by Victoria Barrett
We've all seen the meme created by designer Katherine Young: Two Girls' Life covers, side-by-side. On the left, a real cover, the headlines focusing entirely on beauty and style; on the right, a (badly) Photoshopped version substituting a Google Science Fair winner for the model, with headlines emphasizing achievement, achievement, achievement. So, so many people are sharing this image with one hand while patting themselves on the back with the other.
As you've no doubt guessed, I hate this meme.
Let me tell you a story. In high school, I was a little obsessed with clothes and boys. I was a cheerleader. A flirt. A poor kid who spent way too much money on her hair, with the perms and the Sun-In and the accessories. Once, desperate to get my bushy eyebrows under control, I let a part-time beautician wax them, to my great regret.
I was also the girl you cheated off of in calculus. The guidance counselor told my mother that I had the highest PSAT score in the school. I was recruited by and accepted into the top aeronautical engineering program in the world.
Girls! We are complex, multifaceted. We can, in fact, care about our hair and our grades. And we are already under tremendous pressure to be high-achieving, to prove ourselves, to have it all, by which we mean do it all — career, kids, philanthropy, active social life, great hair, great shoes, great house. The pressure in the image on the right to achieve absolutely everything is no less problematic than the one on the left.
We can and should critique the beauty-industrial complex and the messages it sends to girls. But do we really have to make girls who've bought into any facet of that message feel like shit for it? Do we have to pit the plain-Jane-brain girls against them?
Here's another story: I had a friend in high school who didn't wear makeup, didn't style her hair beyond brushing it, wore jeans and sneakers every day. She was your prototypical high-achieving kid. Perfect grades. Played sports (very well). Was more or less universally liked and admired. This girl, this friend, made fun of me mercilessly for the clothes and the boys and the beauty-industrial buy-in. She called me frivolous. She spent the entire four years of high school shaking her head at me dismissively.
Later, we both enrolled in competitive programs at the same university. We both struggled. We also both achieved. As far as I can tell from the internet, her life is no more fulfilling than mine. I don't think she has cured cancer or saved the world. Neither have I. We are, presumably, even, despite all that brain power I wasted on boys and my hair and my jeans during my developmental years.
We don't have to be only one thing, we girls. We are all so, so many things. We can be gorgeous, and smart, and kind, and accomplished, and good friends, and good partners, and good community members, and good people. We can become good parents, or not become parents at all.
What doesn't help is shaming one another. Which, boiled down, is what this meme does. It's intended, it seems, to tell Girls' Life and its ilk to change their message. Instead, it tells girls, "Shame on you, for believing every message you've ever been sent by our culture, you shallow thing, you."
Victoria Barrett's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train, Salon, PANK, and other outlets. She lives and writes in a house full of men and boys (even the pets), and tries not to feel too bad about it.