Thursday, November 3, 2016
Safe Spaces, An Engineered Folly Which Distorts The Social Marketplace
There was no doubt that Henrietta Janes was overweight. Her parents knew it, her schoolmates knew it, and of course she knew it when she looked at herself in the long hallway mirror; but this self-awareness – one which would have let her face facts, trim down, get healthy, and be more attractive – was so tamped down and squelched by well-meaning parents, teachers, pastors, and relatives that she came to not only accept her weight as normal but beautiful.
Henrietta’s era was far from the ‘inclusive’ one of today where no shape, feature, stature, or skin coloring is ever marginal; where there is no such thing as overweight, underweight, short, too tall, or ungainly; where self-image is never measured against norms and standards; and where fatness or a bad complexion are nothing more than the distorted perceptions of others.
This canon worked well enough until Henrietta got to middle school where bitchiness is born and nurtured. The in-crowd – a group of svelte rich girls from the West End who wintered in Palm Beach and Gstaad and summered on Nantucket – were merciless and bloody when it came to those who did not fit in. Anyone who was not made in their image – slender, blonde, blemish-free, tall, alluring, and athletic – was relegated to the margins of the 8th grade. Noses had to be fine and straight. Lips full and sensuous. Breasts small, pert, and cute.
Hair could never be thin, stringy, or frizzy. It had to be full and lustrous, thick and luxuriant.
All the girls bought their clothes at the same shop – Maggie Parsons’ in West Hartford. Maggie had studied under Betsy Johnson, had apprenticed at her stores in Manhattan and Los Angeles, and had come out with her own line in the late Sixties – not quite as severe as Betsy’s, nor cut in the same bold lines that matched Vidal Sassoon’s equally radical haircuts. Her creations were more suited to old Connecticut which appreciated tradition and quality but was not unwilling to turn a hem or neckline.
The girls did look remarkably alike but there was no Village of the Damned spookiness. In fact, they had been formed in the image of success. Everyone in America wanted to look like them and be as gracefully agile on the dance floor, smooth and silky down the slopes of Aspen. Tanned and fit after a summer at the Vineyard.
They embodied classic American beauty, more the California healthy good looks beauty and far from anything New York classic or Main Line Victorian elegance; but it was the look for Middle America in the days before ethnic pluralism, and the stunning mixed race beauty of the New multicultural age. They as a group would look different now – skin tones on a broader spectrum, hair of all textures and lengths Lips, noses, and cheekbones reflecting different national origins.
Today objective judgments of beauty, elegance, allure, and attractiveness are dismissed entirely, beauty is redefined as an inner resources, and the idea of the ‘human composite’ current. According to this theory, we are all genetic composites of our parents and ancestors. Given the quirks and strange turnings of Mendelian genetic theory, parents can never be sure whom their new baby will resemble. It might have the brilliance of Great Grandfather Elvin who worked with Oppenheimer and Fermi, or the ne’er-do-well carelessness of Boulvardier Frank of the Liggett side of the family. It might come out pudgy and good-humored, or dark and sour. Who could predict?
Especially given the permissive sexual mores of the day, the potpourri of races and ethnicities in America, and increased importance placed on DNA, such tolerance is to be expected, but up to a point. No matter how inclusive campus societies are configured to be, young girls still follow the leads of Hollywood. No matter how campus progressives choose to demean physical beauty and promote the Bernal Heights look (flannel shirts, jeans, and work boots), girls still would rather look like Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson, or the models on the covers of Vogue, Elle, and Cosmopolitan.
This normative standard of beauty is seen not only on women’s magazines, but men’s as well. There is no difference at all between the models. There is one and only one standard of beauty in America.
The problem is, of course, than only one in many thousands of young girls are going to end up on the cover of women’s magazines and far fewer will ever come close to the normative idea of American beauty.
Progressive reformers deal with this issue by pretending that it does not exist. Regardless of Hollywood, New York fashion magazines, the runways of Los Angeles, Paris, and Milan, they say; or the boutiques of San Francisco and New Orleans, they insist that physical beauty is a chimera, an artificial construct devised out of sales.
These social reformers have created safe, unthreatening, if not congenial environments for all women where the very nature of a woman but never her body alone, is to be admired. The reality, however, is far from this idealistic view. Would that ‘the very nature of a woman’ be celebrated and elusive femininity sought.
Savvy men have always desired complex, indefinable women who may or may not have physical beauty but have, like Shakespeare’s women, complexity, will, and ambition. Yes, they are attracted first to Cleopatra, but fall for Rosalind and even Goneril as well.
Promoting such sophisticated feminine traits is of course just whistlin’ Dixie. Most American women will always fall far short of the average let alone the high margins of Hedda Gabler, Miss Julie, or Lady Macbeth.
In short, the attempt to create safe interior spaces for women does them an injustice. Coddled and protected from reality results in apathy; and the perpetual war between the sexes, let alone the struggle for reproductive supremacy are such than hiding in parlors with the curtains drawn will help no one.
Facing facts is another word for it. Taking stock of one’s abilities, traits, and points, and figuring out ways to negotiate for traction and mobility in a world where the deck has already been stacked is essential. The West Enders, the models on Vogue, and Cosmo, and the starlets of Hollywood will always be the norm; and given the hyper-competitive society of America today, savvy women figure out how to approach the ideal and complement it with other seductive attractions.
All of the above goes for men as well who are given to the same envies, jealousies, and desires for physical conformity as women. There is no way that an American man can watch but ignore the attractive, virile, able leading men on the screen.
Safe spaces are no less folly when provided for those whose ‘otherness’ is threatened. From early primary school on, students are taught the theory of multiple intelligences. Some children can do math problems, others color, dance, or run well. Such ‘inclusivity’ distorts the intellectual marketplace as it does for other normative behavior. Students with less math ability cannot afford to give it up for origami or kite-making, but must achieve the highest level possible within their limitations.
Racial stereotyping and prejudice are functions of otherness. When African Americans’ social and intellectual norms become no different from those of whites, they will be easily integrated and welcomed. As long as they retreat to safe spaces – whether in college or in the ghetto where street creds remain the isolating norm – they will remain disadvantaged and delayed.
Gay men and women understand that they are a distinct and small minority; and negotiating their way in a profoundly heterosexual culture is not easy; but made harder if free expression of criticism, doubt, and suspicion about their lifestyle and sexual preference is stifled.
Full integration in to society – American or other – will never be accomplished by self-image, safe spaces, or identity politics. If there is one pervasive and historical American trait, it is duking it out in the marketplace. The ethnic minorities of the early 20th century – Italians, Jews, Irish – fought for territory, power, and social hegemony the hard way – in the streets, defending their turf and their women. Integration happened quickly – the result of accommodation to the norm and fighting adversaries. There was no hiding either from others or oneself.
‘Get over it’ does not mean acquiescence; but a realistic reaction to majority opinion. Minorities as groups and as individuals need to face facts, decide how much they want to achieve and adhere to the norm, and then act. Protection, no matter how well-meaning, is counter productive.