20-Something Swag

(forever young, sometimes broke, and always snarky)

Month: February, 2012

Obligatory Cynical Valentine’s Day Post?

I don’t have a lot of Valentine’s Day stories. If you know me well you’ve probably heard “that one story” about going to “that one place” with “that one guy,” and we’ve shared a good laugh about my romantic misadventures.

I could write something cynical about so-called love and relationships and the over-commercialism of Valentine’s Day–something that would make my single, snarky, feminist predecessors proud. But tonight, after this morning’s skyping and coffee with friends led to conversations of love and relationships, I just don’t have the cynicism stuffing in me (yes, you may read that as an allusion to Build-a-Bear).

I’ve come to the conclusion that I basically have two settings regarding emotional expression: cynical and vulnerable. Time to get vulnerable, kids, and maybe some other conflicted 20-something singleton feminists will be able to relate.

In case you hadn’t guessed already, I’m not a romantic. I don’t mean this in literary terms, regarding the works of Keats, Byron, and Barbauld. I don’t fall in love easily and I am not generally drawn to “love poems.” But this week, after finishing Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits, I assigned my world literature students the task of finding their favorite Pablo Neruda love sonnet and bringing it to class for discussion. After all, he very well may be The Poet.

Singletons, maybe, like me, you’ve felt like truly enjoying and–what’s the word?–accepting your singleness means that you can’t or shouldn’t desire to be the subject of a love sonnet. And I now that I’ve read quite a few I’ve gotta ask: why the hell not? As I read a smattering of Neruda’s love-verse in preparation for Wednesday, I found myself thinking how nice it would be to inspire, by my absence, “the saddest lines” of shivering stars, or for someone to desire my skin so much that he would devour it like an almond, or love me “without knowing how, or when, or from where.”

Listen, I’m not saying I all of the sudden agree with my parents that The Notebook is a great book, and just so we’re clear Love Actually in all its British dysfunction is, unsurprisingly, still my favorite romantic comedy. I still think a dozen red roses, though beautiful, has become a cliche, and that it’s stupid how people go all out on one day of the year to show that they love another person when they could show love in simple ways every single day and have that mean just as much or more than expensive flowers and dinner at the Melting Pot.

But I’m also not saying, “Suck it, Valentine’s Day; there’s no such thing as love.” In the spirit of vulnerability, let me confess that yes, I like being single, I like the freedom to go out with who I want when I want, to do what I want without having to worry about working around a partner’s schedule. And I also think it is possible to love passionately and unconditionally. So, while it’s the trendy thing for single folks to dub Valentine’s Day “Singles’ Awareness Day,” and to have parties with booze and bitching about how we don’t need a man or woman, let’s not discount the fact that many people want their significant other. They desire them like almonds and sleep wrapped in each others’ arms, and that’s a good and beautiful part of life–something it’s okay to desire, not just because Valentine’s Day adverts imply that we’re disgusting people without it, but because it’s something that can bring happiness not contingent upon the availability of Russel Stover’s nut special. I’m not looking for a Valentine’s Day date. I’m not even looking to change my life right now. But I would at some point like to be loved “as one loves certain obscure things, secretly, between the shadow and the soul.” And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Me and the Hot Chick

Confession: I care about the way I look. I also identify as an egalitarian feminist.

I happen to take care of my skin with a near-religious fervor, I wear make up and dresses, I sometimes curl or straighten my hair, I wax my legs, I paint my nails every week without fail, and I like to sway when I walk.

I’ve also spent countless hours reading Judith Butler’s work on gender performativity and Naomi Wolf’s treatise The Beauty Myth, and I’ve seen all the installments of Jean Kilbourne’s “Killing Us Softly” series (several times, thanks to my Facebook newsfeed). Back in the day I even studied costume design and the history of fashion. And I get it, friends: expectations of body image and self-presentation have tended to screw women over since, well, the “beginning of time.” Fig leaves? Not comfortable. Freshly acquired animal skins? Stinky. Perhaps Eve and Adam instituted the five-to-one compliment rule for that very reason. “Adam, honey, that bit of tendon dripping down your calf is fugly, but you prepare a mean tree root tartar.” Or maybe not.

A recent addition to the “female beauty” conundrum to light up my Facebook newsfeed and debating faces is the wave of “When did this . . . become hotter than this?” images that compare one standard of beauty with another. To see a wide selection of these visual blurbs, check out this link:“When did this . . . become hotter than this?” The most popular of these images compares current 20-something celebrities, like Kirsten Dunst and Keira Knightley, with women who were considered female icons in previous decades, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.

I don't know . . . around 1980?

Clearly, popular ideals of feminine beauty evolve over time and differ depending on cultural climates. Thanks for pointing that out, meme-maker. But beyond the history lesson, how helpful is this image? To me it suggests that the problem at hand is not that women are held to an over-arching standard of body type but, instead, that the problem is found in the fact that the current standard is very thin.

In response to this and other comparisons I ask, when did it become beneficial to choose any standard(s) of body image over any other(s)? If it’s all about “hotness,” or visual sex appeal, why does it matter if the mode du jour is curvy or not? Just as the pursuit of thinness can be dangerous, not everyone’s body is healthy with an hourglass figure. Not all real women have protruding pelvises and not all real women have curves.

Yes, Nichole and Keira look like they really need to eat a couple sandwiches . . . every hour, for the next several days to raise their body fat percentage to a level that keeps them warm and helps them to absorb fat-soluble vitamins. And, yes, many women would have to deprive themselves of necessary nourishment to make their bodies look like these. But on the other hand, some women would have to refrain from exercising and would need to binge eat to reach Marilyn’s curvaciousness. If we all held ourselves to the standards of the bottom row, some of us who aren’t naturally proportioned with ample hips and breasts and tiny waists would still have to deprive ourselves and fight the losing fitness battle known as “spot-targetting” (by the way, trying to lose weight from one part of your body while retaining it elsewhere doesn’t work).

I think combating unrealistic standards of body image (for women and men) starts with taking apart standards in the first place.  This may sound trite; people say it all the time, but each individual needs to listen to her or his own body and take care of it. I’ll say it again in case the Internet jumbled it: LET’S LISTEN TO OUR BODIES’ NEEDS. I’m not talking about just giving ourselves whatever we want on a whim, though sometimes that can be more healthy than not. I mean eating real food, hydrating, sleeping, and engaging in physical activity.

From there–taking care of our bodies–I don’t think it really matters how a person chooses to fashion herself. So maybe I like to dress like Jackie O. Maybe I like to wear clothes that emphasize my waistline. Maybe I have far too many hoodie sweatshirts for a person of my age group. And maybe, no, I’ll own this one completely, I like being the size that I am. And I’m tired of being told that it’s just because I’m small. If Marilyn Monroe were still the standard, I might see myself differently, but wouldn’t everybody? Can we please stop comparing ourselves to each other and de-legitimizing each other’s appreciation of our own bodies? Can we please say to the standards, “Screw you” rather than letting them continue to screw us?