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idealEver heard of the phrase that “girls dress for girls”? As in, women spend more time dressing for a girls’ lunch than they do for a date night? From my own experience, it’s true. The men in our lives are supposed to love us for us, yes? But the women in our lives, that’s a different story. They’re the ones who will notice you didn’t wash your hair last night, that your nails haven’t seen a manicurist in weeks, and that your makeup choices are uh, really bad choices. They know ideals: the ideal lipstick shade, the perfect waist size, that must-have designer bag, and the only perfume you should wear with your natural oils. So, where do these ideals come from? Of course we want to say, “from men!” Those horrid creatures, reading sports illustrated and conjuring up perfect-bikini-bods to hold over our imperfect heads. Well, if the phrase that “girls dress for girls” is true though, it seems ladies, that we’re guilty of making our own lives a whole lot harder, and, it seems that both Oscar Wilde and the New York Times agree. In his play “An Ideal Husband,” Oscar Wilde promotes the idea that where men recognize and love that the women in their lives are imperfect beings, the women position their loved ones on pedestals: He says that women expect, even demand, a perfection that is impossible to maintain.

There was your error. The error all women commit. Why can’t you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals? We have all feet of clay, women as well as men; but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love.-Sir Robert in ‘An Ideal Husband’

So, is Wilde’s theory true beyond the arena of the theater? Are women really the culprits behind the ad nauseum search for perfection? In 1912, a New York Times article labeled 24 year old Elsie Scheel, at the time a Cornell University student, the country’s “perfect woman.” She was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 171 pounds. The article listed her bust, waist, and hip measurements and promoted her to be the new “Venus de Milo,” a perfect combination of strength, health, and beauty. Though labeled as “a perfect woman” by the press, it seems that other women didn’t feel the same way about Elsie’s title. Call it jealousy, or call it the female’s desire for unattainable perfection, but as soon as the article emerged, Elsie could scarcely walk through Cornell without receiving catty comments on how big her feet were, that she “looked as if she weighed 195 pounds” instead of the purported 171, and that it was obvious the media had gotten their ideal wrong. Soon after the first article emerged, a second article from The New York Herald  declared that the pronouncement that Elsie was “a perfect woman” came in opposition to “the accepted ideal of female beauty” and could not be “reconciled” with it. I think we could read between the lines there, yes? Women didn’t believe that Elsie fit into their notions of perfection, that her athletic build needed to play basketball for Cornell was anything other women should pine for and so, she was thrown out. Thankfully, Elsie didn’t seem to be much affected by the negative attention, “she said she would not have agreed to the publicity ‘if I had not been told that it might do other girls a great deal of good to know that it was possible to be absolutely strong and healthy.'” Despite popular opinion, it seems Elsie was the “perfect” woman because she faced, and snubbed her nose at, any and all attempts to re-cast her as something imperfect. I guess Wilde’s theory has some truth in it, from Elsie Scheel’s experience, the origins of the “ideal woman” seem to come straight from the ladies who protest at unattainable standards they expect themselves. According to Elsie, “the average girl does too much of the wrong sort of thing-too many dances and not enough good bracing tramps. I just got back from a 25 mile tramp to Enfield Falls.” Here’s to tramping then ladies! And letting go of a few lofty standards.

– ❤ A. 

Sources: “An Ideal Husband,” Wilde | “The Long LIfe of the ‘perfect’ woman,” New York Times, pam belluck, jan. 2013

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