California Girls, Part I
I’m a California girl. Southern Californian, to be exact. The Northern Californians would likely enforce that distinction. I was born abroad, but from age 5 to 18, this was where I grew up. Later I spent my college and post-college years in the Bay Area and in New York and often dreamt about California’s gentle winds and the soft sun. Now I’m back teaching as a professor in Southern California near my family again.
California will do a lot of things to you. It makes you intolerant of any kind of weather fluctuation. When the temperature drops to the 60s, the beanies and boots come out. If it’s overcast for more than a day we get moody and wonder whether the sun will ever shine again.
I believe that California culture also socializes its citizens, and especially its female citizens, to focus on their bodies and their appearance. California girls have a reputation, after all, and many songwriters have selected them as muses. Who can forget the Beach Boys’ crooning?
“I been all around this great big world
And I’ve seen all kinds of giiiirls.
Yeah, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the States
Back to the cutest girls in the word.
…I wish they all could be California giiiirls”
And more recently, Katy Perry’s exhortation:
“You could travel the wo-orld
But nothing comes close to the Golden Coaast
Once you party with us, you’ll be falling in love, oh-ohhh
California girls, we’re unforgettable
Daisy dukes, bikinis on top
Sun-kissed skin, so hot, we’ll melt your popsicle, oh-ohhh
California gurls, we’re undeniable
Fine, fresh, fierce, we got in on lock
West Coast represent, now put your hands up, oh-ohhh”
I have to admit, when these songs come onto the radio, I can’t help but groove to the beat. And every girl that grew up in California has memorized the Beach Boys’ lyrics. I know I have. It was the anthem for my high school volleyball team, the cassette playing every time we jumped into a van on the way to a game. What are California girls supposed to be proud of? Our cuteness, our hotness, our fine-ness of course.
A little digging revealed that the advent of film and Hollywood in the 1920s contributed to the emergence of a “physical culture” in Southern California. Success in Hollywood depended on looking good. In the warm weather and on the screen bodies became more exposed, and these displays of the body became more acceptable. Celebrity actresses and actors became objects of fascination, as if they were their own solar systems around which the public’s conversations and obsessions orbited. The scholar, Heather Addison, reports that these stars served as the ideal, defining standards of beauty in face and figure. They allowed audiences to see fantasies come to life with their glamorous lifestyles. These stars also served as examples of success to young men and women.
Along with the rise of consumerism, the 1930s continued this trend of improving and focusing on one’s appearance. At this time the Saturday Evening Post called this shift, “Dame Fashion” and poignantly wrote:
“Partly because Dame Fashion is like that, never satisfied with anything about us ‘as is’; always trying to change something – our figures, our height, our complexions, our feet, our hair – just so as to give us a different look at least four times a year and make all our costumes passé long before they are half worn out. ‘Whatever is, is wrong’ seems her motto.”
One hundred years later, this persistent dissatisfaction and focus on appearance continues. One hundred years later, we still see this “star discourse” alive and well. Even my 69-year-old father knows who Kim Kardashian is, thanks to Extra! coming on right after the evening news. Hollywood’s values seep into the veins of Southern California’s culture.
* * *
Students often ask me, why did you go into psychology? Spending my girlhood in California played a large role in my interest in psychology and in gender development. Growing up here, I felt that I absorbed that ever-present value on physical appearance and beauty. It was impossible to ignore.
From a young age, I thought a lot about my appearance. I remember being eight years old and loving it when my older sister would curl my hair for me on days when we got home from school early. We would cram a chair into our small bathroom at home, and I would patiently sit while she worked her magic. One of my favorite activities growing up was raiding my mother’s make-up drawer. I was thrilled when she let me keep lipstick tubes in bright pink colors, leftover from the Clinique free gifts that she collected from Macy’s.
This preoccupation with my appearance worsened in adolescence. The first time I remember being concerned with my diet was in sixth grade. I’m sure the U.S. Department of Agriculture meant well, but when I learned about the food pyramid, I became obsessed with counting how many servings of what I ate each day. In seventh grade, I started running laps at the park after school to lose the weight I was starting to gain with puberty. There would be days when I tried not to eat anything. I distinctly recall one particular day where I was achieving success in fasting. I even got through basketball practice after school, dizzy with hunger, turning a deaf ear to the yelling from our red-faced coach. As soon as practice ended, however, I raced home and ate whatever I could find.
In high school, this preoccupation with looking pretty and thin worsened as my desire to be popular and attractive to boys increased. My ethnic identity also became more salient to me. I compared myself to other Asian girls and female celebrities, who seemed to have no muscle or fat at all.
When I quit volleyball after sophomore year, I gained a few pounds. The obsession with being thin and pretty continued. I wanted to be perfect in every sense of the word. This persistent dissatisfaction with my appearance contributed to the depression that I started to experience. I remember thinking every single day that I wanted to kill myself, which I later learned is called suicidal ideation.
At this point, a reader might safely assume, with all this obsession over looking pretty and thin, that I was a heifer of a kid. But this is the truly crazy thing, and this is why I think SoCal culture is insidious – when I was 12 and running those laps to lose my puberty weight? I was 104 pounds at 5’ 5”. When I look back at my photos, I shake my head at the lunacy. I was a growing, beautiful girl.
Two realizations shaped my perspective on my personal history. First, there was such a vast discrepancy between my actual appearance and my self-perceived appearance. When I was growing up, my perceptions of my appearance were mangled and distorted. Second, many others went through the same experience. As I was writing this, I struggled with trying to make this entry zippy and interesting. I didn’t want my story to sound cliché. But think about that – why is it a cliché? Isn’t it sad that we’ve heard the eating disorder-depression-teenager story so often that it makes us bored? The prevalence of eating disorders is increasing. Body image issues are also affecting boys and young men and increasingly so. Physical appearance, in general, is the topic of conversation among many young girls. These realizations showed me that a force greater than myself made it likely for this preoccupation with appearance and its negative consequences to unfold during my development. My unhappiness was not just due to me being me, but largely due to a bigger, broader macro culture (a la Bronfenbrenner, for you developmental psychologists). In large part, I went through that awful experience simply because I was a girl. And more than that – I was a girl who grew up in Southern California.
Being beautiful is of paramount importance for a woman, not just in Southern California, but across most cultures. There’s a long history of equating a woman’s, or a girl’s, worth with how she looks, perhaps as long as the history of (wo)mankind. I hope we can redirect this long trend into another direction where a woman’s and a girl’s worth is more about what she does. What if, instead, the Beach Boys sang:
I been all around this great big world
And I’ve [met] all kinds of giiiirls
Yeah, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the States,
Back to the [most capable, confident, awesome, [add your empowering adjective here] girls in the word
I wish they all could be California giiiirls (or, womeeen)