Blogging “Yes” Day 5: Cover Girl Beauty Standards and Self-Worth

For day five of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read the essay “How Do You Fuck a Fat Woman?” by writer and fat acceptance blogger Kate Harding.  This is a fantastic essay that I can’t recommend enough about Harding’s own experiences and how narrow beauty standards lead to the appalling suggestion that “rape is a compliment” for fat women, as well as reducing fat women’s own self-worth.  I have just a few thoughts to add, particular concerning beauty standards, self-worth, and confidence in a very heteronormative world.

It starts here: Women’s first–if not only–job is to be attractive to men.  Never mind straight women who have other priorities or queer women who don’t want men.  If you were born with a vagina, your primary obligation from the onset of adolescence and well into adulthood will be to make yourself pretty for heterosexual men’s pleasure.  Not even just the ones you’d actually want to have a conversation with, let alone sex with–all of them.

I touched on this in yesterday’s post, talking about my own pre-teenaged Spice Girls obsession and my associations between “cleaning up” and self-confidence.  This obligation gets rammed into us from an early age, and I’ve found that it has a tendency to stick around whether we’re actively interested in attracting men or not.  The standards themselves are operative, even for those of us who are not interested in male attraction because we’re queer, or asexual, or just not thinking about sex or a relationship at the moment.  The same standards we learn in a heteronormative culture can apply in queer relationships or just walking down the street.

“Hot” is an objective assessment, based on a collection of easily identifiable characteristics.  Thin is hot.  White is hot.  Able-bodied and quasi-athletic is hot.  Blond is hot.  Clear skin is hot.  Big boobs (so long as there’s no corresponding big ass) are hot.  Little waists are hot.  Miniskirts and high heels and smoky eyes are hot.  There’s a proven formula, and if you follow it, you will be hot.

Of course, Harding is talking a myth here, but it’s a pretty powerful one.  It’s easy to match these characteristics with feminism, self confidence, strong/sexy woman, etc., in one’s mind, and thus to come to feel that “dolling up” is something we need to do to feel good.  There’s also some obvious privilege that I, and other women who can achieve the beauty standard, or at least something approaching it, hold.  I can’t meet all the characteristics listed, but I am white and able-bodied and I have “good skin” and big boobs.  I joke that I’m “slender identified,” because I think of myself as a thin person at size 12 and not everyone would agree, but I at least feel thin, and I am able to eat healthy and exercise a bit and stay that way.  As Harding points out, for many women this just isn’t true, and dieting is basically starvation.  So I’m privileged in a number of ways, and I’ve had times in my life where I shaved and wore short skirts and low cut tops and ridiculous heels in order to closely match the beauty standard and feel sexy.  And I did feel sexy, but uncomfortable.

The other day, I was thinking particularly about shaving “why do we perceive shaven legs as hot?”  I don’t think of shaven pussies as hot.  I think of them as kind of kid-like, especially when cleanshaven, or just as not sexual at all.  It’s like looking at a Barbie doll to me.  Of course, I support women’s right to do whatever they want with their body hair, but I found it curious that I would have these particular views of shaving.  I don’t shave anywhere, but when I look down at my legs, I do not think “hot.”  Why?  It’s just sort of built in there from years of indoctrination.  There’s no objective value to hairless legs, but a lot of women shave just because it seems like the thing to do.  A lot of these standards are like that, I think.  It’s the thing to do.  It’s the least risky.  It may be uncomfortable, but women support each other in doing the “standard” thing, and we say “oh you look so hot” when someone wears makeup or a revealing outfit or high heels or dyes her hair or shaves or whatever else.  Women, including queer women, do perpetuate the beauty myths that are based on the so-called “standard” heterosexual male desire and a heteronormative culture.  I think it’s high time we think about that, and consider diversifying a little bit.

So, new challenge, and I’m putting this to myself as well: the next time you notice what you perceive as a positive or negative characteristic in a friend, think about how you react.  The next time you give advice about looking better, feeling better, confidence, etc., maybe from your own experience, probably perfectly well-meaning, just think about what you’re saying for a second.  Or the next time you compliment someone on an image change, consider how you’re putting it.  See if you can frame your language in a way that supports diverse definitions of “beauty.”  And also, see if you can’t have some sexy fun in a way that doesn’t mean getting traditionally dolled up, whatever that means to you.  Maybe it’s just getting naked alone in your apartment.  Maybe it’s making a meal that’s sensual to you, or maybe it’s walking around with your hairy armpits out and proud.  Maybe it is putting on a short skirt, shaving, and going out on the town.  Nothing wrong with that, if that makes you feel confident; just don’t do it because it’s a default.  Think about what makes you feel sexy, and exercise that.  Report back!

About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on April 9, 2010, in body & size, sexuality and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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