Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn?
I’ll never forget this scene from Mad Men. It has stuck with me because it was a perfect use of the art form, bringing empathy and understanding, illuminating a real issue women face. This attempt at navigating between what the world expects of us and what we’re able to present to the world is something that probably started with The Fall and continues today. Peggy can’t measure up. Gertrude Stein? Thanks. And if she can’t
measure up…what does that mean for her? Anyone who watches the series knows that Peggy eventually has to change her appearance to begin to make headway in her career. As she’s noticed more, she’s given more opportunities, and as her career evolves, she settles into a style of her own. Neither Jackie nor Marilyn. Peggy. (I love Peggy.)
I would argue that not much has changed in modern society. I’ve noticed that when the media defends women against the insane expectations they’ve helped set for centuries, they typically speak to women who have had children. I hear a lot of things like, “I’m proud of my body. It’s done amazing things for me.” “I have no shame in a body that birthed two children and recovered from a c-section.” “My focus is on my family and my career–not on satisfying society’s demands on my body.” I think that’s a fine sentiment. But the chorus of those statements is loud enough that I’ve often thought–What about women who haven’t had children? What about women who’ve had stillbirths and miscarriages and don’t have a physical living child to prove their body endured a pregnancy, even if not through to the end? Are these women held to different standards than the mass majority who’ve had children?
I was recently with a dear friend of mine who has had two children. She made a comment about how her tummy has changed and that her pants don’t fit the way they used to. I laughed and said, “Um, mine too! I’m approaching 30…I hear that happens. At least you have an excuse!” And she said something interesting, “Well, not exactly! It’s not as if I walk around with a sign on my back that tells people I’ve had two children. If my kids aren’t with me, people don’t know.” It’s true. So as I’ve been growing more insecure about my own body while it seemed like society gave birth moms a pass at having a less-than-Hollywood-caliber tummy, I didn’t realize that the pass they’ve been given is a fallacy. Nothing has changed, really. The unattainable expectations still exist. We’re only pretending to have moved beyond them.
Women have jumped through these hoops for centuries. Starved ourselves. Compared ourselves. Worn tiny bikinis because society tells us that’s what’s expected unless you’re 45 or older, all the while feeling insecure and inevitably ashamed of our inability to measure up to how the bikini was intended to be “rocked”. A few years ago I purchased a retro style black one-piece. Believe it or not, Walmart was the only place I could find one. Thanks to this Q Ideas speech on modesty given by Jessica Rey that went viral last year, retro one-pieces are enjoying a resurrection this year. I made the decision two years ago that I’m no longer going to wear bikinis. Not because I take issue with them, but because not once, not ever have I felt confident in one. In middle school and high school I worried about my bony hips and how I couldn’t fill out the top, in college and beyond I worried about the disappearance of my thigh gap, my milky white legs that won’t tan, and the rolls that appeared on my tummy. It dawned on me that the only reason I had ever worn a bikini was simply because–that’s what other people did. One-pieces weren’t cool. But you know what? At 27 I decided that I didn’t care what was cool. I didn’t care if one-pieces had historically been reserved for old moms. I went for it because that’s what made me comfortable. And I found a way to make it girly and young–something I felt good about wearing in public. And I’m never going back. It was my first battle victory in the war women have fought for centuries–to be who we are physically despite what society expects. Not because we’re giving up, letting it all go, but because we want to feel beautiful for being ourselves. For once I wasn’t trying to be Kate Moss in a bikini. I’m just Andrea. And it’s a relief.
I love the movie, “My Week with Marilyn”. It’s a true story of a young man who had the incredible opportunity to work as a third assistant on Marilyn Monroe’s only film with Laurence Olivier. Marilyn grew to trust him and spent a good deal of time alone with him during filming. One day, Marilyn took him on an adventure. They visited sites around England and while they were touring an old castle, a group of workers at the museum ended up hearing Marilyn was there and congregated at the bottom of a staircase, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Throughout the day, Marilyn’s guard was down. She was like a little girl. Honest almost to a fault. Filterless. Emotionally naked. When she spotted the crowd gathered waiting for her, she whispered, “Shall I be her?” Instantly she turned on her Marilyn and shut off her Norma Jean. I’ve read many books about Marilyn’s life and watched many interviews with her. I’d feel comfortable saying that this relentless and exhausting pursuit of an unattainable perfection is what inevitably took her joy–and probably her life. Watch:
How many of us do this every single day? How many of us turn our true selves off and turn on a more societally congruent version of ourselves? Maybe we don’t do it everyday…but how often do we find ourselves tempted to do just that? If you want my answer–I’d have to say–often. It’s not necessarily about keeping up with the Joneses. It’s not really about contouring like a Kardashian. It’s not about being as thin and beautiful as Kate Middleton or as sweet and girl-next-door as Rachel McAdams. It’s about struggling to accept the fact that not one of us will ever live up to the expectations set for us by the media. Not one. And part of that is believing that while we can’t measure up, we are more beautiful and more perfect than the media could ever hope to set a standard for. It’s the truth.
When I was 14/15, I put on a lot of costumes. I tried to be this goth/skater poser because I’d become SO EXHAUSTED from trying to keep up with the Joneses, to be as trendy and beautiful as the most popular girl in my grade, from crying in humiliation over the fact that I didn’t have the right brand of shoes to wear to school, from realizing every single day, when I walked through the doors of my middle school, that I did. not. measure. up. I knew I couldn’t acquire what was required to be beautiful, popular, and middle-school-societally acceptable. It was impossible. I’d never be HER. So I bucked everything and tried as hard as I could to look like I didn’t care about any of that. I tried to look so opposite of what was expected of beautiful and popular girls so that it would appear that I wasn’t trying at all. But if you read that sentence correctly, you’ve picked up on the fact that I was trying. REALLY trying. Trying to fit in somewhere. And because I wasn’t myself, it only ended in more exhaustion, more self-hatred, more heartache and frustration.
While we grow up and care less and less about adolescent hierarchy, I think most women carry that same desperation with them. That desire to somehow be the most beautiful girl in the room, with the best figure, the best clothes, the best personality–that never goes away. As adults, I think these feelings are far more well-masked than they are as teens. But they’re there. We walk into a room, we gage the crowd, and our hearts whisper, “Shall I be her?”
I’m interested in figuring out how women can stop asking ourselves if we’re more of a Marilyn or a Jackie then trying to fit into the narrow options for existence the media has placed in our laps. I’m interested in figuring out how women can start walking into a room and be confident enough to be fully ourselves, no matter how old our dress is, no matter how unmanicured our nails are, no matter how badly we need our roots done, no matter how tired or lackluster we feel that day. I’m interested in figuring out how women, as a group, can collectively say–the show has gone on for far too long. We’ve come a long way, but it’s curtain call. And that tired, inadequate version of ourselves we parade around for approval? She’s taking a bow. And retiring from acting. For good. How can we get there?