What You See is What I Am

-by Walt Mueller
2001, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

There’s a box full of gorgeous women up in my attic. I stumbled upon it a few weeks ago while I was up there looking for something else. The box full of Barbie dolls, clothes, and accessories brought back memories of the days when my now teenage girls were young enough to enjoy hours spent quietly playing with dolls.

Like most people, I never thought of Barbie as an educational toy. But when I was reminiscing through the box of Caitlin and Bethany’s forgotten plastic friends, I got to thinking about all the controversy poor Barbie has had to endure for supposedly teaching little girls unrealistic lessons about body image and what makes a woman attractive. For over forty years, Barbie has been held, dressed, undressed, looked at, and played with by three generations of little girls. Barbie’s critics tell us that during that time, millions of girls have unconsciously absorbed appearance standards that are even more unrealistic than those nasty arch problems with her feet. (I always felt sorry for Barbie – she was cursed with a foot problem so severe that whenever she kicked off her super high-heeled shoes, she had to walk around on the balls of her feet with her heels set high off the ground).

Someone once did a little calculating and discovered that if Barbie was a real live woman, she’d stand at 7′ 2″ and have 40-22-36 measurements. Her neck is twice the length of a normal human’s neck. Even with some radical foot surgery that might take her height down to 6’6″, she still doesn’t come even close to looking like the 5′ 4″, size 12, 37-29-40 average woman who lives here in North America. Perhaps there’s some legitimacy to the criticism Barbie’s taken. I’ve never met a young woman who’s felt the pressure to look average. Our culture is so permeated by an obsession with appearance that’s evolved steadily over time that we don’t even notice how bad and pervasive that standard is.

I remember the first time the issue reared it’s ugly head for me as a father. I had driven Caitlin over to her new school the day before she was to begin Kindergarten. It was around 3:30pm when we arrived at the school. The older students, who had started school a few days before, were climbing aboard their buses for the afternoon ride home. We got out of the car to head into the school. Six-year-old Caitlin’s hand was in mine. As she anxiously watched the older students leave, she looked up at me and asked, Daddy, what if kids make fun of me tomorrow?  Make fun of you? For what?, I asked. Her answer threw me: For what I’m wearing or for what I look like. I was dumbfounded. As parents, we had deliberately worked to downplay this pressure in our home. But somehow, the messages from our appearance-conscious culture had been heard.

Clinical Psychologist Mary Pipher, author of the best-selling book Reviving Ophelia, has been working for years with girls whose lives are bearing the fruit of this sad pressure. She believes that a national cult of thinness has developed over the last two decades. Standards of beauty have not only been defined and communicated by our culture, but they are standards that have become slimmer and slimmer. In 1950 the White Rock mineral girl weighed 140 pounds and stood 5′ 4″ tall. Today, she is 5′ 10′ tall and weighs 110 pounds.  Girls compare their own bodies to our cultural ideals and find them wanting, says Pipher. In all the years I’ve been a therapist, I’ve yet to meet one girl who likes her body. Girls as skinny as chopsticks complain that their thighs are flabby or their stomachs puff out. . . . They have been culturally conditioned to hate their bodies. . . . When I speak to classes, I ask any woman in the audience who feels good about her body to come up afterward. . . . I have yet to have a woman come up.

Don’t think that Barbie’s to blame for all this. Our media culture is feeding our kids – both our girls and our boys – young children and older teens – a steady diet of images and body-shape role models through every available outlet. All these messages combine to define a standard of appearance that few will ever reach, but an entire culture is striving to attain. You may wonder why your children are so consumed with spending time in front of the mirror. The answer is simple. They are trying to measure up to the images they’ve seen plastered on TV, the printed page, billboards, etc.. They balance perilously between trying to measure up, and the frustrating reality of never measuring up. Five year-old girls and boys who fret thinking they’re already too fat may be destined to spend a lifetime of energy and a small fortune pursuing the appearance standards defined by pop culture icons like Britney Spears and Brad Pitt. Once these icons get too old, fat, and wrinkled, someone else will take over as the standard bearer.

But it’s not just our kids. Our entire culture – children and adults alike – is living a lifestyle that screams, AI am what I look like. A walk through any shopping mall confirms this fact. Have you noticed how many businesses, advertisements, and items of merchandise are sold to improve image and appearance? If we stand back and take a look beneath the surface to see what all this has done to us, it’s not a pretty sight.

First, we care less about inward character, and more about outward appearance as the primary expression of who we are. Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg has traced this change in shifting values through American history. In her book, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, she notes how the lives of girls in the 19th century were oriented towards good works. Today, that orientation has shifted to good looks as girls have come to view their bodies as the primary expression of their identity. She discovered this shift in the tones of their personal diaries. In her book she includes some telling diary entries. An 1892 diary entry reads, Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversation and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others. Contrast that with this girl’s 1982 New Year’s resolution: AI will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can with the help of my budget and baby-sitting money. I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories.

Second, we denigrate fatness and idolize thinness.  Our boys are expected to have bulked-up, fat-less bodies. Our girls are expected to be skinny and thin. One girl told us that the girls in her high school look up to the women who star in the show Friends.  AEvery woman on that show is unrealistically skinny. But teen girls see those beautiful young women in their late 20’s and early 30’s and think that that’s how sophisticated and alluring women look. She goes on, More than ever before I’ve noticed young males being sucked into obsession with body image. The pressure shapes our self-concept, desires, and dreams. A 17-year-old named Jessica shared her poem Catalogs with Sara Shandler, the author of Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write About Their Search For Self. Jessica writes,

Searching through catalogues

you wish you could order

the bodies not the clothes.

Third, because we don’t like what we see in the mirror, we’re very unhappy. By the time they reach the age of thirteen, 53 percent of American girls say they are unhappy with their bodies. By the time they’re seventeen, 78 percent are dissatisfied. Have you noticed how much time kids (both girls and boys!) spend in front of the mirror trying to get things to look just right? Have you noticed how many outfits your son or daughter may try on before settling on one that looks just right? And have you noticed how irritable and frustrated they get during the process? Yes, things have changed. Kids were not spending any where near the time and energy to get ready before going out the door as kids do today. My mother was constantly stopping me to tell me to Comb your hair, tuck in your shirt, and pull up your zipper.Today’s gnawing dissatisfaction is well known in the retail business. When they go into a fitting room to try on jeans, the typical girl will try on fourteen pairs before making a purchase! The guys aren’t much different.

Fourth, our unhappiness leads us to take measures that are drastic, and sometimes even deadly. We diet, abuse laxatives, work out excessively, get plastic surgery, and take muscle building supplements. Some try to cope through eating disorders. Dr Jean Kilbourne, known for her pioneering work in critiquing advertising images, says that the obsession starts early. Some studies have found that from 40 to 80 percent of fourth-grade girls are dieting. Today at least on-third of twelve-to thirteen-year-olds are actively trying to lose weight, by dieting, vomiting, using laxatives, or taking diet pills. One survey found that 63 percent of high-school girls were on diets. (Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight The Addictive Power of Advertising). Another study showed that 36 percent of third grade boys had tried to lose weight. A recent study commissioned by the Girl Scouts of America confirmed that young girls are preoccupied with body image and they are trying to do something about it. One 5th grader quoted in the study says, I’ve been counting calories. I’m doing 1,000 to 2,000 calories a day. (USA Today, 9/13/00). In 1998, 22,000 American teens had cosmetic surgery – an increase of 95 percent since 1992. Then there is the sad fact of eating disorders – an epidemic closely related to this pressure to be thin and perfect. Today, it is estimated that anorexia, the third most common chronic illness in adolescent girls, is estimated to occur in up to three percent of all teenagers. Among children, 25 percent of the anorexics are boys. It is estimated that bulimia has personally touched the lives of up to 10 percent of the young women in America. Because these disorders often end up as slow suicides, it’s not stretching it to say that many young people are dying to be thin.

And finally, we’re learning and living some very sad lessons about a person’s value and worth. On the one hand, we make the mistake of failing to see God’s image, plan, and purpose in ourselves. On the other hand, we do the same to others. Today’s girls have to look like a supermodel to be acceptable to the guys. Sadly, our sons grow up with a distorted image of what makes a woman beautiful. The emphasis is not only on outward appearance, but a certain type of outward appearance. In turn, girls view guys by the external standards established in our culture. Nobody measures up and everyone is disappointed.

A friend recently told me about a website that she thought I should check out. I was a little concerned about what I was going to find when she gave me the site’s address: www.amihotornot.com. What I found was truly unique. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have posted a picture of themselves on the site. Once you look at a picture and rate the subject’s appearance on a scale of one to ten, a window pops up telling you the average of all the votes they’ve received. It was a sad commentary on what we’ve become.

What we’ve become is not what we were meant to be. Created with value and worth by a loving God who instilled His own image in each, we are people who need to stop idolizing and pursuing the false god of the perfect body. Instead, we must understand that our priority should be the development of inward character. The Scriptures are clear: God is not concerned with outward appearance. Rather, God is concerned with our hearts. That’s the message we should tell the one we see in the mirror and the message we should pass on to our kids.

Kendall Payne is a young woman who has felt the pressure. A talented singer/songwriter who has come to terms with the battle between inward and outward standards, she’s written an incredible song called Supermodels that speaks to us all:

The summer sun has come to stay

Bikinis, tans, outrageous legs

They’re all retarded and they all look the same

And Barbie’s body’s melting down

On her face a big fat frown

Because Mr. Cellulite just moved into town

Well me and B, we hate supermodels

It’s not that we know anyone personally

It’s just that I’m tired of being compared

The boys they come here

With expectations for the summer

And I refuse to take any part of this barbaric ritual

Because God has given me a mind

That I will use from time to time

And I got more on my head than what’s made by Paul Mitchell

Was it worth the tears you cried to fit the size?

Think it over once or twice

What lasts longer in this life

Character or rock hard thighs?

And in the end do you believe

That beauty lies in what you see?

Because if you do

Then baby you’ve been deceived

That’s the truth. And that’s the realistic lesson I want my kids to learn.


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