This essay originally appeared in Issue #4, 2006, The MotherHood Magazine.
Saturday morning, 1978.
My brother Tony and I sit at the kitchen table eating bowl after bowl of sugary cereal. We are reading every superhero comic book in his vast collection. I am careful not to bend back the covers as we pass the books back and forth over the table.
Suddenly in my hands is a comic I’ve never seen before. I stare in disbelief at the cover of Red Sonja #1. A fierce looking red-headed female warrior in a chainmail bikini. Big hips, bigger breasts and a sword raised triumphantly to the sky. While Tony is engrossed in a new storyline, I sneak Red Sonja inside my bathrobe and slip quietly down the hallway to my bedroom.
I lock the door, take off all my clothes and stare in the mirror, comparing my newly forming body to her picture on the cover. I’m thirteen and pleased to see that puberty is drawing my curves along the same lines as those in the book. I look in my closet for something resembling a chainmail bikini. I don’t yet have a collection of bras, but now need them, and getting dressed is a problem. As I’m pulling every piece of clothing I own out of my closet, I experience a defining moment of womanhood: for the first time I declare in disgust: “I have nothing to wear!
Today my battles with clothing are largely relegated to getting a three and a half year-old dressed in time for pre-school. “I’m ready Mommy!” she declares, standing before me in badly stained pink pants, clashing orange-striped t-shirt and ballet slippers on the wrong feet. “I am so pretty!” We’re late (again) and I pause before I start to correct her. So what if she’s wearing slippers and it’s raining? So what if her hair is combed only in the front and clumps together in a large knot in the back of her little head? She’s making choices and learning to care for herself.
Will I be able to sustain my tolerance for a mismatched, knotty-haired appearance when she’s older? The question disturbs me. I know that choosing how to dress is an important and powerful act of self- determination for girls. I can encourage Alice to be proud of her body just as it is and tell her that it doesn’t really matter what she looks like — but can I say it with any conviction?
Fitting into the right clothes in the right size has been a life-long source of anxiety for me. Puberty directed my brothers to eat my parents out of house and home and at 5’10” and 6’2” they pleasantly fulfilled the notion of growing boys. But the rapid changes in my body were welcomed less enthusiastically. An increase in flesh meant hips and breasts. Although I was not overweight as a young teenager, my brothers’ repertoire of nicknames for me included “fatty,” “hippo,” “thunder thighs,” and “Orca” — as in “Orca The Whale”. My mother began each morning with a scrutiny of my attire and a furiously whispered admonishment to “Go put on a bra!” Everyone seemed uncomfortable with my new form and so I was, too.
When puberty bestows growth and mass on boys, it denotes power and strength. But for women it’s the opposite. A girl’s increase in flesh signals fertility and a new level of vulnerability. It also invites new standards by which she’ll be judged in her particular class & culture. Although 90 percent of the kids on my block were of Italian heritage, we played to the same you-can-never-be-too-thin American aesthetic as the rest of the country. My post-pubescent body might have conformed nicely to the historical standards for women in Italy, but on my block I simply had a fat ass.
Throughout history two things have always been true: (1) being born female was the single most determining factor of your life and (2) your beauty and your virtue would be the most important commodities you possessed. An intact virtue ensured a good marriage and a good marriage could elevate the entire family, so everyone was invested in its protection. Clothing was an important clue to the state of a woman’s virginity. Proper women did not put their wares on display.
Beauty was more of a crapshoot as there was not much to be done if a girl was con- sidered plain or ugly. A woman’s beauty was her only source of power, income and exchange so it had to conform to the demands of the market. The body was the commodity and the woman had better measure up or she’d be “left on the shelf.” Or returned to the discount rack.
In our part of the world, this is no longer true. So why was the size and shape of my butt such an issue at thirteen and why is it still an issue today?
Women are no longer dependent upon well-made marital alliances for their for- tunes, so beauty and virtue have simply become fashionable accessories. But our individual and group consciousness has yet to catch up with this new reality. We continue to perpetuate the fairy tale that Beauty is the key to a woman’s fortune every time we read Cinderella or Snow White to our children.
Collectively, we have internalized the ideal that Beauty=Success, so no matter the level of academic or economic achieve- ment, a woman can still manage to feel like a failure.
I am convinced that this awful double message has contributed to the rise in the number of diagnosed eating disorders today. Perhaps women are playing out the battle between accepting or rejecting that message right in their own flesh — a corporeal Eff-you to society’s imposed standards for them.
Which brings me back to my heroine, Red Sonja.
Red Sonja wasn’t using that incredibly drawn body of hers to advance in the world. She was using her brains and her brawn. She possessed the only two acces- sories a woman truly needs — armor and a sword. Her sword and the ability to wield it made the issue of her looks a moot point. With it, she determined for herself the entire course of her life — her level of income (she was a mercenary) and if and when she would procreate. That sword was her bank account and birth control in one instrument.
Red Sonja made a lasting impression on me but I still work hard to eradicate this notion of an Absolute Beauty Value from my own head. I’m going to have to show Alice rather than tell her that beauty comes in all forms. Perhaps the best place to start is with my own body. Embrace my backside just as it is.
I’ll also read stories to her that include real heroines who go to school and work hard to achieve their goals. Not stories about women who lie passively in glass boxes waiting for their lives to begin when royalty arrives.
I’ll tell her too that, unfortunately, there are still many places in the world where being born a woman is a cruelly limiting factor. Perhaps she and I can spread the word about Red Sonja in service to them. Or send them swords.