There’s a character on television’s The Vampire Diaries who is called “Vampire Barbie.” Which I think is kind of ironic. Because on the one hand, vampires aren’t supposed to see themselves in mirrors – and yet, that’s what the cultural icon of Barbie is all about. A certain kind of unattainable, bizarrely proportioned, able-bodied, white, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed beauty ideal – an ideal that reflects back to girls and women what we are not rather than what we are.
This idea of “the false mirror” is one I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Because I think it’s a sociocultural secret weapon for a lot of different oppressions – sexism, racism, able-ism, homophobia. Each of us are shown an image of a “normal” that is antithetical to who we are, and in the process, rendered unable to see our own true reflections in the world around us. The most insidious thing about this onslaught is that it isolates us, limits us from making alliances with others, and prevents us from seeing its systemic roots. “This is about me” we think in our miserable solipsism, rather than thinking “this is about capitalism, imperialism, and body oppression and I’d better hurry up and raise hell about it.”
In her memoir Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy beautifully describes how this “false mirror” of social acceptance ate away at her self-esteem and self-worth. As a child, Grealy was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw – a disease whose treatment left her missing a jaw bone, and her face permanently altered. She spends her childhood and teenage years having one surgery after the next – all in an attempt to make her face look more “normal.”
I had not looked in a mirror for so long that I had no idea what I objectively looked like … for all those years I’d handed my ugliness over to people and seen only the different ways it was reflected back to me … [Society] tells us again and again that we can most be ourselves by acting and looking like someone else, only to leave our original faces behind to turn into ghosts that will inevitably resent and haunt us. (222)
The first time I read Autobiography of a Face, I felt as though it was written about me. Although I’m neither disabled nor what society would term facially “disfigured,” as a brown girl growing up in the heart of the American Midwest, I knew what it was like to hand my face, self, and self-concept “over to people” and see only “the different ways it was reflected back to me.” As a daughter of immigrants, as a brown-skinned girl in a predominantly white environment, racism operationalized itself in my life in both obvious and insidious ways – from racial epithets to calls of “why don’t you go back to where you came from” to subtle signals from my peers that I was less acceptable, less attractable, less “normal,” less … everything.
Movements around body empowerment and toxic body culture in the United States recognize that the self-concepts of girls and women (as well as boys and men) are being increasingly held hostage by the magic mirrors of media and consumerism that dictate what we should aspire to look like, smell like, act like, think like, and of course, shop like. Only recently, I attended The Endangered Species: Women summit in New York, a fantastic gathering of inspired and inspiring men and women dedicated to examining and undermining social constructions of acceptable femininity, sexuality, body size, and the like.
As I reflected in this guest post on feministing.com, however, the way that body acceptance movements have often been framed – at least publicly – lead a lot of women to feel marginalized from them. “Oh, that’s not my issue” we think – perhaps because we don’t see other women of color, women with disabilities, queer women, etc. represented. Or, even if we see women “like us” reflected, perhaps the agendas of the movements – the ways the arguments seem framed – feel exclusionary. Or, maybe, despite best efforts to include diverse voices in both actual numbers and conceptual vision, certain “ghosts” of the 1970’s mainstream women’s movement still haunt us – a movement which galvanized so many of our mothers (mine included), gave us critical ideas like “the personal is political,” and yet, a movement which also declared “sisterhood is global” without always examining its own role in other women’s oppressions (see bell hooks’ classic book ‘Aint I a Woman?’ Black Women and Feminism).
Embodiment politics is everyone’s issue. But if we don’t critically examine its unintended assumptions, it risks silencing many of the very voices it seeks to include.
To pay homage to this website’s title, let’s go back to our original metaphor, and consider “ethnic” versions of the Barbie doll. “Oriental” Barbie (*gag*), “Kwanzaa” Barbie (no, really?), and “Hula Honey” Barbie (double gag) are all based on one of two tropes – the first is an “ethnification” of the original white Barbie – in other words, a simple coloring of skin without changing of size, features, etc. – a process which only reinforces the white Barbie as “normal” and the ethnic Barbies as derivatives. The alternate formulation is exoticizing and “Other”-izing – whereby the ethnic is made colorful, flamboyant, homogenous – and ultimately “cute and harmless.” In either case, the “false mirror” remains.
So, what does this tell us about body acceptance movements? Simply including “other” women in a pre-existing movement smacks of the first “ethnic Barbie” trope – whereby nothing really gets changed but color, ability, culture, etc., and faces and bodies get added to the mix. Alternately, focusing solely on “distant” or “exotic” issues such as acid-throwing or FGM risks enacting a kind of “savior” mentality of Western body activists toward their transnational sisters, while possibly ignoring racism, able-ism, and the like closer to home.
What is the answer?
Well, in all humility, I’m not sure there is AN answer. But I do know that one answer might be to follow that sage advice of bell hooks and organize “from margin to center” rather than the other way around. For me, as an able-bodied woman, this means seeing how much the words of Lucy Grealy have to teach me about disability and embodiment, while simultaneously recognizing I can only approach her experience, but never fully understand it. It also means knowing that, as a woman of color, I’ll sometimes have to remind colleagues that their agenda isn’t as inclusive as it could be. For all of us, it means thinking about sexualization of women in advertising alongside critiques of capitalism. It means addressing intimate partner violence and imperialist justifications for international wars. It means not talking about size activism without also talking about trans-activism or disabled activism or anti-racist activism.
In the end, it’s not about (metaphorically) buying out a warehouse full of “wheelchair Barbies” in order to show how inclusive we are. It’s not about buying anything, and certainly not about Barbie, at all. It about moving away from old tropes and expectations, challenging structural forces, and making alliances while recognizing that not all alliances will work all the time. It’s about being courageous enough to examine our own true faces – and finding beauty in our complex diversities. It’s also about, as Courtney E. Martin urges us in this profound charge, becoming that which we have never seen.
Let’s shatter those false mirrors once and for all.
(As for the haters and oppressors, we can just sick Zombie Barbie on them.)
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Please welcome Sayantani DasGupta, our newest member of the Adios Barbie team. You can read her full profile here.