Feminism

"Captivating" Review: 13-20, "Beauty to Unveil"

broken heart

Remember to put “Book Club” at the top of your comment if you’re reading along with me!

I left off last week before I’d finished chapter one– I don’t think I’ll do this that often, since I want to get through this book, but since this chapter is dedicated to explaining the thesis that Stasi and John are going to be arguing for the rest of the book, I thought it was worth to spend some time pulling it apart.

Beauty to Unveil

What Stasi is doing in this section is pretty typical of evangelicals; in an attempt to be subversive, she tries to re-define beauty. The world tells women that they need to be physically beautiful, but God says that women need to be inwardly beautiful– after all, man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. It’s what’s inside that matters.

A lot of people– religious and secular– have been saying this for a long time, and American culture doesn’t seem to be any closer to liberating women from the oppression of sexual objectification. One could argue that it’s gotten worse in the past decades, and exponentially worse in the last few years– tumblr and instagram and pinterest have created a delivery method for “thinspo”  and “pro-ana” to be a huge part of a teenage girl’s experience online. I would argue that conservative evangelical teachings about “modesty” are just as oppressive and degrading as anything people can see in Vogue or Seventeen.

What Stasi is trying to ignore in this section is that beauty doesn’t mean what Stasi is trying to make it mean. Beauty can be discussed in a lot of different ways: Edgar Allan Poe wrote a treatise on how beauty was going to save the world in Eureka; The Lake Poets used reams of paper to explain how beauty can be transcendent, divine– how it can be the doorway to sublimity.

When we’re talking about women being “beautiful,” however, it’s important to at least acknowledge that physical attractiveness is a part of what it means for us to be beautiful, and “physical attractiveness” is almost always defined by white supremacy and sexual objectification in American culture. Trying it ignore the overwhelming pressure that women feel when it comes to feeling beautiful is only going to weaken anything else you say, because you’re not being honest about what it’s like to be a woman today.

Notice that I’ve said that Stasi is trying to ignore this– she actually can’t get away from the physical component of beauty and how American culture has informed her view. In order to make her point about how all women want to be beautiful, and how this is a good thing, she gives an example of attending a formal ball:

For weeks– no, months ahead of the affair– I like every other woman who attended, asked the all-important question: “What will I wear?” (As the special night drew closer, I also wondered if it was possible to lose twenty pounds in seven days.)

Above the sound of the splashing water from the fountains, even above the music that floated through the air, was the sound of delighted exclamations. “You look beautiful!” “You are gorgeous!” “What an amazing dress!” “How lovely you are!” We were delighting int each other’s beauty and enjoying our own. We were playing dress-up for real and loving it.

Stasi does not say anything– not a single thing– to critique this experience.

To me, reading this passage was a little painful.

First of all, I don’t think I’d spend months ahead of time trying to figure out what I was going to wear unless I had to wear something expensive and that meant budgeting for it (as if I’d ever be going to something where I’d have to budget for a dress and not wear something I already own). I also think it’s possible that at least one women who went to this didn’t really care that much.

Second, as facetious as Stasi might have meant this, it’s not a good thing when you want to lose 20 pounds in a week– that is dangerous. If you want to lose weight, 1-2 pounds a week is a realistic, healthy goal. The fact that Stasi felt pressure to be “skinnier” in order to attend a black-tie event is a problem, and she should have said so or said nothing about it at all.

Last, she talks about how women spent the night complimenting each other on their appearance. I enjoy being complimented– there are times when I put a little extra effort into my appearance, and I appreciate it when someone notices. It feels nice, no lie. However, I’m pretty sure the men at this event were all wearing tuxedos and I’d bet you that they didn’t wander around this garden saying “I love your bow tie! So fetch!”

Women, in order to make small-talk, frequently fall back on complimenting each other on our appearance, and this starts when we are incredibly young. This isn’t the amazing, wonderful thing that Stasi is trying to  make it out to be. It’s the positive flip-side of how women enforce white supremacist, fat-shaming beauty standards on each other. It’s an example of how our culture has utterly failed women, because we are still locked into recognizing each other as physical, consumable objects first, instead of as human beings with dreams, opinions, problems, and joys.

Stasi seems to be blind to how she hasn’t escaped what our culture has to say about beauty and women– she’s included three separate things our culture teaches about beauty in two paragraphs!

She continually falls back on a stereotype about girls– that we enjoy playing dress-up, and the way that little girls play dress-up is lightyears apart from how boys play the same exact game:

Little boys play dress up, too, but in a different way . . .  they never once dressed up as bride-grooms, fairies, or butterflies. Little boys do not paint their toenails. They do not beg to get their ears pierced. Little boys don’t play dress up with Mommy’s jewelry and high heels. They don’t sit for hours and brush each other’s hair.

One question, John and Stasi: if they had wanted to, would you have let them?

Pretty sure the answer to that one is “heck no.”

Little boys, just like little girls, absorb how our culture genders people starting from a very young age, and they are aware of these stereotypes as young as 3 or 4. They know what boys and girls are “supposed” to do and say, and they know that they can be severely punished for not conforming– they’ve seen it happen with older children. They’ve overheard their parents say bigoted, homophobic things. They hear sermons like this one:

Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up! Give him a good punch. OK? ‘You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male.’

And when your daughter starts acting too butch, you reign her in. And you say, ‘Oh, no. Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play ‘em. Play ‘em to the glory of God. But sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you’re gonna be beautiful, you’re gonna be attractive, you’re gonna dress yourself up.’

To be absolutely clear: Sean Harris (who later claimed this was “a joke”) was talking about four year olds.

Anyway, that girls sometimes play dress-up and that playing dress-up does sometimes look like princesses and fairies is not a good argument for why all women want to be seen as “beautiful,” but it’s essentially all that Stasi has based her argument on.

I want to close out this post with a really good example for exactly how oblivious Stasi is to the fact that not every single woman on the planet wants what Stasi wants, and thinks the way Stasi thinks.

During the midst of a talk I gave on the heart of a woman last year, one of the women in the audience leaned over to a friend and said, “I don’t know what this whole thing is about– twirling skirts and all.” The words had barely left her mouth when she burst into tears and had to leave the room. Little did she know how deep the desire ran, and how much pain it had caused. Many of us have hardened our hearts to this desire, the desire to be Beauty. We, too, have been hurt so deeply in this area that we no longer identify with, perhaps even resent, the longing. But it’s there.

This paragraph made me want to scream, so I did. I also threw my book across the room and Elsa looked at me funny.

What Stasi has done here is infuriating. Instead of even considering that this women who she made cry might have been reacting to how she’s been made to feel deficient and abnormal in a Christian culture that exalts femininity at every turn and humiliates the women who don’t conform, Stasi assumes that this women doesn’t understand the “twirling skirts” picture of femininity– not because she’s just not the kind of woman who likes that sort of thing, but because she is broken. She has a “hardened heart.” She “resents” it. There is something wrong with this woman, for her to be hurt by Stasi’s reinforcement of a stereotype that might have been used as a weapon against her for her entire life.

If I’d been sitting in that auditorium, listening to yet again another woman telling me that “all women” have this bizarre need to wear ballerina tutus and tiaras, I might have walked out crying, too. But it wouldn’t be because of anything Stasi had to say— no, if I disagree with her because I’m damaged in some way.

That is . . . frustrating. This is not the first time that Stasi has made this argument– that women who disagree with her are damaged, broken, hurt, or scarred– and it’s not the last.

 

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  • Thank you for this! I had no idea you were doing a review of this book, but since I liked it when I was in HS (and have since thought the opposite), I’m really interested in what you have to say about it.

    The idea that all women have to be one way or another is so damaging – we were all uniquely created, and THAT’S the beautiful thing. It’s not beautiful to feel like we have to conform to a set of standards created by Christian culture. We were made to be more than that, and we are worth more than what we choose to wear or do.

  • It’s not just Stasi…or women…Christians use that rationale a lot, that anyone who disagrees with them is “damaged, broken, hurt, or scarred.” Case in point–the God’s Not Dead movie…if you’re an atheist, obviously it’s because you were hurt and you got mad at God. Christians delegitimize differing opinions by categorizing the dissenters as damaged. Do other groups do that? Obviously Christians are not the only ones who look down on those who disagree with them. I have a friend who does not believe in God, and she tends to say how people believe in God because they have “some need” for that. So I guess Christians aren’t the only ones…

  • Aibird

    When I came out to my best friend (she’s an evangelical Christian), she used that same language of that I was damaged, hurt, broken, and needed God to set me right again. To heal me. To restore me. It didn’t matter that I’d never, ever been sexually attracted to guys. My memories of my own life didn’t matter. How I identify is just a disagreement she and I have.

    That language Stasi is using is used so incredibly often against anyone who dares to act outside the conscripted norms, who aren’t exactly the way Christians like Stasi believe people should act. This language is so incredibly damaging. To this day, I still struggle with trying to view myself as whole. I still wonder if they’re right. If I am a damaged, broken, wreck of a human being because my sexuality isn’t straight, because I struggle with my gender identity, because I hate wearing dresses.

    And it makes it all the worse when they act all sympathetic and want to help. Even though what they’re doing is just making it worse.

    Thanks for pointing out everything that’s wrong with it.

  • Wow. I’ve recently read the books Redefining Girly and Cinderella Ate My Daughter (I am pregnant with a girl, and have been eating up every book on raising a girl that ISN’T all butterflies and sparkle-glitter I can find) and they both go into heavy detail about the insane gendering and how young it starts – up to and including teaching girls to compliment each other’s appearance before anything else, and captivating is simply tying that into adulthood, although Stasi doesn’t/can’t understand that. “We all told each other how pretty we were!” yes, and you’ve been socialized to not be comfortable around each other until you’ve talked about appearance and/or clothing.

    I would have been a woman in that audience utterly flummoxed by her arguments… and being “broken” would have had nothign to do with it. I’ve simply never been interested in the sort of thing Stasi believes is at the heart of womanhood. I wouldn’t have burst into tears, but that’s only because I’ve had Stasi’s argument thrown at me enough that I just sort of shrug at it now. There are women who simply cannot acknowledge that we are not a hive mind of princess dresses. Stasi is one of those women.

    I actually really like your point about beauty – it’s not something I had given much thought to, but you’re right; these books are always redefining beauty, and they never do quite succeed in being able to make it stick, even in their own minds.

    • +1 for “hive mind of princess dresses”

  • Another funny thing is that Stasi thinks of having “beauty to reveal” as a distinctly feminine trait. But she wants to define “true beauty” as inner beauty. Why is a virtuous character only beautiful in a woman, but not in a man? I am attracted to kind people of both sexes and find them beautiful in certain sense.

  • I just blogged today about watching a Disney “princess” movie with my son so he would understand the game his friend likes to play at school better. Because combining “Autobots,” mermaids and pirates doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me. So I’m guessing these authors might not like my efforts to help my kids make choices based on what appeals to them rather than what society tells them is appropriate for boys or girls.

    Not that I’m promoting Disney princess mentality, by the way, but it’s out there and I’d rather deal with it than make it the attractive forbidden thing.

    And yes, SO SO hurtful when people assume that my not fitting into the mold (whichever mold) is because I’m broken instead of considering that the mold is what hurt me in the first place.

    • Gram Pol

      Can I just say that playing Autobots, Mermaids, and Pirates sounds awesome?

      • 😀 Makes me feel like I might be doing -something- right! Imagination galore around here.

  • sarah

    My 3 – year old son dresses up like fairies and princesses and paints his toenails and pretty much everything on that list. He also does typical “boy things”. I see it as a sign that he is still free of gender stereotyping… For now. :-/

    • Catherine

      Late to the party, but I just wanted to say that mine does that too. Princess Elsa is his favourite, and whenever he’s not being Astroboy, running around in shorts and gumboots, he’s demonstrating his ice powers as Elsa, painted fingernails and sparkly dresses all over.

  • Mia

    This sounds a lot like well veiled manupilation.
    Blessings XX
    Mia

  • “Above the sound of the splashing water from the fountains, even above the music that floated through the air, was the sound of delighted exclamations. “You look beautiful!” “You are gorgeous!” “What an amazing dress!” “How lovely you are!” We were delighting int each other’s beauty and enjoying our own. We were playing dress-up for real and loving it.”

    I would like to know how long this goes on in the night. It sounds exhausting. At my second year ball I don’t remember this. I do remember getting up on stage and dancing to The village people. I also remember both end of year balls I attended at University ending with the hokey cokey.

    Sorry that was off topic. I always forget to do the compliments thing at the start. It always sounds so forced.

    I think the only time I’ve spent months on a dress is for my friends wedding in three weeks time. Western weddings are complicated sometimes.

  • Anna

    My toddler son was pretending to shave his legs today after he had seen me doing it.
    He likes to wear Hawaiian shirts because I also wear shirts with flowers on them. 🙂

    He also loves to wrestle, throw toys and try to hit baseballs.

    • Melody

      lol I once tried to save my chin as a toddler because I had seen my dad shaving.

  • Interestingly, some of this parallels some reading I’ve been doing over the last few days. I do format editing for MA theses, and the most recent one I’ve been working with was a study on the relationships women with healthy body images have with their mothers. Interestingly, the daughters in the study were extremely aware of the affect the media and culture have on their views of beauty and body image, while the mothers were less so, particularly when it came to how those received views affected how they saw themselves. It’s surprisingly easy to think ourselves unaffected by our culture’s messages on beauty, especially when we think of ourselves as self-aware without acknowledging that we still have blind spots. Perhaps Stasi feels that she is aware of the affect these things have on her while not realizing the extent to which she has internalized the current cultural dialogue on feminine beauty.

    I’ve been trying to be more deliberate about cultivating a healthy body image and view of beauty in myself, because my daughter will learn that from me. I’m better at it than I used to be. We plan to talk a lot with her about what movies and other media say about women and get her to think critically about it. She’s too young for that now, but it’s amazing how people already stereotype her when she’s less than a year old. The one that irritates me the most right now is how people say, “Oh, she’s like a little doll.” And I don’t know how to tell well-intentioned strangers to stop objectifying my daughter.

  • Abby Normal

    Ummkay, so secular society is responsible for brainwashing women into being overly obsessed with outward attractiveness, but at the same time it’s responsible for squashing women’s ‘natural’ desire to be all twirly-skirted feminine (and, presumably, outwardly attractive). This makes no bloody sense at all.

    • “This makes no bloody sense at all.”

      If it made sense, they couldn’t keep writing and selling books about it.

  • Men want to be attractive too. But that’s now where most men receive power (women are stereotypically looking for financial power from men; men looking for sexual power for women… which makes women, in this construction, willing to trade security for becoming an additional asset in his portfolio). It is brutal when popular culture (Christian or not) tries to baptize the status quo and rework it into a virtue.

    I love your point that it is part of inculturated small-talk among women to compliment one another’s appearances. It’s like talking about weather but not as innocuous.

    Men and women are both beautiful from the start. Conflating beauty with cultural protocols for sexual attraction is a disservice to both distinctions.

    I had the same experience with Wild at Heart and Iron John. I threw the books across the room. I’ve also addressed the Eldridge, et al, gender views of masculinity in a talk on “Myths of Masculinity.” Google my name with that title to find it.

  • Wrt the conversation about boys dressing up or the suggestion that they don’t get made up or fuss over hair, one question, have these parents ever had a Star Wars obsessed child? You have Jedi robes and sith robes and Padawan braids in the hair and everything must be correct,

    And without a single crack across the wrist, they became heterosexual men.

    And they aren’t particularly interested in being captive or taking anyone else captive for that matter.

  • I wonder if Sarah, Rebecca and Miriam went around twirling their skirts. Somehow I just can’t picture it, can you?

  • First; am I the only one who can’t read the word “Stasi” (which I assume is supposed to be pronounced like the more traditional “Stacy”) without thinking of the East German Police arm of the ruling Socialist Party?

    Secondly; I hope you don’t mind a bit of editorial (hopefully constructive) criticism. I felt like your comments about white supremacy that showed up a couple times in this review were problematic — not because I disagree with them, but because I didn’t notice anything that explained what you meant by that nor how it applied in this instance. Attaching a label of white supremacy to something like American beauty standards (and it’s an entirely appropriate label to attach) is almost always going to cause people to become uncomfortable or defensive, and without a trail to understand from your post about why American beauty culture qualifies, those labels can read like you’re simply trying to throw as many negative labels at the culture as you possibly can. It transforms the criticism from being a potential learning moment to one that’s a fighting moment.

    With that being said, that was the stone in my boot in an otherwise very well written critique. I really enjoyed reading it.

    • karenh1234567890

      I was already mentally pronouncing her hame Stah-zee. Now that you mentioned the STASI, it will forever be Shtah-zee.

    • Good to know I’m not the only one who has been doing that with Stasi’s name. 🙂

  • em

    I have five brothers, all straight as far as I know, and several of them have wanted to have their nails painted at one time or another when they were little.

  • Debi Pearl seems determined to batter people into their respective “God-ordered” roles, forcefully but straightforwardly. I think of Stasi’s approach as more akin to a knockout gas with a mildly appealing scent – you read a little bit, and it sounds okay or even nice, so you read more of her stuff and buy in a bit more, and then suddenly you wake up and you’re firmly sealed inside your gender role box.

    Also, I couldn’t agree (and identify) more with the section on women being socialized to make small talk based on appearance. I’ve never really been a big clothes-horse, and I don’t know much about makeup or how to do my hair. I’m also terrible at socializing, and when I’m faced with a woman I don’t know, I’ll get really nervous and rack my brain for something to say and my mouth will dry up and I’ll be panicking trying to think of something and suddenly I’ll blurt out, “I like your shoes!” Now, is it likely I actually like that woman’s shoes? No. But when my brain goes blank from social anxiety around a female I don’t really know, I take refuge in complimenting some part of her attire/appearance, because that’s what’s been drilled into me since my earliest childhood.

  • Melody

    “Women, in order to make small-talk, frequently fall back on complimenting each other on our appearance, and this starts when we are incredibly young. This isn’t the amazing, wonderful thing that Stasi is trying to make it out to be. It’s the positive flip-side of how women enforce white supremacist, fat-shaming beauty standards on each other. It’s an example of how our culture has utterly failed women, because we are still locked into recognizing each other as physical, consumable objects first, instead of as human beings with dreams, opinions, problems, and joys”

    This really hit home with me because the negative flip-side seems to consist of women commenting, unasked, on each other’s bodies as well in a negative way. Critizing each other, making fun of others walking by, urging them to diet etc., which also enforces objectivying women and seeing their ‘beauty’ value before anything else. Unfortunately I’ve been on the negative side more than on the positive, being a bigger women, so much that I feel uncomfortable recieving compliments on my looks (can hardly believe it when it happens). It does feel sort of bad though because it means you get compliments for weight loss, for instance, but not when you actually need them more, like if you feel awful and have gained weight as well. Compliments can boost your self-esteem but it would be better if self-esteem would not be linked so much to appearance but more to skills, talents, or personality.

  • wanderer

    I am a woman who as a child never dressed up as a fairy or butterfly. The only time I did play dress up was with my brother, who was, in fact, playing dress up as a bridegroom. Neither of us are “broken” as Stasi would insinuate, just because we didn’t fit her presupposition of how everyone, everywhere acts, all the time, by their very nature.

    I tend to stare blankly at people who think I should be concerning myself with things like twirling skirts. If that floats your boat, awesome. In my mind it’s the same as someone who likes playing scrabble. Just a thing some people like.

    Seems like Stasi has built a pretty serious cage for herself to live in and try to demand everyone else join. What a sad existence.