Bashful babes: the media’s glorification of female insecurity

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A SYTYCB entry

Girl: I have no self-confidence, and I’m really ditsy and klutzy.

Guy: That’s so adorable!

Girl: Stutter.

Guy: I love when you don’t talk or make eye contact. It makes you so mysterious.

Girl: I am like so average, what on earth could you possibly see in me?

Guy: It’s hard to put a finger on it. Actually, I have no idea.

Girl: I feel the same way! *swoon*

Does this narrative sound familiar?

That’s because it has become the blueprint for many a romance novel and chick flick. Markers of what I have coined the Bashful Babe include:

First of all, this girl is so beautiful that despite being a wallflower who spazzes out in social situations and goes to great lengths to avoid people, every guy is falling all over her. You see this with Bella from Twilight, Ana from 50 Shades, and Lena from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

This unrealistic dynamic not only undercuts the value of friendliness in pursuing a romantic partner, but also misrepresents what people perceive as beauty. Beauty is not something you possess; it is something you present. No matter what your physical features, others will find you beautiful if you put your attractive qualities out in the open. They won’t come to the corner where you are pouting to look for your beauty.

Which brings me to the next defining characteristic. Bashful Babes rely on romantic partners to show them their beauty — as if someone adamantly convinced of her own ugliness will suddenly think “maybe I am drop-dead gorgeous after all” if the right guy says so, or if Freddy Prince Junior gives her a makeover. After repeated exposure to this message, it took me a while to realize that, no matter how many guys tell me I am beautiful, it will mean nothing until I’m in a position to believe it.

The next, and perhaps most insidious, characteristic of the Bashful Babe is that her meekness and lack of self-esteem make her attractive to her love interest. These characteristics afford her an innocence and a non-threatening demeanor that are infantilizing. Gestures that reflect social discomfort — Ana’s oh-so-sexy lib-biting, for example — are often viewed as submissive, and there are already enough women in submissive poses portrayed as sexy in fashion and advertising.

In one episode of Sex and the City, Miranda dates this gorgeous man who, to her surprise, thinks she is sexy. Once she starts considering that maybe he’s right — again, sending the unrealistic message that a man’s words have the power to transform a woman’s self-esteem — he stops calling her, saying she seems full of herself. It turns out he was attracted to Miranda’s poor self-image because he was threatened by confident, independent women. After all, someone who knows what a gem she is will be more likely to decide she deserves better.

In the worst-case scenario, a man actively pursues insecure women because they are easier to take advantage of. After all, they don’t know they deserve better — the same way strangers looking to harass someone on the street will target pushovers because they can manipulate them.

I often catch myself trying to be more soft-spoken, wearing the expression of a deer in the headlights, or taking a passive stance when I go into flirtation mode. These are not simply cute, playful gestures. They are deferential. They are the same gestures I use to talk to professors or employers who intimidate me. And I have internalized the message that they make me more desirable, when in reality they only make me desirable to the very people I want to avoid.

Present yourself as a Bashful Babe, and you will attract those who want you to submit to them. Convey your power, and you will attract those who want to empower you.

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