Hey there, lovely lovelies! It’s Friday again, and what better way to celebrate the end of the Politician’s Working Week than to talk about how beauty is used as a tool of oppression? There is no better way, and you know it.
It’s no secret to those in feminist circles that normative beauty standards have been used against women for a long time. In the West, this is especially true for women of colour and disabled women. By forcing women and feminine people to comply to arbitrary and completely impossible physical standards in order to be considered, well, people, the patriarchy effectively silences anyone who falls short. This has been the basis of the ‘body positive’ movement and similar attempts to redefine what is considered ‘beauty’ by mainstream society. The theory is that by stretching the definition of beauty to include all body types, races, abilities and so on, we will remove the stigma of attached to being perceived as ‘ugly’. Sadly, these good intentions have missed a rather glaring point. By attaching so much value to the idea of ‘feeling beautiful’, even those movements designed to remove the power of beauty standards actually uphold them.
There are a lot of issues involved in this discussion, but today I’m going to discuss how this focus on being beautiful harms us, rather than getting bogged down in questions like “but don’t men experience body shaming too” and so on. Although this is an important discussion to have as the dynamic shifts toward the commodification of image of people of all genders, the fact remains that feminine appearance is far more policed than masculine, especially in gender non-conforming feminine people. In our society, women and feminine people are not taken seriously AS PEOPLE if they don’t conform to normative standards of attractiveness. Any opinion is dismissed as the result of ‘bitterness’ at not being ‘fuckable’, at not being ‘a real woman’ (whatever that means – and remember that some feminine people are not women at all). They are statistically less likely to get jobs and promotions, are more likely to suffer bullying and abuse, and if they happen to be fat, trans, or disabled, they are less likely to have access to appropriate healthcare and housing. Of course, appearance is not the only factor in these issues, but it is a major one, as people primarily judge others on how they look, and what they think that means.
This is not to say, of course, that feminine people who DO conform to normative beauty standards have it easy. While they might be more likely to find appropriate healthcare, be promoted and paid better (and so on), they are often portrayed as shallow, often ‘less intelligent’, ‘bitchy’, and the source of ‘woman-on-woman hate’. Their beauty does not save them from the gendered judgements associated with femininity, and their opinions are often dismissed as the silliness of a pretty ‘girl’. Conforming to standards also takes effort – it involves the right clothing, makeup, body type and so on. It takes time and money to do so, even if you are ‘born with it’ (and let’s be honest, most of us aren’t). You’re also more likely to be the target of unwanted sexual harrassment (although this is not a problem solely experienced by ‘pretty’ people – almost every feminine person in existence has experienced some form of sexual harrassment in their life, and we need to stop dismissing the experiences of ‘ugly’ people in this regard).
Does it sound to anyone else like there’s no winning here? Because that’s pretty much the case. Conforming to normative beauty standards does come with a certain amount of privilege, but those standards are still used to oppress feminine people, so that privilege is pretty hollow. This is because the patriarchal system is set up so that feminine people CAN’T win. Beauty standards are employed as a tool to keep feminine people so focused on conforming that we don’t have time to achieve anything – and bonus, it paints us as not worth listening to, no matter which side we fall on.
So what does this all have to do with the new body positive movements? Surely expanding the idea of beauty is a good thing – if we’re all beautiful, then there can’t be any more comparisons, right? And surely that means we can stop thinking about it?
Nope, sorry. Firstly, we’re a very, very long way from achieving a truly inclusive body positivity movement. It’s still based very largely around a certain type of body, and it excludes a lot of people of colour, disabled people, non-binary and trans-feminine people. And what limited body positivity the movement has managed to create is only valid in a certain arena – the real life effects of this movement aren’t being really reflected in the experience of most people. There’s also the fact that the idea of body positivity has been co-opted by advertisers in order to sell stuff – ironically, mostly beauty products. So our main exposure to this movement is through people who want to sell us things that ‘make us more beautiful’. See the problem here?
But even if this body positive movement were to succeed, if we could ditch the advertisers and become fully inclusive of all body types and expressions of femininity, the body positive movement remains focused on appearance and beauty as a source of value, going so far as to make ‘feeling beautiful’ a kind of moral obligation. And that is a major problem. This movement takes the least valuable part of a person – how we look – and turns it into a source of strength and value. Instead of investing our energy in our passions, education and the people around us, we’re still being told to invest in how we look. And if we don’t ‘feel’ beautiful, or don’t give a shit, we’re made to feel as though we’ve failed somehow.
Now, I’m not saying that we should all start wearing sacks and shaving our heads or anything. Personal appearance is a form of self expression that can be rewarding and enjoyable. But it shouldn’t be afforded the meaning that it has in our society – even within the very movements that should be lessening its power. Instead of a body positive movement that focuses on all bodies as beautiful, it would be great if we had one that focused on taking away the power that this concept of beauty has over us at all. Because there are so many more important things about every human being in the world than what we look like.
So what do we do? Well, the first step to freeing ourselves from the beauty trap is to stop being afraid of being ugly – more, to stop being afraid of FEELING ugly. Of course, this is easier said than done when we live in a world that is constantly bombarding us with reminders that our sole value lies in our ability to be attractive (to heterosexual white men). And when you stop conforming to beauty standards, you will face some hefty consequences. But the more of us who divest from the need to be – or even to feel – beautiful, and instead focus our energy on other aspects of our lives, the less power the patriarchal beauty trap will have over all of us.
So get out there, lovelies, and face the world with your ugly face on. I have faith in you! Misandrist witch out.
All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017. Please acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.