“Try,” Part 2: In Which I Try to Explain Why I’m Not Such a Bad Person

I woke up today feeling bad, like I went to bed with a “10” blog post and woke up with a “2” (yup, I just quoted Katy Perry). It seems especially snarky to take aim at a blasé-but-nice song, especially by quoting the relative benefits of the things Caillat disses, when there are so many greater evils in the world. Rather, I think I should have focused on the more insidious side I mentioned at the end: lumping in grown-ass women with adolescent teens experiencing their first flush of hormones, or not experiencing them soon enough, in a world that screams confusing messages at young girls.

I was that awkward adolescent—the one who didn’t know how to handle her body, whose period came late and breasts came too early, before I knew how to handle them (no pun intended). I was also the naive, sheltered chick who had no idea what the dirty jokes meant. I remember the first one I ever heard in third grade, and the next one in sixth, and how they never made sense until high school. Even in my classroom at 23, though, my students could trip me up with sexual terms I’d never heard (thank you, Urban Dictionary).

Consequently, I’m not new to the idea of needing to shelter young women from the myriad of voices calling at them to be, do or act a certain way. I think it’s smart. But often, as my words yesterday illustrated, the problem is not that all young girls slather on makeup, work out longer and do their hair and nails to please others. Rather, it’s often that the people who do are the “popular girls,” the cheerleaders with moms who helped them know how to do these things, while the rest of us flounce along in our bookishness or relative mousiness, unaware of the cultural ideals we are failing to fulfill. I graduated a decade ago, after the huge wave of teen movies featuring many a 20-something in clothes that would never have been allowed in my conservative public high school, but I still remember how the social dynamics onscreen resonated with me. My school in the South was nothing if not cliquish, ruled by football and cheerleaders, with the band geeks and the choir nerds and academic elite in their separate circles.

Like Glee, but with less singing, incompetent nurses and actors in their twenties.
Like Glee, but with less singing, incompetent nurses and actors in their twenties.

The thing is, no one I knew cared which group you were in after middle school. I recall being distantly aware of the cliques, and more acutely feeling the brunt of the “football is king, but music can go screw itself” mentality, but I had friends who were cheerleaders and acquaintances in nearly every section. My best friend was in the more scientific, Lord of the Rings group often mocked onscreen, but she remembers high school fondly. It didn’t seem to matter how big or important your clique was in others’ eyes; what mattered is that you had friends to go through those years alongside.

I know that pressures have changed, but I think eventually, the real issue is still in the 12-15 range. When girls and boys first become aware of their sexuality, all kinds of crazy shit goes down. It seems like the heaviest crossfire comes at the age when half of the girls have started puberty, and half haven’t, leading to a myriad of confusing experiences. I’ve read the sickening statistics of young teens who give blow jobs because some smart-ass punk kid tells her it’s the only way to be liked. I taught girls who did just that, and then endured the consequent “slut shaming” in an affluent middle school where I worked. That’s wrong. I counseled a girl who couldn’t understand why she was “fat,” because her feminine attributes grew in before height, and then shot in a couple years to a slender beauty. It’s all about being caught in that transition point. So songs like “Try” are, indeed, useful. But couldn’t Colbie have addressed the damaging behaviors that emerge? What about cutting, eating disorders, or premature sexual behavior?

It seems like she addresses this, but she doesn’t. What follows the verse from yesterday is a confusing stanza that assumes women are not innately sexual creatures, and only “act sexy” to get attention in a problematic way:

Get your sexy on
Don’t be shy, girl
Take it off
This is what you want, to belong
So they like you. Do you like you?

Ohhh, the problems with this section. If you’re 13, at an unsupervised party because your parents don’t care enough to supervise you or are working two jobs so they can’t, this is indeed bad. You don’t want to get caught in a closet with a greasy boy who lays one on you or feels you up, pressures you to take off your shirt or asks you to engage in ANY kind of sexual activity that makes you uncomfortable.  In this context, the term “girl” is totally appropriate and this is, for the most part, good advice.

But the video does not only feature  “girls” on the cusp of adolescence. It features women of every age, women who have likely experienced a great amount of sexual experience.  At this point, the lyrics become infantilizing. What if I like feeling sexy? What if I like to take it off? Are we still living in a culture that thinks women are not innately sexual? While a part of the population is homosexual or otherwise engaged, the vast majority of it are heterosexual men having sex. And dammit if that sex doesn’t involve women.

What's a girl to do? I'm pretty sure this came from an ae catalog.
What’s a girl to do?
I’m pretty sure this came from an ae catalog.

I am so tired of the Madonna/whore complex. I am a Christian who likes sex. I don’t just like the act, though; I like being sensual. One of the best periods of my life was when I lived in Argentina, and I discovered blowouts and highlights and sexy skirts. I felt beautiful, and not because of something any other person said to me. Because I chose it.

So sweet.
So sweet.  But not, y’know, the usual woman.

My experiences with exercise are similar. The first time I worked out, it was because I wanted to. While no one had ever said, “Oo, you’re so skinny,” no one had ever mentioned my weight as a problem, either. I had a loving, supportive boyfriend, but when I hit a certain number on the scale, I looked at my family’s history of obesity and decided I didn’t want that history to include me. So I watched what I ate and worked out in my university’s new state-of-the-art gym (which most state schools have, by the way. Included in your students fees, no extra payment necessary). In a month, I lost ten pounds, which was about all I had wanted to do. Of course, the deeper benefits were there: more physical ability and energy, improved mood and concentration; overall, a nice deal.

I realize that weight is a complicated issue, and I assure you that it’s much harder to do that ten years later, after my body has grown accustomed to exercise (stupid habit). But what surprised me after this choice was the way my family, friends and boyfriend reacted. They were affirmative and proud, except for my mother, who grew obsessed with the fact that I no longer liked fried chicken. The compliments caught me off guard. I hadn’t done it to please anyone else; I just wanted a different future. But there they were, when I hadn’t expected them.

I guess this shows that I am pretty driven and internally motivated. Perhaps that is why the phrase about pushing yourself to “go the extra mile” is not negative to me. Neither is the desire to get sexy or take it off, while I acknowledge the danger of the media’s messages to teen girls. Couldn’t we have been more careful to make it clear that if you do those things, it should be because you want to, and not because the larger culture or the pimple-faced dude in front of you demands it? Still, there’s one more line that really takes the cake. It’s in the chorus:

You don’t have to try so hard
You don’t have to give it all away
You just have to get up, get up, get up, get up
You don’t have to change a single thing
You don’t have to try, try, try, try…

Such huge assumptions here. Women are again suddenly little gift-wrapped boxes which, once opened, are only going to be right for the trash. Sexuality is something a woman can only “give up,” like a fresh flower that becomes a wilted wonder the second a woman acts on a sexual desire. Women’s sensuality as a thing that is special only if it’s enjoyed in a way deemed appropriate by Ms. Caillat.


Give what away, though, really? The most disturbing part of this line is that it is wholly applied to all the lyrics, so it can’t just be about sexuality. Using makeup or getting out of bed and working out, enjoying sex or doing your hair all become concessions to “the Man,” ways of proving that a person isn’t really comfortable with herself. Where the hell does this come from?

Considering that the vast majority of women do some combination of these supposedly coerced acts, are we all really just automatons, and we didn’t know it? Maybe I’m being too literal, but when you look at the chorus, it just becomes ridiculous. “You just have to get up. You don’t have to change a single thing. You don’t have to try.” Sure, not technically…but surely it’s okay to brush your hair? Your teeth? Clean your face? Put on clothes—as long as they’re not too sexy? Where is the line between “acceptable” and “trying too hard”?

(On a practical note, I have often joked that I like winter better than summer because you can always put more clothes on, but even in the 110-degree Vegas heat, you can only take so much off before public nudity laws get you in trouble. In Vegas, I had worked it out alright with light summer dresses, but when I moved to Beijing, I was dismayed to find a far more conservative culture. A mild annoyance I have had is the strange double standard: women can wear incredibly short skirts or shorts, but their breasts must always be covered up—I mean, up to their necks. Since my body type is a bit larger on the top than most Chinese girls, I get a lot of lewd glances no mater how high my neckline because the men are not used to my body type, and disturbingly old-school. But that’s a whole other post.)

The biggest problem with this song comes out over and over in its latent assumptions: women are not independent thinkers with our own sexuality and choices. We are just compliant, easily manipulated children who should remain modest, sloppy, and timid. She allows no middle ground. In fact, Caillat ends up doing the very thing she claims to avoid: pushes an agenda that sees women as hapless victims with no innate sexual desire, being pushed into sex with dishonorable men, and surely having no genuine will in and of themselves to work out, look nice or have sex.

Writing often reveals more about the writer than the content; it’s the reason I process things this way. And the truth is, the song hit a nerve because there is a whole, huge subculture out there, one that thousands are intimately acquainted with, yet millions think is a joke: the idea of the purity ring, of a world wherein women really are just “receivers” of sexual desire, not originators. It overlaps with popular culture, of course, as seen not by 50 Shades of Grey, but by this man’s reaction to it (I couldn’t believe he was actually married, and just realizing this). While I have tried to tell myself that I might just be more sexual than other women, I think a helluva lot more of this comes from cultural conditioning than reality.

Anyhow, the world I grew up in is documented ad nauseum by women still trying to function within it, or trying to call attention to the errors in certain messages, but let me put it like this: I was raised in a Southern Baptist church that taught me to wear makeup and be as attractive as possible, or it would be my fault if my husband cheated on me; that women who wear sports bras to jog outside are asking to be raped; that I should never wear “spaghetti-strap” tank tops or bikinis, or I was guilty of causing my “brothers” to sin; and that I should avoid dating, kissing and maybe even holding hands, lest I be tempted to have sex.

We had abstinence-only education at my Bible belt high school, and sex before marriage was always shameful, even though almost everyone was doing it, and I myself experienced a lot of sexual desire once puberty hit. I waited for marriage, yet found that everything the church had taught me was bullshit. I married a Christian, but my own level of sexual enthusiasm was not magically reciprocated or seen as positive in my marriage. I have no inclination to marry again before having sex after what I went through, and I regret not having sex with other partners I cared for intensely. I also regret the drama it added to my marital relationship since my spouse had not waited for marriage to have sex. For all his faults, there was a point at which I gave him hell for it, and that certainly didn’t help our relationship (though I apologized later, it made him feel like shit).

I really think that Ms. Caillat, and greater culture, would do well to flip the script on female sexuality. Instead of “say no! Because you probably don’t want to have sex anyway,” we truly need the “say YES when YOU want to” mentality. Many have said this already, but it warrants a mention. Sadly, with songs like this on the airwaves, the best we have now is the assurance that if you don’t want to exercise, look nice or have sex, you don’t have to…and, really, you shouldn’t.

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