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.|
Human 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.
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.
I 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.