I still think about the boyfriends who told me, in private, that I was too fat, too ungroomed, too too much to be lovable. I can’t imagine what it might be like to be called ugly in front of the whole country, not even as a grown woman, but as a vulnerable teenager.
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In her recent New York Times op-ed on the Harvey Weinstein abuse saga and sexual assault in Hollywood, Mayim Bialik wrote how a critic described her "as having a ‘shield-shaped’ face of ‘mismatched features.’ I never recovered from seeing myself that way." I’m not sure I would, either.
Having your looks ripped apart in a national publication isn’t the kind of thing you just bounce back from, especially for a teenager. It’s easy to blame Hollywood values, but we live in a society where the good-looking have all kinds of good things projected onto them, while ugly and worthless are understood to be synonymous.
Trying to be "pretty enough" feels like a carnival con game, where the stakes are your job prospects, romantic partners and the right to be seen as a human being. No one will ever make you feel pretty enough, because that’s the point, to keep women eternally insecure.
It’s unfortunate then, that Bialik can’t see herself in solidarity with her fellow actresses, none of whom are exempt from intense, degrading scrutiny of their looks. Bialik mentions peers like Christina Applegate and Danica McKellar, young women who brought out her own insecurities. I wonder if Bialik ever spoke with them about how they felt about the ways women in Hollywood were expected to compete on looks with each other.
When she returned to Hollywood Bialik found herself auditioning for "frumpy friend" and "zaftig secretary" roles. It would seem that Bialik has internalized the judgments of critics, producers and casting directors and made them her own, with no reflection on how even the ‘doe eyed’ and ‘pouty lipped’ are harmed by sexism.
In Bialik’s Hollywood, it’s pretty girls vs. smart ones. "Pretty" opens doors, but ‘smart’ keeps you safe. At least, that’s the narrative she seems to have constructed for herself, a message that was met with significant outrage.
Referring to herself as "'nontraditional'-looking" and "not a perfect ten," Bialik sets up a false choice between being valued for looks or earning respect for one’s ideas, as if to scorn the "traditionally good-looking" actresses who somehow did better than she did at impressing the critics in their twisted appraisals.
It makes me want to ask, "Mayim have you actually watched TV lately?" They don’t let unattractive people on TV. Bialik - white, slim, youthful and even-featured (yes, even her lovely nose) is indeed "conventionally" attractive and photogenic. Uncritically accepting the judgment of misogynist critics (who criticized her) isn’t just wrong (and sad) but very close to an insult to the countless Jewish women out there who looked at Mayim, the star, and felt good about themselves.
Bialik’s piece was intended as a feminist reflection on surviving in Hollywood, where the odds are stacked against women in so many ways. But it seems like Bialik wants to have it both ways – participating in an industry inescapably invested in surfaces, but also "consciously" rejecting using one’s "looks" to succeed. She writes, "having others celebrate your physical beauty is not the way to lead a meaningful life." It’s a strange kind of feminism that casts other women as sell-outs.
I came of age as a feminist in the late 80s and early 90s. Bialik and I are almost exactly the same age. My icons of empowerment were Naomi (Wolf) and Susan (Faludi), not Gloria (Steinem) and Betty (Friedan). From The Beauty Myth and Backlash, I learned that compulsory beauty work was a trap to keep women down, a billion dollar industry of repression in which women were both mark and (unwitting) collaborator. For each piece of progress made by women, new, more odious beauty expectations were placed on them. As enfranchisement rose, so did eating disorders and elective cosmetic surgery.
Much like Mayim Bialik, I vowed to rise above the traps set for me, to gain attention for my ideas not my looks.
Understanding the social construction of beauty, and its intersection with capitalism, shaped me as a woman and as a person with progressive politics. In many ways, I'm still the 14 year old girl who devoured those books hungrily.
To the teenage me, the lesson seemed to be that compulsory grooming, the exhausting, never ending routines of depilation, dieting, making oneself always softer, smaller, cuter, less obtrusive, was to be resisted. To be a real feminist was to take up a heroic rejection of all of that. A real feminist took up space. A real feminist repulsed the male gaze with her shocking body hair/belly fat/comfortable shoe choice. Resisting compulsory grooming expectations was what made you a feminist. And I knew I was right because my failure to comply was met with the rage of the entitled young men around me.
At a certain point I came to embrace beautification and self presentation as something that could be done for myself, finally confident that no amount of lipstick could counteract my deepest values. And, even if it was done for someone else, so what?
This toxic, patriarchal world is the only one we have at the moment. Bialik writes, "we can’t be nave about the culture we live in." Part of that means acknowledging that beauty privilege is real. I’m all for dismantling the male gaze and the contingent power it grants to women, halevai. But in the meantime, no woman can be blamed for grabbing whatever power she thinks she can, here and now.
To blame women for not expending endless amounts of energy resisting expectations is to not live in the real world. To offer women a 'feminist' choice of brains or beauty is to capitulate to the very scam Naomi and Susan warned us about.
To congratulate oneself for 'wise and self-protecting' choices when the only thing that guarantees protection from abuse is luck, to blame women at all, even by implication, when it is men who are responsible for building and maintaining institutions built on abuse, is the furthest thing from feminist.
Many years after my encounter with Naomi and Susan, I came to see feminism as a critique of patriarchy, not a fixed set of practices and taboos. Changing my understanding of how to be a feminist made me more compassionate for the choices of all women, especially those related to self-presentation. And that whichever end of the beauty spectrum women find themselves, they have the right to be taken seriously – and not to be exploited, yes, even in a "hotel room or a casting couch".
None of us lives apart from patriarchy and all of us are implicated in it, in one way or another. The question is what we’re doing to confront it: to be, like Bialik, concerned with covering ourselves up to make ourselves smaller targets, or to put more of our energies into changing the system.
Rokhl Kafrissen is a cultural critic and playwright, the author of A Brokhe/A Blessing, a Yiddish English gangster ghost romance in three acts. She writes on Yiddish and contemporary Jewish life as a blogger and in a columnist. Twitter: @RokhlK