Feminist Friday: Beauty, Objectification and Bullsh*t

Upworthy has sort of become my latest idea of a great thing.

All sorts of intriguing and controversial stuff can be found there and I am amassing quite a few interesting videos that can fit nicely into blogging topics.

This one caught my eye the other day.

In general I like the message and I agree with Tracey Spicer that social expectations, especially those placed on women to look a certain way -meaning the normative feminine- are bullsh*t. Yet, for most of us, it’s what we do. There is the conventional and accepted way for a woman to appear in public and there is the other way, the way that reinforces the process of labeling and ridicule.

That first way, the correct way, objectifies females. It molds them to standards  and practices put in place for one major purpose: to attract a man. There are other useful reasons to uphold the standard as well, all of course having something to do with living in a man’s world. We know that if you can’t pluck it, shave, plump it, squeeze it up or down, paint it, whiten it, tame it, enhance it…do something to it to make it better, to make it more attractive, to be a shining example of the social beauty ideal, then you are most likely extremely uninformed or, more likely, a lesbian. Isn’t that what a large number of men probably believe? Isn’t that what a large number of women have been conditioned to believe, as they are busy making their free and willing choices regarding dress and hair and makeup?

Objectification is why positive body image is shot to hell based on ideals that no one can live up to, and most of the time if we are discussing American society, positive body image means being thin, young, and white. You are pretty much screwed, or just ignored if you are brown, or black, or red, or purple, or striped. And please don’t mention cultural difference or its influence. Just stuff those softly rounded, curvy hips into one of those body shapers that Spicer mentions.

I find a good descriptive of the process Spicer consciously attempts to undo in her video to be the “disciplinary beauty practice” discussed by Susan Shaw and Janet Lee in Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions. These authors didn’t coin the phrase, but they explain it well. Socially defined beauty norms are internalized from childhood and women get both positive and negative feedback “for complying with or resisting them” (193). Every task we (women) do everyday to present ourselves to the public can be defined as disciplinary practice because the routines and behaviors designed to make us more attractive involve social control (time, money effort) and taken-for-granted behaviors. Once complete, a woman has transformed into an object to be viewed or possessed. For many, their autonomy and agency has also been taken away as their created persona leads them to act, or even over-exaggerate appropriate feminine norms.

I grant that not every woman who makes the decision to wear her hair a specific way, dress in a feminine manner, (and I think that there are about a million ways to define that) or put on various levels of makeup is thinking about or acting on gender expectations. Let’s face it, we all have our own reasons for doing what we do, for using or not using socially accepted categories to define or undefine who we are, and for living up to or taking down labels such as feminine. And even when we as individuals make choices, or believe we are making autonomous choices about our person-hood and our place within the defined gender accepted world of beauty, there will be those who will see what we do and still find reason to criticize.

I have to acknowledge that appearance has become synonymous with a judgement of who an individual is as a person; who and what their character is. We know that is wrong, and ridiculous and completely goes against how we all want to be viewed by other human beings. We judge on weight, on the shape of body parts, on ability or lack thereof. We define ourselves and others based on how well we fit as objects into defined gender labels.

I acknowledge that I am caught up in the rituals. I am conditioned to present myself in a specific way when I leave my home. On occasion, when I choose otherwise and leave my home without the proper face paint, without the proper dress, without the appearance of, or approximation to, a social ideal of femininity, I pause and wonder if/how I will be regarded for my deviance. I also acknowledge that I not only judge myself, but I continue to judge others. It is a difficult habit to break because we are not a society that can eagerly accept and marvel at diversity. I mean come on…no matter what reasons or justifications some folks delude themselves with, race is still a thing and making the claim that most of white society is beyond judging on outward appearance first is a load of crap…

Yes, men are judged as well, but ya know what, this isn’t about men. It’s about one half of the population that is defined, by a large portion of the other half, based on appearance. It is about the male half seeing not a human being but an ass in tight designer jeans, or a face enhanced (?) by Clinique, or MAC, or Lancome. It’s about the woman whose self-worth is defined by how she looks. It is about the fear that going into public spaces and not being perfect will bring shame, and ridicule, and derision. It is about being led to believe that to be desirable in love, or career, or life, you must be anything other than yourself.

 

Shaw, S., & Lee, J. (2015). Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

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1 thought on “Feminist Friday: Beauty, Objectification and Bullsh*t”

  1. I noticed a while back that I was thinking unflattering things about the young women I see on campus who go out in dresses that are impossibly short and tight, and frequently won’t even wear coats or tights so everything is on display all night. I wasn’t judging them for being ‘slutty’ – I don’t care at all about how much sex they’re having, or how casually – but I was writing them off as dumb and vain and lacking imagination (while leaving nothing to mine…). It’s taken years, but I’ve managed to retrain myself, and now when I see them I feel a kind of protective tenderness, because they must feel so much pressure to get themselves up like that, and they don’t yet know that they don’t need to do it. Some of them will probably never realize that. Some of them probably even live in a world where it’s strictly enforced. Maybe it’s more just me acclimating with time and exposure, but I like to think my conscious efforts to alter my habits of thought sped the process up.

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