Lord George Lyttlelton wrote, in Advice to a Lady: “What is your sex’s earliest, latest care, Your heart’s supreme ambition? To be fair.”
Feminists complain that the culture we live in is, in the words of Dr. Mary Pipher, “girl poisoning”–in essence, that our cultural preoccupation with rigid standards of beauty teaches girls from a young age to fret obsessively about their appearance to the point that their self-esteem is damaged. I agree to an extent. The media certainly tends to emphasize sexuality in teens above other qualities. However, at the same time the current cultural zeitgeist in fact denies the holistic beauty of youth, claiming that young people are asexual or even in fact poisoned by sexuality itself, and the strongest advocates of that position are the selfsame feminists who lament our narrow definitions of beauty. Girls themselves are at the center of a cultural tug-of-war over youth, beauty, and sexuality.
How is a young girl meant to take these conflicting messages, then? It appears to me self-evident that Lyttleton was correct, and not only that–throughout history beauty has always been a concern for girls, and that a rather slim definition of feminine beauty, while changing over time and from culture to culture, has been around as long as girls themselves. Thus, one cannot fully blame modern Western culture for this obsession; it is in our genes. Even the lowliest animals driven by instinct seek healthy mates–the problem, it seems, is in how we define healthy. Is Kate Moss a healthy human female specimen? Some people think so; others find her woefully thin.
In a society where young girls are simultaneously expected to be themselves and to maintain a healthy body, where they are both expected to be attractive and denied their attractiveness because of the overriding panic of sexual exploitation and abuse, where eating disorders and body dysmorphia are striking younger and younger girls, what is it that a young girl sees when she looks into the mirror? Is it a beautiful face and form that beams back at her, or a hideously ugly thing which forever haunts her thoughts?
Fr. Wikipedia: Jean-Baptiste-Jacques Poultier (Site is in French.)
Amazon: Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality (Sounds like an interesting book, though I confess I haven’t read it.)