Defining a "Diva" With My Daughter

Our first guest blog comes from Dara Chadwick, author of You'd Be So Pretty If... Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies -- Even When We Don't Love Our Own  (Da Capo, 2009). Dara blogs regularly at

The other night, my 13-year-old daughter and I were flipping through TV channels, trying to find something that appealed to both of us, when I landed on a showing of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. We watched for a few minutes, and then I moved on, thinking she wouldn’t be interested in an “old” movie.

“Go back, Mom,” she said. “I like that.”

As we watched, I couldn’t help thinking about how much our “ideal” image of female beauty has changed in just a few decades. I watched my daughter watch Monroe move across the screen and I wondered what she was thinking. Did she think Marilyn Monroe was fat?

If you were to measure her by the same body standards to which our culture holds actresses today, she was. Yet Monroe was nothing less than captivating on screen – charming and sweet, confident in her own womanly curves.

A few nights later, we caught a more modern show together -- the premiere of Lifetime television’s new Drop Dead Diva. Long story short: Gorgeous model wannabe Deb is killed when she crashes her car during an unfortunate applying-lip-gloss-while-driving incident. Meanwhile, overweight, insecure Jane – a brilliant lawyer whose assistant calms her with canned cheese when she’s stressed -- takes a bullet for a co-worker. Thus ensues the old body switcheroo, and Deb -- to her horror -- now finds herself inhabiting Jane’s frumpier frame (with the added bonus of access to Jane’s brilliant mind and legal background).

Let me be clear: I want to like this show. I initially tuned in to see the very funny Margaret Cho, who plays Jane’s assistant and has been known to take on body image stereotypes in her stand-up act.

But something just didn’t sit right with me.

Beyond the whole “being overweight is a fate worse than death” message, I’m struggling to get past the “us versus them” mentality. You can be pretty or smart, but not both. Or, you can be pretty and smart, but you’re also likely a conniving back-stabber who views other women as threatening (like Jane’s co-worker, Kim, who tried to sabotage her).

Although the show was billed as being about self-acceptance, I wonder how long it’ll take the Jane/Deb character to get to that point. What’s most interesting to me, though, is how self-perception plays into all this, and how we, as women, buy into what our culture tells us is beautiful. The curvy Monroe – told she was beautiful and sexy – seemed to see herself as nothing less, while the curvy Jane – told that she’s insecure and “a pork chop” – seems to see herself as nothing more.

How our culture defines a “diva” may have changed with time, but in the end, we can choose what we tell ourselves when we look in the mirror. Will Jane/Deb choose to be confident in her own womanly curves?

We’ll be watching…and hoping.

Photo Credit: 1horsetown/Flickr

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