“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.

Less School, More Education: Religious Holidays in American Public Schools

by Sophia Garbarino, August 13, 2020

America was founded by immigrants seeking religious freedom, but the majority of America’s public schools avoid religion in the classroom. With America continuing to become more religiously diverse, religiously-motivated attacks are an unfortunate but frequent topic in the media. Common stories include mass shootings at schools and religious establishments, such as the Tree of Life Congregation shooting in Pittsburgh, PA in 2018, where a man killed 11 people while “shouting anti-Semitic slurs” (Robertson). But while the media is covering religion on a daily basis, American schools aren’t necessarily opening the discussion to promote an informed and understanding attitude towards religious diversity. It’s impossible to avoid religion altogether with its current representation in the media, making it even more critical for schools to demonstrate tolerance, defined as the “willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, even if you disagree with or disapprove of them,” for all religions (“Tolerance”). Therefore, all American public schools should promote religious diversity and tolerance by having no school on all major religious holidays.

A major component of supporting religious diversity is treating people equally regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of them. With the majority of current education administrations this is not the case. Most, if not all, American public schools have Easter and Christmas off because they’re both considered major Chirstian holidays (“School Holiday Law and Legal Definition”). However, other religions also have very important holidays, and these religions are not currently being represented in the academic calendar. For example, Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha are the most celebrated Muslim holidays, and celebrations often last the entire day (Hill). Very few districts in the United States recognize these holidays despite the growing Muslim population in America (Hill). As Debbie Truong of The Washington Post reported in her 2017 article “In schools, a growing push to recognize Muslim and Jewish holidays,” deciding between school and celebrating holidays is “a struggle diverse communities throughout the country have encountered as they seek to accommodate students from different religious backgrounds” (Truong). As Muslim mother Khadija Athman from Virginia describes, “Eid is like our Christmas… You should be able to practice your religion without having to compete with school” (Truong). In Athman’s district, only Christian and Jewish holidays are recognized (Truong). While it may seem irregular and even inappropriate to have no school on these holidays, it is essentially the same as having no school on Christmas and Easter. Therefore, having days like the Eid holidays off would be progressing towards equality.

Currently, some districts are starting to give more holidays off, and it’s these districts that the rest of American educators need to follow. Due to a local increase in religious diversity, students attending Howard County Public Schools in Maryland have no school on “Eid al-Adha, the eve of Lunar New Year, and the Hindu holiday of Diwali” (Truong). In highly diverse areas, such as New York City, where Nora Rivera-Larkin, a Stony Brook University creative writing major, attended school, public schools have several major non-Christian holidays off, including Eid, Lunar New Year, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah (Rivera-Larkin). In fact, New York City students “have been given Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah off since the 1960s” (Truong). According to Ms. Rivera-Larkin, “students need these days off for religious and cultural reasons. There’s so much diversity that it would be impossible not to include these holidays without a lot of students missing school on these days” (Rivera-Larkin). Not only does having no school on these days recognize the religious diversity in the student population, but it also reduces absences for both students and teachers.

As many of these major holidays involve elaborate and long celebrations, it’s impossible for students to go to school and observe the holiday at the same time. Ms. Athman’s daughters have to miss school every year to celebrate the Eid holidays, which often means missing a test or other important assignments (Truong). Many students face this same situation every year, such as Hanan Seid of Arlignton, VA, who “would be seized by a familiar anxiety as she approached teachers each year for permission to make up assignments or tests that fell on Eid” (Truong). Students of various religions also face these same issues during their respective holidays, including Yom Kippur and Diwali. Schools often don’t have these days off, either, meaning absences are typically unavoidable. Having these days off would reduce absences for non-Christian students, who would also no longer have to miss tests to observe their holidays.

While more holidays also means extending the school year, adding one holiday for each major religion wouldn’t actually extend the year significantly. For instance, a calendar could realistically have only 8 holidays off in total (Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Christmas, Easter, the two Eid holidays, the Eve of Lunar New Year, and Diwali) and still recognize the major religions in the American community. While there are certainly more major holidays (Diwali and Lunar New Year celebrations last up to two weeks), school districts would have to decide individually what holidays to have off.

Making these calendar changes can be expensive, but it’s not as expensive as paying substitutes to cover teachers who have to take a personal day to observe a holiday. According to the “Closing school for the holidays – whose holidays?” article from the 2011 edition of the Phi Delta Kappan education policy journal, “closing schools and adding to the end of the school calendar doesn’t necessarily cost extra money” (Gunther and Purinton). In comparison to paying for substitutes, who cover for teachers who may take personal days to celebrate a holiday, “keeping schools open during a religious holiday can cost significantly, depending on the number of substitutes needed” (Gunther and Purinton). Also, districts may not even have enough substitutes to cover all of the absent teachers, causing loss in learning time for students (Gunther and Purinton). For many schools, it would actually be more financially beneficial to have more holidays off. Furthermore, adding days to the calendar isn’t the only possible solution. In his 2011 Scholastic article “Extending the School Day,” Ron Schachter reports that several American schools are already adding an extra 30-60 minutes to each school day to increase learning time or to make up for snow days (Schachter). In fact, “districts largely prefer the extended day rather than the more expensive extended-year approach” (Schachter). Schools could also take days off from Spring break or reduce the number of early dismissal days. These are just a few possible solutions to the budget increase. 

In addition to the possible financial benefits, promoting religious diversity in schools also helps progress towards a more tolerant community. In Herricks, NY, where Vineeta Abraham, a Stony Brook psychology major, went to high school, the community was very diverse. In her final years there, “students began advocating for more recognition, and [they] ended up having days off for less common holidays such as Diwali and Lunar New Year” (Abraham). While this can be seen as a victory, it also means that the students who celebrate these holidays were not being recognized before and had to fight for equal treatment. In many other districts, according to the director of the Religious Freedom Education project, Charles Haynes, “many minority families and community groups won’t speak up about districts that do not acknowledge their religious holidays. They often assume that they have no right to complain” (Haynes). The lack of equality in both of these situations contradicts major American laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX, which illegalize education and job discrimination based on race, religion, and sex (“Types of Educational Opportunities Discrimination”). American public schools are certainly not exceptions to this rule.

On the opposite side of the equality spectrum, we have the “naked public school,” where all religious references are eliminated in schools entirely. Montgomery County, MD, decided to “strip all religious references from the school calendar” in 2014 after their Muslim community asked for no school on the Eid holidays (“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar”). This is a possible solution, but it’s not the best one because it ignores the issue of student absences on these two major Muslim holidays. Montgomery still has major Jewish and Christian holidays off; the only difference is now, there’s no mention of these holidays by name in the calendar (“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar”). According to Zainab Chaudry, co-chair of the Coalition for Eid in Montgomery, by asking for the Eid holidays off, Muslim students were “not seeking special rights,” but “seeking equal rights” (“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar”). The district’s education administration made no progress towards equal treatment by becoming a “naked public school.” A truly equal “naked public school” would have no religious holidays off, including Christmas and Easter.

Ignoring religion completely is not the best solution. However, districts like Montgomery are still transitioning into naked public schools, which have gained popularity in the last half century due to Engel v. Vitale, a landmark Supreme Court case in 1962 where the Supreme Court ruled that religion cannot be promoted by public schools (Darko). This may be the preferred solution for atheists and agnostics, who do not practice religion at all and may even criticize it. However, the ultimate goal is tolerance of religion, especially to the point where a calm, open discussion doesn’t evolve into a heated argument. This cannot be achieved in a naked public school if there’s no discussion at all. According to education experts Steven Brookfield and Steven Preskill, authors of Discussion as a Way of Teaching, conversation stimulates education, especially when it comes to controversial topics like religion (Brookfield and Preskill 21-22). Many American educators agreed, releasing a set of guidelines titled, “Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers” in the 1990 edition of the Journal of Law and Religion, stating that “recognition of and information about holidays may focus on how and when they are celebrated, their origins, histories and generally agreed-upon meanings… this study can foster understanding and mutual respect for differences in belief” (“Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers”). If these guidelines are followed, education can promote religious tolerance without offending someone or promoting worship.

Currently, American public schools don’t educate their students about religion enough. The American high school curriculum includes global studies classes where students are taught the foundations of different religions, and these foundations are certainly part of a well-rounded education. The most recent AP World History: Modern curriculum includes a unit that focuses on how “the development of ideas, beliefs, and religions illustrates how groups in society view themselves,” but the “religion” part only extends to the foundations and does not discuss modern religious practices (“AP World History: Modern Course Exam and Description”). Yet while it’s important to understand the foundational concepts of religions, it’s equally as important to know how those foundations influence modern-day practices.

While American educators have agreed that “schools may neither promote nor denigrate any religion, they also agreed that religion is “an important part of a complete education ” (“Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers”; Haynes). To achieve this complete education, schools must also include modern religious practices, not just outdated ones. Modern religion is not currently taught in American public schools because doing so would likely pose several challenges, including how to deal with atheists, agnostics, students’ criticism, and those offended by certain aspects of different religions; how to avoid sugar-coating the heavily-criticized practices; and how teachers can maintain their own personal beliefs while abstaining from projecting those beliefs onto their students. These challenges are significant reasons why modern religion is not currently taught in schools, and there may be no singular solution for all of them. However, having more religious holidays off would, at minimum, contribute to resolving these issues because all students would be treated equally regardless of their religion.

Like any other sizable achievement, turning America into a country whose tolerance level reflects its large diversity will take time, and the first step must come from the education system. Nearly two decades after the September 11th attacks, America still suffers from religiously-motivated attacks such as the Tree of Life Congregation shooting in 2018. More and more religious disputes are happening every day, and they will not go away until students are taught to view religious diversity not as something negative and scary, but as something welcomed and accepted. This can only happen if American school districts start promoting religious tolerance instead of treating it as a social barrier. More religious holidays on the academic calendar are critical to this transformation. When America achieves this, perhaps the younger generations of Americans can then start repairing the gaping wound that religious intolerance has created.

Works Cited

Abraham, Vineeta. Personal Interview. 16 October 2019.

“AP World History: Modern Course Exam and Description.” College Board, 2019. https://apstudents.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/2019-05/ap-world-history-modern-course-and-exam-description_0.pdf. Accessed 30 October 2019.

Brookfield, Steven, and Steven Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching. 2nd ed., John Wiley and Sons, 2005. Accessed 30 October 2019.

Darko, Jeffrey. “Engel v. Vitale.” American Experience, PBS, 22 June 2017, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/engel-v-vitale/. Accessed 9 October 2019.

Gunther, Vicki, and Ted Purinton. “Closing School for the Holidays — Whose Holidays?” The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 93, no. 4, 2011, pp. 33–37. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23056881. Accessed 7 October 2019.

Haynes, Charles C. “Religious Liberty in Public Schools.” Freedom Forum Institute, First Amendment Center, 8 Nov. 2002, http://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/first-amendment-center/topics/freedom-of-religion/religious-liberty-in-public-schools/. Accessed 9 October 2019.

Hill, Margaret. “Holidays in the Public Schools: Ramadan.” The California Three R’s Project, 2016, http://ca3rsproject.org/pdfs/RamadanResources.pdf. Accessed 12 November 2019.

“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar.” The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, 14 Nov. 2014, https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/when-religious-observances-become-school-holidays. Accessed 9 October 2019.

“Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers.” Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 8, no. 1/2, 1990, pp. 313–317. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1051288. Accessed 7 October 2019.

Rivera-Larkin, Nora. Personal Interview. 16 October 2019.

Roberston, Campbell. “11 Killed in Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged with 29 Counts.” The New York Times, 27 Oct. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html. Accessed 9 November 2019.

Schachter, Ron. “Extending the School Day.” Scholastic Administrator, 2011, http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3755837. Accessed 20 November 2019.

“School Holiday Law and Legal Definition.” US Legal, https://definitions.uslegal.com/s/school-holiday/. Accessed 30 October 2019.

“Tolerance.” Cambridge Dictionary, 2019, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/tolerance. Accessed 20 November 2019.

Truong, Debbie. “In Schools, a Growing Push to Recognize Muslim and Jewish Holidays.” The Washington Post, 4 Dec. 2017, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/in-schools-a-growing-push-to-recognize-muslim-and-jewish-holidays/2017/12/04/0674f9fe-d393-11e7-95bf-df7c19270879_story.html. Accessed 9 October 2019.

“Types of Educational Opportunities Discrimination.” Justice.gov, The United States Department of Justice, 15 Oct. 2019, https://www.justice.gov/crt/types-educational-opportunities-discrimination. Accessed 30 October 2019.

Where WGSS Stands Right Now

by Sophia Garbarino, August 13, 2020

At first, WGSS (Women’s and Gender Studies) may seem like an irrelevant waste of time and resources. But it’s actually one of the few fields out there that can truly help us solve the numerous complex social, political, and economic issues that plague all modern societies. Because it challenges traditional ways of thinking and stereotypes ingrained in our ways of life, WGSS is now more relevant than ever, and it must continue to be available so that our students can learn the crucial critical thinking skills needed to succeed in today’s work environment.

Modern technology has certainly made it more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, and even fact from fact. We so often immediately believe what we see to be true that we fail to recognize the underlying factors that complicate what is actually factual. For instance, the epistemologies in America are quite Euro-centric; even our World History classes involve an American activity or perspective in some way. We accept this because we are raised with it. But there are countless other frameworks at play, such as socially constructed gender norms, institutionalized racism and xenophobia, and even traditionally unnoticed ableism. 

Studying the intersectionality of these issues is essential to understanding how to solve them. For example, as Evelyn Nakano Glenn argues in “Settler Colonialism as Structure: A Framework for Comparative Studies of U.S. Race and Gender Formation,” one simply cannot analyze race and gender as entirely separate categories. They continuously influence each other, especially in the United States, which has a high degree of national diversity. They also affect social and economic structures, as Angela Davis points out in “Population Control and Reproductive Rights:” “Inside the United States today, enormous numbers of people of color—and especially racially oppressed youth—have become part of a pool of permanently unemployed workers” (Davis). To fight issues such as poverty, homelessness, workplace sexual harassment and abuse, immigration rights, and LGBTQ+ rights, we must study and analyze these fields together.

Works Cited

Davis, Angela. “Reproductive Rights.” An Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World, edited by Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006, pp. 103-107.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. “Settler Colonialism as Structure: A Framework for Comparative Studies of U.S. Race and Gender Formation.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 52-72.