I have a confession to make. I’m pretty sure most women can relate. Though we may pride ourselves for our intelligence, we can’t exactly say the same thing about our appearance – our hair, our body type and our skin color. One may spend her whole teenage years believing her appearance is flawed. I call this a “confession” because we’d love to claim the opposite: that our intelligence has always sprung us from the traps of the beauty industry. The truth is that the makers of products and arbiters of culture have us convinced that we need fixing.
Women from all over the world are made to believe their hair is a catastrophe. Curly-haired women aspire to have straight hair. Girls with fine straight hair go to all lengths to have those beach wave curls those magazines have us believing are beautiful. The message: There’s something wrong with your hair.
Then there is the problem, perhaps the biggest, of one’s body. Oh, what woe the likes of Kate Moss, Kate Upton wrought! A decade ago, the edgy and effortlessly cool heroin-chic look was all the rage and girls would starve themselves, binge eat and purge just to achieve that look. This current age of selfies and Instagram with its specious filters, just-woke-up-like-this, no-makeup-makeup look is enough to send any girl into a major bout of insecurity. The message: There’s something wrong with your body.
Needless to say we enter adulthood deeply self-conscious — that is, exactly where the beauty business wants us to be. The cosmetics industry thrives on fanning women’s insecurities, convincing us that there is always something to be fixed. To a certain extent most women know this. We sense that we’re being duped. But what we know on an intellectual level doesn’t change what we experience on an emotional one.
On a personal level, the culture had lodged an image in my psyche: of a lighter-skinned, taller, just-slept-in waves version of me. Only by buying products could I become this lovelier self. Of course I wasn’t foolish enough to think that beauty products alone would transform me into a perfect aberration that is the Victoria’s Secret model, but that was not the sell. The media had managed to convince me of something more insidious: I couldn’t become someone else but I could be a better me.
Me with better skin, better hair, a better body.
Me considered beautiful, desirable.
I just had to fix my flaws.
It was only when I started working and traveling that I came to see the universality of this must-fix thinking. In Italy, women lay dangerously long in tanning beds to “fix” their skin. In India, women use dangerous bleaching creams to “fix” theirs. My Jewish friends “fixed” their frizz with flat irons. My Japanese friends “fixed” their flat hair with perms. Friends of all nationalities went on inane diets to “fix” their bodies. The messages of my childhood were, in fact, a single message, the same one sent to women everywhere:
Something is wrong. Fix it.
Isn’t this the same message that traditional testing with its pervasive tools of numerical/letter-grading sends? Are multiple-choice tests and true-false questions not a game of chance?
Haven’t we, at one point in our lives, said, “Did I pass? Oh, I wish I could’ve gotten a 90 at least.” A stream of seemingly endless questions flood our mind until the crucial moment when we get to take a peek at our grade—the number that signifies a whole night’s hard work, a tutor’s guidance, a study group, a sleepless night or two. Graduation season repeat the same message: awards and recognition measure intelligence, creativity, people’s skills and morality. Recently, video of a high school student’s salutatorian speech cut off by school officials went viral. I remember seeing this girl on some television shows and my Facebook being flooded with posts about this girl’s plight of being cheated out of the top award. Everyone was quick to laud this girl’s alleged assertiveness and called it an act of bravery.
Yet are these trophies and medals all that they’re touted to be? Do they really mean all that much? Are they a complete reflection of one’s diligence and intelligence? I remember reading an article in the newspaper argues that most people who graduate with honors intend to graduate with honors but don’t intend to learn and that honors are an investment in image rather than in substance. Is graduating with honors more important that determination, initiative, dedication, the willingness to get grubby and give more than expected? Do grades measure important life skills such as interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence and ethics? Don’t traditional tests serve to reinforce this skewed values system?
How do we change this? How do we create a culture that tells learners that there’s nothing to fix, that learning is more than just a number and that trophies, awards and medals are mere accessories? Awards do not define our learning.
Whether you’re the smart kid, the slow learner, the math-phobic, the artistically inclined yet academically-challenged and everything between: learners must be told that they are valued, their efforts don’t go unnoticed and their improvement, however insignificant and minimal, is still an evidence of learning. They may not be all the way there, but they will get there in time. After all, not all of these learners started out at the same level so they can’t be expected to reach a certain level at the same amount of time. The message: Nothing here needs fixing — but we can all do with some learning and polishing, and with sheer diligence and determination we can be a better version of ourselves.