In 2007 I was working part time in a Borders bookstore while completing my MFA. It’s not uncommon in service jobs that customers will say completely strange, off-putting, or frustrating things, but one comment clearly stands out to me as most painful. Two men were standing at the register, chatting and looking at the magazines, one of which featured Jennifer Love Hewitt on its cover, wearing a black bikini and swimming in the ocean. She was smiling broadly and looked like she was having fun, even though all the recent articles about her pointed out that she had clearly gained a lot of weight.
The men laughed at how fat she looked, and then one looked at me. “Remember when she was young? She used to look like you. Nice and thin.”
The men were probably in their thirties or early forties and not in very good shape. One had a beer belly that very clearly hung over his jeans. I didn’t know what to say. In a world where the customer is always right, well-meaning managers will do anything to placate a difficult customer, rather than come to workers’ defense. And in this particular case, the boorish comment was even meant to have been softened with a supposed compliment. But underneath that compliment was also a very clear warning—that gaining weight or getting older was clearly a hilarious and utterly unacceptable thing for a woman to do.
I thought of this experience when reading about the hostile barbs and insults hurled at Carrie Fisher for recently daring to resume her role of Leia in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even though her body had changed as she got older. The response was uncomfortable precisely because the later film was deliberately crafted in order to show Leia growing up, going from princess to general, changing her hairstyle, sharing a bittersweet moment with Han Solo, who had also aged, but who received no contempt from audiences when he did not remain a young heartthrob.
We tend to think of media as something we passively accept, rather than actively engage, even though the advent of social media has obviously changed that dynamic significantly. Our constant interaction with media images, from tweets, to blog posts, to internet think pieces, would, on the surface, seem to assume that we are more sophisticated media consumers than in the past. But I would argue our relationship to images has stayed relatively the same as always; only now we spend even more effort contorting ourselves into the same images we see on the screen, editing our faces, Photoshopping thigh gap. We torment each other more directly with the comforting shield of anonymity. Social media hasn’t humanized actors; it’s dehumanized the rest of us, turning us into easy targets and prey.
Issues of body image are not new. Every semester I have a new class of students, and every semester I have several young female students who want to write about body image. “There’s so much pressure today,” they say. “Being a teenage girl is the worst thing in the world.” They don’t think about whether women in their 20s and 30s and 40s and 50s worry about the same things. They seem confident that eventually this specific kind of pain is going to stop.
Every year reveals another ad campaign intended to supposedly make girls and women feel more confident, to make women feel less like failures. We get realistic Barbies, and dolls with less makeup, and then with more makeup. We get memes and hashtag campaigns. We get girl power anthems. We get Notorious RBG. We get Star Wars films with girl heroes and princesses who become generals. But the problem is still there.
The cycle of shaming women and then exalting them when they refuse to be reduced to exceptionally limited views of beauty is exhausting, and it’s not getting us anywhere. I feel terrible that I don’t feel liberated by Carrie Fisher’s response, because I do admire her tremendous resolve to not let other people bully her online. But I think the problem is bigger than Carrie Fisher, who was lauded when she was younger for dieting and working out to fit into that famous gold bikini, and was likewise encouraged to diet for her role in The Force Awakens. It’s bigger than Beyoncé telling us to “feel ourselves” and then also appear in an advertisement for her new vegan diet. It’s bigger than the exceptionally talented Jennifer Lawrence consistently getting roles to play women 10-15 years older than she actually is, at a time when women only a little older than Lawrence talk about struggling to find roles. It’s bigger than Oprah encouraging women to love their bodies and then expressing how ashamed she feels of her own.
Outrage culture makes some people feel empowered to effect social change through collective criticism, demands, and boycotting. But the reality is that cultural change takes time and, for issues related to women’s bodies in particular, things haven’t changed very much since the advent of the Mad Men era. We still want to be beautiful and loved. We still want to be seen. We carefully craft our own image so that we can be Instagram-perfect, so that we can all be like movie stars in our own personal magazines.
For some bizarre reason, a few months ago I found that someone, somewhere, had signed me up for a subscription to Teen Vogue. I’ve been incredibly amused. I’ve been saving the magazines, curious to see what teen girls today are like, and I find it a bizarro version of what being a teen girl actually felt like. After all, in the magazine, everyone is beautiful and popular and pretty and has nice hair. Everyone looks like they are having the time of their lives.
Of course, being a teenager was often awful and none of us felt beautiful or cool, at least not all of the time. But riffling through Teen Vogue as an adult, I am struck with a strange sense of nostalgia for a teenage life I never really experienced—a world where youth is constructed as eternally beautiful and joyful. Often, these magazines sell feminism as much as they are selling makeup or fashion. The magazines’ editors seem to have incredibly short memories, forgetting that many of the fashions we are being sold as new have actually been around for years. After all, it’s the illusion of newness that sells articles. Perhaps that’s why when so many headlines have praised Fisher for her “revolutionary” statements, I remain relatively cynical. Until “body positivity” isn’t sold back to us as a new kind of consumer culture fantasy, nothing is actually going to change.
Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests. She is currently writing her first book.