Stories, Not Pictures: Because, sorry, Dove, ‘Real’ Beauty Can’t Be Captured by a Camera

When I saw this cool post in the UK-based newspaper Mail Online–“Mother Shuns Disney Princess Ideal and Dresses Daughter Up as Five REAL Heroines from History” I immediately tweeted it and shared on Facebook, gushing, “this is fantastic!’

screenshot from the Mail Online.
Screenshot from the Mail Online. Used under the fair-use guidelines of US copyright law.

It is pretty cool, these lovely black-and-white portraits replicating signature portraits of notable women, and the current love for all things retro-fabulous is probably at least partially responsible for why the post has gone viral.

(That, and the fact that little five-year-old Emma is adorable and apparently a good tableau vivant actress and her talented mama, Jamie Moore, pulled off this photographic project very, very well.)

But almost as soon as I cooed over this on social media, I felt unsure. Looked at in one way, the project communicates a powerful message: here, little Emma, see these women? You can step into their shoes. You, too, can overcome seemingly impossible obstacles and achieve great things.

THAT is great.

Dressing up a little girl as Helen Keller or Susan B. Anthony sure beats dressing her up as a princess or a Barbie.

(Amelia Earhart was a more troubling choice; as this PBS documentary notes, her looks helped propel–sorry for the pun–her aviation career and fame, and there was a healthy dose of marketing sham in the mix of her story.)

But even without Ms. Earhart, I’m not sure that Jamie Moore’s project actually achieves the escape from the objectifying princess culture that she–and I, and the tens of thousands who’ve shared the article–may have hoped. Because, in the end, it’s still about positioning a little girl in front of a camera, having dressed her and primped her to achieve a certain ‘look.’

And dressing up is fine, and fun…but let’s not give it the status of a revolutionary act.

Can you imagine doing a similar project with boys?

Maybe you can. As the mother of two boys, that’s the first thing that popped into my head: could I do something like this with them?

Then I realized that, while possible, such a thing wouldn’t have much meaning. As a culture we don’t feel the need to point out to boys that they can do anything, and for a boy to enjoy dressing up (as mine do) is regarded as slightly silly or even effeminate–certainly not praiseworthy, even as media images increasingly press boys and men to look a certain way and embody certain ideals of masculinity.

Which brought me back to that feeling of discomfort at this adorable and creative project. I don’t know the story behind it (I’d like to!) but I get the awkward feeling that Emma probably now knows more about how these women look than about what they did. Okay, fine. She is only five. Still…

How does this then not participate in the same image-driven culture that envelops us all, that entices us to click and look and share and pin? Sure, this project is better than little girls dressing up like sexed-up teens and adult women, but, weirdly enough, it folds in on itself to show that it’s just a classier version of the same thing–valuing and celebrating girls and women for the ‘iconic’ visual image they present to the world.

{Not to mention the fact that there are hundreds and thousands and millions of women in history and alive today whose pictures have never been and will never be taken but whose stories are very worth telling.}

That, not incidentally, was what was so great about the original (and lately, much lamented) American Girl dolls. They definitely were consumer products, let’s not kid ourselves; I pored over each and every catalog with total and utter covetousness. However, they were rich in story, such that many of the outfits and the accessories didn’t make SENSE without the story. (Like Molly’s camp uniform. Which I still have.) Each doll had SIX chapter books and, later, even MORE stories in the fantastic American Girl magazine.

(I was a charter subscriber, ahem.)

How they looked was much, much less important than what they loved, what they overcame and how, whom they were friends with, how they contributed to the wider culture of their own day.

And all that was communicated in the books at the level that (okay, maybe not a five year old) a seven year old could understand.

Sometimes I think that the Hebrew Bible’s proscription against graven images of the divine was really onto something.

I’m all about celebrating material goods as blessings. I love beauty, even the physical kind. But real beauty (I’m looking at you, Dove!) doesn’t always often doesn’t show up in photographs.

Instead of celebrating the pictures, we need to tell the stories.

And then, if they want, the children can draw their own pictures. And their own conclusions.