Monday, February 08, 2010

On Not Being Beautiful #2 – On Beauty & Sexual Attraction

I continue my rambling and disjointed treatise... (it started here)

Beautiful vs. Sexy

La Femme au Mirroir by PicassoContrary to what our culture tells us, beautiful and sexy are two very different things. Most people who have spent any time interacting on-line will have had the experience of becoming sexually-attracted to someone whose picture you've never seen. Most people who have spent any time interacting off-line will have met people who are truly beautiful but not in the least bit sexually attractive. You could stare at them for hours - several hours longer if they were naked - but they'd have as much chance of turning you on as a sunset or a rosebush. (And please no, if there is such thing as rosebush porn, I don't want to know).

For some people who are sexually attracted to women, sexy is entirely disconnected from what someone looks like. I think there are very few people for whom the quality is entirely and exclusively visual. For me, looks seem to be quite important, but I've fancied women I've not seen, and I've fancied women who I don't think are even slightly beautiful. Among the sexiest women I've ever met, the cultural standards of beauty don't apply at all - they've tended not to be especially young, they've varied a great deal in height, girth, colouring and disability status and their physical attractions have lain as much in the way they move about, smile and laugh and in their presentation, as in the underlying construction.

The aesthetic rules change anyway. A straight or wonky nose might make the difference between a beautiful face and an ordinary face, but it is almost impossible to remember the shape of a nose on a sexy person because you spend all your time looking at their eyes and lips. Sexy people's wrists, hands and the shape of their fingers can become a source of constant distraction, whereas on merely beautiful people they can be completely overlooked. Whatever colour and texture their skin, you want to paint your bedroom walls to match. Body parts which might be considered too big or too small assume their own integral perfection - people's own bodies generally suit them and make some kind of sense in terms of visually balance. Women's bodies especially so.

Asymmetries, scars, birthmarks, odd hair distribution, strange little folds of flesh, visible physical impairments and other oddities can themselves become sources of erotic delight because they're evidence of the desired person's uniqueness, their organic nature, their reality in flesh. The made-up lovers of our fantasies may be flawless, but they're always inferior to real fleshy sexy people in all their glorious fleshy sexy weirdness. Which isn't necessarily beauty. I am ghostly pale and was once complimented on the “sexy” blue veins visible under my skin - there's nothing beautiful about a giant odourless lump of Gorgonzola.

And we are still on sex here, not love. Romantic love adds layers and layers on top of all this, but even base sexual attraction forgives – and celebrates - very much of what an appraisal of physical beauty would not. And this is all visual stuff of course. As I said, for some people sexy isn't a visual thing at all, and in this respect, sexiness seems to be far more evenly distributed than beauty; most of us are not beautiful, but most of us meet someone's criteria for sexy.

The sexual advantages of beauty are all about getting noticed. Beautiful women get more initial sexual attention. In some contexts, this can be very significant and thus very demoralising for ordinary-looking women (or indeed beautiful women who happen to be not white, fat, trans or disabled*). But there's no evidence that, when all is said and done, conventionally beautiful women get more sex or better sex, let alone better and happier relationships. The only other connection I can think of between being beautiful and being sexy is that in getting more attention, beautiful people often have more confidence. Confidence is quite sexy.

Which puts me in mind of a rather winning compliment I once received from a very beautiful person;

“You're not exactly beautiful,” they said, “but you're very sexy and that's far more important. If I wanted something beautiful to look at, I'd get a full-length mirror.”

It was a fair point.

Beauty and the Male Gaze

I've been lucky with this stuff - I didn't anticipate having a male lover until suddenly I did, and before that point the male bit of the Male Gaze went over my head somewhat; I grew up seeing that my face and body did not match the images of beautiful women I saw all around me, but it didn't occur to me that my failure to be beautiful was a failure to be beautiful for men. But I understand that for many androphile women, anxiety around beauty has a lot to do with men and many of the conversations women have about their self-image are around what they perceive men want to expect from us.

So here's my theory about all this, as an in-betweeny kind of person. And in case any chaps are reading and feeling sensitive, this isn't what straight men are like, this is what messages women receive about men's attitude to feminine beauty. Clearly, what straight men are like is demonstrated by the fact that most of them appear quite happy to pair off with either ordinary-looking women or non-standard beauties.

Verticordia by RossettiIn evolutionary terms, sex is very important, but to social animals, peer-bonding is more so. If you don't make meaningful connections with others, you die. In a society which is often informally gender-segregated, most of us are highly invested in our standing with members of our own gender - thus things like my own status anxiety I wrote about the other day. We prefer sexual explanations because sex is more exciting and of course, our particular culture revels in the idea that men are motivated by sex and very little else.

Now, if you want to press someone's sexual buttons, you have to be either lucky or fairly specific. People's sexualities are extremely diverse and unpredictable. If you want to press someone's status buttons, all you need are easily recognisable symbols of high status – like logos. Some people would buy any piece of crap that had a particular logo which they associate with a certain social standing. If you're going to use the image of a woman as a status symbol, you need that woman to look as much like every other woman ever used as a status symbol. Thus the ubiquity of the tall very thin young white cis woman with the straight narrow nose and so on. She's not an idealised version of womanhood as envisaged by all heterosexual men. She's the Nike tick.

So when she's draped over the bonnet of a shiny new car, you're not supposed to think, “Hmm, beautiful women love shiny new cars; if I buy the car I shall have sex with a woman like that.” You're supposed to think, “Hmm, there's Status draped over the bonnet of this car; if I buy the car I shall be admired by other men.” We know this because the same woman is used to advertise things to women and we're not expected to want to have sex with her. Nor, by the way, does your average British woman, middle-aged 5'4" slightly plump brunette, imagine that she could ever look like her. But it still works because we've all registered the symbol.

So many of the images of beautiful women we see around us have nothing to do with male lust. And even the most sexualised images of women are often more about homosocial bonding that heterosexual sex. Like the Page 3 Girl – it's soft porn, but nobody buys The Sun as a masturbatory stimulus. The role of the topless model is as a topic of light-hearted conversation among groups of men; “You don't get many of those to the pound!” etc.. Having discussed the days' news, each man in the group asserts his masculinity by giving his aesthetic critique of the model, suggesting sexual activities he would like to engage in with her, and comparing her to other women of the group's shared acquaintance.

We know this because these conversations often occur in public and similar conversations take place on-line. Men who go to lap-dancing clubs and the like often insist that this is social rather than a sexual activity. And in the absence of a volunteer on the podium or in a photograph, some men turn to the women around them. It's small comfort when strangers are loudly and publicly discussing the merits of your breasts, that it's really one man's way of telling another man "I love you."

The Three Graces by RubensCommunal lechery as a bonding behaviour is by no means exclusive to straight men - nor are other versions always benign - but the straight masculine version is much more pressured, more prevalent and more acceptable within our culture. And as well as a shared approval of long legs, big breasts etc., it includes the shared disapproval of the ways ordinary-looking women deviate from cultural standards of beauty. Most of this is done through humour; all those fat bird jokes, jokes about having sex with older or trans women, plus the endless derogatory jokes about the looks of famous beautiful women. The more insecure and status-anxious men become, the noisier they become about their normal heterosexual tastes and the more critical they become of any ordinary-looking woman who strays into their field of vision. And this is largely unchallenged. This is a world where a journalist can complain about the visual appeal of female members of the Her Majesty's Government and get a job as editor for a national left-leaning newspaper.

I think the saddest manifestion of this nonsense is when men who buy into it all inevitably fall in love with ordinary-looking women, and you hear strange defensive explanations along the lines of, "I know she's not very pretty, she's plump and she has sticky-out teeth, but she has this weird thing where she walks into a room and the whole place lights up!"

Now, none of this tells us what men want and I'm not naive about the possibility that this stuff actually impacts on people's sexual behaviour - it probably does. Except, as I observed before, most men have sex with and pair off with ordinary-looking women, and we have no reason to assume that they are made miserable by this. Androphile women need to know that most of these cultural messages are not relevant to considering our own attractiveness.

We also need to identify the bullshit for what it is. Short of their having a Swatzika tattooed on their forehead, nobody should be offended or upset by the appearance of another person. No man is made sick by the sight of a flabby thigh or a hairy calf and if he were, it would be his own problem entirely. Women are not here to give men something nice to look at. Whoever you are, whatever you look like, you have just as much a right to be and be seen as anyone else.

This is not to say that the men we fancy will always fancy us, or that their disinterest won't be based on some aspect of our appearance – that's life and it's nobody's fault. But the same goes for all human relationships; you win some, you lose some and no matter how gorgeous you are, you haven't a hope of winning them all.

Well done to anyone who got down this far - it went on a bit, didn't it? Sorry. Just getting it out of my system.

* Kia Matthews recently performed a social experiment in which she submitted two identical profiles to the same dating website, one with a photo of her own round pretty black self and one with a photo of her thin pretty white friend. Worth a gander.

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.