Excellent exemplars

Oksana Grishina
Yesterday, I shared a photo on Facebook depicting a female body builder in a striking pose, along with the caption “Strong is the new skinny.” This elicited many positive responses, but also provoked some criticism. A friend complained that a female body builder was a poor example to be setting for young girls.

A few week ago, I wrote about realism versus idealism in depictions of women, wherein I discussed the diversity of depictions of women throughout human history, and objected to the argument that it would be beneficial to replace ideal depictions of femininity with average ones. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to take a moment and read it. It’ll give you some background into my thinking.

I’d now like to elaborate on the conflict between holding up examples of excellence as ideals to be followed, and respecting individuals whether or not they come close to meeting these ideals.

People should be valued regardless of how they look, how clever they are, or what talents they possess. It’s also right however to honor excellence—both in the qualities that people are born with, and the ones they acquire through practice, study, hard work, and determination.

Many feel strongly that earned excellence is more worthy of praise than innate excellence. It’s hard to find fault with the idea that people should be rewarded for hard work and devotion; but all gifts—both natural gifts and those won through diligence—contribute to the richness and beauty of the world.

Elizabeth Warren
The best examples of excellence arise when a person with natural gifts takes full advantage of them, and through dedication and hard work develops them to their full potential. Professional athletes, virtuoso musicians, erudite writers, and ingenious engineers all contribute greatly to the intellectual, artistic, scientific, and financial wealth of the world.

Unfortunately, it often happens that people fortunate by birth do not seize the opportunity. Instead of developing their gifts, they choose to squander them, resting comfortably on their laurels, and doing only the minimum necessary to get by. This is a shame! Through laziness, they rob themselves and the world of the erstwhile fruits of their true potential.

Carol Greider
There is a natural tension between valuing excellence, and valuing every person. I am sure that some people find it intimidating or discouraging that the standards (of beauty, intelligence, wit, or skill) seem unattainably high. This is not cause however to lower the standards—to set the bar lower to a level that more people can achieve. On the contrary: standards of excellence are not meant to be met by everyone! Each person should instead be encouraged to do his or her best, not accept limits imposed on him or her by others, and to live up to his or her own true potential.

But let’s get back to the original photo that raised this issue. I don’t think any single image of femininity should be held up as the one true example every girl should follow. It would be silly to pigeonhole all girls into a single destiny. Some girls will want to follow the example of a talented musician. Others will find more appeal in following a gifted scientist or a well-spoken public official. Young girls should be presented with many different images and stories of exemplary women who have achieved excellence in many different walks of life. Girls should listen to their hearts, choose their own examples to follow, and aim high. When it comes to physical appearance and health, focussing on strength rather than merely skinniness is a positive development!

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