I am one of the many women of my generation whose bible was the first issue of Our Bodies, Ourselves, a encyclopedia of all there was to know about our bodies, and one that made us all feel proud and beautiful just for being women, no matter our shape, race and size.
Our Bodies, Ourselves, however, didn't protect me from falling prey to the temptation of asking myself questions like: Take a moment to close your eyes and visualize your body. How do you feel about what you see? Are your breasts too big or too small? Your butt too big or too flat? What about your stomach or thighs -- too fat? Is your nose too broad? Do you wish you were taller or more petite? Is your body too hairy or your skin too dark?
To the first question, I have always answered: No, I do not like what I see much, but it is what I have, so I accept it and want to take care of it. In acting classes at The Lee Strasberg Institute in NYC (which I attended for years), we were told it was “our only instrument”. Since I do not have the privilege of playing any other, my body is the one I try to keep in good health.
To the second: I had no breasts at all until I got pregnant at 26, at which point my body became more curvaceous, which I liked at one point, but no longer do, and no longer have, for that matter.
To the third: I never had a butt ever. Made me lose a Cuban boyfriend at one point, because he couldn't bear to have a girlfriend with a flat (not flabby, though...) rear end... But he was a creep anyway and, after all these years, I got used to being ass-less. Not sure if I ever wanted one in the first place...
To the fourth: My body was never “perfect”, I always had a little bit of a stomach, hardly any hips and very long, thin thighs...
To the fifth: Oh God! My nose: sometimes I think it is my best feature and sometimes I think it is just plain awful...
As for the rest: Overall, I like the way I look.
Having been exposed to a variety of cultures over the years, I am convinced that the “ideal” female attributes do not vary much, and that they are all conceived by men --by the female movie stars their industries create and by the advertising industry they promote.
Never mind the diversity of our female bodies: we are tall, short, thin, fat, large-boned and hefty, tiny and frail; our eyes vary in color and shape; our skin color ranges from blue-black or ebony to deep browns to copper to olive to pink; our hair is many-colored and has an almost infinite range of textures.
Yet, we are all measured against unrealistic standards promoted by the U.S. advertising and beauty industries and grounded in fantasies created by men about how a woman should look and behave.
Every society throughout history has had standards of beauty, but at no other time has there been such an intense media blitz telling us what we should look like. Magazine covers, films, TV shows, and billboards surround us with images that constantly reinforce the idea that "beauty" is everything. But what is "beauty" and what does it mean to strive to be "beautiful"? The current ideal woman portrayed in the U.S. culture, and heralded all over the world, is basically white or olive-colored (for the exotic touch...), thin, able-bodied, shapely, muscular, tall, smooth-skinned, and young.
Many of us are painfully aware that how we look is directly related to how others treat us, to our romantic prospects, to where we can live, to our employment possibilities.
The list of what a woman must do to achieve the perfect look is endless, yet paradoxically, it is absolutely essential that in the end she always look natural. I suppose, like Barbie does...
And since I mentioned Barbie, I have to add the following:
Despite changes in fashion and in attitudes toward women, today's ideal woman is in fact not so different from the original blonde Barbie doll.
Some of us grown-up ladies may find Barbie's distorted body amusing, but as a caricature of the state-of-the-art white ideal of female beauty, Barbie is the standard that millions of little US and Latin girls learn to desire at an early age.
And Barbie has been joined by numerous ethnic variations, which have not at all minimized her power as a popular icon. This state-of-the-art white model puts a particular burden on Latino women, darker than your average Anglo-Saxon gal, most of whom appear to be under "stress to conform to an ideal that is genetically impossible for most of us to achieve," according to experts.
“Barbie-cism” and all racism aside, Barbie was never my ideal. I grew up believing that it was “hot” to have a body like Marilyn Monroe or to display Audrey Heyburn's class. A decade later, Gloria Steinem was my ideal, never mind her glasses. In the 80´s, Susan Sarandon. In the 90´s, Julia Roberts and now... God knows... Probably all of them and none.
Do I feel pressure to match the likes of Monroe, Hepburn, Steinem, Sarandon and Roberts, all ideals of the “perfect women” imposed to me across all borders over the past decades???
Of course I do.
From whom? From jerks I try to ignore, but also, and much more importantly, from the advertising world, which is, indeed, globalized.
But, good or bad, my ex-husband used to tell me I had a body like Monroe's; my ex-boyfriend, that I reminded him of Hepburn and I have told myself that if I were an actress, I would be like Sarandon and would never have Roberts's oversized lips.
So, between them and my own dream world, I have done OK so far.
Be that as it may, I am a Latin American woman who does not fit the “mould” and who, at one point in my career as a journalist, was forced to sign rejection letters at an editorial house in New York City, as “Marie Pallais”. It sounded so much more sophisticated than Maria did. All Latin maids in the U.S. have that name, for God's sake. And that will not change for quite a while.