“The Woman’s Advocate:” The Vicious Consequences of Beauty Standards

by Sophia Garbarino, August 13, 2020

The Woman’s Advocate

I step; you are disappointed, I see.

The number drops, but never satisfied.

I failed and I know it; don’t you agree?

Striking lights and shooting cameras blind me

As I walk, stop, and turn, my head held high

I step; you are disappointed, I see.

I loved you til the time I turned thirteen

When you pushed pain down my throat; I complied.

I failed and I know it; don’t you agree?

Deafening silence, struggling to breathe

But my knees are so weak, shaking mid-stride.

I step; you are disappointed, I see.

You killed my dream, slithering from the tree

I resisted; you persuaded and lied.

I failed and I know it; don’t you agree?

I pose for you and the paparazzi

Later, you knock, but it says occupied;

All gone; you are disappointed in me.

But I look so pretty; don’t you agree?

“The Woman’s Advocate:” The Vicious Consequences of Beauty Standards

Society has never been kind to women, and although women have more civil and political rights today than ever before, society has never been more unkind to them. The modern advertising and modeling industry has set impossible expectations for the female appearance, only valuing an hourglass figure, a slim waist, a large bust, and curvy hips. Without these things, a woman, according to beauty standards, is not beautiful, but ugly, worthless and fat, and therefore, she is worthless to society.

“The Woman’s Advocate” is based entirely on this idea of unrealistic beauty standards, as well as their destructive consequences. It is a villanelle composed entirely in iambic pentameter, with variation in metrics, and is formatted into five tercets with a concluding quatrain. The title, “The Woman’s Advocate,” is an ironic reference to the industry itself, with the “woman’s advocate” being not an advocate at all, but a powerful critic that is impossible to please. The title also establishes the ambiguous symbolism of the speaker’s audience, “you.”

Before discussing the smaller literary techniques used in this villanelle, I must first explain the meaning of “you,” which is purposefully left to have ambiguous meaning throughout the poem. There are four “you” meanings, and they are as follows: the first “you” is the physical scale upon which the speaker stands, measuring her weight; the second “you” is society as a whole, along with its beauty standards; the third “you” is the speaker herself, both in the past and in the present; and the fourth “you” is her eating disorder, bulimia. These meanings may appear together or may be difficult to distinguish from one another. This was done purposefully in order to emphasize how interwoven a woman’s sense of self-worth and societal expectations can become, eventually unifying as one. A woman’s own identity and self-esteem may become sp lost in her search for the “perfect body” that she can no longer distinguish society’s criticisms from her own.

This emphasis on appearance is depicted in the two refrain lines. The first line has different literal meanings in the poem, but the words remain exactly the same (except in the concluding quatrain): “I step; you are disappointed, I see.” The phrase “I see” continues to emphasize the value of appearance and the inability to be satisfied with one’s self-image. The second refrain line again emphasizes this inability to be satisfied with diction and a rhetorical question: “I failed and I know it; don’t you agree?” The word “failed” indicates that the speaker tried to be “beautiful” and was unsuccessful, and the rhetorical question emphasizes her need for society’s approval as well as her insecurity.

The first tercet introduces the speaker’s present situation, a situation which she has experienced several times in the past: weighing herself on a scale. The first metrical foot, “I step,” is a spondee, emphasizing the importance of weight. Weight is the only thing left that the speaker has control over, as suggested by the use of the spondee. For the remainder of the line, the speaker retreats into her insecurities and addresses the audience, valuing the audience’s opinion more than her own. This is portrayed through syntax, where the phrase “you are disappointed” is placed before “I see.” The second line of the first tercet, “The number drops, but never satisfied,” is still referring to the physical scale upon which the speaker stands. However, the second phrase, “but never satisfied,” as well as the words “disappointed” and “failed” in the other lines, utilizes diction to emphasize the negative consequences on her mental health. 

The first tercet introduces the topic by combining the past and the present, where the speaker stands on the scale yet again, still unsatisfied with her weight. The second tercet brings the reader to the speaker’s present career: modeling. She is physically walking on a runway, where “striking lights and shooting cameras blind” her as she “walk[s], stop[s], and turn[s], [her] head held high.” The words “striking” and “shooting” use diction to compare the runway to a war scene, also comparing the lethal effects of war to the harmful effects of modeling. The use of alliteration in the second line, “head held high,” emphasizes the irony in this statement. Holding one’s head high typically indicates pride, but the speaker has lost all of her dignity and self-worth, instead holding her head high because she is being paid to, because she must; because she has no choice. She must look pretty and dignified despite having no self-esteem left. The third line of this tercet, the first refrain line, has changed meaning, where instead of stepping on a scale, the speaker is now stepping and walking on a runway stage. Her insecurities have been brought into the open world, for all of society to see, no longer confined to a bathroom. The “you” is not only society and its expectations, but the highest fashion executives, the most critical critics, and the speaker herself. They have melded into one “you,” marking the first instance of identity loss. Their opinion is her opinion.

The third tercet brings the reader into the past, where the speaker reflects on how her insecurities began when she “turned thirteen.” The use of slant rhyme here emphasizes her desire for perfection but being unable to achieve it. The speaker addresses “you” again in the second line of this tercet, saying she stopped loving “you…/When you pushed pain down my throat.” This phrase is an allusion to bulimia, an eating disorder where a person often binge eats and guiltily purges herself after. The alliteration in “pushed pain” emphasizes how harmful and devastating modern beauty standards can be. 

The fourth tercet brings the reader from the past back to the present runway, where the speaker cannot breathe. The oxymoron in the phrase “deafening silence” emphasizes the inner conflicts that the speaker faces, and the en dash at the end of the first line creates a dramatic pause, like she is literally unable to breathe at this moment. This suspenseful effect works in tandem with the synecdoche in the second line, where her weak knees are used to represent her whole body, including her physical and mental state.

The reader is brought to the past once again in the fifth tercet. The speaker accuses “you” of killing her “dream,” a metonymy for her identity, as careers and aspirations are typically closely associated with one’s identity and sense of self. This tercet also employs an allusion to Genesis, where the serpent, “slithering from the tree,” persuades Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, causing her and Adam to be banished from the Garden of Eden. The second line, where the speaker “resisted,” refers to Eve’s initial distrust of the evil serpent but “failed” to resist and succumbed to temptation. The speaker has lost her innocence, just like Adam and Eve. The “you” in this tercet again has double meaning: society’s beauty expectations and the speaker’s personified eating disorder. The en dash at the end of the first line indicates the continuing effects of this evil serpent (to which society and her eating disorder are compared) into the present time.

The concluding quatrain brings together the past and the present, which were broken apart after the first tercet. The speaker is in the present for the first line, “pos[ing] for you and the paparazzi,” and this imagery emphasizes the importance of appearance. She is in both the past and present when she forces herself to vomit in the second and third lines: “Later, you knock, but it says occupied;/All gone; you are disappointed in me.” Here is another allusion to the eating disorder, except now the speaker has nothing left in her stomach. In addition to this literal meaning of the phrase “all gone,” the speaker has figuratively lost all of her own identity. This is further emphasized by the second variation in this refrain line: “I see” has been changed to “in me.” Appearance no longer describes her: it defines her. The last line of the villanelle concludes the poem with the haunting rhetorical question, “But I look so pretty; don’t you agree?” This line again emphasizes the speaker’s insecure need for approval and the high price of appearance.

The concluding quatrain can also be read with a different, more dramatic interpretation. In this second interpretation, “posing” refers to the placement of the speaker’s body in her coffin, and the “paparazzi” refers to the attendees of her funeral. The “knocking” on the “occupied” door is an allusion to her coffin, which is occupied by her body, and the phrase “all gone” indicates that she has died. The disappointment in the third line ironically refers to the glorifying effect after a historical figure dies, where the public has a natural tendency to only remember the good things that person did despite the moral sins or illegal acts they may have committed. In the final line, the speaker’s question, “But I look so pretty, don’t you agree?” is in reference to a dead person’s outfit is typically strategically chosen in order to make the person look better and to send them into the afterlife with good standing. This question is also the most haunting line in the entire poem, where the speaker carries the insecurities about her appearance to her grave, emphasizing how society’s impossible beauty expectations never end, even beyond death.

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