“Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night/You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right”
—“Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen
I’ve sort of shied away from this because it is a topic so widely discussed, but I don’t think I can avoid it any longer. As anyone with two brain cells to rub together surely knows, women are pressured from birth to be beautiful. Sure, women are not really conscious of this pressure until early adolescence(ish), but we cannot give little girls Barbie dolls or show them movies with scantily clad, cheeky princesses without influencing what they consider beautiful. And here’s the really sick part: even when we do dissect the media and the way it represents women, even when we learn about the systemic sexism in our culture, even when we achieve success in other parts of our lives, we will never truly shake the desire to be gorgeous. Our self-worth is intrinsically linked to what we see in the mirror.
The Outside Girls I’ve written about thus far are much more than the way they look. They are smart, funny, passionate, prickly, strong and artistic. But they are–for the most part–complete knockouts. In addition to being cool, intelligent role models for young women, they all could (and possibly do) don the covers of fashion magazines and be spokespeople for various anti-aging paraphernalia. The only ladies that are on our (read: my) end of the aesthetic spectrum are Hannah Horvath, Janis Ian (both purposely dressed-down), Daria Morgendorffer and Enid Coleslaw. And it’s hard to make a judgment call of the last two because they are the creations of a very specific animation style. They aren’t pretty compared to Adele Exarchopoulos (few are), but Daria and Enid are relatively attractive in the respective worlds they occupy.
Many of the Outside Girls struggle with maintaining positive self-esteem, even if they are objectively pretty. I’m not sure whether this is a character trait meant to make these actresses seem relatable or if it is yet another side effect of misogyny (perhaps even red-carpet regulars are brainwashed into thinking they are ugly), but I find it very annoying and unconvincing when characters like Angela Chase and Frances Halladay obsess over one pimple or call themselves “undateable.” Oh, shut the fuck up. You’re beautiful.
That’s why I find the character of Elphaba from the novel and musical Wicked somewhat refreshing. Even in a land with Munchkins, talking animals, witches and a tyrannical wizard, Elphaba is the freak because she is born with green skin.
(Let me just say right off the bat that Idina Menzel–green or white–is a striking and very beautiful lady, but just bear with me for a bit.)
Elphaba is a gifted and powerful witch, a hopeful protege of the Wizard’s, acid-tongued and political. She knows all of this and knows that she has the ability to go far, but cannot fully enjoy it because her appearance does not match what she or anyone else wants to see. Despite her myriad gifts, Elphaba is most excited to meet the Wizard because he might have the power to physically transform her. While singing “The Wizard and I” she fantasizes that, “One day, he’ll say to me: “Elphaba,/A girl is so superior/Shouldn’t a girl who’s so good inside/Have a matching exterior?/And since folks here to an absurd degree/Seem fixated on your verdigris/Would it be all right by you/If I de-greenify you?” No intellectual or professional achievement can quite compare to the prospect of making yourself look like the person you’ve always wanted to be.
And, believe me, I am no exception to this rule. If, by some awesome twist of fate, Harry Potter‘s world turns out to be real, I would love to acquire Tonks‘ power and change my appearance at will. If that was at all possible, I would be an inch taller, have slightly larger eyes, smoother skin, Michelle Obama’s arms and a generally thinner frame faster than you could ever imagine.
But that’s exactly what is wrong with me, Elphaba and any other women who are thisclose to happy but are derailed because they do not resemble the culturally-approved definition of “attractive.” It’s not entirely a case of body dysmorphia, either. According to Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee, authors of Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions, “physical appearance is more important in terms of the way women are perceived and treated.” While we often “grow up disliking our bodies,” there are plenty of other people happy to police our appearances, as well. It’s this weird chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Even if we manage to push past our self-doubt and like the way we look, it’s easy to let others’ opinions cloud our judgment. Conversely, even if other people tell us that we look great, it can be hard to believe them. We’re doomed either way.
I have come to terms with the fact that I will never be 100 percent happy with the way I look. I accept that internal and external forces shape the way I think about my appearance and the others’ around me. I just wish my own sense of pride and confidence wasn’t contingent on my being non-photogenic. Even when Elphaba starts to move past her own issues with her skin color and becomes more and more involved with the movement against the Wizard, her appearance is never far from her mind. Mere scenes after she proclaims “Too long I’ve been afraid of/Losing love I guess I’ve lost/Well, if that’s love/It comes at much too high a cost,” she apologizes to lover Fiyero for not being beautiful. This in spite of the fact that he left teeny, bubbly blonde Glinda to be with Elphaba. She got a bohunk to think for himself and see her for her inner beauty. She asserted her independence and decided that no one would stop her from doing the right thing. Not to mention that she led a mission to remove a crazy dictator. How much more proof does she need that she is worth something?
How much evidence do any of us need?
(Image #1 courtesy of metropolismag.com; #2 courtesy of blogs.houstonpress.com; #3 courtesy of fanpop.com; #4 courtesy of wicked.wikia.com)