Recently, I was sitting in a room full of people, listening as recent graduates of a medical residency program were congratulated while their photos were shown on a screen in front of the room. When one woman’s photograph came up on the screen, the presenter read the following note from the woman’s family:
“To our daughter, who we are so proud of for being smart, dedicated, caring, and above all, beautiful.”
What? This young woman is at the finish line of her medical education, which has included four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school, and three years of residency at a prestigious hospital, and her parents value her, above all else, for being beautiful?
I nearly choked. Something is very wrong with society when the highest praise we can give a woman at a time like this in her life — indeed, at any time in her life — is that she is beautiful.
Perhaps even worse, no one else in the room seemed to think anything of the remark.
But that may be because we’re used to this sort of treatment. This is a world, for example, where people are more interested in what female judges, politicians, and actresses are wearing than their judicial, political, or artistic points of view. So maybe it isn’t all that surprising to hear that the most valuable thing about this young physician is her appearance.
This sort of thinking is what happens when we don’t challenge and think critically about the ideas and ideals presented to us by the media. Our values and sense of worth can become warped. We can come to value women’s physical beauty above all else. Nothing else matters as much as their looks — not their education, not their contributions to their community, not their talent. Nothing.
When we value only beauty in others, we come to value it in ourselves, seeing ourselves as we see other women — as objects to be admired — and we risk downplaying or ignoring our own intelligence, capabilities, and talents.
This is why About-Face’s Give Everyone a Bikini Body campaign is so important. Slipping on a bikini this summer is about more than accepting our bodies — it’s about rejecting what society tells us about women and what we should be. Rejecting the idea that the best we have to offer is our looks makes room for us to value our complete selves: our bodies, our abilities, our intelligence, and our gifts. In turn, we can value others for who they are rather than what they look like.
While I hope never again to hear a remark like the one I heard that day, I probably will. But by insisting that we are more than our bodies, we can help create a society in which all people are valued for who they are, not what they look like. We can help change the world.
One bikini at a time.
Tara is a writer and educator who has a long-standing interest in sociology and women’s issues. She is particularly interested in the way the wedding industry defines and reinforces a single, narrow definition of womanhood.