Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Leathered Look

I'm sort of fried tonight because I just finished photocopying the syllabus for my new course on feminist theory. It's an existing course in the program but my first time teaching it; expect me to spout off about it for the next ten weeks. It starts with Mary Wollstonecraft and ends up with Judith Butler and intersectionality. It will kick my students' asses - and probably mine, too. Karmic justice.

But since I'm fried, I'm only good for a brief rant. Driving to the office at 9:30 p.m., after the kids were tucked in, was an obstacle course. With human bodies as the obstacles. Two days before classes begin, my little college town is a bacchanalia of late-summer partying. The college boys saunter along in their baggy shorts. The college girls teeter along, clad in strategically placed scraps of fabric. By the hundreds, they're tripping off the edge of the sidewalk or walking down the middle of the street.

Yeah, the dress code is pretty sexist. But that's not what got my dander up. I was struck, again, by how tan the young women are. I can appreciate the slenderizing value of a good tan. On the rare occasions when I've managed to get some color on my thighs, they seemed to shrink three sizes.

But as a pasty-faced native of North Dakota, I've rarely been tan. Best case: People stop asking why I'm so pale. If I live long enough, maybe my freckles will merge.

You know what? That's okay. I'm 44 now, and while no one will mistake me for 20 anymore, I'm holding up reasonably well. I'd be nothing but a mass of misplaced origami folds by now, had I visited the tanning salon as often as my young female students do. The demand to be tan has escalated dramatically since I was their age.

There are lots of things to criticize about the beauty ideal, but the imperative to be tan is particularly evil because it imposes a double bind with a time lag. What makes you "sexy" at age 20 will make you look haggard and old 20 years later. (I realize I'm leaving skin cancer out of the equation. Clearly, if you're having to undergo surgery and chemo, that won't make you prettier, either.) My students realize that tanning will lead to wrinkles later on, yet it all seems abstract. For them, aging is still something that happens to other people. I thought the same thing at age 20.

I wish there were a way to get this across to young women. I joke about it and my point sails right past them. I don't know how to discuss it seriously without sounding like an old scold. I suppose I could tell them that they'll still want to appear sexy and desirable in 20 or 30 years - but that's probably a little too close to hearing that your mother still wants to get off.

LOLcat in a bind from I Can Has Cheezburger?


frau sally benz said...

Not only do they look at the future as something abstract, but also, quite sadly, their solution is that they can rely on plastic surgery once that happens! The ease with which people now jump to that as a solution for everything is very scary, and it happens all too often.

Sungold said...

I'm not as quick to condemn people for plastic surgery as I used to be. My sister got a boob job a few years ago, and she felt like she was just *restoring* her old, pre-childbearing self, rather than aiming for some elusive perfection. (I should write about that sometime, I guess.)

But the thing is, surgery can't erase the tough-looking texture that comes from way too much sun. I have some friends whose skin is weathered from spending lots of time outdoors. They seem comfortable in their skin, so to speak. But these are generally people who never were overly invested in some Barbie-doll ideal, so they didn't stress about it 20 years ago, and they don't now, either.

I have to admit to a small measure of smugness that my little rebellion in junior high and high school against lying in the sun with *baby oil* on my skin (which some of my friends did to promote tanning!) turned out to be a smart thing, in the long run. I was such a nerd. I liked to read outdoors (still do) but much preferred the shad.