Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pushing Perfection

To the Editor in Chief, Elle Magazine

Dear Editor:

Last week I was waiting in the doctor's office and I picked up a copy of your publication. I must congratulate you on your global reach. The headlines were in English, but the text was in an alphabet you've probably never had seen before. You appear to be doing a top-flight job at peddling your conceptions of beauty to the developing world.

I leafed through the glossy pages. I couldn't help admiring the models' glowing complexions, their artfully tousled hair, their slender bodies frozen in artful poses, baring a golden midriff here, a creamy thigh there. Their ripe, half-open lips suggested breathless excitement, possibly of a sexual sort. (I am, by virtue of my vocation, sensitive to such cues.) They were perfect, every one of them, page after page without the slightest trace of cellulite or sag. No birthmarks, bellies, knock knees, or flat feet. Any woman, gazing on their unblemished beauty, would feel a mixture of awe and envy. Any man would feel desire.

Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Have you ever considered the worm of evil coiled in the heart of this perfection?

How many women look in the mirror and lose hope, because of the false visions you sell? You and your colleagues teach us that we're fat, ugly and undesirable. We're all flawed. It doesn't matter how many hours we spend at the gym, how many jars of anti-wrinkle cream we buy from your advertisers. We will never achieve the ideal presented in your pages, regardless of how hard we work or how much money we spend. Meanwhile, our men are equally dazzled by your images of sleek flesh and limpid smiles. When they leave us for younger women who more closely approximate perfection, we blame ourselves, not you.

For much of my life, I hated my body. My hair was kinky. My stomach bulged. My full thighs were slabs of lard. I liked my breasts, for the most part—some versions of perfection incorporated cleavage like mine—but I looked odd in most fashionable clothing. I was too short. I had no arches; high heels sent pain shooting up my calves. And of course I wore glasses with lenses like coke bottles.

Toward the end of my teens, I tried to mold myself into the perfect, slender woman I thought that I should be. I dropped from 120 pounds to 75 pounds. Alas, I still wasn't beautiful, though I was proud of my self-discipline. My hair started to fall out in clumps. My clothes hung on me as though I was a skeleton. I understand now that I came perilously close to death in my pursuit of perfection.

You can of course defend yourself, claim that it's not your fault. Nobody told me to starve myself. Everyone knows that fashion is a fantasy. How silly of me to take those images seriously!

You are right, in a sense. The blame is not yours alone. All those companies trying to to sell us things we don't need conspire to make us feel inadequate. We're missing out on happiness and satisfaction, they tell us, because we're just not good enough. But if we purchase this product or that, we'll set ourselves on the road to perfection. It's depressingly easy to make us believe this. You're not completely responsible.

Now that I'm older, I've built up some immunity. I can flip through your lavish photo-spreads, admiring the art that has created such luscious, unattainable beauty, with barely a pang of regret. I'm at home with my own imperfections, despite the fact that they multiply with the years. I find it deliciously ironic that I like my body better now, with my wrinkles and flab, than I did when I had the smooth skin, taut muscles and sexual vitality of youth.

I worry, though, about the young women and men, innocents who don't recognize the falseness in what you offer. You tell them that what matters most is how they look. They learn that in order to look attractive they must have money, to buy the products that will perfect them. They wear away their lives pursuing the material, lusting after an unattainable dream.

I do think that the term lust is appropriate. Underneath it all, you're selling sex, even with your flat-chested models reminiscent of teenage boys. Be beautiful and you will be desired, you whisper, like the snake in the garden. The message might be disguised, but I recognize it loud and clear. I am, after all, an expert in evoking desire.

I don't know why I'm bothering to write this letter. Even if you read it, it will have zero impact. After all, your very reason for existence is to sell these visions. Even if you took me seriously (a wholly improbable outcome) and closed down your publication, there would still be Glamour, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Self, Seventeen and dozens more titles—not to mention Playboy, Hustler, Maxim and their ilk. Perfection is a potent adversary.

My time would be better spent writing to my local paper or my congressman, about marriage equality or universal healthcare, immigrants' rights or reproductive choice. In these cases I might have some tiny chance of making a difference. In writing you—well, I'm just asking to be dismissed as a crank.

I shouldn't waste my energy on letters like this. What I should do instead is get to know some young women. I should try to share my knowledge, gleaned through the painful experience of anorexia and its aftermath. I should be telling them that they're beautiful as they are, helping them to understand that material things and physical attractiveness will never, by themselves, convey happiness.

Will they believe me? I can't say. Perhaps they'd trust me more if I weighed fifteen pounds less and had a face lift.


Lisabet Sarai


  1. Lisabet,

    I already subscribe to the same point of view, so I'm not exactly a convert. But I do wish this sort of letter was being sent to every one of those hateful magazines with their despicable agenda.


  2. Hi,Ash,

    It's true, though, that sending this letter would have no impact at all. They don't view themselves as evil at all. They's simply dismiss me as a nutcase.


  3. Lisabet, you are so right.
    There is so much money behind the MSM, and behind the money there is an agenda, which is not concerned about the welfare or indeed the the well being of Mr & Mrs Average
    They lick the shoes of those who pay the most.
    I'll leave you to guess who they are.
    I won't even use it for loo paper, let alone read it.
    Warm hugs,

  4. Marketers long ago figured out that people will pay (and pay and pay) to fill the holes in their psyches. So if you want their money, it helps to create those holes.

    Of course, there's self-deception involved. I've usually seen it as, "Well, I'm trying to help people be better." or "it's what people want, I'm just giving it to them."

    Your solution of working with individuals is the only one I know that works. I remind my wife that she's beautiful to me, even though she's not close to a magazine model. Sometimes it helps.

  5. I shall cal you Don :) Tilting at windmills as you are. You are right about topplig their empire one frightened, disillusioned youngster at a time, though. I fear that until people understand where happiness really comes from, mags like ELLE will continue to thrive.

  6. Lisabet, this is a brilliant letter. And while I don't think it will make a damn bit of difference in this industry that's pimping an unattainable ideal, I do think it needs to be said, even if you are, as Jaime said, tilting at windmills. By saying nothing, we condone it.

    Because of the ages of my kids, nieces and little sister, I come into contact with quite a few girls and young women - from middle school through college aged and the desire to be perfect is almost universal. Sometimes we have discussions about beauty ideals and the business of selling them. I keep hoping that maybe it'll make a difference somewhere down the line.

    With the older girls, I always suggest reading The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf - it usually makes a huge impact. Of course, I have heard the comment, "Isn't that kinda like a feminist book? I thought feminism was only for ugly women who can't get a man."

    Yep...made me want to cry.

    But on the plus side, I have hope for the boys I know. Three out of four of the high school boys I talk to regularly find the "plastic girls" creepy. When I asked what I plastic girl was, my son said, "you know...the fake and bake tans, the perfect hair and make up - the ones who look and act like they think high school is Hollywood." Another boy in the car piped up, "and they're stupid - if they aren't, they act like it to get attention and to get guys to do their homework for them."

    I like to think there's hope for this generation.

  7. "Any man would feel desire."

    Not true in any sense, not for me anyway. There's no desire there. The 'perfect' women found in Elle and every other fashion magazine are no more than images, avatars without life or substance. In me, they stir no feelings of lust or even faint desire. That's reserved for real women, with freckles and moles. A little extra around the waist doesn't dilute the effect of a confident stance or a welcoming smile.

    What's true about these images is what's always been perceived as true by men: The diet, dress, and makeup are targeted at other women. No one has ever asked a (straight) man.

    Dangerous Bill

  8. My fight with my body image went in the opposite direction that yours did. Although, I have to admit that it went that way due to my rebellion against my mother. My mother had the same issues with her self-image and pushed it off on me. She forced me on a diet at the age of twelve when she noticed that I was developing the curves that are natural to women. At 5'2", due to my mother's idealized idea of beauty I weighed 72 lbs. Skin stretched over bones basically.

    After a year of forced dieting at 13 I rebelled like a son of bitch. I started eating everything I could get my hands on. By the time I was a sophomore in high school at 15 I weighed an extremely unhealthy 289 lbs. I made a decision then that I wanted to lose weight and did ending up at 150 lbs at the beginning of my Junior year. I sustained that weight until I was 21.

    As I got older I realized just how messed up my head was when I started relying on food as a substitute for love. At 30 I had an epiphany and now I'm far happier. I love myself more than I ever did. Sure I still have moments that I think it would be nice if I had a flat tummy, but they are few and far between.

    Age has brought wisdom and I share that wisdom with younger women when given an opportunity. Be yourself and never compromise your health for an unattainable goal. We are all beautiful in our uniqueness. :-)

  9. I think letters like this one can make a difference. More women should write them. I wish I'd read it when I was a too-thin young woman, it would have been nice to know others felt as I did.

  10. Passionately written, Lisabet. Wonderful post and oh, so true. Your experience really lends strength to your editoral.

  11. Lisabet - beauty is and should be different for everyone, based on an individual's palette of taste, exposure and preference. Beauty is not a Heidi Montag's 10-surgeries-in-one-day look -one nose, one set of boobs, lips or thighs. I worked in advertising in New York City. I know about airbrushing. I lived in LA. I saw Sheryl Crow getting her hair cut across the aisle from me and I didn't recognize her because of how we are fed perfect images of our celebrities and rock stars. The women's magazines will argue that WE DON'T WANT to see people who aren't perfect, that we wouldn't buy their magazines if that's what they fed us. I disagree. I love how we are all different. The shape of our faces, the nuances in our shapes, our hair left colored or not. I was just today admiring from afar a women with a square jaw and sleek driftwood grey hair. She was laughing, looking so content and happy talking across the table to a much younger man.

    I pity the girls growing up today, especially a lot of my friend's kids here in California. Girls here start highlighting their hair at age 8 and the rich ones get boob jobs for their high school graduation.

    I was at an art show recently in Palo Alto (near Stanford University). I loved that the naked women framed on the wall were real - real breasts, real wrinkles and scars. I had to look more deeply to see what surprised me about the exhibit. They were real, these women. I just wasn't used to seeing that...thanks as always, pretty girl, for the thought provoking post...Mary Kennedy Eastham

  12. Oh, wow! Thanks to all of you for your wonderful comments.

    Of course I didn't mean to imply that all men buy this hype, Bron and Bill. But perhaps too many do.

    Jesse, what a poignant story! I'm so glad that you were able to move beyond this to find your true self.

    One strong message for me--there definitely are up sides to getting older. You DO get wiser.

    Once again, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Maybe I should send this to ELLE.


  13. Lisabet,

    I think you should send it to a few of the websites that counsel those with eating disorders or that seek to bolster the self-confidence of young women.

    Dangerous Bill,

    Rock on, dude! As a woman who is attracted to people regardless of gender, I feel the same.

    ~ Alessia

  14. As an African American woman we don't grow up with the same self hatred as white women do. We love our big butts. What we don't love is our kinky hair, so we straighten it to resemble white women. It's unfortunate that so many of us do that.

  15. Hi Lisabet!

    Wow, judging by the response you really hit a universal nerve. For the first couple of paragraphs I thought you were being satirical and then I got to the 75 lbs part and I realized, this is for real. That was a true and painful part of your journey towards becoming a love goddess-writer.

    We dealt with this subject a few months ago, and its worth going back to. I think it still has to do with markets and commercialism. Skinny women are more generic and disposable than women with real curves.

    I very strongly suspect that fashion ideals may be set by men who, shall we say respectfully, are not interested in women as objects of desire. I have been subscribing to digital Playboy (Zinio) mostly to read, for a few years now. Like most men I grew up with it, occasionally running across an issue in someone's house, or these days when the Playmates archives are viewable online. The evolution of the Playmate is instructive. When Hugh Hefner was the publisher, the ideal of the playmate was "the girl next door". Up until the late 90s playmates were natural, albeit air brushed women with big curves. Hef supervised the selection of the playmates by his own male directed tastes. After his daughter took over the business in the late 90s the standard became generic fantasy figures. If you;ve seen one you've literally seen them all. Anyway, that's my point. The choice of a standard of beauty depends on who is choosing.

    Very good post. Right on the beat.


  16. Hi, Alessia,

    In my experience it's the differences between people that make them interesting and attractive. Last night we were having dinner at a local restaurant and a woman walked in who fascinated me. Her head was a mass of frizzy curls, mostly dark but with streaks of green and purple. Her sharp features and dusky skin suggested a volatile mix of ethnicities. I couldn't take my eyes off her, though we were surrounded by Asian beauties with sleek black hair and tiny noses.


  17. Greetings, Jolie,

    Great to see you at the Grip!

    When I was a teenager, I had long but very kinky hair. At that time (the sixties) girls were IRONING their hair! Fortunately I never tried that.

    Now I laugh to myself, as women spend hundreds of dollars for the curls that I have naturally.

    Thanks for joining us.


  18. Hello, Garce,

    "love goddess-writer"?!! I'll have to put that on my resume!

    No, I'm not being satirical in the least. I don't know how much of a role the societal image of perfection played in my anorexia--from what I've read, other more personal conflicts do play a large role. However, society actually supports anorexic behavior, makes it seem almost normal.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  19. Exactly why I don't read magazines like Elle! What a shame younger women do, and tarnish their self-image, and self-worth.

  20. Bronwyn,

    It's not stupidity that the girls are displaying with their tans and perfect hair and wiles. Although their approach can be irritating to those around them it is actually a smart response to their need for power. They observe the response that the 'beautiful' girls receive in magazines and on television and then emulate their appearance. Their coaxing and coquettish behaviour is another facet of this device.

    The 'stupid' young girls copy the role models that they see as having power. That makes sense. While it's not the role models we would like to see for them and not the behaviour that will bring them most satisfaction in the long run, they are not, as your young friend observed, stupid. They are working the system in the way which works for them, just like the rest of us.

  21. Lisabet,

    I turned 41 this week. Like you, I am happier with my body now than when I was 21. I'm far from perfect, but all my parts work and I can still get down on the floor with the kids or down on the mattress with my husband, so I can't knock it.

    You're right in saying that the best way to handle this problem is to educate young women one on one. I try to do that now with my daughters. Hopefully, they learn more from me than some stupid magazine.


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