Thoughtful Revolution

The Perfect-Girl Paradigm

(or, Why We Need To Shift The Way We Look At Young Women)

Embarrassing and little-known secret: For the first seven or eight years of my life, I had a serious fairytale habit. My second-wave egalitarian parents, who plied me early on with Legos and Girls Can Do Anything, looked on in horror as I devoured Disney movie after Disney movie, as I worked my way through crates full of the world’s fables, myths and princess stories, as I dressed myself in pint-size gowns that would put a wedding cake to shame. Granted, by third grade, I had started developing a critical eye towards said obsession, writing a book report that denounced the — and I quote — “sexism, ageism, racism, and lookism” of my favorite stories. (Clearly, little has changed since I had feet the size of Snickers bars.)

Thus, via this phase and the reactions it elicited, I learned something very quickly: that fairytales were bad and wrong because, among other reasons, they elevated female beauty to a stratospheric plane. In a fairytale, a woman is (generally) not recognized for her sense of humor, her fashion sense, or her terrific fastball; Prince Charming elevates her out of obscurity on the basis of extraordinary beauty. It is worth pointing out that that beauty cannot be on the level of “above average” or “cute.” The successful princess-to-be is always described in superlatives, her face the fairest in the land, her hair more golden than the radiant sun. There is no room for a single freckle — or, God forbid, a zit — on her narrow button of a nose. While it is certainly true that there are no ugly princesses, there are also no pretty princesses; a woman’s beauty must literally be beyond mortal imagination to register in a fairy-tale.

The problem is, even after I learned from the adults around me that intelligence, not beauty, is the important factor in a woman, I didn’t leave that paradigm behind.

And I’m not just talking about physical insecurity, though I am, despite my best efforts, humiliated by my body — it would take a small miracle for a young girl to grow up immersed in our culture and feel entirely comfortable in her own skin. No, I’m talking about the expectation of perfection we have for young women; when we are taught to literally replace beauty with intelligence in our judgment, that expectation (as abstract and flexible and fraught with nasty baggage as it is) can become as oppressive as the norms we seek to escape. There must, it seems, always be some impossible standard by which to judge a young girl, some self-improvement footrace with no finish line. 5.0 weighted GPA, captain of five different extracurriculars, glowing reports from teachers? Merely bright, in a corporate-establishment conformist valedictorian sort of way, a good test-taker, lacks originality and individual spark, we’ll never hear from her again. Prodigious artist, painting since she was five, a vision to rival the professionals? Would it be so hard for her to get a decent score on her SATs, or to bring home a sparkly report card for once? And of course, either of these exceptional young women would be judged in compound for the size of their waist, the length of their hair, the tint and clarity of their skin. By introducing intelligence as a benchmark on which to judge women (and it is a worthwhile benchmark, of course!) without fundamentally changing the form of our judgment, we’ve introduced another severe and poisonous invitation to self-loathing.

Is the ideal to return to the days when a woman’s intelligence, her creativity, her personal brilliance was discounted? Of course not, and it would be absurd even to propose that. But I’ve seen the smart, hard-working, strong women around me struggle with the fact that their many and varied achievements are just not enough, they’re never enough, by the standards on which we judge brightness. The chase for the elusive “genius” demarcation is exhausting and painful, as I’ve learned more and more in the scramble to set my own boundaries. A truly progressive, egalitarian system of evaluating individuals would replace the hyper-evaluation of single unachievable gifts (beauty, intelligence), with a more measured and case-by-case appreciation of a single person’s unique skills. It’s unrealistic, certainly, to expect that we as a society will wake up one day and stop setting yardsticks for women: after all, it took long enough just to add another system of measurement to those yardsticks. But we cannot claim that the fairy-tale-ification of intelligence, this Randian ideal of mental perfection, is a profound step in the right direction. Like beauty, it plays into the fiction of the “perfect girl” — a fiction that torments young women with its nonexistence, that undermines our self-confidence and constructive growth as we strive to build ourselves into it.


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