Professor Keck's Reality 101


Michigan, USA
December 31
Mary Keck is a writer and blogger. Her articles have appeared on Open Salon, The Public Intellectual, and The Huffington Post. She is currently a columnist for The Times Herald where she writes about nature, outdoor recreation, and wildlife.

SEPTEMBER 25, 2011 4:18PM

Women Making Faces (Updated)

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If you’re a frequent user of Facebook, you’ll know what profile picture I’m talking about. The photo is taken from a phone that’s been lifted high above her head. When it’s posted, her face is front and center, a sultry smile on her lips, and you can see right down her shirt. She’s not wearing the usual wardrobe of one sitting at her computer. Take my current style as an example: no shower, sweats, hair caught up in a messy ponytail, baggy sweatshirt. No, the profile picture I’m talking about looks like she’s ready for a night out with her girlfriends: halter-top, jewelry, shiny red lips, curled eyelashes and freshly brushed teeth. For the record, I think women should wear whatever they want, and I hope they feel beautiful and confident. Many of their diverse body shapes are gorgeous, and I believe they have every right to post photos of themselves in whatever pose they wish online. But it isn’t just adults who take these self-portraits and view these profile pictures.

Self-Taken Profile Pic

When I check my homepage, I see my cousins and their friends (under sixteen) in the same pose: hair freshly straightened and swept to the side, dark lines trimming their eyes, pursed lips, and a bit of cleavage peeking from their blouse. What’s the response from Facebook users? Fifteen “likes” within minutes and comments like “sassy” and “you look hot!” Curiously, I peruse photos of their mothers and the profiles of some high school “friends” I’ve been reunited with through this social network. The same image keeps cropping up.

What’s also notable is the lack of feedback on postings that celebrate the preteen's intellect, imagination, kindness or maturity. Sure, every once in a while you see an “I’m so proud of my daughter; she made the honor roll.” I’m not implying that these are nonexistent; however, I would say that I see more reinforcement of beauty and sexuality than I do of other traits. Because mothers are their daughters' primary role models, I wonder what impact a mom’s sultry image with a thumbs-up has on her adolescent.

  Facebook Like

Our profiles are projections of an ideal, a version of ourselves that is, at best, a half-truth brought to life by our interactions with "friends." Facebook has been given its name for a reason. This social networking site enables users to share a certain “face” with the world in a presentation made up of choice photos and carefully considered status updates.

Young Girl Facebook Photo

My preteen years are far behind me now, but I can still remember the care I took in curling my bangs each morning before the school bus arrived. I haven’t forgotten the shyness I felt about the brand of clothes I wore or the anxiety resulting from my belief that everyone was looking at and judging me. Daily, I wished to be thinner, prettier, and cooler. My concerns were not all that unique. 

In the age of social networking, these all-too-familiar feelings young girls share are magnified. Unlike those of us who grew up before cell phones and the Internet, we might have found comfort in the fact that we could be wrong. Maybe no one actually noticed the totally unhip clothes we wore or the way our bangs didn’t lie just right across our foreheads. Unlike earlier generations, today's preteens can track the number of people who are looking at them. They can see just how they’ve been judged by the “liking” and the commenting, and they are encouraged to judge one another. Studies have shown that these online interactions have an impact that isn't always positive.


This phenomenon reminds me of the myth of Pygmalion who asked a sculptor to create an image of his ideal woman. Of course, Pygmalion falls hopelessly in love with the statue, a non-speaking, non-thinking beauty. I’m wondering what image we’re carving out and bringing to life in young girls when we allow them to create a Facebook profile. What perspective do they have of the “ideal woman” as they scroll down the page and see a woman who has posted a new picture that glorifies her beauty? Do they notice the absence of that woman's perspective in an otherwise male-dominated conversation or the few thumbs-ups on her link to a controversial topic? What do we reinforce when we “like” a picture or ignore an astute comment that expresses inner beauty?

Our next generation of women may grow up with a strong foundation of knowledge when it comes to using a computer or of researching on the web. On the other hand, they may be like Pygmalion, hopelessly in love with an ideal that has little chance of becoming a reality (without the help of divine intervention). If so, what value will they place on the real woman whose status can’t be expressed in 140 characters?

Update 10/10: Find this article in The Huffington Post. 

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I agree. Who would not? But I feel like this argument has stalled out. While technology changes, certain aspects of culture seem impervious to time, reason, outrage, common sense, or any other force one could throw at them. That young girls want so much to be liked and that nobody seems to acknowledge anything about them but their beauty is a perfect example. That there will be women who, on reflection, are disturbed by this is predictable. And so it goes, like the weather.

I disagree. The argument here is that technology, if anything, has exacerbated the problem, and further, that mothers are educating their daughters via the new medium. In fact, the notion that you accept her argument on its face seems to underscore the Professor's argument. The question is whether this aspect really is impervious or not. It would seem that our expectations of beauty and gender are anything but static, so your counter seems misguided, IMO.

Girls now understand beauty and glamor better than most of my generation and why shouldn't they show it off?

I'll be dead, and so will you, before new technologies stop looking like cultural shifts rather than the change of lenses that they are. I've been hearing this one for 40 years. However, based on novels written over the last couple hundred years, the issue goes back a bit further than that.

Well, I suppose we'll be dead before your lens theory is proven also, but the main point of the Professor's post seems intact: fb is sexualizing the young at an earlier age, and, further, that the image they are projecting is an alien one. Lacan said a lot about this.

Tinkerbelle: I doubt the new generation is any wiser to beauty and glamour than previous generations. My experience with them indicates a different level of awareness than you give them credit for. Besides the "showing it off" was kinda the point. What are they encouraged to "show" and what are they encouraged to hide? Research into gender roles suggests agency isn't as present as you suggest. I think the Professor was pointing that out, though I may have misread her.

At any rate, I agree: the issue she points out is a deep one indeed. Her citation of Pygmalion indicates as much.

I found the article fascinating, probably because it raises more questions than answers
While not a young female now, the chance to put myself out there, before FaceBook, relied on craft, alot more craft than a Facebook profile-requires.

Are you reading this, Rebecca?

Here is what i want you to do:
learn music.

Thank you, profkeck, for the forum and Pygmalion jazz.
Too true
But not new.
What to do?
No, devaluing women is not knew. We see it everyday when a woman is whistled at on the street. What's also not new is the bystander who watches and does nothing.

Just as Facebook is simply a new venue for reinforcement of certain characteristics in women, it has also become the ultimate hiding place for the bystander as well. We watch as our girls are encouraged to be "beautiful" because that is still their purpose and that is still what our culture values, and we say, eh, typical. Or we attack the messenger because anyone who dislikes a twelve-year-old dressed like she's twenty-five is a prude.

Is it a message, that's been heard before? Sadly, yes. Does it have to be a permanent fixture in our culture? No.

So, I'll continue to make noise every time I see it whether people are tired of listening or not and even when it changes with technology. Because that is what a woman should do when she sees women being devalued. She knows that for every woman or girl who treats herself with disrespect or for every parent who encourages her daughter to value beauty over all other things that the future of women is at stake.
". . . I'll continue to make noise every time I see it whether people are tired of listening or not and even when it changes with technology. Because that is what a woman should do when she sees women being devalued. "

Thank you for this. But I also believe that we should redefine our concept of "beauty" for our daughters and encourage them to, and be more conscious and proud of the beauty they cultivate within themselves.
Great post and a great perspective on the lives of the kids who now have to grow up in a 24/7 world. At one time, you got home from school, and talked on a phone for hours. Now, you can see each other on the computer, so you really have to have your "actor" face on at all times. I'm glad I'm old and out of it, I would never have made it in today's teenager world~~
Sociological brilliance in this post. This kind of behavior draws
inappropriate admirers.Or, rather: young men, who may be decent fellows, who cannot rise above the storm of hormones
such visual images inculcate. They are influenced to treat gals
as outer-shell only, which reinforces the female's emotional investment in physical appearance and, sad to say, "dumbs her down" to stereotypical sexual behavior as a way of doing what
nature intends---couple off and then give in to chemical destiny--
at odds with what "Civilization" (in the good sense, of humanization)
offers. For young women to develop their inherent idiosyncratic
social, intellectual, and spiritual endowments.

A good thing, Facebook, i am sure, but also a menace that exacerbates emotional/psycho-sexual
stagnation, even devolvement.
Yes, it's a generation of narcissistic youth, for sure. But after eating the fast food from McDonalds and Walmart since they were kids, by the time they are thirty, then will no longer want their photo on Facebook.
Timeless story but more frightening now that anyone can be everywhere all at once.