Friday, July 2, 2010

Mean Girls and the Politics of Pretty

I have found myself thinking about the movie “Mean Girls” quite a lot lately. It’s a smart and funny movie, I mean what else would you expect from Tina Fey? But we (and by we I mean us girls) find it funny because on some level we can all relate to that high school experience. Being on the outside looking in. Or being on the inside and trying to maintain your status there. Finding out that the place you want so desperately to be may not be the place that is best for you. I think we all also remember that feeling of stressing over the perfect outfit, or worrying about having a bad hair day, or obsessing over the number on the scale and what size jeans you could fit into.

I don’t know that I feel right using that word “remember” because for some of us (and I would wager it is actually more of us than some people will actually admit) those circumstances and those feelings are not a memory, they are still a reality in our day-to-day lives. Mean girls still exist and they walk among us.

I understood what it meant to be pretty and popular in high school, and I never quite reached either of those, probably hovering somewhere in the middle tier if you will. But I knew what it meant for me and my “status” when I made it onto the cheerleading team. That’s still an inner ring in most high schools that many girls strive for. Hell, I tried out and failed before I finally made it onto the team. What I was truly longing for was that sense of belonging, of being a part of something. And I so enjoyed the camaraderie and fun I experienced as being on that squad. However, I would be a huge liar if I said I didn’t enjoy the perks that came with all of it. They weren’t the reason I wanted to be on the team, but they sure didn’t hurt either.

I had that same experience all over again when I pledged a sorority in college. I was a little skeptical about the whole Greek life thing, so I didn’t join right away. While most freshman rushed and pledged right away, basically within the first few weeks of arriving to campus, I was just trying to adjust to the whole transition from high school to college. Living in a dorm room with a total stranger, trying to make friends on my floor, figuring out where all my classes were (all on the complete other side of campus – like a 25 minute freaking walk away). But I met people in my dorm and in my classes who did join sororities and they were all pretty nice and normal, so I dipped my toe in during the spring semester. That’s when our campus had an “informal” rush period, where you could kind of come and go to houses as you pleased. I ended up not pledging at that time, but knew for sure I would do it the following semester.

So that fall rolled around and I went through the formal rush process, and for those of you reading this that know it, you know how exhausting and monotonous that whole parade can be. The same conversations over and over….cheeks aching from your plastered on permasmile….worrying about what to wear, what to say. They always say it’s a mutual selection process, but that’s just something nice the Panhellenic folks have to tell you. As a rushee, you have little power over anything. When I got on the other side of things I saw girls not invited back to the next round of parties because they wore something that someone didn’t like (silver pants) or their hair was bad (cheesy highlights) or they “seemed dorky” (in my house that probable meant she enjoyed reading actual books). I hate admitting that, but it happens. And as things turned out for me, I got into one of the “good” houses. All of that other Panhellenic PR about every house being a good house is total sh*t. Kind of like saying Ivy League Universities and community colleges are the same thing because they are both higher education institutions. Anyone on a college campus – whether they are Greek themselves are not – can tell you who the good houses are and who aren’t.

Here’s the thing…for the most part I felt really out of place in that house. I felt like people were looking at me while singing that “One of these things is not like the other…” song in their head. Most of these girls were total knockouts….they may have been the mean girls in their own high schools for all I know. I just felt so much like I stuck out. I had a friend from the dorms who had pledged that sorority the previous Spring, so I figured she maybe just campaigned hard for me to get a bid, so I did. And for all that time I was in the sorority in college, I could never ever shake that feeling of not fitting in. Of not being pretty enough, never being comfortable with my weight (no mater how large or small), and just being totally unattractive.

It wasn’t all my doing, or my thoughts and feelings that were at fault. I remember once when I was running for a position on the chapter’s council – the rush chair. I had purposely taken committee and assistant positions for the rush periods that came after I was initiated, trying to learn and get experience for the position I wanted to eventually run for. But I wasn’t slated for the position by the outgoing council…I later heard that the person that would be leaving that rush chair position had argued that I wasn’t really the person that would be best to go out and welcome the rushees – that someone prettier should be the first person that steps out to greet them. To be fair, that may not be *the exact* words because that happened a LONG time ago and I can’t remember them verbatim. But I was informed about it by more than one person, so that sentiment was expressed loud and clear. It didn’t matter that I had the experience and the ability. Basically what kept me off the ballot was that some of my “sisters” didn’t think I was pretty enough to do the job.

I was really crushed after that experience. I remember some nights I didn’t go out to parties with the rest of my sorority friends because I just felt too ugly to leave the house. I know that likely sounds overly dramatic to some of you, but I can remember that paralyzing feeling like it was yesterday because I still feel it at times today. I am not saying I blame these feeling entirely on my sorority experience, but I know it’s a very large part of it.

I tried very hard to not let the negative election experience sideline me entirely. When I returned for the spring semester, I decided to pull a “screw you” and go run for the same rush chair position for the Panhellenic Board – it would basically put me in charge of rush for the whole campus and oversee the rush chairs for each of the 15 chapters. And shockingly enough, I won. I wish I could say it was because I was the most qualified or ran some fantastic campaign. But in being honest, I think I largely won that election in much the same way that I lost the one in my own chapter. I ran against a girl who was way more qualified than me. The thing is, she was not in a “good” house. I think people voted for the letters on my chest more than they voted for me and what they thought I would do in the job. While I still feel badly about that, I think everything happens for a reason because I ended up doing a truly fantastic job with my position and had some of the happiest and most rewarding experiences ever during that time of my life. But I know the politics of pretty was what likely got me elected.

The pretty factor and mean girls aren’t isolated to high school and college. They are alive and active in our lives today. Would you watch the Real Housewives of any city if they were average-looking, non-surgically enhanced moms, wearing jeans and a t-shirt and loading their kids into minivans to go to soccer practice? Probably not. Hell would we continue to watch these shows if all the ladies got along and were nice to one another? No, that would be boring. So we tune in and watch these women go from the nail salon to the hair salon to the tanning salon, flip tables at restaurants and argue with one another for sometimes no reason at all other than it gives them something to do. (as a side note, they keep giving these housewives microphones and telling them they are fabulous vocalists – please stop doing that Bravo)

And we can’t just say “oh that’s reality TV” and explain it away. A few weeks ago, California Republican Nominee for Senate Carly Fiorina was still wearing a live mic and was recorded mocking Barbara Boxer’s hair. She caught a lot of flack, obviously. But she’s not saying anything other women don’t say when they are out with friends on a Saturday night, or when they comment on a celebrity’s new look. Even Elena Kagan has received a large amount of press for her looks. HER LOOKS. Something that has no bearing on her ability to do the job. Last time I checked being hot was not on the requirements list to be a Supreme Court Justice. I mean Stephen Breyer doesn’t exactly rev my engine, but that doesn’t really have a bearing on his ability to do the job, know what I mean??

People’s looks (and that includes weight) remain one of the last openly acceptable forms of bigotry. It’s awful and it’s wrong and it’s something we probably all do to some extent. I may be more apt to it or more susceptible to it because I’m a female. And I can do all I can to try and not be one of the mean girls. To take people for more than their attractiveness or ability to dress well. But we all have the ability to leave the world a little “prettier” than we found it that day, by smiling at a random person on the street, or complimenting a coworker on their jacket/necktie/haircut. The least we can do is try and make people feel good about their looks as well all live in our beauty-biased world.

On that note, thanks to my sorority sisters for taking pity on me. I see pictures of me on bid day with my long, long hair, beyond pale jeans and doc martens and I physically cringe. Thanks ladies for overlooking my fashionably challenged self and getting me into some black pants and chunky Steve Madden shoes and changing my life forever!

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