Wednesday, February 03, 2010

On Not Being Beautiful #1 - Beauty & Nonsense

I've been thinking about feminine beauty recently and wanted to blog my thoughts, but I had too many of them for one post. So it'll be a few posts, and it might hop about a bit and no promises on how quickly I'll get round to the next one.

A Grotesque Old Woman by Quinten MassysHuman beings are beautiful. Our faces are beautiful and our bodies are beautiful. The faces and bodies of the people we love are the most appealing visual stimuli we will ever encounter. You're beautiful. Everyone is beautiful. Even this lady, who I've mentioned before, is beautiful in this sense.

But feminine beauty in most social and cultural senses is an elite quality possessed by a minority of women. And I recognise that too. Most people are nice to look at, some people are fantastic to look at, regardless of their personal charms or our relationship with them. We undoubtedly vary in our visual appeal. In this sense, we are not all beautiful. Most of us are ordinary looking. You're still beautiful, of course, but the rest of us are not.

This is also absolutely fine. It is fine to be ordinary looking.

Beauty in Culture.

Cultural standards of beauty are messed up. This is not news. Pictorially, feminine beauty is represented as something extraordinarily narrow; white, young, smooth-skinned, very thin, taller than average, cisgendered with a straight narrow nose, high cheekbones, large eyes, fullish lips and without visible impairments.

Women with such qualities, rare as they may be in the general population, make up the vast majority of images of women we see around us on the front of magazines and newspapers, on billboards and on television, in movies and in popular music. I am perfectly okay to look at, but it is possible to read a magazine or tabloid newspaper, watch a movie or several hours of television without catching sight of a single woman who is as lacking in beauty as I am.

Media representation of women, from fairytales to news stories, feature beautiful princesses and heroines on the one hand and warty witches, ugly sisters and assorted hags on the other. In advertising for clothes, cosmetics and diet products, we are told that our hair, faces, bodies are unsightly, embarrassing and shameful right now but when we buy Product X, we will become beautiful. Women who are successful or notorious for for any reason will have their looks appraised in the media and it will always come out at one extreme or the other. World leader or murder suspect, if you are a woman, you're eye-candy or you're emetic.

Even if you are found to be beautiful, there is no security in your status. Magazines and newspapers constantly criticise the appearance of indisputably beautiful women. If Helen of Troy were alive today, there would be endless articles about her weight gain and loss, her cellulite or blotchy skin, her spots and wrinkles, her ugly feet, her lacklustre hair and so on. If any aspect of a woman's appearance is not perfect, then she is a subject to shame and ridicule.

This is a problem. These are the messages which can make ordinary-looking women feel that our absence of beauty is a problem.

Beautiful = Tolerable

If the absence of beauty is ugliness, then beauty itself becomes the base line for what is tolerable. We must be beautiful, or else we must not be seen at all. An example of this is the use of the oft-repeated tenet that Big is Beautiful.

Not Big can be Beautiful or my preferred slogan, The Size of My Arse is Morally-Neutral. This tenet is so often accompanied by rhetoric and images which suggest that overweight women deviate from the cultural standards of beauty in just one respect - examples of big beauties are predominantly white, young, taller that average and so on. And it's not just big women; occasionally there are fashion programmes or articles, even beauty pageants which magnanimously feature disabled women, but again, these are dominated by conventionally attractive women who are simply sat down. Not so much these women are beautiful too, more a minority of these women almost count as beautiful.
Venus with Organist by Titian
But a failure to be revered as beautiful is the least of the problems faced by women with marginalised bodies. Our bodies are considered offensive, embarrassing, a source of pity, disgust and sometimes even anger*. We are not allowed just to be ordinary-looking, to be of little to no visual interest and thus to be left alone. Our deviation from cultural standards of beauty is, in itself, a point of interest and concern. In the case of big women, this is seen as a willing deviation.

But is the solution to prejudice to argue for our integral beauty? And is the cure for our low self-image to convince ourselves that rather than being ugly, we are in fact completely gorgeous?

If someone of average maths ability feels their maths skills are shamefully inadequate, even if they live in a world which confirms this belief, is it ever helpful to declare them a genius?

Beauty and Status Anxiety

It is difficult to talk about negative things women to do one another, for fear of blaming women for their own oppression. Oh well, let's make it all about me!

Forgive me, Sisters, for I have sinned. It has been a while since my last confession. This is mostly retrospective; I haven't behaved this way for a long time and few of the women in my life behave this way towards me. Even so, I've done it.

Danae by KlimtI have engaged in self-deprecation like it was a virtue and concealed self-confidence like it was a vice. I have colluded in other women's self-loathing. I have sat with very over-weight women and lamented my own relatively modest girth. I have complained of petty imperfections which may have sewn the seeds of similar anxieties in the minds of others. I have tried to comfort women about their trivial flaws by arguing that mine are worse.

I have given compliments which I couldn't have possibly meant (you know the type – you tell them, “Your nose isn't big at all!” when you absent-mindedly hung your coat off it a moment earlier). I have complimented women on their appearance instead of complimenting them on those qualities I value higher; their kindness, bravery or wisdom. I have complimented women on their appearance instead of telling them that I loved them. And I have received compliments from other women with thanks but without considering for a moment that they might be sincere.

I have feared the scrutiny of other women. I've never much cared what men thought about my appearance, but I have feared the judgment of women I don't even like. Perhaps I even cared about the judgement of women I didn't like more than those I liked - this is about status, after all, the fear of not being good enough. I have spent shameful amounts of time, money and energy on beauty rituals in the hope of looking acceptable. Other times, I have pretended to in order to be seen to have made the effort.

I have received unsolicited criticism and advice about fixing or concealing my cosmetic flaws – even things which I never considered a problem - and failed to tell these women to bugger off. Sometimes I have taken their advice.

I have quite enjoyed those programmes where magnanimous upper-middle class women shame and humiliate working class women in order to reform them, by reforming their appearance. I bought a women's magazine once on a train journey, actually paid money for it, and I have leafed through many others. Most discussions of fashion and beauty in the media are based on status anxiety, about fitting in and the fear of not fitting in. Don't be a frump, don't be a tart, conceal this, reveal that, wear colours and shapes dictated by people with more power but much less good taste than you do. Fashion as something that changes with the seasons is all about status anxiety driven by commercial interest. Alas, we in the West are by far the least exploited in that chain.

I have smiled and nodded and sympathised when I should have argued with women who were being made miserable, poor and exhausted by their pursuit of beauty. I have stood by and let adult women program girls with the same anxieties.

I don't believe I should have ever been angry with other women for hating their own appearance. If vanity is a vice, it is its own punishment. And some women who spend a large proportion of their time unhappily engaged in beauty regimes, calorie-counting and general angst about their looks are understandably upset when they see other ordinary-looking women who don't bother and get away with it.

Yet we do this stuff to one another and we engage in this hopeless pursuit for one another. At least, it's a huge part. And through our relationships with one another, we can maybe sort this stuff out.

* I say our bodies although I acknowlegde I carry a lot of privilege here. My body is marginalised but I am still young, white, cis and not enormous.


Jess said...

Immensely wise and elegantly argued, as always, and I am very glad you wrote it. So many women I know like to approach this issue like cheerleaders: It's not what you wear, but how you wear it! It's not about how you look, it's about attitude! Smile! Be positive! Stand up straight! Go you!

All of which is entirely well-meant, but I rankle at it: the notion that beauty-- not just as perceived by others, but a personal sense of being beautiful-- boils down to good posture and the flashing one's teeth, of being more positive or less argumentative, of adopting that rah-rah, Oprah-Winfrey brand of self-regard which makes a show of Going, Girl!, and not giving a toss what anyone else may think. It rankles because its basis is the idea that a woman inherently needs improving--just as damaging, in its way, as the more overt "makeover" programme.

And may I say that you are one of the lovliest people I know: you are wise and compassionate, intelligent and insightful-- and a very fine writer, which to another writer is about the most beautiful thing going. :)

The Goldfish said...

Thank you for such a kind comment, Jess. :-)

I'm totally with you about that positive attitude stuff (as with so much of the idea that mere believing it can make a thing come about). It's also bizarre the way that there far more cultural focus on women being beautiful or feeling beautiful than on being or feeling like a good person. Which you'd think would be more important to our own happiness and the happiness of those around us...

Wheelchair Dancer said...

I love this post. It has spawned some as yet unclear thinking. Would you mind if I wrote on a similar topic -- as a kind of conversation?


The Goldfish said...

Thanks WCD and of course. I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'll put the next bit up very shortly.

RealSteveHolmes said...

You write fascinating stuff that deserves a much larger readership.

It takes a great deal of work by any woman to make herself unattractive to men but for those who insist, here is the recipe.

FIRST, declare to yourself, covertly so you mess your own mind up, that you will not lose your dignity by making yourself attractive for men. When this stupid denial of your biological imperative and nature is sufficiently embedded that it comes naturally without you even noticing, then any one of the following follow-up strategies will complete the picture perfectly. If you can combine two or more you have it made.


1) be demanding but refuse to give
2) assume that men feel the same way you do and decline to investigate further
3) make up blaming theories about men and rape, pornography, child molesting and perversion
4) wear highly fashionable and elegant clothes that give off the message that you are not pleasant and not available
5) become greedy and demanding with an extremely high sense of entitlement that no mere male is good enough to meet
6) create as many sexual complexities and problems as you can and wherever possible be ungenerous to any male who does find you attractive; don't let him think he is good enough
7) if all else fails start eating more calories than you can burn and then waffle on about needing comfort food because your body image (that has been dictated by horrible men) is so poor
8) advanced strategies for if all this fails include sneering, berating, nagging, criticising and never appreciating; these are all freely available to learn from your mother, who treated your father like shit when you were growing up, which is why he took off

Honestly, it's so easy to become unattractive, and yet by just doing nothing almost any woman would find out how attractive she is.

hearing damage said...

This is such a well written piece- I'm glad to haev stumbld upon your blog.

Mat Board said...

Having spent my life in the company of many women - having eight sisters and a wife with three daughters, there is definately something to be said about elegance and class making a women more beautiful no matter what her features project.

Loved your article - thanks from a mans point of view...

Mat Board

Unknown said...

Hi! I'm working on a Current Affairs idea for BBC3 about the notion of beauty, and how the fashion and beauty industry makles people feel ugly. I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on that, since you seem to articulate your own perception of it quite well. Please email me if you wouldn't mind me picking your brains!
Thanks. Emma