My first job after college was student teaching in the inner city in Los Angeles, and my first experience of Los Angeles was staying at the dorms at UCLA, during the first year of Teach for America, when they, and me, and all of us flown in together, were all just trying to figure things out. This was, and likely still is, a great metaphor for LA as a city, a place that is always just on the cusp of figuring things out, just on the edge of leading the rest of the country into some unknown territory of "pure air bars", botox, and the next concoction of tweaked, "natural" health and beauty tips that will somehow ensure that we all live longer, stay healthier, and, as an unspoken consequence, reach the end of that great pursuit of happiness that our country has promised us, complete with cake, and ice cream, and a chocolate egg to celebrate.
None of which, of course, will add to our waistline (see Albert Brooks' "Defending Your Life" for the LA ideal of heavenly, guilt-free, indulgent eating).
LA was also the first place that I heard stories of sorority hazing that involved each woman dressing in a bikini, standing up on a table in front of her peers armed with permanent markers, and allowing them to draw circles around her "problem areas", bumps of cellulite on the hips, arms that weren't perfectly toned, etc. etc. LA was the first place where I recall walking along the beach, on a paved, public, pedestrian pathway and glancing into un-curtained windows opened to the sea, one of which contained a woman, fully naked, surrounded by people who looked dressed for a dinner party (I didn't linger long enough to see what all of them were doing, and why - one learns to quickly walk past these things living in LA).
LA is a city of commercial beauty, one that praises youth and money, never accepting the simple fact of life that, for most of us, these two things don't occur simultaneously. As a young woman, I girded myself against most of it, most of its cynicism, by thrusting my intelligence before me as some nerdy sword and shield, using the armor of the drumbeat of my childhood, when I was labeled ugly, and a loser, as the defensive definition of who I was, and trying my best to ignore the passes, personal, professional, and in passing, that were thrust upon me almost daily.
Since my time in Los Angeles, I've been a size 6, a size 16, and everything else in between. I am now a size 0. I've seen the features of my face fluctuate in the mirror with my changing weight and age, I've added a smallish amount of looseness around my stomach that most women who have had children have (and camouflage), and I've acquired an addiction to anti-aging eye cream that makes me blush just admitting that it exists.
The one thing that has remained a constant throughout all of this is the predictability of society's reactions to me based on the shape of my body. When I am thin (as I am now), I have to, seemingly, want the attention of anonymous men, I have to, seemingly, want to have a champers and hampers lifestyle, full of all of the frivolity that entails. When I was not thin, I was "real", "interesting", "quiet" and a "good mother".
To riff on that line from Sunset Boulevard, I am real, it's society that has gotten fictional.
That's what bothers me the most about this controversial ad Dove has put out there, one that's already been criticized for praising thinness, and a haltingly coy lack of ownership of one's own beauty. One's own sexiness. It engages in this same fictionalization of beauty equaling happiness, equaling thinness, equaling something resembling enlightenment. I have yet to see a similar ad featuring a man looking at the representation of his features and talking about how important his personal beauty is to him as a parent, how much it will help him professionally, how it "couldn't be more critical to his happiness." This is what this is really about, after all, not beauty, or body perception, but happiness, that ethereal thing floating just outside our fingertips, promised to us in small packages beautifully wrapped, seen in others but not in ourselves, and seen in ourselves by others, because of what we look like, because of the assumptions made about the totality of one's life based on a dress size.
To fix that, to fix the disease of expectations, internal and external, requires more than a few pencil sketches and some self-help books. It requires unflinching honesty, about who we are, and what we are, and what we want, and what sort of society all of us want to see, without mythologizing, without carefully crafted branding, and with the courage to just live, as we are, and accept others, as we encounter them. This is beyond the scope of a soap ad, granted, but talking about something as silly as a soap ad, with honesty, is a start.