I was a media-fed child. I can't remember a time when the television wasn't my favorite baby-sitter, my most reliable companion, my preferred role model. The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Head of the Class, Different Strokes, and Fame jumped out of the fluorescent tube and planted expectations in my preadolescent mind. Every Thursday, in health class, the After-School Special offered a "realistic" view of years to come. For years I wished my name was Sam because I positively idolized Samantha Miscelli on Who's the Boss. Then, after years of preparation, of longing to talk on the phone, go out with my friends, and wear mascara, I finally became a teenager.
Adolescence is not what I thought it would be. Happy endings aren't inserted conveniently before the last commercial break. The peer pressure isn't unrelenting, the wild parties aren't dangerously tempting, the first loves aren't thrillingly perfect. But, more unsettling than the unforeseen tedium, my face isn't blemish-proof and my stomach isn't immune to bloating. I was fed a cookie-cutter standard of beauty, and I do not invariably meet the media's image of perfect. As a media baby, I'm a disappointment
I do not have a cute nose, perfect skin, long legs, a flat stomach, or long eyelashes. My awareness of these facts makes my body a backdrop for my everyday life. My stomach, back, skin, knees, hair are always in my peripheral vision. Never my sole focus (I'm too healthy for that!), but always just tickling at my consciousness. I sometimes catch myself comparing my body to those of actresses, models, women walking down the street. Then I remind myself: Healthy, happy, normal girls don't notice, don't envy, other women's small frames or sunken cheeks. They don't find pride in the comment, "Wow. Your collar bones really stick out." They don't feel guilty for not being as thin, or as muscular, as the star in the magazine clipping. Oh, they don't, do they? My mail tells a different story.
Judging from the writing of adolescent girls that I received, I'm not alone. When I sent out my invitation for contributions to Ophelia Speaks, I never suggested "The Media" as a topic. Yet, nearly twenty girls sent me essays specifically blaming the media for their poor body image. Countless others mentioned its negative effects on their self-confidence. One girl described cutting out the body parts of models from magazines and piecing together her "goal" body. In self-asserting anger, Elizabeth Fales wrote, "Someone making millions of dollars has decided to play on every adolescent girl's feeling of inadequacy. Insecurity is 'in,' confidence is 'out.' In American culture, there's always room for improvement. The blond-haired, blue-eyed size four, as-close-to-Heather-Locklear-as-possible look is the social norm, and the people who fail to qualify don't even get a consolation prize in the game of adolescence." With a courageous admission of a media-fueled anxiety attack, a teenager who calls herself Laverne Difazio wrote, "All of a sudden I'm insecurity-laden, nervous, and dedicated to becoming Miss Skin 'n' Bones Teen USA."
I wish I couldn't relate to letters I received--to standing in front of the mirror poking, squeezing, and sucking in. I know I don't work out just because it makes me feel healthier. In tenth grade, I pulled away when my then-boyfriend touched my stomach. Shocked, he shook his head in disbelief, and asked, "Do you know practically every woman in the country would kill for your body?" Now, some three years later, I do not remember the words he used to describe my intelligence, to encourage my artistic talent, to support my ambitions--but I do recall that one compliment, word-for-word.
These confessions will come as a surprise to many who know me--most of the time I walk around with a genuine air of confidence. Just as often, I'm glad braces made my teeth straight, platform shoes make my legs look longer, and makeup covers my blemishes. I owe my confidence in my physical appearance to what the media-inspired world offers me to achieve the "look" I desire. I owe that "look"--long-legged, clear-skinned, bright-eyed--to the same media that inspired my self-destructive desire to achieve it.
Ophelia Speaks by Sara Shandler. Copyright (c) 1999 by Sara Shandler. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
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