International Women’s Day poses a wonderful opportunity for women to reflect on their journeys of living in the female body and determine how they want to forge ahead into the future. There may be numerous external inequalities and injustices yet to be remedied, but the truth remains that we can be the greatest friend or worst enemy to ourselves as individuals.
In an age of celebrity where the spotlight tends to be on women who are famous and glamorous, and who tend to be promoted by the media as ‘the ideal’ to strive for, where does this leave impressionable young women in the process of establishing their own identities? In recent years a counter-narrative has emerged of the women whom we have put on pedestals coming forward with their own stories of abuse and exploitation. For example, Lady Gaga revealed last year that she suffered a psychotic breakdown, followed by 5 years of PTSD, following being raped and becoming pregnant at 19 [https://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/a30416487/lady-gaga-rape-story-ptsd-oprah-winfrey/]. The “Me-too movement” gave the impression that all we needed was the courage to come forward, and name our oppressors and all would be well. Gaga chose not to name her abuser, but still chose to publicly process her pain. The ongoing court cases with Geoffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, both eventually convicted of paedophilia, taught us that naming the abuser and seeking legal redress, does not necessarily end the pain. Having killed himself in prison, he will not pay for his crimes on earth in the way his accusers had envisaged, nor will there ever be an opportunity to hear an apology or confession; Maxwell, a woman, aided and abetted his crimes so abuse need not derive solely from another gender.
Perhaps it’s time to stop projecting perfection on to these women in the spotlight who appear to have it all. They have their flaws just as we do; they are shaped for the better or worse by these flaws, just as we are. Women need ‘real’ and powerful alternatives – women they see on a regular basis whom they can learn from and be inspired by. They need to see up close that these mentors have their own internal and external struggles; and to realise that true power does nor come from perfection, but overcoming obstacles.
The single most life-changing decision a woman can make is to choose her role models wisely. Very often women are not discerning about the qualities they wish to emulate in other women. They tend to pattern themselves after their famous idols, whether chosen consciously or sub-consciously. The elevation of someone to the pedestal of a role-model can be detected through such statements as:
- “I’m a fan of…”
- “…is my idol.”
- “I admire…”
- “… inspires me.”
- “…is my hero.”
[You fill in the blanks.]
On a practical level this makes no sense as these public figures are only known to us because their images and statements have been featured repeatedly in the various forms of media from advertising and the print media to the internet and social media. The reason a media role-model cannot ever be appropriate is because there is no relationship, no meaningful bond other than that between a ‘star’ and a fan which is based on fantasy and illusion. The beautiful model or actress is not as beautiful as you think because much time, effort, cosmetics and photo editing has gone in to achieving that image. The voice of that musician you admire is enhanced by instruments, clever arrangements and possibly auto-tune. The sportswoman you idolise is not as strong or as skilled as you think – they rely on coaching, training and physiotherapy, as well as sports psychology – to keep them in peak form.
Fashion and lifestyle blogger, Scarlett Dixon, has come under fire along with so many others posting ‘picture perfect’ lifestyles on Instagram. It is feared they are helping to undermine mental health by causing an increase in feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy at not being able to measure up. Dixon countered “I personally don’t think my content is harmful to young girls, but I do agree Instagram can present a false expectation for people to live up to.” [https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/sep/17/instagram-is-supposed-to-be-friendly-so-why-is-it-making-people-so-miserable]
The term ‘female power’, spun from popular culture, has gathered momentum with the recent #Me Too Campaign where survivors of sexual assault, rape and harassment have collectively found their voices. It may mistakenly be used to endorse behaviours which mimic men. When ‘power’ is associated with women, it tends to alienate or subjugate men. Yet, we do women a grave disservice if we confine their ‘power’ to the limited roles of seductress, adornment, sex objects, playing second fiddle to or oppressing men. But ‘power’, a word which tends to carry connotations of machismo and brute strength, might be better defined for women in terms of ‘influence’.
Most surveys in popular newspapers and magazines such as the ‘50 most beautiful’, the ‘100 richest’, ‘Woman of the Year’ are taken from samples of celebrities. Moreover, their fame is mainly linked to the film, music or fashion worlds. These industries are based on false values such as “the love of money[materialism and marketing], the lust of the eyes[ image and glamour], the lusts of the flesh[sexual fantasy and promiscuity]”(1 John 2:15).
But since all people are flawed, in whom can we vest our admiration and from whom should we derive inspiration? This begs the question as to the purpose of a role model. A role model should spur you on to your own personal development. If this person only inspires passive hero worship, then you need to question the pride of place they occupy in your heart. Scripture warns us to “guard your heart with all diligence because out of it flows the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23). The dangers are that female media icons consume so much of our attention, time and imagination that our own lives are neglected as a result. A role model may shape you but you still need to decide what it is that makes you unique:
- What beliefs do you hold dear?
- What causes do you believe in strongly?
- What do you want to be remembered for?
Although we are all fallible, a worthy role-model must be able to admit the error of her ways and demonstrate a willingness to change for the better. That way you can learn from her accomplishments as well as her mistakes. You can admire and imitate qualities such as hard-work, endurance, kindness, politeness. If you incorporate these into your character, you will reap success in your life. Young girls and women need to discern what are the positive, desirable traits to follow in the women they are exposed to through the media and their community, and conversely what are the negative, unflattering ones to avoid. This can be achieved through mentoring by women in their church, family or neighbourhood (Titus 2:3-5).
You can only discover a sense of purpose by embracing the life you’ve been given and seeking God for his divine purpose for you as an individual. Rather than fall in love with a media idol to compensate for your sense of inadequacy, embrace positive qualities in an admirable person, and recognise that they are transferable – you too can possess them without compromising those qualities which make you unique.
A useful exercise is to close our eyes, and envisage the woman we each want to become. Let us ask ourselves, how we will be in five, ten, 2o years. this goes beyond how we will look physically – a dominant focus of our image-centred culture. More importantly, what will we be doing, how will we be doing it, and how will this make us feel. do we have our own endorsement, or are we looking or permission from others. From this day forward, determine to go boldly to your destiny.
Dr. Carla Cornelius aims to shine a light on contemporary trends in the light of biblical wisdom. She holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Counselling and is the author of several books including ‘Captive Daughters: Breaking the Chains’. Her heart’s desire is to empower women in the truest sense of the word so that they understand who God desires them to be rather than simply riding the tide of popular culture and becoming captive to social stereotypes of how they should look and behave