I’ve been working out in some form or another all my life. Though I used to be more of a gym rat, today I primarily swim laps, a habit that leaves me with goggle-eye indentations, smudged make-up, and wet hair spiking in all directions. Often, due to the insanely short life span of some of my Speedos, my suits tend to lack the elasticity required to hold my 62-year-old physique in place. I know what you’re thinking. Not a pretty picture.
But for the brief, big hair, sparkly spandex, workout era of the 80s, the health club has mostly been a place where pretty wasn’t important. Perhaps that’s why she had me so nonplussed.
The attractive young woman, probably in her early twenties, stared into her phone. Tight black shorts and a crop top encased her frame. She pursed her lips and lifted her chin. Then, looking over her shoulder at the mirror behind her, she snapped a series of selfies, shots aimed to highlight her, um, posterior.
I tried not to stare, but as I dried off after my shower and dressed, I couldn’t help but sneak a peek, now and then. The camera clicked away. She turned her hips a fraction of an inch and the snapping resumed.
I grew up in the world of Barbie, a perfectly proportioned piece of plastic that, no doubt, led to a generation of women with body-image issues. And while there were also magazine and TV beauties to contend with, our experience was relatively benign compared to the image assault young women must deal with today: a 24-hour stream of internet images highlighting impossibly beautiful, often photoshopped, people. Sadly, approximately 91% of women in the U.S. are unhappy with their bodies.
I’m a high school teacher and I worry about the pressure that’s being placed on our young people. Those unhappy with their looks can suffer from low self-esteem, which can lead to eating disorders, early sexual activity, substance use, and suicidal thoughts.
I was approached by one of my journalism students recently. She was writing a story about body-image issues. “Ms. Montgomery, when do women finally become happy with their bodies?”
“Never,” I said, without thinking. Her face fell. “I mean, when you get older, other things become more important.” I scrambled to put a positive spin on my answer, but could see the damage was already done.
A week after I first saw her, the girl at the health club reappeared. This time, she faced a different mirror and, after lifting the edge of her shirt to reveal solid abs, she began taking pictures again. After myriad photos, she slumped onto a bench and scrolled through the images, all the while frowning into her phone.
As I gathered my things to leave, she walked in front of another large mirror and paused, staring at the floor, wanting, perhaps, to just pass it by. But something compelled her to stop and lean in close, turning her face one way then the other, as she batted long false eyelashes and tossed her hair.
Pretty can certainly be nice. In fact, studies have shown that, fair or not, attractive people are more likely to get hired, receive promotions, and have larger paychecks than those who might be lacking in the pulchritude department. However, as those pretty folks will eventually learn, physical beauty does not last.
“Ms. Montgomery, when do women finally become happy with their bodies?”
“It all depends,” I should have said to my student reporter. “Perhaps, when we focus on all the fabulous opportunities life throws at us, face our aspirations head on, and surround ourselves with people who love us and make us laugh, maybe then we stop worrying about things that are really not important.”
As I watched the girl wrench away from the mirror, I hoped she might have goals to dream about, hobbies she enjoyed, and people in her life who would love and cherish her, even on those bad-hair days. I wanted to tell her, but I did not. I think there are some things we just need to learn on our own.
Anne Montgomery’s novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other? The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.