“If there’s one thing girls love more than being told they’re pretty, it’s being told they’re prettier than other girls.”
—Timmy’s mom, The Fairly OddParents
In the sixth grade, they called me ugly. Their ringleader informed me that my hair, which my mother refused to straighten, was “too short” and my skin was “the color of shit.”
Yes, there was definite racism at play here, but that’s not what I was thinking at the time. I had been a confident child, but now all I could think was that I was ugly. I spent the next eight years feeling insecure about my looks, and, by extension, my self-worth. I, like many other girls, learned not to raise my hand too high in class, not to speak up too loudly on the playground. Because it had been male classmates who told me I was ugly, I learned to dress for boys, wear makeup for boys, and desperately seek (straight) male approval. Worst of all, I learned to think of my female classmates not as friends but as threats, competitors for male attention. And I wasn’t alone.
Every woman can recall a moment in which she was labeled as pretty or not. As a consequence, many of these women develop a complex and painful relationship with other women. These girls grow up and say, “Oh, I’m not like other girls.” Because, to them, being like other girls means being catty or bitchy. A recent Family Guy episode enforced this stereotype, saying that men “know how to be friends” better than women.
Are men judged by their looks just as harshly as women? Yes, many men are insecure about their looks, but there is a fundamental difference between how men and women are treated based on their perceived attractiveness. A man is judged by his appearance as part of an equation that factors in his intelligence, personality, and successes. A woman is judged first and foremost by her appearance, and everything else—intelligence, personality, successes—is placed into a secondary category.
A few months ago, I was lying in bed with a male Columbia student who decided that post-sex was an appropriate time to talk to me about the other girls he was dating. I wasn’t planning on being offended by what he was going to say. The two of us were “just casual,” after all. But he decided to talk about these girls in ways that made me incredibly upset. One girl, who, he told me, was “the kind of girl I want to marry,” had long, straight hair, was very pretty, and hadn’t had sex with him yet. I couldn’t help but wonder: Why wasn’t I the marrying type? Was it because I wasn’t pretty or because my hair would never be long or straight or because I’d put out too early?
All of the sadness associated with being called ugly in the sixth grade flooded back. I was angry, not just at the man I was lying in bed with but at this young woman I had never met. No wonder women feel the need to compete with one another since we—not just men, not just women, but society as a whole—divide women into categories: pretty and ugly, sluts and “the marrying type.” I had been categorized and, rather than questioning the nature of this categorization, I channeled my anger into hatred of other women.
Some women may say that I’m a prime example of the sort of female self-hatred that comes out of a misogynistic culture. They may say that they never judge other women so harshly and that they don’t tie their beauty to their self worth. I hope that these women are telling the truth. I hope other women don’t think like me, and I hope today’s little girls are taught to think in healthier ways than I was taught to think.
As college women, we can call upon ourselves to use this intellectual space to eliminate internalized misogyny on campus. This will be a tough task, but Columbia’s activist culture enables women and men who are not afraid to question the status-quo and lead discourse on a variety of difficult subjects for the purpose of enacting change.
We can start at Columbia by forgetting our childhood conditioning and defining ourselves by our goals, passions, and accomplishments. We need shallow judgements about superficial characteristics to be out of the equation.
The author is a Columbia College first-year.
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