By Anna Nabutovsky
By now many of you have probably heard about actress Mayim Bialik’s controversial New York Times op-ed. The Big Bang Theory actress received backlash for what many perceived to be a victim blaming narrative. Given her staunch feminist reputation, I was at first somewhat skeptical, but what I saw in her letter hit me harder than I could have imagined. Her piece started on an unfortunate note, the overplayed stereotypical description of herself as, “prominent-nosed, geeky, and Jewish.” Nevermind the excessive self-deprecation, the very first phrased dripped with (perhaps unintentional) anti-Semitism, as well as an implicit subscription to the same sexist beauty standards Bialik supposedly dismisses. Still, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and so I read on. And at first, it was much of the same. Scrolling past the paragraphs describing her supposed flaws, and ignoring her use of the words “perfect ten,” I finally came to her implication that any woman who wants to diet is inherently un-feminist.
It was then that the sinking feeling in my stomach began to resurface. It was in fact a feeling as familiar as it was young. Vivid memories of not just men, but women who have shown me disrespect because of my femininity started to come rushing back. It was at that moment that I finally reached an incredibly familiar sentence: “Having others celebrate your physical beauty is not the way to lead a meaningful life.” It is a sentence on which I’d heard about every condescending variation. It is a sentence to which I have grown almost so accustomed to that it has all but lost its literal translation.
What it does carry is the weight of a specific type of pseudo-feminist judgment. A type of judgment that has caused me too much sweat, tears, and shame throughout the years.
Unlike Mayim, I have never set foot near Hollywood, but I did grow up doing two of the most conventionally stereotypically ultra-feminine activities, dance and cheer. And like Mayim, I was at one point in my life 11 years old, awkward, and geeky. I never knew the right thing to say or do. I was picked dead last in gym class for my lack of coordination in all team sports, and I preferred the company of books to all my classmates. And so I clearly empathize with the perils of wanting validation for a type of social charisma which then eluded me. At the same time, I was a dancer who loved all things pink and glittery. My voice was ultra-high pitched, and my hair, which I took hours to groom, reached my hips. The dichotomy of my existence made me a social pariah. Although Mayim’s brand of feminism was not yet vocalized, it was implicit in all my interactions. This went on for years. The older I got, the less accepted my femininity was.
The very same feminists who shared my debate interests or asked me for literary advice, would condescendingly offer the very same unsolicited advice Mayim offers. “Why focus on your beauty, it’s not meaningful,” or “You know you are really smart you don’t have to try to please men.” “It’s not that I’m slut shaming, but don’t you think that dressing in a sexy Halloween costume is really un-feminist.”
This was of course problematic for several reasons. There is the issue of victim blaming for which Mayim already took some heat. But beyond that, there is also the very real implication that if you are interested in ‘beauty,’ you are an agent of the patriarchy. This sentiment diminishes women’s agency and ironically directly plays back to exact culture which spawns the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys of the world.
The faulty logic at play here follows a twisted trajectory which implies that men treat women like objects because women act like objects. The acceptable recourse in Mayim’s world is to rebel against these constraints by rejecting traditional femininity. The problem is that this then places the blame squarely onto womanhood instead of on toxic masculinity. Plainly: It takes the burden to reduce sexism of men and onto women.
Mayim herself writes that in a perfect world, women should be free to act how they chose. But instead of fighting for that world, she wants women to suppress their own desires and make sure not to “provoke” men. Deconstructed, this road leads us back to that same dress code sexism which blames girls’ bodies for boys’ distraction. Deconstructed, this road leads to the implication that a smart girl would hide her “beauty.” Deconstructed, this road glorifies one type of conventional beauty as the “real” type that needs to be hidden to avoid male attack. Deconstructed, this road leads to the sentence I have heard time and again: “Having others celebrate your physical beauty is not the way to lead a meaningful life.”
And Mayim, I’m sorry, but no. Physical beauty and its celebration is natural. It leads to confidence and sexual agency. The celebration of physical beauty is akin to the celebration of art. It is expressive, colorful, diverse and amazing. The celebration of beauty and sexuality is not oppressive to women; it does not diminish our intelligence or remove meaning from our lives. Mayim, if by some miracle you are reading this, you are gravely mistaken. All this negativity which you have come to associate with the celebration of beauty is a product of our culture’s toxic masculinity. It is product of years spent limiting women’s sexual agency. It is the bitter taste of our regression to one specific unattainable ideal of perfection. It is the complete objectification of conventionally “hot” women. The celebration of beauty is not ugly. It is not worthless. It is meaningful. And I am proud to care about it. I am proud of my femininity. This is what feminism looks like in my world. One day, I hope you look past Harvey Weinstein’s world and see what I mean.