day, and I didn’t want to invest the time in the mornings when I had an infant to get out the door to daycare before work as well.  She asked me what carcinogens were and I said, “Toxins known to cause cancer if the human comes into contact with it frequently enough.”

The next day my bare-faced student came to see me and said, “All my makeup had carcinogens in it. Why do they sell that stuff???”   (I have found out since a few days ago that she has gone on to become a biology major at a UW school.  Maybe this all planted a seed? I wouldn’t know unless I asked her.) My young student found herself, though, in a bizarre double-bind later that same week.  Once again at lunch hour she was standing next to me as I was practicing piano.  I think she stood there watching me because she’d only started piano lessons that year and I have the intuition she was trying to follow the notes.  Just as suddenly she said, “I have to tell you something because it’s driving me crazy.  I can’t put that makeup on my face anymore because I’m scared I’ll get cancer if I wear it every day, but I also hate going without it because I’m afraid everyone will think I’m ugly.”

To this day I get chills remembering that conversation.  She was a gorgeous teenager.  Some teenagers (I have painful recollections of my own years enduring it) have break-outs and a terrible complexion no matter what they do.  Not her.  Some teenagers are already starting to lose the athleticism, flexibility and naturally slender build of childhood, but not this girl.  Some girls have to do amazing routines to get their hair to be just how they want it.  Not my student.  Her hair was long, glossy, and perfect.  She was the kind of student I used to look at with pure envy as a teenager.  There’s not a human on Earth who would have believed this girl’s name and the word “ugly” could be connected.  Not a line on her face, not fully 13, and already my student was a makeup addict.

Makeup does weird things to your brain when you use it.  It evens out your complexion to create the illusion of purely flawless skin.  With makeup you can highlight all the best features of your face and work to reduce to almost nonexistence its flaws.  The problem with wearing makeup every single day is that most people start to lose their perception wearing it.  Many of us know someone or have ourselves been in the position of being the girl whose grip on how our faces look to a stranger or even to our friends has slipped.  Suddenly we start applying more mascara than ever, ever more eye shadow, ever deeper shades of lipstick.  Try scaling it back and suddenly we think we aren’t complete without it.  Try going bare-faced all together and you start dealing with the anxiety: “What if I’m ugly without makeup?”

A beautiful girl had fallen prey to this.  Thousands and thousands of beautiful young women in the US fall prey to this every year.  They start down that path of perceiving how they themselves are perceived (which is normal in the development of both sexes because it is a sign of maturity, the development of true theory of mind), but girls have to do it through a gaze that doesn’t even belong to their peers.  Young women obtain a gaze directed at them that is medial.  Everywhere they walk are images of so-called “perfect” figures, faces, clothes, hair and makeup.  These images have been with them since they could see greater than a distance of 10 feet.  They saw their mother’s face every day, but there were these other faces too: faces on televisions, faces on magazines, faces in movies, faces that are famous, powerful… Too beautiful to be true.  These girls grow older, they hear the comments grown men make about grown women, and don’t you fool yourselves for one moment believing they don’t internalize the messages men hand women about being a “piece of ass” or being “a 10”.  Every teenage girl knows that she wants to be a 10 because all her life she’s seen the before and afters, she has played with her mother’s makeup, put on Mommy’s shoes and dressed up.  She has heard the praise she gets for looking her best, praise boys don’t often receive or with the same intent.  The praise a boy receives for putting on a suit is often that he looks “like a little gentleman,” or “a young man.”  But we tell our girls that they’re beautiful.  We encourage the pursuit of that beauty above and beyond all things, and, yet we wonder how teenagers develop low self-esteems and ever greater reliance on the cultivation of an outer-self as opposed to a necessary focus on the inside.

Which is the reason I started with the idea of “you can be anything you want to be.”  Why are we telling girls that the most important thing they could ever want to be is attractive???  We tell girls and boys they can be what their hearts desire as long as they have the work ethic, but then we turn boys loose on their dreams while allowing it to be reinforced to young girls in every way conceivable that their dreams will come true easier and the rewards will be more fulfilling if they look good on the way.

And while I think that certainly part of the reason for the hard-sell here on attractiveness is cultivating business and economics (how much is the women’s fashion industry worth in yearly earnings?) I believe that we have ancient cultural values as well that we have not yet put to rest.  We have the temerity to say to young girls “go for your dreams”, but we haven’t dismantled the apparatus that still tells her that it’s her body that’s a 10, and not her mind.

And, somehow, it has to stop.


~ by Rebecca Erickson on January 11, 2017.

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