Excerpt from Underfed and Oversexed: America’s Feminine Chimera Text - by Paul ___________
Five months ago, I walked out of my Mortemageniophobia support group. For those of you who may not know, Mortemageniophobia is the fear of death from success. It’s essentially the real, mind-crippling fear of selling out. As a non-punk musician, the notion of Selling Out shouldn’t have carried the weight it used to for me, but it did. Honestly, reader, Selling Out wasn’t about becoming a poseur. It was about the snowball effect of success slowly killing off the authentic artist I thought I was meant to be.
Of course, I realized that success was never about death at all. It was about metamorphosis. Butterflies don’t dwell on the end of their life as caterpillars. They take to the sky because their destiny lies there, even if it means the end of crawling and eating leaves. So, when I returned home from that gymnasium chair circle that afternoon five months ago, I decided to finish the book you hold in your hands now.
The skewed standard of beauty in American culture had long been a focus of mine. I think it began when I was a boy, gawky and bespectacled, with big ears and braces on my teeth. I didn’t “grow into” the elements of my face until well after the other young men in my class were strapping, strong-jawed mini-men. My outward appearance altered my life experience. I was laughed away by the girl I asked to the Homecoming dance. Through rejection(s) I gained the prevailing knowledge that I simply was not the romantic ideal of the girls in my class. And though my feelings of “love” were harmless at that age, they were also very real. To compensate, I turned inward, I wrote, and I cultivated a sense of humor with which I eventually won over classmates of both sexes.
I also realized quickly that my “plight,” if I should ever be so bold to call it that now, was minor when compared to the constant battle American society rages against women. I became determined to use my unique experience with the issue, and my talent, to become “the preeminent voice” on the subject.
For American women, the pressure to be beautiful and sexy and physically perfect is applied from all angles, at all levels of awareness. If you really think about and attend to it, it’s a miracle that any young woman grows up to believe that the content of her character, her intellect, or her skills as a human being matter.
Magazine covers, movies, and television shows tell young women that the opposite is true. We see revised and retouched photos, and characters whose sole characteristics are physical. Pretty. Thin. Blonde. Fat. Dorky. Brunette. Plainness means unworthy of repeat attention. Gorgeousness means men will start a war (of looks or of arms) simply for the right to continue looking. Beauty becomes the purpose and the person possessing it becomes nothing but an object…a conveyance.
The Internet further compounds the nightmare. Forums and website comment sections overflow with judgmental pejoratives and crass dismissals. Make a science video and someone will boil your knowledge down to how fuckable you are. Take a selfie and the discourse will drift toward talk of tits, ass, and worse. The message sent is one of prejudice, predation, and violence. And thereby, society traps young women in an absurd and evil vortex.
Swirling: “It is who you are inside that matters. You can do anything you want. You are a powerful individual in a society that is more advanced in its treatment of women than any other at any other time in history.”
Whirling: “If you want your talents to be taken seriously you better be pretty. You better use your sexuality to your advantage if you want to be noticed. But don’t be surprised if you get some attention you don’t want in the process. There are trades you must make being a woman.”
And worst of all, we commonly rationalize the violence by saying, “That’s just how it is to be a girl. The world is simply more dangerous for women.”
The purpose of Underfed and Oversexed is to put a stopper in that vortex so that no woman need ever fall in again.
The American Feminine Chimera—like the Greek mythological creature comprising parts of a lion, goat, and snake—is something we have created together. It is a cruel amalgam of clashing traits that requires women to be at once submissive and strong, sexual and conventual, carefully assembled and effortless, confident and terrified.
The Chimera only becomes more monstrous by the year. And as a result, our mothers, wives, and daughters fight to maintain those disagreeing characteristics…all in the name of an ideal Beauty.
How to tackle this problem, then? Is it enough to merely point out the many ways in which America’s absurd standard of beauty is damaging? Is it enough to catalogue the ways that cultures across history have idolized and fetishized specific physical features? Perhaps casual interviews with women across all ages? Or hard-hitting exposés from a variety of media outlets?
Or even a modern parable?
I had long wanted to write a dystopian text, and so I envisioned one to solve the Beauty problem. I modeled it after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The concept was relatively simple, so I’ll lay it out here:
In the not-too-distant future, a beauty-obsessed culture would turn to science for a solution. Each woman would be given the dark-opportunity to clone herself with the intention of creating a Replica that could be intentionally objectified. She could also profit from her Replica’s objectification.
My story starred Angeline, an average women in her late-20s. Angeline buys into the deeper theories behind the Replica program. By creating a proxy human designed only to be beautiful, and uphold the absurd ideal, the pressure on real women to attain those ideals would be incrementally relieved. Angeline is further convinced by studies illustrating how access to pornography can lower rates of sexual assault in some populations.
Angeline’s replica, Lucia, is created. Initially, Lucia is an exact copy of Angeline. They are atomically identical twins. To attain the beauty ideal, Lucia is surgically altered. As part of the process, Angeline oversees the extensive augmentation made to her proxy body. After all of the “improvements” are made, Angeline clings to the few things that the surgeons left alone. Here’s a passage:
Their differences, the changes made, would now serve to define their similarities. Better: their sames. That little hitch in their nose. The uneven curve of their mouth. The subtle crook in their pinkie fingers. Gazing on her perfected doppelganger, with all its enhancements and adornments, Angeline’s heart raced with excitement, and her stomach turned.
In the weeks that follow, Angeline and Lucia forge a valuable working relationship. Lucia goes to parties, does some modeling, and even prostitutes herself, with all of it helping Angeline buy a life of leisure and luxury. Angeline begins to live vicariously through Lucia. A sisterly rivalry develops, and Angeline becomes the Jan to Lucia’s synthetic Marcia. But through it all, they bond… as identical in spirit as they originally were in physical form.
After six weeks living and working together, Lucia begins to notice imperfections in her beauty and takes action to have them corrected. Angeline does not protest at first, but each day the list of imperfections grows in length and absurdity. When Lucia fixates on the mathematical curvature of her breasts, Angeline snaps. Here’s another passage:
Lucia dropped her towel to the floor and pointed at the undersides of her breasts.
“They’re 4.787 degrees off from the golden mean,” she said. “A couple of the other Reps at the party last night agreed that one more little tweak couldn’t hurt.”
Angeline looked down at her own chest. Lucia’s breasts were already parsed and reconfigured versions of her own. This new pressure made her furious.
The Replicas were supposed to get rid of this bullshit pressure, weren’t they? Isn’t that what the studies had proven? Increased productivity.
Greater workplace equality.
Decreases in sex crime, body, and eating disorders.
Easy sources of income for women willing to take on the job of managing their own copy’s life of opulent luxury.
Instead of shifting irrational standards of beauty, and objectification onto actual objects grown and kept for that purpose, the problem was staring her in the face. It was in her kitchen, wearing nothing to cover its scientifically modified form, and obsessing that even an asymptotical proximity to perfection wasn’t perfect enough.
If perfection was imperfect, if it simply wasn’t, then what was the fucking point of any of it?
She left the coffee mug on the counter and walked into the kitchen.
Lucia bent down to lift her towel from the floor with yoga-like balance. Her manicured fingers plucked the terrycloth up and as she wrapped her not-yet-perfect-enough body, she screamed.
The knife quickly undid what science needed months to create. Lucia crumpled to the floor, stained red as lipstick. Angeline went to the pantry to get a bucket and a mop.
The story would have ended there. Angeline—devastated—had slain her replica. She realized that no amount of perfection would ever satisfy a culture that believed beauty could be created through science and surgery. Admittedly, the story was a lot like the critically panned FOX television program The Swan. And that’s why I had to throw it away.
If you are still reading this, and haven’t yet jumped ahead to chapter one, you might be asking yourself “What’s Paul __________ getting at? I didn’t pay $12.95 to read his ramblings about what this book isn’t about.”
The reason I tell you about this scrubbed idea is because it brought on a realization. I had believed, falsely, that Underfed and Oversexed: America’s Feminine Chimera was my story to write. It isn’t, and it never was. My hackneyed attempt at science fiction parable was just another instance of society failing to address the issue correctly. It was the worst kind of contrivance, and a borderline misogynistic one.
No. This story always belonged to the women who have experienced it. No one else could write it.
As a result, I took on the role of curator and editor for this text. The thematic ordering of the short stories that follow is intentional, but the stories themselves remain unchanged. These essays and stories come from women of all ages and social standings from all over the United States. You will stand alongside them in their war against decades and generations of contradictions about what it means to be a woman.
Together, we will slay the Chimera.
Nate Ragolia (@NateRagolia) studied Creative Writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. In addition to fiction writing, he has blogged about music, pop culture, film, and television. He’s also the creator, writer, and (poor) illustrator of the webcomics The Illiterate Badger, and The Right Corking Adventures of Cecil Larkbunting & Alastair Wakerobin. He works as a freelance writer and editor in Denver, Colorado, and is Writer and Narrative Strategist for a nonprofit. When he’s not writing, he’s probably playing pub trivia, losing at video games, or petting dogs. nateragolia.com.