Friday, February 17, 2006

The beauty myth eats its tail

Like most American women (most women?), I spend more time than I'd like to admit worrying about how I look. Though I have always, in relative terms, felt pretty good about my appearance, I still spend inordinate amounts of time criticizing it. This is partially because I'm actually critical, and partially because I learned at a young age that, as a girl, it's not becoming to admit you think you're hot. This presents its own conundrum, obviously, as you are simultaneously supposed to do everything you can to make yourself as hot as possible.

Rather than shedding light on this conundrum, I find that being a self-aware feminist complicates it, or adds to it another level of possible self-hatred. Because I am aware of "the beauty myth," and because I know I live in a lookist society where I as a woman am unfairly judged on my physical appearance rather than my abilities, I know I shouldn't care how I look. I should free myself from the patriarchal bounds of worrying about my appearance. Unable to do that, though, I should at least never admit that I'm worried about how I look.

So let's get this straight: As a woman, I'm supposed to worry about being attractive. Also as a woman, I'm not supposed to admit it if I think I'm attractive. As a feminist, I'm not supposed to care whether or not I'm attractive, so both worrying about being attractive and thinking I'm attractive are out. Does that about cover it?

I know that the way it is supposed to work is for my feminist consciousness liberates me from having to worry about my looks. But what it has really done is add another layer to my self-hatred. Now I not only (a)wonder if lipstick actually looks good and (b)berate myself for thinking I'm cute with lipstick on if it does look good, I also have to (c)berate myself again for thinking about it at all and (d) wonder what my choice to wear lipstick says about me as a woman and how it is affecting other women. I guess ignorance was bliss.

So how to deal with this dilemma? The obvious way would be to internalize the good messages instead of the bad ones, feel positive about my body in its natural state, not question my own judgment, and accept myself as a whole, beautiful person. And peace would reign throughout the land. Here in reality, though, it's all a work in progress, and developing some coping skills along the way is what is needed.

The most important coping skill, I think, is learning to focus on what makes you feel good. There are some things that I know, aesthetically, make me look better (by the going standard), but that just don't feel good (example: a push-up bra or "foundation garments"). Those things are out. The positive lookist benefits I would gain from wearing those things would be outweighed by the negative self-guessing I would engage in about my reasoning for wearing them. There are other things, however, that both improve my looks by the good old American beauty standard and make me feel good (like clothes that fit well or good quality lotion for my skin). These things are OK, because they have benefits besides helping me to fit into the beauty standard. I hope, as I get older, to be able to shift even further and accept and embrace things that JUST feel good and are neutral or even negative when it comes to ye olde beauty standard. But another coping skill is accepting that I'm just not there yet.

Feminists are rightfully hesitant to discuss the downsides of awareness. Given how under fire we are, it often seems self-defeating to point out the weaknesses of our movement. But I think there is value in discussing the discomfort that feminist awareness causes us, not in order to shy away from it, but in order to empathize with each other about it and help each other deal. I know I am not the only feminist woman out there who is preoccupied with not only worries about her appearance, but worries about worries about her appearance. Like so much else, this is not a personal issue, put a personal politics issue, and it is something we are best suited to fight together, not alone.


Blogger Sarah said...

I think you're right about focusing on what makes you feel good. But also, for me, it's been very helpful to concentrate on what I can do and what I like to do. For me that's been activities like martial arts and climbing, it might be something different for others, not necessarily a sport if you're not into that. I think as girls and women we can end up very focused on what we are, and a part of that is the excessive worry about appearance and weight, rather than focusing on doing.

I'm sure this has been said before many times! But it was quite a breakthrough for me when I realised it and tried to put it into practice in my own life.

I definitely agree though that it should be ok to admit you're not a "perfect feminist", as though any of us are!

9:38 AM  
Blogger Ruby Bella said...

I think its normal and healthy to care about one's appearance. Heh, even as I type that I feel the need to qualify it because it does sound feminist enough. So I will.
The problem isn't that people care about the way they look. The problem is unrealistic and confining beauty standards. It seems healthy to me to care about grooming and clothing--it can be a pick me up. But there are alot of pitfalls in addition to lookism (which is a word I hate BTW). The worst I think is female competition over beauty standards--Susan has higher heels than me, Betty has clearer and more rosy skin, Jessica's breasts are bigger than mine, etc.

Subcultures can help avoid dominant beauty standards, but come with their own problems and limitations. After all, the gothic beauty's teetering heels, laced corsets, dyed hair, pale skin, is very high maintence, requiring alot of time and money that can sometimes become an obsession (true for nongoth cultures as well). It seems like when it comes to beauty we can't win, as you've outlined. So, I don't try to win. I try to negotiate, with the recognition that I'm always fallible. I avoid obviously sexist ideals--no high heels for clumsy me, I will hurt myself. Nothing uncomfortable. Examining my motives, do I want the lipstick because I love drama or because I feel like natural isn't good enough?

Feminism is always a work in progress.

4:51 PM  
Blogger the therapeutic writer said...

Damn Grace, are you in my head?

- MB

5:13 AM  
Blogger Sass said...

I have to say, I really don't feel feminism is telling me not to worry about being attractive. As ruby bella said up above, feminism is more about telling me to discard some ridiculous beauty standard. Attractiveness -- which I'm not sure has anything to do with beauty -- is something that feminism lets me create and define myself, instead of passively letting someone else do it for me.

So I can be proud of my muscles, because they look awesome. Why do they look awesome? Because they get things done. They can do the work that keeps me warm and happy and keeps people around me safe and healthy. Or maybe I enjoy them because they make me look more like Celebrity X, I have no idea.

I can enjoy my big breasts, not because women are supposed to look sexy with big breasts, but because they've been with me since fifth grade, so long they're a part of my identity now, and because they're just a part of what I see as a generosity of flesh on my body. Or maybe I just like them because they're sexee. No way of knowing.

And I have no way of knowing why I love anything I love about me -- whether it's because I've bought into a party line about how women should look and act, or because I've created it myself in trying to understand me, or because people I love and respect love and respect my good qualities. And I actually think that doubt is a gift from feminism. Maybe I don't see the downsides of awareness because seeing downsides to things comes all too naturally to me, but I can't help but think that even a glimmer of doubt about one's motives, a bit of confusion, is always a good thing. At least that way, you know for sure you're thinking for yourself.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Tara said...

Here from the carnival...

Great post! I think you are so right to point to the fact that really, we're not *supposed* to think we're attractive. (And yet, we keep hearing that the most attractive quality is confidence... right...)

My mom used to despair over my lack of confidence (though she was always on diets herself), and told me that every time I look in the mirror, I should say "I'm beautiful."

That did help and does help! BUT, the way I won my (physical) self esteem back (although... it's in fits and starts really) was by admiring beauty in *other* women. It's so easy to look at a woman and not really see her, but just see all the ways that she fits the beauty ideal that you don't. And then it's about your own shortcomings.

I did some photography/drawing/painting courses and got better at just looking at people and seeing them, and I started noticing all the different ways in which women were beautiful, not just the conventional features of beauty that are always thrust in our faces, but the non conventional too. Then, every time I thought someone was beautiful, instead of comparing myself to her, I would say in my head: "She's so beautiful AND I'm beautiful *too*."

Because beauty is so diverse. But we don't really look at or see beauty, that's almost the saddest part. All we see is like a telescope, me in comparision to her in comparision to the ideal: me-->her-->ideal.

I also really liked what you said about finding the right balance in different aspects of beauty 'aids'. I feel like that too. I couldn't do the push up bra thing because I knew that after a couple of weeks of push up bra, my normal breasts would start to seem deficient to me.

Anyway, good luck to us all!!!!

2:28 PM  
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6:06 AM  

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