Last week, the White House took several steps to protect college students from rape: releasing a task force report which included many recommendations for universities; announcing a new website (NotAlone.gov), which will serve as a resource for survivors; and deploying several celebrity-studded public service announcements. Two days later, in an unprecedented display of transparency, the Department of Education released a list of 55 schools currently under investigation for allegedly mishandling rape and sexual assault allegations.
A couple of weeks before that, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lethinen (R-FL) and Lois Capps (D-CA) introduced The Truth in Advertising Act. If passed, it would direct the Federal Trade Commission to develop a strategy to reduce the use of images that have been “altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted,” because evidence shows that such images cause “distorted and unrealistic expectations and understandings of appropriate and healthy weight and body image” and has “been linked to eating disorders.”
As a feminist—and a woman—these developments leave me happy, heartened. It’s about time the government step up on these issues. Bravo, I want to cheer.
A part of me can’t help but feel a bit cynical.
It’s not that these aren’t problems worth addressing, or that these moves by the government aren’t important—or, all things considered, pretty freaking impressive. On the contrary. These issues are serious and pervasive; that our government is wading into these waters at all is a victory, and is, in fact, the very sort of action the feminist in me (and those around me) has been calling for, for years.
From my As-A-Woman vantage point, it’s impossible not to notice that what’s going on here is way bigger and far more insidious than it first appears. I guess I’ve become a tad jaded; call it a hazard of the female condition. But what we don’t talk about when we talk about sexual assault and eating disorders is what has me, well, not quite ready to bust out the pom-poms.
Eating disorders are devastating; they are the most deadly of all mental disorders. But, without diminishing that truth, consider: A girlfriend once declared, during a ladies happy hour, “I think every woman has at least a little bit of an eating disorder.” No one disagreed. (And, I might add, we did most of our growing up before Photoshop was even invented.)
Yes, we like to believe we are too smart to buy into the idea that the women we see splashed all over the media are real, too enlightened to compare our bodies to theirs. Yes, intellectually, we’re aware that the “perfect” women staring back from screens and glossy pages have been digitally elongated, cinched, enhanced, and smoothed. We bitch about this, knowingly, over cocktails.
What we aren’t so quick to share is that this knowledge doesn’t change the fact that, sometimes, our day is made or broken by a number on a scale or a pair of jeans feeling too tight or the sight of ourselves in a dressing room mirror—or, for that matter, a newly-discovered wrinkle or a gray hair we didn’t notice until we hit the bathroom at work. That on those days, we feel somehow diminished, a little less worthy.
We like to believe we’re above such nonsense.
And yet. No matter how smart we are, and no matter how many condescending, self-serving, faux-empowering Real Beauty ad campaigns Dove rolls out, on a deeper level—somewhere in the painful pit of our stomachs—we understand: thin is just better.
And I believe my friends’ words would apply equally to the question of college sexual assault. Yes, the official numbers are one in five; but, among my closest girlfriends, I can’t think of a single one—myself included—who emerged from college completely unscathed.
Comedian Amy Schumer does a bit about the “gray area” around rape, which she calls—because word mashups—grape. Here’s what she told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross about it last year:
“Most women I know that I’m close to have had a sexual experience that they were really uncomfortable [with]. If it wasn’t completely rape, it was something very similar to rape. And so I say it’s not all black and white. There’s a gray area of rape, and I call it ‘grape.’ It’s the guy you went home with in college, and you said, ‘No,” and then he still did it, or maybe you woke up and it was someone you were dating… every girl I know has had some experience that is kind of like ‘grape.’”
Me too: I don’t believe I know anyone who hasn’t had such an experience. And I’m guessing that the same goes for you—yes, you—whether you’re aware of it or not: among your friends, coworkers, sisters, daughters—rare is the woman who has been spared entirely.
I don’t say this to discount the horrors of rape or full-blown eating disorders; but just because sometimes the damage is subtler does not mean no damage has been done.
Nor do I say this to belittle what the government is doing; its actions on these issues represent progress, as far as I’m concerned. But such measures would not be necessary if we did not live in a culture where women are viewed as objects, inferior. This idea is everywhere; it is the water we swim in.
Women, men: we’re all in the pool.
And that’s what really needs to change. Dealing with the most extreme symptoms and results of living in such a culture is good, necessary. But a culture of sexual assault, of men viewing women as objects to be conquered, a culture of women believing their worth is tied to their appearance as measured against a wholly arbitrary, yet completely accepted, standard of beauty—that doesn’t come from nowhere. That comes from everywhere.
And who wants to gaze into the abyss? Who wants to talk about something so huge as to feel impossible? It’s so much easier to just tune out.
Or to absolve oneself of confronting this reality at all, and instead turn inward, “fix” what’s “wrong.” And I suppose that’s how we’ve wound up with self-help being packaged and sold as “feminism.” Books like Lean In, The Confidence Code, and What Works for Women at Work masquerade as barrier-busting manifestos, while their authors brush away critics who suggest that they might consider addressing the larger structural inequities that create and perpetuate the problems they explore, as though it were even possible to separate one from the other, the circumstances—a lack of confidence, a wariness of “leaning in”—from the cause. When, of course, there is no separation. They are all of a piece.
Jessica Valenti recently penned a takedown of The Confidence Code; its authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman responded that they agree with Valenti: lack of confidence in women is “a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured.”
But they then went on to explain why women should fix themselves (in their case, by becoming more confident), rather than waste their time focusing on “the reality that the game isn’t entirely fair.”
Meanwhile, Joan Williams and her daughter Rachel Dempsey, who wrote What Works, advise women to “Act like a duck: Glide on the surface and paddle like hell underneath.”
I’m sorry, but is that a joke?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure many of the things these books suggest are well-intentioned, useful tactics for navigating the sexist realities of the modern world.
When a game is unfair, doesn’t it make more sense to try to fix it than to make half the players twist and contort to squeeze themselves into some ill-fitting form (quack, quack)? Granted, if a game is unfair, those who are unfairly advantaged aren’t likely to call for sweeping change, but, for the love of god, shouldn’t those of us on the losing end be demanding it? Rather than try to change ourselves to survive in a world that’s unfair, shouldn’t we work to create a world where women are as respected and valued as men?
(And doesn’t the fact that we so readily choose to focus on ourselves rather than the world kind of prove just how impossibly huge the divide is?)
Again, it’s just easier to look away.
Admittedly, the question of Lean In and its ilk is trivial in comparison to things like eating disorders and sexual assault. And again, any action seeking to make the world a little better, a little safer for women is to be celebrated. The actions of the White House task force on campus sexual assault are hugely commendable, and the Truth in Advertising bill is an awesome statement. These are big steps.
They are not enough. And again, I’m left wondering: What will it take for us to be wiling to make the changes that would render such measures unnecessary?
Shannon Kelley is a writer and author based in California who writes frequently on the intersection of feminism, pop culture, and politics. Follow her on Twitter @Shannon_BKelley.