by Elena Welch
I would like to tell you about her. Cold watcher, cruel mirror, through whom I see the world seeing me seeing myself—she is something I would like to share.
Her (2013) stars Scarlet Johansson as an AI who forms a romantic and sexual relationship with soft-spoken, self-insert Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The AI is intelligent and assertive and sexy in all the ways that appeal to a bookish, straight man. It is an image of perfection not crafted for a woman by herself, or indeed even by other women. This is a foreign femininity, projected upon this character by the men who wrote her and the men who directed her and the men who praised her perfection through all the loudest venues later on. This AI—Samantha, as the man who wrote her says she names herself—truly cares about Theodore and constantly attempts to please and satisfy him, even though the film suggests that as an AI she is far more powerful than and superior to him.
She (1965) stars Bond girl Ursula Andress as Ayesha, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Based off an 1887 novel of the same name, the titular character’s power stems from her supernatural beauty, and her fame from her imperious (and imperialist—Ayesha is the only white woman among and the leader of a tribe of British-fantasy “natives”) temper. She earns her subjects’ love with her sensuality and sexuality, and their fear with her feminine jealousy and rage. The iron fist with which Ayesha rules wears impeccable nail polish.
She is beauty. Her is wisdom. I am neither, and she will not let me forget it.
When I sit on a metal bench in the park, she is there. I am utterly drained, slowly but surely pulling myself out of myself. My earbuds are full of the music which I, through trial and error, have learned calms me down. My lap is full of lunch, which I am slowly but methodically eating. My mind is full of tired turmoil; ten minutes before, it had been a frantic whirlpool of irrational thought. Two yellowjackets investigate my food, their cold, sharp feet touching my skin. I do not react. Let them sting me. Let them go. I am no longer in a place to act against them. And she, mute and complicit observer of my mind, is watching me even then.
She was watching me ten minutes before, at the height of my agony. I swore to myself all the way down the stairs, turning the Lord’s name into a hissed litany behind my mask, my dignity falling off behind me like shed clothing as the faces of passersby swiveled to follow me. I crouched in a stall of the women’s bathroom, fully clothed, mask puffing out and plastering in under the force of my shallow, frantic breath, looking for something to make myself bleed. I could not cry. I couldn’t afford to. In the end, I used a pin from my backpack: a sharp prod into my arm to bring my whirling mind back to earth. And she, amused and critical audience of my thoughts, was watching me even then.
She has caused me much pain, but she has never hurt me. She is no imperious Ayesha. She narrates my life story—patient, calm, eloquent, and cruel. She tells me how she perceives me, how others will perceive me, and if I do not like the protagonist she paints me as, then . . . Well. There are two small scabs on the underside of my arm now where the pin went in and out, and I stop making such a scene. She is not some force of superior wisdom and unknowable caring like the AI of Her. I know many things about her, the two greatest of them being that she does not have my best interests at heart, and she is me.
Once on Tumblr I read the phrase, “Womanhood and having a voyeuristic relationship with your own pain,” and I felt I had opened a book of riddles to the back and read the solutions. I am a woman: I identify as one, and, more pertinently, I was socialized to be a woman as I grew up. I sat with my friends as we discussed the importance of being a “pretty crier,” and later that week I half-arose from whatever paroxysm of woe had seized me to turn to the mirror and scrutinize the way my thirteen-year-old face flushed and crumpled with the force of my sobs. She awoke in me that day to smile and shake her head and say, You look like a squashed tomato. But did you really expect that you’d be one of the pretty ones? You? The smart of distress became the slow rot of self-loathing then and there.
That patch of rot deepened and spread throughout my teenage years as I internalized lessons my teachers and peers never thought they were teaching me. “Modest is hottest,” we were told, so I developed a violent discomfort regarding my scarred shoulders, my flat chest, my thighs which met without the faintest trace of a coveted thigh gap. I did not even know a thigh gap was something to be coveted until one day at Girls’ Camp when we were all sprawled in our camp chairs, basketball shirts and DEET-stained T-shirts draped over our bug-bitten bodies. We were utterly comfortable and unselfconscious. One of the older girls, not quite a Youth Camp Leader but old enough to command respect, dropped into the conversation how she would have to go on a diet later this summer to get her thigh gap back. “What’s a thigh gap?” we asked. “It’s when your thighs don’t touch,” the girl said. “Let’s see which of you has one.” I was perceived that day, as I smoothed back the fabric of my basketball shorts to reveal no gap between my legs. Years later, even long after I recognized what a ridiculous beauty standard a thigh gap was, she perceived me from inside my head, looking at my thighs and frowning to herself. She ran my hand down my side, over my neck, prodded my fingers into my cheek and my hips and my belly, and the fat we felt there disgusted us.
I have taught myself always to be aware and ashamed of my body. Back when I still played with Hot Wheels cars, I learned that I would be an Athena or an Aphrodite, a Velma or a Daphne, a smart girl or a hot girl when I grew up. I had already been told I was smart. I was proud of being smart. I didn’t want to lose that. And, what’s more, I had seen how stories treated their Daphnes and Aphrodites. It would be several years before I learned the word “bitchy,” but already I felt that if I could not be an Athena then bitchy is what I would become.
But Athena is painted just as beautiful and poised as Aphrodite. The illustrations of the Goddess Girls books I devoured as a child gave the two the same slender silhouette; despite the books’ cursory descriptions of Athena as a plain and ordinary girl, when shown, both goddesses bear the same cues of beauty. The sparkling eyes, the full lips, the skinny limbs and saucy poses were as standard on Athena as they were on Aphrodite. So now my task was twofold. I had to be as brilliant as Athena, and as beautiful as Athena. I soon feared to see both my gradebook and my mirror as I would fear to see Medusa’s face.
I was young; I was desperate for identity. I see that now. It was through her, that foreign part of me that I concocted and the stories she told, that I built one around myself. But I did not build it for myself. I made it according to the rules I thought I saw laid out for me, contradictory and mutually exclusive though they were. I built my womanhood to the specifications of everyone who had an opinion, and everyone has an opinion on womanhood. She told and retold my story to me, and I could never get it right. It is impossible to get it right. One person cannot be Athena and Aphrodite and Artemis and Hera, Scarlet Johannsson and Ursula Andress and Susan B. Anthony and Michelle Obama all at once, and certainly not by age fifteen. But she would not accept that for an answer. I would not accept that for an answer.
We live in an age of Überfrauen and Wonder Women. So many women outshine their spotlights, earning advanced degrees while building careers as A-list actresses, carrying children while leading countries. They all seem so effortlessly accomplished. I could not understand why I couldn’t simply be one of them. I couldn’t see why I didn’t fit in their molds. How hard could it be to be an effortlessly kind and vastly intelligent AI, speaking with a flawlessly patient and sexy voice? How hard could it be to be an unquestionably powerful and matchlessly wise queen, moving with a perfectly sculpted body? Why did I fall short of her?
One night, as I loudly suffered the throes of conviction that my rail-thin body was fat, my mother sat me down by the computer and googled Peter Paul Rubens’s The Judgement of Paris. I already knew the story it portrayed. Eris, goddess of strife, had created an infinitely desirable golden apple inscribed, “For the Fairest.” There were only three who could contend for it, and contend for it they did. Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera were each willing to stain Olympus’s white marble with golden ichor to assert their rightful ownership of the apple. Paris, youngest Prince of Troy, was to choose which of the three was truly fairest. The story recounts how each goddess tried to bribe him—Athena with wisdom, Hera with power, and Aphrodite with the most beautiful mortal woman—but in Rubens’s painting, the young and innocent Paris seems to judge the goddesses on their bodies alone. On the color monitor of our old Dell computer, I studied the painting. Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera stood side by side with hardly a stitch of clothing to provide iconography, scarcely a clue to tell me which was which. All three held themselves in sumptuous, stylized poses, their breasts as full and their curves as lavish as any Rubens has framed. All three had soft double chins and dimples of cellulite, and to one of them Paris would present the golden apple of ultimate and unparalleled beauty. “Look at them,” my mother told me. “Look at them. Are they ugly? Are they thin? They are not.” They are not, I thought to myself, eyes flowing down the generous shapes of the goddesses.
Looking back on this flashbulb memory, it occurs to me that this story may not have been the best one to teach a young girl to love herself. Though the goddesses’ bodies may be more generously proportioned than the ones Picou or Regnault give them in their paintings of the same title, they present those bodies for male evaluation nonetheless. Indeed, of all the Judgement of Paris paintings I have seen, it is only Botticelli’s which presents all three goddesses fully clothed. The feminine is foreign to me, a perception of perception, a codex of rules laid out by the men who write books and the men who design clothes and the men who pass laws and the men who pass judgement through all the loudest venues. Rubens’s beautiful, full-bodied goddesses presented themselves for male judgement, for external assignment of worth. They showed themselves because they did not know themselves. I showed myself—my well-covered, well-seen self—because I did not know myself, because I wanted to learn from others what I should make myself into. Sometimes the others were not women. Sometimes the others were not my friends. The others were never myself, but she absorbed their judgement and made it my own. I constructed a foreign femininity, drawing in every narrative I could find and crystallizing them into a truth I refused to let myself disprove.
I was fourteen when my mother googled a Rubens and asked me Are they thin? Are they ugly? It could not have been long since I last heard the top song of the summer, Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” which assured women that men could still be attracted to larger bodies. These works of art taught me that I did not have to starve my body into a Goddess Girls silhouette to be beautiful. They showed me that there is more than one mold I can fit into to be perceived as valuable. Their messages are far from perfect. But, like walking around a perspective painting, they have shown me that the rules and patterns I once saw as an indelible institution are not so logical and cohesive as I once thought. This realization is a small step, I know. It is just the first step, one which liberated women the world over have long since made. But that does not make it any less important. After all, this is my story, not theirs.
I have worked to disentangle myself from the deep roots of these rules. I have found freedom in distancing myself from the traditional markers of femininity and womanhood by which I once measured myself. My suits and flannels scarcely indicate the hourglass form I once so desperately fretted over showing off. I no longer try to like Jane Eyre or Noah Centineo. I don’t have the first idea what I want my wedding to be like, except for a vague sense that a corn maze might be fun. I do not hate femininity. I do not resent those who embrace it. There are still some elements which I enjoy and which I choose to incorporate into my life. But femininity, which should be worn as a dress, I wore as a straitjacket. What should be used as a staff was to me a measuring stick, one I held against myself from every angle and direction I could think of, searching for reasons to be disappointed.
I no longer measure myself by how neat I’ve made my French braid or how low I’ve coaxed my weight. I still do measure myself. I haven’t lost that. She is as much a part of me as my womanhood. But I have learned that she is not as powerful as She (1965), nor is she as well-intentioned as Her (2013). I have begun to turn my self-awareness in to face her. There is power in perception, in being the one to perceive and explain instead of the one seen and described by another. I was born into a world which told me so many stories about myself, stories I did not write, but which I repeated gladly enough. I am learning to tell my own stories about myself. I am learning to tell my own stories about her.
At the Girls’ Camp after I learned what a thigh gap was, we sat once more around the campfire, reciting the Young Women’s theme at our leaders’ prompting. We listed by rote the things we were supposed to value: faithful, divinely natured, individually worthy, knowledgeable, accountable, doing good works, of integrity, and, of course, virtuous. We knew the list by heart. I do not remember who suggested we add “strength” to the list. I do know we came home from Girls’ Camp with nine values instead of eight. I do know which one we said the loudest, exchanging crooked grins in our Wet n Wild lip gloss every Sunday after. We were young women, writing our own values for ourselves, and it felt good.
Elena Welch is an undergraduate student at BYU. She has previously been published in Cricket Magazine.