Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Vagaries of Fashion

My niece (C.) is turning 11 this Friday (she happens to have the same birthday as me). This year she has made a change to her annual routine- in addition to her standard trip w/friend to Kennywood, C is going to get the chance to be a model in my friend Marci Gehring's fashion show at the Clay Penn. C. is a natural choice, with her innate dramatic qualities. And Marci, who is an immensely talented and prolific painter, has a stunning line of corsets that she will debut for the event.

I may not have chosen to focus my night on a fashion show, but it's going to be a family affair with my wife and sister-in-law participating. Today we drove up north to Marci's residence in the country- the Rainbow Castle. This is a site to behold, with lavish decor and original artwork scattered about and actually integrated into the structure of the house and its environs. There is no point in trying to accurately convey the experience of a visit... it simply has to be seen to be believed. In fact, every time I visit I notice something different.

With all this beauty, and in the company of a tribe of womensfolk hammering out the details of the fashion show... I have had the occasion to ponder the nature of the object. You see, my niece is having difficulty with not being the sole kid participant of the event. Her friend, who is younger than her, will be included... and C. fears that somehow she will be upstaged. Her concern is not a surprise, with the amount of social conditioning that this society vists upon girls from a very early age. Competition is just so much more insidious among American females.

My experience of competition is much more direct. I had an older brother and I was constantly measuring myself against his accomplishments, as well as those of other boys among my peer group. This is quite natural among American males. Who is the best, the smartest, the fastest, the strongest...etc.? Tests are administered and contests are held... and these delineate an objectively defined winner. It's not the same with girls. Their measure of superiority is dictated by the attentions lavished upon them. The winner is the girl to whom the most eyes are directed. How does this inform her psyche? It's not bolstered with performance, but rather with perception. This is inherently subjective. Who sets the standard? Clearly it's the American mass media with its perverse obsession with objectification.

So C. struggles to be her own little archetype of the perfect object. This is what a fashion show is about. Object meets object... object wears object. And even in the most enlightened circles with strong female figures, this objectification gets reinforced. In this case the girl is transformed into an objet d'art, but an object nonetheless. How should she feel about that? If she compels the most attention, then evidently she is a success. The only way out of this is to become the artist herself, using her own body (or a surrogate) as the medium.

To an extent, all artists find their reflection in their work. But with the work of male artists, there is a clear separation between the work and their identity as creators. The objectification of women in our society seems to present a significant impediment to this individuation. But women are supposed to reflect symbiosis, so many observers ignore or discount the exceptions. Many aren't even aware that this could even be a problem.

So what do I do with my niece, so disconsolate over the prospect of being measured against an object that she perceives as being "the competition"? Do I work against prevailing attitudes and centuries of objectification, and insist that she measure herself against standards of her own making? Or do I smile and tell her how pretty she looks?


Blogger Susan Constanse said...

Maybe, if you want to reinforce waht she is doing, you tell her that her poise on-stage was good. You know, talk to her about technical points in performance instead of dwelling on the superficial charms of being young and pretty.

Happy Birthday, David.

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps the problem is compounded by the short attention span inherent in many men? The argument usually includes something involving the residual effects of a not-so-distant past rooted in the hunt. Regardless of the origin or validity, it's not uncommon for even the most enlightened men to hold fast to this theory as an excuse for requiring constant new fodder for visual stimulation. How then can women, even particularly strong women, ignore pressure to be disproportionately concerned about their physical appearance? As one of my favorite sayings goes (I'll modify it a bit for the sake of avoiding profanity), for every beautiful woman there's a man who's tired of um, having her. Hmm... doesn't sound nearly as good that way, but the point's been made.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


So... are you saying I should do everything I can to discourage my 11-year old niece from parcipating? Your argument makes the entire phenomena of child modeling seem extremely creepy.

For every "beautiful woman who has a man who's tired of having her"... there's a woman who needs to learn that while physical beauty might be enough to attract a mate, it takes a whole lot more than physical beauty to keep one.

Perhaps men discover other things about these women after they are through being dazzled by their shiny surfaces.

That quote might be saying more about "beautiful women", and the misplaced value our society heaps upon them, than it is saying about visually-stimulated men. Either way it puts the entire pursuit of "fashion" into a fairly tawdry light.

6:38 PM  
Anonymous DeeA2Z said...

Ah, yes, females learn early on about competition, comparison, and disappointment. This situation appears to be particuarly entrenched within the fashion industry. In fashion there is always someone prettier, someone thinner, someone younger ("younger" being the particularly salient trait). Encourage C. to participate for the fun and drama of dressing up and showing off her particular costume. Encourage her to be herself and not compete with anyone, to just enjoy the experience and to remember to smile. Women are more critical of themselves than any other person can be and most women are painfully aware of all the ways in which they are not perfect. There are so many disappointments in life, so please don't add any negativity to her special day by drawing any sort of comparison. Just make her feel as special as you know she is, and let her know that her performance in this event is the highlight and reason for your presence. Like any little girl,(or any woman, for that matter) she just wants the people she loves to love her unconditionally.

By the way, may the celebration of your birthday bring you as much joy as your birth brought to your mother. Happy Birthday!

3:14 PM  

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