|Inspiration, Context||Nature or Nurture?||Eating Disorders|
|Dollars and Cents||Internalised Standards||Autonomy/Agency/Judging|
|Law, Prosecution||Personal Empowerment||Male Beauty|
|How Do We Change All This?|
I certainly wasn't aware of Foucault at the time :-) The feminism that energised and radicalised me in the late 70's and early 80's was the late stages of a grassroots, literally "kitchen table" political movement, based on "consciousness raising" discussions among women rather than on a canon of academic or political literature. Somewhere, deep underneath, there was an extensive ideological foundation -- laid in the late 50's, the 60's, and the early 70's -- a time of remarkable political upheaval, creativity and hope in America, France, and England, and a time of active anti-colonial struggles worldwide. That foundation supported our ideas of authentic experience, first-person testimony, collective direct action, and the consciousness-raising process (as well as consensus decision making, respectful listening, etc). But for a neophyte (as I was then) encountering the movement, these assumptions were already deeply embedded and any formal, academic literature justifying them was not primary. What was primary was that real women were really doing things to change the world, and this was the way things were done.
In fact I would say that at the time there was a profound mistrust of hierarchical and formal institutions, of allowing authority to be vested in a defining canon, in "theory" and the like. Quoting Foucault would have been far less impressive to us than altering a billboard or outing a rapist. Our emphasis was on direct communication and direct action. An example of direct action: the local "Women Against Rape", founded some years before my arrival on the scene, used a tactic with roots going back to African village culture: when a woman who had been raped asked for their help, one option they offered was "confrontation". This meant that volunteers from the organisation would go with the woman to confront the man who had raped (or molested or harassed her). They would provide protection and moral support while she told him whatever she needed to tell him -- that she did not enjoy being raped, that she would never forgive him, that she would warn other women about him, whatever she needed to say. The man would not be able to bully, silence, or attack the women with her "bodyguards" standing by. WAR and related groups also volunteered to serve restraining orders on habitual batterers, or to go with women who needed to deliver some kind of ultimatum to an abusive husband or boyfriend. The group also guerrilla-posted descriptions of rapists and their MO in areas where attacks on women had taken place. Nowadays most campus police departments do this as a service to women on campus, but in those days it was an outlaw activity.
So the inspiration, or source of courage, which fuelled my own activism and writing came largely from these grassroots feminist anti-rape and self-defence efforts in the 70's. These movements started with testimony and discovery: talking to one another in small groups and as individuals, women discovered that rape and domestic violence were far more prevalent than any one survivor had realised -- "you are not alone!" -- and the discovery of how many other women had been abused and kept silent was a radicalising moment for a whole generation of feminists. In fairly large numbers, young (and older women) found out that what had happened to them was not unique, that it was appallingly common, and that men were getting away with it. This discovery resulted in a lot of angry women looking for reasons: why was there so much rape and battery, why were women regarded with such contempt? And this led to a re-examination of what had been presented as "harmless" or "trivial" misogyny.
Another important historical thread I mentioned earlier was the existing and very strong anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and anti-war movement, which did have a pretty well defined literary canon and body of theory. I am somewhat embarrassed to reveal that for me between the ages of 18 and 20-odd, the immense scope, drama and heroism of these movements was not much more than a backdrop to my discovery of feminism. It was taken for granted that there were large numbers of people working earnestly, many of them full-time, on anti-nuclear-weapons protests, supporting liberation struggles in post-colonial third world countries, opposing US interventions in South America. The women's movement of my day (the part of it that I knew and came to love) existed in the context of this enormous political effort. The "women's musicians" who became instant hits within the subculture by writing songs on anti-rape themes, songs with radical feminist and/or lesbian themes -- these women were almost all interleaving these tracks on their albums with songs about the murderous regime in Chile (supported by the US), about Apartheid, etc.
Women had worked alongside men in these global movements as well as in the Free Speech and civil rights movement in the US -- women had acquired political and organisational skills and experience, familiarity with the canon (be it Mao, Gramsci, Malcolm X or whoever)... and then had observed the hypocrisy of the times: that male Lefties could happily preach liberation and revolution all the day long, yet still expected "the chicks" to make the coffee, do the typing, and provide sex on demand. Many of the "founders" of the second wave US feminist movement were veterans of the antiwar and antiracism movements who had become tired of being pushed around and taken for granted by male radicals, and were now applying the analytical tools of the anticolonial canon to their own position as women in a male-dominated movement and world. This was the generation of women just before mine, women who were in their 30's and 40's when I was 20 years old, who did a lot of the fundamental writing, thinking, and organising that I and my generation inherited "for free" when we reached college.
By the time my generation came along, the subculture of "the women's movement" and particularly the radical-feminist and radical-lesbian-feminist factions of it, had a tone, style, or atmosphere established by a prior generation of pioneers. In a real sense we were epigones, inheritors of a structure which we didn't fully understand or appreciate -- but that may be the universal human condition :-)
So the feminism that inspired me to write pieces like this was not theoretical (that I knew of, anyway!) -- it was kitchen-table feminism, a burning personal awareness that the conditions of life for women were unfair and that I was very angry about it. Somewhere, many layers of culture removed from my own activism, the ghosts of the Situationists and anticolonial struggles informed the creativity of our protests and our deep hunger for a more egalitarian world. See the marvelous film "Born in Flames" for a reminder of the extent to which anticolonialism and women's liberation were identified, cross-linked, in the subculture. But it would be a few years yet before we invented "feminist theory" or "women's studies." Those disciplines did not exist in the academy when I was an undergraduate. The only explicitly feminist classes on campus were student-directed seminars, and classes in other disciplines taught with a feminist slant by feminist professors. Whether the establishment of feminist scholarship as an academic discipline, legimitised and professionalised, has been in the end a positive or negative development, is I think too large a topic for this thread :-)
So much for Foucault :-)
Here we are on the slippery turf of sociobiology vs sociology. Is beauty a universal, something "hard wired" into us as the sociobiologists would suggest? or is it entirely constructed, an arbitrary invention of organised societies? Like most dualities, this one is highly suspect :-) Certainly there is a kind of beauty, what in French is called beauté de diable, that's defined by youth and health: healthy children, adolescents and young adults seem "pretty" to most people, perhaps for the same reason that puppies and kittens are cute or that wild animals are a joy to observe. Sociobiologists would suggest further that Darwinistic principles of selection and optimisation impel males to prefer younger females (unclaimed by other males) with specific secondary and primary sexual characteristics indicative of fecundity or maternal potential. I wouldn't rule out some element of truth in this notion, but it patently fails to explain such bizarre excursions of beauty standards as (to name but a few) the binding of feet, the corseting of waists to the point of deforming internal organs, an obsession with girls too young to be impregnated or bear a child, etc. Sociobiological notions of rationalising beauty standards by a simplistic "evolutionary cost/benefit" metric seem doomed to fail.
If we regard nature and nurture as far from dualistic, but fractally intertwined, I think we may get closer to the mark. Nurture (social constructs) may embroider elaborately on impulses deriving from nature; or conflicting impulses may be equally natural. Cross-cultural studies may be one of the best tools we have for making WAGs about what's "universal" and what's culture-specific. Body weight in women, for example, seems very culture-specific: only 50 years ago the ideal weight for a sexy, "beautiful" American woman was quite a bit heavier than it is today; the Venus of Willendorf suggests that an ideal woman several millennia ago might have been heavier still. In subsistence cultures, fatness may be highly attractive as a sign of good gathering or hunting skills and/or ability to survive in hard times. Youthfulness and health may be more universal attractants.
There are cultures (few, but some) in which men use makeup and participate in "beauty contests" judged by women. There are cultures (very few) in which land ownership passes from mother to daughter, and generally the "standards" of beauty for women in such cultures (where women wield real, temporal power and control real wealth) are more relaxed than in patriarchal cultures. There are also regional peculiarities which no one understands to this day (in part because the cultures that manifested them were decimated and/or viciously suppressed by European "explorers"): why were Tahitians so obsessed with beauty and personal appearance, for example? as far as I know, among the Polynesian peoples only the Tahitians shaved under the arms (men and women both, using sharp shells I suppose -- ouch!). Was it because Tahitian culture was wealthy and old enough to have created an hereditary aristocracy, an idle caste with nothing better to do all day than dream up complex display and ranking behaviours? Certainly the elaborate methods of "doing beauty" (as opposed to "being beautiful" as any young animal might be) seem to be associated with social hierarchies, rituals of property and marriage alliance, and leisure time.
In our day, any "natural" impulses or attractions are weirdly skewed by a profoundly Taylorist culture, that is, one which has embraced mechanisation, standardisation, and mass production as fundamental values. [Note the incredibly Taylorist flavour of the old Miss California type of contest -- the idea that a standardised set of criteria could be applied, like quality control on an assembly line, to judge a "conveyor belt" of young females efficiently and "fairly". The idea of men judging and "taking their pick" of pretty women is as old as patriarchy but the packaging of the modern beauty contest is unmistakably Industrial Age.] The ability of our media to crank out endless reproductions of "ideal" beauty-models, to replicate the features and body type of a chosen few in an apparently endless series of images, may overwhelm any individual or idiosyncratic taste we might otherwise develop. The ability of our medical and cosmetic technologies to alter the individual towards a set standard edges us further towards the idea that if we do not conform to the prevailing ideal, it is our fault: by will and by expenditure of money we could, in fact, conform. We are slowly leaving behind the cultural period in which being plain or beautiful was merely a matter of genetic luck, and heading towards one in which not being beautiful may come to be considered lazy, lax, or antisocial -- or an indicator of poverty. Check the statistics on such procedures as breast enlargement, Botox shots, face lifts, tummy tucks, liposuction, etc. before laughing too hard... The beginning of this trend might be found in the American obsession with perfect teeth and near-universal childhood braces. It would be an interesting thesis topic. Obviously body-remodelling is a social trend very compatible with neo-liberal capitalism, as it generates profit and increases the GDP.
Does "every man decide for himself"? I would venture that in every generation there are people who stand by their own judgments and (a) find that whoever they love and cherish is beautiful in their eyes, or (b) have their own idiosyncratic standard of beauty, regardless of affection or intimacy, that's disconnected from the received standard. But this dissent is, I think, getting more difficult as media monopoly, saturation-pornography, hard-sell marketing of body-remodelling technology all intensify. Here's a thought experiment: think of the four or five most beautiful, attractive people you've ever known, the people who "made" you catch your breath or look twice when you saw them. What do they have in common? Do they all look similar in some way? Do they all look like the beauty-standard du jour when you were at an impressionable age? How do they conform to, or not conform to, the standards of beauty in advertising, film, pornography, Miss Whatever pageants? How do the standards in those four realms correspond to each other, or differ? Is your personal "programming" (the unconscious ranking and pattern-recognition that selects "beauty" from a passing parade of strangers) idiosyncratic, or does it conform to some kind of ruleset shared by a strong subculture or dominant culture?
"Eating disorders" is rather general. I'll assume we're not talking about the kind of gluttony that crippled Henry VIII, but about the specific eating disorders -- anorexia and bulimia -- that afflict mostly young women in wealthy industrialised cultures today. These I think are clearly connected to demanding standards of beauty and femininity. Bulimia has a long history -- the classic (you should pardon the expression) example would be the deliberate vomiting by which Roman aristocrats managed to remain fashionably thin despite participating in lengthy, repeated, excessive banquets. However, their pragmatic, instrumental vomiting doesn't seem quite the same thing as the obsessive self-denial and self-punishment of the lone, intense bulimic.
Self-loathing often seems to emerge from the personal narratives of bulimics and anorexics: feelings of unworthiness, immense reservoirs of bitter self-criticism, feelings of not being entitled to take up space in the world. Some of this may be due to a failure to live up to impossible, commercialised, Taylorised, mass-produced and marketed standards of beauty. The use of anorexic fashion models seems to me a misogynist practise in its own right, proposing skeletal females as some kind of ideal -- and some anorexics say their self-deprivation was undertaken consciously to imitate such ideals. So I don't think we can "syndromise" the individual woman who "has an eating disorder" and not take into account the disorders of the larger society.
I'm not familiar with the literature, but it would be interesting to see whether anyone has attempted to correlate bulimia/anorexia with family dynamics (domineering father? domineering mother? family abuse?). Good research topic :-)
This seems eminently googlable. A somewhat dated reference I found after only a couple of tries claims that "Annual sales of cosmetics in America, mostly to women, are approaching 20 billion dollars a year-four times more than the entire motion picture industry makes. Worldwide, cosmetics sales are estimated at four times the U.S. total. Of the estimated 1,000 registered cosmetics companies, nearly a third of the sales are by the top three, Avon, Revlon, and Estee Lauder; 55 percent by the top eight." Another reference claims "According to Marketdata Enterprises, the annual revenue for the diet industry was over $30 billion dollars in 1990. " If we take those two figures -- cosmetics and diet -- we get US$50B for one year. But what about exercise/health clubs? From an industry puff-piece, " * According to the 2002 Spa Industry Study, with $11million in annual revenue, the spa industry has greater revenues than that of amusement/theme parks, box office gross receipts and ski resort ticket revenues." Kind of interesting that health spas -- very visible, fairly expensive -- account for a much smaller -- negligible -- chunk of change. How about tanning salons? "Mr. Nation says the tanning salon industry which claims 160-thousand employees nationally and $5-billion in annual revenue is exactly like the tobacco industry was 30-40 years ago: out to protect their profits at any price, even if it means causing cancer in kids." Now that's not spare change. Add another 5B to our total so far: US$55B. An old BBC article says "About 8.5 million cosmetic procedures were carried out in the US last year, at a cost of $11bn to the consumer." So tack on another 11B to the cost of the techno-managerial approach to beauty: US$66B/annum. I suggest that further exploration of these numbers is only a google away, and an excellent research project :-)
The amount of personal time "wasted" is much harder to estimate. Whether it is "wasted" is also a judgment call. If a woman spends a half hour maintaining her appearance every morning because otherwise she is unlikely to keep her job as a bank teller or receptionist -- or unlikely to get a promotion that she needs to pay off her car or home loan -- is that time "wasted"? or "extorted"?
An important point. The most effective social controls are the ones we can't feel or perceive because they are taken for granted. The old analogy is that the fish has very little idea of water as a substance -- water is the fish's entire world. If there were a visible incarnation of beauty standards (as the Academie Francaise is a visible incarnation of linguistic snobbery), then rebellion against it might spread like wildfire; perhaps one reason why I and other feminists found the Miss California pageant to be such an obvious and productive target for satire and protest was that it most closely resembled the external imposition of beauty standards, by men (male judges for the most part), on young women. I can recall that young female protesters sometimes made an issue of "ugly old men telling us how we should look" (!). This perception of the pageant undermined the internalisation of the standards (for those outside protesting anyway -- I have never been sure whether any of the contestants understood or cared what was going on outside). With the rise of the "consumer culture" and the mantra of "choice" (choice, that is, from the menu that is offered us by those who run the show), I think we've returned to a successful internalisation of standards and rules.
Good points. A weak point of rhetorical essays such as this old one of mine is that a compelling metaphor (like a beauty pageant) serves as such a powerful illustration of something wrong with our society, that it would muddy the argument to go off at a tangent talking about all the exceptions, complications, contradictions, etc. "Men judge and women are judged," certainly describes the Miss California pageant and the general pattern of male power and female compliance -- from the punter who is offered a choice of young prostitutes when he enters a brothel, to more decorous foundational myths like the Judgment of Paris. But between the buttresses of the grand structure of patriarchy is a lot of detailed substructure: I think we can take it as axiomatic that we exercise all the autonomy we can get, within the limits set by our masters.
A crude example: even inside a brothel, captive prostitutes may compete for the attentions of a wealthy customer, because there are rewards (or perhaps an escape from punishment) for the girl who can earn the most money each week. Within our limits we all try to better our lot, or at least to make ourselves feel better about it. House slaves feel superior to field slaves. Beautiful girls feel superior to plain girls. Any "reality show" will tell us how much humiliation and embarrassment ordinary people will endure to get the attention and approval of a corporate TV network or an audience of strangers.
Primates are good at ranking behaviour and human beings are particularly good at taxonomy: we rank ourselves by whatever standards we are given, and we exercise significant taxonomic effort in making that ranking system as accurate as possible. Say for example that we convince a group of children that those among them with blue eyes are superior and those with brown eyes are inferior, and we drill this lesson into their heads consistently for long enough: they will become incredibly sharp and quick about judging the colour of another child's eyes with the merest glance. Children raised in affluent, fashion-conscious, consumption-oriented families and schools can identify clothing brands from a surprising distance, and rank their schoolmates instantly on the "cool/uncool" scale of fashion. Children raised in a profoundly, institutionally racist society are good at detecting "mixed race" in others and even at guessing what "percentage" White or Black another child is. Women raised in a culture where "managed beauty" is a dominant ranking system for women, are quick to notice the quality of a hair dye job, the number of lines on another woman's face, the tidiness of her fingernail paint, the imperfection of her depilation, the shade and quality of her lipstick and eye shadow, and so forth. In a subsistence culture we might be carefully judging and ranking the quality of our neighbour's home-made tortillas or pappadam or fruit preserves, or trying to determine who grows the best potatoes.
The interesting indicator to me is not just that women participate in ranking and judging, but that women accept a certain beauty standard as the metric for ranking and judging, and it happens to be (pretty much) the same beauty standard that men would use for ranking and judging pinup girls, or Miss California contestants, or prostitutes lined up for selection. My gut feeling is that women tend to judge more on skill/artifice and less on youth and breast size :-) but I could be wrong.
.... the only people who comment on my looks or even seem to care that I have tried to look my best are my girlfriends and my mom! It seems to me that in today's society it's more important for women to look good for other women rather than men. Why is it that even though we are trying our best to look good for the men, the men seem to show no interest in our looks?
Hmmm. I think you might hear more from the men about women who don't conform. Those in a position of power (however petty) usually take it for granted that there will be compliance with their wishes/priorities/standards, and they focus on punishing those who dissent or deviate, not on rewarding those who comply. Those on the other end of the power imbalance, who know what it costs to conform and comply, tend to praise and reward their offspring for making the effort (for being "safe"). Don't mothers and fathers traditionally, stereotypically, play Good Cop Bad Cop with their kids? A traditional "strict father" line is "I don't have to tell you when you're doing right. You'll hear from me when you do something wrong." But a traditional mother rewards her children with fulsome praise whenever they do anything right, and merely shakes her head and looks sad when they do something wrong. So I think men notice beauty in the women around them as a kind of pleasant background to life -- (as a strict father "notices" quiet, obedient children only as "the way things should be) -- but men really notice plain-ness or nonconformity in women, and remark on it with resentful or scornful phrases like "what a dog she is," or "ugly old bag" -- or sometimes by yelling or throwing things. Well OK, men also seem to notice exceptionally beautiful women. But the effort made by the average woman to look "respectable" -- acceptably attractive, conformant, etc. -- is by and large taken for granted even if it takes quite a bit of work. I've never really thought about this "diminishing returns" problem for women, so I'm extemporising here... does it make sense?
Not in heterosexual contexts, certainly.
Oh criminy, that's a huge topic... Suggest you look up Gerda Lerner's thought-provoking book The Invention of Patriarchy for some thoughts on symbolism, genital imagery, masculinism etc. If I had to guess -- through layers and layers of theory, acculturation, euphemism -- I'd say that every "ruling class", in order to defend and justify its power over others, first has to redefine those others as Different -- as different as possible from itself, barely human in fact. So the Other has to become the opposite of everything that is valued by the dominant party. The first, most ancient, most persistent duality of this type (right after humans vs other animals) seems to be men vs women. In order to obfuscate the evident humanity of women, women's intelligence, autonomy, will, personality, etc, the dedicated patriarchalist has to remake women into an oppositional Other. If he values strength and courage, then women have to be weak and cowardly. If he values truth and honesty, then women have to be liars and traitors. If he values cleanliness, then women have to be dirty. If he values a relationship with his God, then women have to be profane and unholy. And so forth. Otherwise -- if the subordinated person is not "naturally" inferior, unclean, etc -- how could he justify his dominance over them? They wouldn't deserve to be dominated if they weren't bad and inferior. If they didn't deserve to be dominated then he would be wrong to dominate them. And he can't be wrong -- so they must deserve it.
Many feminists have asserted that the loathing and disgust many men seem to feel about female genitalia are some kind of overcompensation for deep, superstitious, primal fear of the generative power of females (a hangover from the millennia before we sussed how babies are made, when the connection between mating and pregnancy was poorly understood and we thought women created babies spontaneously). I have never been sure that early humans were quite that unobservant :-) But certainly in a patriarchal culture, for a dominant male to know that he once popped out of a woman's vulva -- red, wet and screaming, wholly dependent on Mommy for his every breath -- must be really irritating. How could something as superior as Himself have emerged from an inferior creature? So perhaps the misogynist obsession with the female sexual apparatus as "dirty" is a desperate attempt by men to distance themselves, permanently, from the embarrassment of having been physically born in the usual mammalian way.
It is interesting however that the same embarrassment and distaste doesn't apply to the primal, maternal breast. On the contrary, despite (or because of?) infantile associations with suckling, comfort, etc., men at least in Western society are fascinated and obsessed with breasts in quite a different way, finding them endlessly beautiful, interesting, attractive, appetising. Perhaps the sexual characteristic of a woman which can be "ingested" is less threatening than a part of her anatomy which can "expel" or reject the infant male? Psychologists have spent decades trying to explain these attitudes; we might also wonder about the ambiguous relationship men have with their own generative equipment. Given the obsession of patriarchal men with penises -- their size, girth, responsiveness, etc -- it's rather interesting that "he's a such a dick-head" is not a compliment.
As to applying the beauty concept to men's genitals, it's interesting that even men, going by their slang and euphemisms, tend to consider their own genital area ugly -- hairy, wrinkled, often darker of skin than the rest of the body, for pale skinned people. When men express admiration for their own "wedding tackle," it is in exactly that sense: as tackle, tools, machinery. They admire the penis as being tool-like: functional, hard, strong, effective, large -- or as weapon-like: intimidating, dangerous, large, able to inflict pain. (The medical term "vagina" literally means "sheath", as in "sword," which tells us a story about the culture of ancient Rome.) I don't think I've ever read of a penis being compared to, say, a feather (with which to tickle a partner delightfully?); probably the most harmless metaphor I've come across is "a flute", and even that can be read as an implicit demand for fellatio rather than an intrinsic description. Seldom do writers (whether romantic or pornographic) get all worked up over the extreme softness of penile skin and compare it to a newborn puppy, for example, or the wing of a moth. If you're laughing by now, I'm not surprised: but laughter is an unerring spotlight on our cultural assumptions. We laugh when our cultural assumptions are contradicted :-) Obviously as a culture we get a bit itchy if male genitals are compared to soft, harmless, delicate things -- we find that inappropriate. Admittedly my reading in this genre of literature is extremely limited :-) so perhaps others can suggest exceptions to the "mighty Johnson" school of penis-lit.
As to why the penis is so much more forbidden in public media, that's also an interesting question. In many patriarchal warrior-type cultures, public display of phallic symbols and literal phallic representations is a common theme. (See Lerner, above, on "The Destruction of the Herms"). But in ours, the penis is the most forbidden element of nudity. This may have something to do with the grafting of Mosaic-law traditions onto western cultures with the hegemony of Christianity: the Bible is very explicit about the wickedness of a son looking on his father's nakedness, and in traditional Semitic cultures males are very body-shy. It may be a case of hiding the penis as a sacred object, too full of mana to be publicly displayed. Or it may be a fearful precaution against any temptation to male homosexuality... at any rate, some patriarchal cultures venerate the penis, decorate and enhance it and put statues of it all over the shop, and others hide it away. This sounds like another good research project.
Fascinating! I never perceived the ambiguity in that sentence until you mentioned it. I meant exclusively the former -- that if women insist, repeatedly, that we are not objects or property, we challenge assumptions on which the entire world as we know it was built.
Is beauty a symbol of economic worth in that, to maintain society's standards, one has to have money to dispose of? But if this is true then beauty itself does not have value. Beauty becomes symbolic of something else...
Both. Beauty has value in a monetist system -- ask any of the entrepreneurs who operate sex tours to Thailand. A beautiful girl or boy is worth more money (to buy or rent) than a plain one. But managed beauty -- techno-managerial beauty, the beauty of effort, skill and investment -- can be a sigil of rank and wealth. The more subtle and pleasing perfumes will be more expensive (or, conversely, the more expensive the perfume the more its scent will be perceived as subtle and pleasing). Expensive cosmetics may achieve more convincing effects than cheap ones, and to spend hours on one's personal appearance requires a fair amount of leisure time. (One of the tyrannies of modern consumer society is the imposition on ordinary people of standards set by people of leisure, so that ordinary working folks try to squeeze extra tasks into their day to live up to standards of appearance set by those who have the free time to keep up those appearances). So techno-managed beauty can indeed be a display of wealth. While the rich old man shows off the Trophy Wife, is he enjoying the display of her youth and beauty, or his wealth? Can the two be neatly separated?
Ouch. There's the double bind for women, right there. The woman who's not "pretty enough" gets sent to the kitchen because they don't want her out front -- so she doesn't get the tips at all. But the woman who's "too pretty" is told that it is never her talent or ability that got her the job or the tips or the promotion -- must be just her looks. Catch-22.
There was one guy who was being interviewed about how his good looks "definietly helped him in life" and how because he was good looking helped him to get jobs, and of course the ladies. So my question is, if men can use their good looks to "control", why can't women? I know the obvious answer is because women are powerless and aren't able to control in a Patriarchal society, but I think a lot of people could argue that women can use their looks to better their situations also.
Never doubt it! Women who have "natural good looks" (regular features, the good fortune to fit today's rules for female beauty) are very likely to work that advantage for all it's worth -- consciously or unconsciously. But again, the anecdote above illustrates the limitations of that technique and the collateral damage it does to other women's ambitions and self-esteem.
However, many women are given the token better job(s) in a particular company to look fair to the media. If one looks through the eyes of a powerful man in a patriarchal system, he is proabably pressured by many groups to have more women in his company. In turn, he probably would hire someone who is better looking with less of a resume.
Absolutely -- the woman with less of a resume will be less threatening to the male egos around her: there will be less pressure to promote her, she can be held back for longer. The winner in this rigged game is the woman with conventional good looks, the willingness and discipline to conform to the corporate grooming and dress code, and the killer resumé. She's unstoppable -- but she's also a very small, elite minority. The equally-intelligent and qualified female who has the misfortune to be fat, or middle aged, or just plain, will have a hard time competing. I think in the corporate world, the pressures on men to "look and dress sharp", to be at least marginally elegant and suave, are much more intense than in the working class and middle-class world.
I think the recent harassment suit against O'Reilly (the individual, not the geek press) illustrates the degree of contempt, insult, and casual abuse that executive men still think they can get away with towards female employees/subordinates. Whether being less conventionally attractive would make this woman's situation worse or better, is hard for me to guess. I have never lived/worked in that corporate environment (happy to say).
My outrage at this convention was fresh 20 years ago. It is now somewhat dimmed. Murder is prosecuted similarly, as a crime against the State; and in recent years women have succeeded in winning "personal damages" judgments against molesters and assailants for "emotional harm," etc, in addition to or outside criminal proceedings. The system is far from perfect and still reflects its origins in property law; but perhaps for me, the complete failure of the CJS to implement anything I can recognise as "justice", to create peace or order, to heal communities or families, to teach anything or learn anything, has come to dwarf any of its specific insanities.
This is a real conundrum for feminists. In every culture there's a sense of rightness, a sense of belonging and fitting in, that makes a person feel confident and safe in the knowledge that they are "doing things right," that they "look normal." I think of it as rather like a beehive. If you smell right to the other bees then you are safe in the hive; but if you smell like a foreign, alien bee then you are at risk as an intruder. Anyone who's ever been the lone Black face in a White crowd, or the lone tourist in an unknown foreign neighbourhood, or the only woman in an all-male workplace, knows that disturbing feeling of standing out like a pink monkey (google for "pink monkey experiment"). Whereas, when you are "doing it right," flying all the correct flags for recognition and acceptance (and maybe even some extra flags for ranking, to show a bit of status) then it's natural to feel less lonely, less vulnerable, more confident and "in the right place" or even, momentarily, on top of the world. And since feminists want women to feel empowered, strong, and confident, shouldn't we be all for women piling on the cosmetics, expensive fashion clothes and accessories, jewellery and depilatories and dyes and the whole nine yards, so that we can enjoy that feeling?
Well, it sure is hard to say (sounds very preachy, doesn't it), "You ought to be able to feel strong and confident without all those props," or "Women shouldn't have to do all that stuff just to feel like we fit in," etc. And yet there's a logical-conclusion problem here. If we endorse anything women do to feel strong and confident and powerful, then should we endorse women rushing out to buy SUVs, assault weapons, pit bulls? If Imelda Marcos' shoe collection made her feel confident and powerful, was it a feminist shoe collection? How far do we have to go with this? Can we draw a line anywhere?
Obviously there is some tension here between the comfort we feel in conformity to social norms, the cost we pay to conform to those norms, the real (as opposed to imagined/subjective) social status we are assigned when we conform, and our moral/ethical opinion of those norms. For example: if a woman looks "her best" she may feel confident, but what if she applies for a technical or physical kind of job and her employer thinks she looks "too girly", "not authoritative enough," or "too attractive, likely to cause trouble" for his work environment? She may feel that she's fitting in and being empowered, but by fitting herself into the category "pretty woman" she may actually be taken less seriously by men in a position to hire or fire her. Or worse, she may be regarded as a target of opportunity by a man looking for a "feminine" (read: vulnerable) woman to attack. Her "choice" to look attractive may even be read as a "come-on" by men indulging in wishful thinking. Women have to walk a fine line in our culture, between being "not attractive enough" and "too attractive" -- for employment, for respect, for safety.
If a woman spends so much on her fashionable clothes that she never manages to save any money, is she being empowered? or impoverished? how should she balance the empowerment she feels at walking down the street in her recent designer-label suit, with the empowerment she would achieve by having more money in the bank or less credit-card debt hanging over her?
If a woman identifies as a feminist and resents the unfair double standards of appearance applied to women and men, she might disapprove on principle of the entire cosmetics industry and all its works. Would she then feel "empowered" by buying their products and wearing them, or angry about being "forced" to do so by other people's expectations?
If a woman cannot feel proud, strong, and good about herself until she has spent a certain amount of money on commercial products, who's being empowered? the woman, or the corporation and its investors?
How much of the empowerment we feel when "dressed up nice" is extra positive attention that we're getting, and how much is feeling safe from unwanted harassment and negative attention? Some things women do (expensive clothes, sophisticated hair styles) are intended to attract positive attention; other things (depilation, dieting) are intended to ward off discrimination, harassment, possibly violence. Is empowerment the same thing as safety from harassment?
I think these are questions that each woman has to figure out for herself and find her own "comfortable distance" from the beauty industry and its standards. The satisfaction of feeling "well groomed" and ready to face the world with pride can be achieved without expensive clothes, heavy use of cosmetics, and all the rest: many people do it every day all over the world simply by being clean and tidy, with clothes that are "decent" and (even if patched) caringly maintained. And fancy dress is hardly a sin: the satisfaction and fun of "dressing up" for festival and special occasions is a universal human delight and even the crankiest old feminist (a prize I'll admit to being a strong contender for) can hardly wish to stamp out folk dance costumes, colourful hair ornaments, tattoos, flower garlands, beads, bangles, and all the rest of human self-adornment. When all this grooming and decorating behaviour becomes problematic for me, personally, is when it becomes (a) standardised and (b) required -- i.e. when women are regarded as socially unacceptable even when they are clean, well-groomed, decent and tidy, and when everyone has to look more or less the same. When an enormous additional effort is required just to be "acceptable," and when much of that effort is closely aligned with "what men find sexy," I think we may justifiably get suspicious and consider resisting such requirements, insisting that fancy dress be optional rather than required, that we be acceptable citizens as our plain selves, not only as our gussied-up selves.
Very deep question. Male good looks are a high-tension topic, and possibly some men in this discussion can speak to their own experience in this department. In a patriarchal culture, for a man to be "too pretty" makes him suspect (possibly queer). In a particularly rough or brutal subculture (army, prison, etc) he may become a target for male sexual violence, as a "substitute woman," if his good looks are "too pretty". A "handsome" man in our culture should look just a bit too coarse, a bit too brutish to be called pretty -- he should look "rugged," "manly," "firm," etc.
[I think it's important to emphasise this -- a salient difference between male and female good looks: while male good looks may lead to preferential treatment and so may female good looks, in general male good looks do not lead to danger, harassment, rape, etc. -- except when the man in question is trapped in an environment where other men will "treat him like a woman," i.e. he finds himself in the structural role usually assigned to women. For a mindbending tour of gender and dominance in all-male prison culture, I suggest Stephen Donaldson's, "A Million Jockers, Punks and Queens," (google for it, it's online). Good looks are generally an unmixed blessing for men, potentially a very mixed blessing for women. Some "naturally beautiful" girls go out of their way to conceal their beauty in order to avoid harassment and persecution by men. It's this kind of Catch-22 that is the essence of "oppression": oppression is when the game is rigged and you can't win.]
That's the tradition, anyway. At present, men still have the choice to dress up or dress down, to shave or not shave, and are still considered acceptable or even sexy whether highly groomed or unkempt. Men can be "attractive" with 3 days' beard or shaven clean as a whistle, bald (shaven or natural), buzzcut, long haired or short haired, hairy legged or shaven legged, tuxedo'd or in dirty sweats. Older men are considered "distinguished" at just about the point that older women are considered "past it". Being handsome in the right way boosts men a bit, but it's not required. Some damned weird-looking guys rise to the very top of business and even entertainment careers.
For evidence of the persistent double standard even in relatively modern culture I offer (just off top of head) Babylon 5. How many women are there on the screen who are not young, slender, and conventionally beautiful? The male characters are allowed to be diverse, even a bit funny-looking, and yet remain heroic major characters: the female characters are never older than about 30 (unless in a comic role). Male aliens are allowed to remain alien looking, but Delenn had to be transformed into something closer to human "beauty standard" to make her character acceptable. It's a trivial example, but that fictional representation is an unconscious reflection of the "rules" for women in the real society. When watching the show (of which I'm rather fond despite its various faults) I found myself muttering, "What the hell do they do with women over 40 on that station, throw them out the airlock?" Shades of Logan's Run!
Back to what passes for reality: very interesting things have happened since I wrote the Beauty essays. I think it was inevitable, given the cult of late-capitalist consumerism and the desperate need for ever-expanding markets: the cosmetics industry had to make an attempt to convert men into cosmetics consumers. They started very small, with colognes and hair oils, but in the last decade have made enormous "progress": the "metrosexual male" has emerged as a new fashion trend, men (straight or bi, not just gay) are adopting whole-body depilation (or sometimes just chest-hair depilation), using skin creams, etc. Even that rough-tough fellow David Beckham isn't afraid to be photographed in unabashed "beauty shots".
How far this trend actually soaks into the culture is hard to say. I think it is more a cappucino froth on the surface of the affluent urban upper strata, not a real change of cultural direction (yet). But it is what marketeers earnestly want, and they have succeeded in re-engineering the culture in many other ways already.
If they succeed, then men who for generations were content with the "clean, groomed, tidy and decent" algorithm for personal appearance may suddenly find themselves dieting, obsessing about weight and hair colour, carefully color-matching their wardrobe, buying this season's fashions each year, depilating, painting, dyeing, varnishing their nails and all the rest. As an anticapitalist I would find this really annoying; as a feminist it has its amusing aspects: a lot of karma catching up with men who insisted for generations that women do all those things every day. As a social critic, freedom-advocate and all the rest, it would grieve me to see our society move not towards relaxing all the rules and requirements for female appearance, but towards imposing all those same rules on everyone -- it might be more "egalitarian" but would still be restrictive, expensive, and time-consuming. I would not like to see a man deprived of a job opportunity because he didn't wear eye makeup or dye his hair, any more than I now like to see this happen to a woman.
I think there is potential for "male beauty" to become a highly exploited commercial goldmine. I don't think it would add much to male or female happiness.
....how do you yourself feel that this problem of being mens "prize" can be corrected? Is there a way?
Do you think our society will ever stop with these contests? If not, how do you think we can help people (especially women) realize what these contests truly stand for?
I would like to ask you about how you feel we can radically change this ideal for beautiful women? What can be done to change this patriarchal system...? Why do we still like doing this when it demoralizes us into objects? How can we change this when women like doing this?
Do I give up on my looks because I don't want to look good just to please men, and how do I not feel like a bad woman for liking men's attention?
But what can I do to end this oppressive arrangement?... how can I work to end the more subtle manifestations?
as a women, how can I go through my normal daily life but not submit myself to these beauty standard that are causing men to judge me unfairly?... But the truth is that all females that I know worry about weight, some to the point of obsession, go to extremes about their appearance, and spend mass amounts of money on clothing that barely covers their bodies. What can we do to change the way things are? What if all we do is never good enough?
What can women do to express their inner beauty, rather than just be judged on their "outer beauty"?
I don't want a man to be able to view me as his property. I want to be a radical feminist and attack people that are so archaic in their thinking. Any suggestions?
Yikes. I don't know. I can't tell you. I wish I could. Twenty years ago it all seemed very simple: we would point out how unfair and silly it all was, and everyone would say, "Wow, I never realised that," and promptly and joyously we would transform our personal lives (and our whole culture) in wild and liberating ways. Which to an extent did happen: but the marketeers and media controllers were right there to lead us back to a new conformity and a new consumerism. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a huge improvement over Annette Funicello, if you ask me -- but she's hardly my idea of the feminist revolutionary heroine I dreamed of twenty years ago. The punk movement made a brief dent in conventions of "beauty" and conformity, but it too was quickly commodified, conventionalised, commercialised, and neutralised. The feminist movement generated images of Strong Women, and the culture/marketing machine revved up and produced Xena and Buffy and so forth -- heavily armed Barbies who kick butt. Whatever. One foot forward, 11 inches back.
I understand how urgent those questions are. I don't have any simple, straightforward answers. Just asking these questions already puts you on the far side of the magic mirror, into the place where the "rules" say no one should go -- and that's a good start.
The first thing that happened to me as a young feminist was something like the beginning of training in art school. In drawing class, the instructor works very hard to get you to draw what you really see instead of a conventional cartoon of what you're looking at -- not "what a table is supposed to look like" but what you really see when you look at this particular table. What I learned as a young feminist was to perceive what I really perceived, not what I had been told to perceive: to perceive that a wolf-whistle and a pinch on the butt wasn't a compliment, for example. If you can study a beauty contest and perceive that there is more going on than the official, feelgood, wholesome Disneyfied cartoon story -- that's a good start. (Check out that man behind the curtain. Stare right at him. He hates that.)
The other "drawing class" experience I had back then was looking at myself -- in a mirror or reflected in someone else's eyes -- and trying to see myself as I knew myself to be, not as all the ways in which I fell short of the cartoon of "how a table [a woman] is supposed to look." Have I achieved perfect self-acceptance and immunity to all the bullshit? Are you kidding? But I do walk through the world with confidence, despite not looking like the conventional Female Furniture :-) and that's something, anyway.
Best wishes to you all, and don't ever stop asking questions.