Monday, July 22, 2013

Heat, Bodies & Disgust

In the last few weeks of weather, so hot that even I have noticed, there seems to have been a lot of column inches dedicated to the acceptability or not of baring flesh. For the benefit of foreign readers, British people have no problem with near-nudity, in the context of a Friday night in the depths of winter - a sequinned garment the size of a tea-towel, attached to one's person via a series of spaghetti straps is entirely appropriate when you've had already had a drink and are queuing in the freezing rain, outside a crowded nightclub. Since the end of Empire, this is the only way Britain has left to demonstrate her considerable pluck. 

What concerns us now are much more confusing matters such as, is it ever appropriate to wear open-toed shoes in a workplace, during a heatwave? And what if you go to a beach and are not a professional swimwear model - is it okay to show a little thigh?  Professional representatives of feminism have come along to argue about what feminists do and don't look like in the summer months and Armpits4August are inviting women to let their underarm hair grow to raise money and awareness for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.

In all these discussions, something stands out. Sometimes in the articles themselves, but invariably in the comments section, there are people who have important information about what they personally find sexually unattractive. After all, when you're getting dressed in the morning, it's useful to know that some overpaid journalist finds thick ankles a turn-off and Anonymous of Northampton couldn't stand to kiss a woman with a hairy upper lip.

It's almost entirely straight men who do this - at least when it comes to physical appearance. Occasionally, straight women do it by proxy, "My husband wouldn't like it if..." or "I've never met a man who fancied..." etc..  And with the men, it's not just only some men, it is very particular kind of man. He believes that:
  • His sexuality is much more important than other people's.
  • What he has to say is very useful to women, whose purpose in life is to look pretty for him.
  • Being a macho masculine manly man, his preferences are broadly representative of those of all straight men everywhere.
There have been many comments by men under articles about Armpits4August. One that particularly amused me was (I paraphrase so I don't have to hunt it down, but this is very close):
"It's all very well if you don't want to shave your armpit hair to raise money for charity, but don't expect me to want to sleep with you!" 
Now this must cause a lot of inner-turmoil for those women hoping to raise money for PCOS charities. A month of unshaven armpits may be no big deal, but if that means no sex from a random man on the internet at any time throughout August... It puts a debilitating medical condition into perspective.

You'd think such a man lives quite a happy life. After all, he thinks that all women are concerned with their attractiveness to him. If I felt that every painted nail or shiny shoe was there for my benefit, I'd be very flattered. All day I'd be thanking people for looking so nice just for me.

The trouble is, the poor creature can't look at a woman - not a single one - without thinking about having sex with her. Inevitably, this results in a great deal of disgust. After all, however sexually-frustrated we may be, most of us are discriminating to some extent. Imagine if every time a politician came on the telly, you were condemned to picture them naked in the throes of passion (or, you know, literally coming on the telly).  You'd either have to give up Question Time or get campaigning fast for better looking politicians. 

For this reason, this kind of man has lists of the kinds of women who he can't really stand to look at and he must take to comments sections - or his professional career - to implore such women to cover up, stay indoors and preferably stop existing. And unfortunately, he's sometimes paid to do it and to some extent, our culture supports him all the way.

After all, the tone of beauty and fashion advice, especially for hot weather, isn't so much about looking good, but avoiding the innumerable faux pas of showing too much of the way nature made you - too many lumps and bumps, too much pale, rough, spotty or wrinkly skin, any body hair, too much untoned muscle, fat, cellulite as well as nonsense physical flaws dictated largely by age and genetics such as saddle-bags, cankles or bingo wings. Advice for weather of these temperatures - at least for us unaccustomed Brits - should all be about practicality. Instead, it is if the main dilemma is to avoid disgusting a certain kind of man. 

I've lost the wise tweet I saw last week (I'm struggling to keep track of most things just now) which said something along the lines of
"I know it's hot out there, but I can see your opinion about other people's bodies flapping about. For all our sakes, cover that up!" 
I'm sometimes frustrated when, in social justice circles, there's discussion of whether someone's sexual attraction can be racist, disablist, ageist and so forth. I think that discussion is largely unhelpful, because most people can't consciously control who they want or don't want sexually. What does matter is how these things are expressed, and what they're used to justify. 

It's unacceptable to talk about any body in terms of disgust. The way people clothe and ornament themselves can be strange, funny and occasionally offensive, but their bodies are just bodies, however much or little we can see of them. We all started out as roly-poly babies and we'll all end up corpses. In between times, we should get on and enjoy our physical nature, and leave others alone to enjoy theirs. 

In every sense of the word, stay cool. 

(I know I implied that politician's bodies might be disgusting, but only if I was to think about having sex with them. I've not followed through on this exercise, so I could be wrong. At this time, I don't find them disgusting, but I think I might if I thought about them in that way. Good. Glad that's sorted.)