The Allure of the Beautiful Woman Who Doesn’t Know She’s Beautiful

You’ve probably heard this song:

You’re insecure,
Don’t know what for
You’re turning heads when you walk through the door
Don’t need make-up
To cover up
Being the way that you are is enough

Everyone else in the room can see it,
Everyone else but you

Baby you light up my world like nobody else
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell
You don’t know
You don’t know you’re beautiful
If only you saw what I can see,
You’d understand why I want you so desperately
Right now I’m looking at you and I can’t believe
You don’t know
You don’t know you’re beautiful
That’s what makes you beautiful

This is “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction and it exemplifies some common attitudes about women and beauty. While this song makes it a lot more explicit than you’ll see it elsewhere (that’s why I bolded that part), this trope comes up all the time in film, television, literature, and music (is there a TVTropes page for this? There should be). Something about beautiful women who don’t realize how beautiful they are seems to appeal to many men. But why?

I think there are a few things potentially going on here:

First, being unaware of one’s beauty could be a marker for “innocence,” “purity,” or “virginity.”

A woman who doesn’t realize she’s beautiful is a woman who’s not experienced enough in love and sex to have been told otherwise. She doesn’t understand her own sex appeal. She doesn’t yet realize that her beauty can be used to control, manipulate, and ensnare men (remember, this is one of the dominant cultural narratives we have about what women’s beauty is “for”).

Of course, some inexperienced women are aware of their beauty and some experienced women are not. However, I think that insecurity is often read as innocence by many people when it comes to women and beauty (unless of course, the woman is not considered beautiful by conventional standards).

Second, for a woman, being unaware of your beauty means that you are not confident, cocky, or narcissistic.

Men and women face different pressures when it comes to communicating and performing confidence. Women must be humble and self-effacing (“Oh, me? I’m nothing special.”) while men must be confident and sure of themselves. Neither gets that good of a deal, really: while women have to perform a sort of humility that will inevitably feel fake to many, men have to perform a sort of confidence that they don’t always feel, either.

None of this means that there’s no such thing as “too humble” for a woman or “too cocky” for a man. There are. But the social costs of them differ from the social costs of being too cocky as a woman or too humble as a man. Women who are “too” confident (which often means women with a reasonable, healthy level of confidence) are disliked much more than men who are “too” confident (which is more likely to mean men who are truly unpleasantly full of themselves). Men who are “too” humble or insecure (which often means men with a reasonable, healthy level of humility or insecurity) are disliked much more than women who are “too” humble or insecure (which is more likely to mean women who are truly extremely insecure).

With beauty specifically, women end up in a weird double bind. Women must be beautiful, but they must not be confident. So they must play up their beauty while denying having done so and while claiming outwardly that they’re not actually beautiful. The subject of One Direction’s infamous song may very well know how beautiful she is, but she gives off a good enough impression of not knowing that she’s managed to attract the singer anyway.

Third, being painfully insecure makes you a damsel for the guy to ride in and save.

A woman who doesn’t realize how beautiful she is isn’t just an innocent and non-threatening partner; she’s also a project. She’s “broken” and needs to be “fixed” by making her “finally see” how beautiful she truly is.

I think many people, not just men, conceptualize relationships as a sort of mutual repair job. They think that their love will “make” their partner recover from a mental illness, stop drinking and partying so much, stop chasing others, realize they want marriage and kids after all, get a job, become more sexually open-minded, convert to the proper religion, recover from past trauma, or any number of other improvements. Although the repair job isn’t always mutual, it often is: people also want to depend on their partner to fix their faults for them in turn.

It would take another post to explain everything that I think is wrong with this approach to relationships, but I’ll just leave it at this: it’s codependent. It presumes that your partner needs you to fix them, and it abdicates responsibility for fixing yourself.

I have known many, many sweet and generous guys who have fallen into this trap with women, particularly women who were insecure, from difficult family situations, and/or suffering from mental illnesses. Although the concept of saving “damsels in distress” is certainly a patriarchal concept, that doesn’t mean that all (or even most) of the men who do it are somehow bad people. That’s just how they’ve learned to “do” relationships.

I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with helping a partner improve themselves somehow, but this has to be 1) mutually acknowledged and agreed upon by both people, 2) free of any emotional manipulation or pressure, and 3) the icing on the cake of a relationship that’s premised on something other than that–shared interests, mutual respect, great sex, similar visions for life and the future, or whatever else matters to you and sustains a relationship. If your entire relationship is based on trying to fix someone, one of two things will probably happen: 1) you’ll succeed in fixing them and realize that the only thing keeping you together was the repair job; or 2) you’ll fail at fixing them and become extremely frustrated because you premised your entire sense of self-worth as a partner on your ability to fix someone else’s problems–problems that are deep-seeded, complex, tenacious, and probably in need of attention from a mental health professional.

The type of attraction that’s going on in this One Direction song is, therefore, unlikely to lead to any healthy and mutually satisfying relationship. Most likely, the girl in the song will finally see what everyone else sees and will lose her appeal to the singer because she’ll no longer be innocent, humble, and in need of help. Relationships like this also have a huge potential for abuse, because the person doing the fixing can say, “You’re never going to find anyone who loves you like I do” or “Nobody but me could ever be attracted to you.” In fact, these are things that abusers often say. A slightly less abusive but still extremely manipulative possibility is that the person doing the fixing implies, directly or indirectly, that the person being fixed can’t do it on their own.

The qualities we admire and find attractive in people do not, in fact, appeal to us simply because of our own immutable “natural” tendencies with which we are endowed by genes or early childhood experiences, although these probably play a role. If you spend your life hearing from every possible source that confident women are unattractive while confident men are attractive, that’s probably what you’re going to think unless you challenge your own beliefs. But there’s nothing inherently attractive about women who don’t know they’re beautiful (however you define “beautiful”), and there’s nothing inherently attractive about women who do know they’re beautiful.

What you find attractive says more about you than it does about the person you find attractive, because it’s an indicator of your own values and beliefs about people and how they ought to be. Should people be confident and unapologetic about who they are and what they like about themselves?

I think so.

Why You Shouldn’t Tell That Random Girl On The Street That She’s Hot

Ah, spring. What a wonderful time of the year. Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping, terrified college students are graduating, and dudes on the internet are pondering that age-old philosophical question: “But whyyyyy can’t I tell that random girl on the street that she looks hot?”

It seems that men are finally starting to realize that many women do not like street harassment (or, in the parlance of the uninitiated, “unsolicited compliments about a stranger’s appearance”). This is really great and a sign that activists are doing a good job.

However, predictably, I’ve also seen a surge of men desperately trying to find loopholes so that they can still, yes, give women their irrelevant and unasked-for opinion on their appearance. Hence all the “But what if I say it this way? But what if I say it that way? But what if I make it REALLY CLEAR that I’m NOT TRYING TO BE CREEPY? But why can’t I just give a girl a compliment for crying out loud?”

Okay. Before I say what I’m going to say, here are some things I’m NOT saying:

  • Finding a random woman attractive makes you a Bad Person.
  • Wanting to tell her she’s attractive makes you a Bad Person.
  • Every time you compliment a random woman on her appearance, it makes her uncomfortable/scared.
  • Every time you compliment a random woman on her appearance, that is harassment.

Here’s what I AM going to say:

  • If you find yourself really invested in the idea of complimenting random women on the street, you should do some serious soul-searching and figure out why that idea appeals to you so much.
  • It may very well be possible to compliment a woman you don’t know on her appearance in an appropriate way.
  • But, if you choose to compliment a random woman on her appearance, you run a high risk of making her uncomfortable/scared, even if she doesn’t show any outward signs of it. Are you willing to take that chance?
  • If you choose to compliment a random woman on her appearance, you may be harassing her.

So, about really wanting to compliment random women on the street. I’ve seen this attitude from many guys that women “deserve” compliments when they look good or that they “should” feel better about themselves, and it bothers me for many reasons that are articulated very well in this article.

The idea that women are all wallowing in a miserable pool of their own insecurity and desperately need a man to come save them by giving them compliments is really just a modern take on the Prince Charming fairytale. Yes, many women are insecure. Most of them are insecure not because no guy has ever expressed a desire to fuck them, but because of the dangerously unrealistic standards our society sets for women’s appearance and for the behaviors they must perform in order to maintain that appearance.

So as nice as it would be if all that could be solved by noble, kind-hearted men taking valuable time out of their day to compliment female passerby on their appearance, that’s not gonna happen. Women don’t need men to save us from insecurity. We need to stand up and speak out ourselves against the ways in which our culture keeps us fearful and insecure, and the ways in which we help it to do so.

Of course, this is rarely, if ever, what it’s really about when men “compliment” women they don’t know on how they look. If it were, then the collective male response to women’s advocacy about street harassment and our insistence that these “compliments” make many women feel violated, scrutinized, and afraid, would be, “Oh fuck, sorry, I had no idea. I’m going to think very carefully before doing this again, if at all.”

And really, how often is that really the response?

Usually, it’s a little more along the lines of, “Oh come onnnn, it was just a compliment, why can’t you just say thank you, why can’t I tell a girl she looks good, why’s everybody so over-sensitive these days.”

So it’s not really about making me feel nice, now is it? If this is your response to our opinions and you’re still claiming that you “just want to make a girl feel good about herself,” then this is a serious look-at-your-life-look-at-your-choices moment for you. Because maybe it’s not really about making people feel good. It’s about making yourself feel good, about feeling the power that comes with judging and expressing opinions about a woman’s looks–even if those opinions are positive.

Here’s the thing. Men in our culture have been socialized to believe that their opinions on women’s appearance matter a lot. Not all men buy into this, of course, but many do. Some seem incapable of entertaining the notion that not everything women do with their appearance is for men to look at. This is why men’s response to women discussing stifling beauty norms is so often something like “But I actually like small boobs!” and “But I actually like my women on the heavier side, if you know what I mean!” They don’t realize that their individual opinion on women’s appearance doesn’t matter in this context, and that while it might be reassuring for some women to know that there are indeed men who find them fuckable, that’s not the point of the discussion.

Women, too, have been socialized to believe that the ultimate arbiters of their appearance are men, that anything they do with their appearance is or should be “for men.” That’s why women’s magazines trip over themselves to offer up advice on “what he wants to see you wearing” and “what men think of these current fashion trends” and “wow him with these new hairstyles.” While women can and do judge each other’s appearance harshly, many of us grew up being told by mothers, sisters, and female strangers that we’ll never “get a man” or “keep a man” unless we do X or lose some fat from Y, unless we moisturize//trim/shave/push up/hide/show/”flatter”/paint/dye/exfoliate/pierce/surgically alter this or that.

That’s also why when a woman wears revealing clothes, it’s okay, in our society, to assume that she’s “looking for attention” or that she’s a slut and wants to sleep with a bunch of guys. Because why else would a woman wear revealing clothes if not for the benefit of men and to communicate her sexual availability to them, right? It can’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that it’s hot out or it’s more comfortable or she likes how she looks in it or everything else is in the laundry or she wants to get a tan or maybe she likes women and wants attention from them, not from men?

The result of all this is that many men, even kind and well-meaning men, believe, however subconsciously, that women’s bodies are for them. They are for them to look at, for them to pass judgment on, for them to bless with a compliment if they deign to do so. They are not for women to enjoy, take pride in, love, accept, explore, show off, or hide as they please. They are for men and their pleasure.

Some men who want to compliment random women on the street are genuinely good guys who just don’t understand why their comments might be unwelcome. Some men who want to compliment random women on the street are creepy predators. Most are somewhere in between, and guess what? I don’t know you, I don’t know your life, and I have no idea if you’re going to leave it at “Hey, you look good in that dress!” or follow it up with “But you’d look better without it! Har har! C’mon, where’re you going? I know you heard me! Fucking cunt, nobody wants your fat ass anyway, bitch.”

When you compliment a random woman who doesn’t know you, no matter how nice you are about it, there’s a good chance she’s going to freak out internally because for all she knows, you could be that latter type. And I get that it’s really unfair that women would just assume that about you. I get that it sucks that sometimes, expressing totally reasonable opinions like “hey you’re hot” will make women terrified of you or furious at you. That’s not fair.

But if you’re going to lay the blame for that somewhere, for fuck’s sake, don’t blame the woman. Blame all the guys who have called her a bitch and a cunt for ignoring their advances. Blame all the guys who may have harassed, abused, or assaulted her in the past. Blame all the people who may never do such a thing themselves, but who were quick to blame her and tell her to just get over it. Blame the fact that if she stops and talks to you and then something bad happens, people will blame her for stopping and talking to you.

In a perfect world, none of this would happen. In a perfect world, you could tell a woman she’s hot and she would smile and say thank you because there would be no millenia-long history of women’s bodies being used and abused by men, no notion of women’s beauty as being “for” men, no ridiculous beauty standards. Complimenting a woman on her appearance would be just like complimenting a person on their bike or their shoes or the color of their hair; it would not carry all the baggage that it carries in this world.

But that’s not our world, and it may never be. Yeah, it sucks that women often take it “the wrong way” when you give them unsolicited compliments. You know what sucks more? Yup, patriarchy.

So, guys, if you find yourself wanting to compliment a random woman you do not know and who is not asking for your opinion, ask yourself this: why does your opinion on her appearance matter?

Why do you absolutely need to express that opinion, even knowing that it might make her uncomfortable?

Why is it her responsibility to deal with that potential discomfort or “get over it,” not your responsibility to keep your opinions to yourself unless they are relevant or solicited?

And, most importantly–if complimenting people matters so much to you, why not compliment a female friend who knows and trusts you? Hell, why not compliment another man?

Look. When women want your opinion on how we look, we will ask for it. But I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

~~~

Note: I’ve written about street harassment before and I’ve tried not to repeat any of the same arguments, but regardless, you should read that piece if you’ve ever heard a guy say–or been the guy who said–”Yeah, well, I’d LOVE it if women ‘harassed’ ME on the street!”

Update: Hello, new readers! Please take note of my comment policy. I’m pretty strict about it and let’s just say that quite a few of you are failing to follow it! :)

Viewing History Skeptically, Part 2: Beauty

Joan Jacobs Brumberg's "The Body Project"One of the first things one learns in a college-level history or sociology course is that the ways we define and think about various human attributes and qualities—sexual orientation, mental illness, gender, race, virginity—are never static. They vary geographically and temporally, and even though it may seem that the way we currently conceptualize a particular aspect of human experience is the “right” one, the one that’s accurate and supported by the research evidence, that’s pretty much what people always think.

This is what I discussed in a previous post, where I promised to write some followups about specific examples of this sort of thing. So here we go!

Beauty is a good example of shifting cultural attitudes—not only in the sense that beauty standards have changed over the decades, but also in terms of what meaning and significance we attribute to beauty as a quality. In her book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg discusses these shifting meanings. Brumberg notes in her chapter on skincare that in the 19th century, acne and other facial blemishes were considered a sign of moral or spiritual impurity. In fact, many people believed that people got blemishes as a result of masturbating, having “promiscuous” sex, or simply having “impure” thoughts. She writes, “In the nineteenth century, young women were commonly taught that the face was a ‘window on the soul’ and that facial blemishes indicated a life that was out of balance.”

By the mid-20th century, however, Americans had already started to think of beauty very differently. Brumberg writes of perceptions of acne in the postwar period:

Although acne did not kill, it could ruin a young person’s life. By undermining self-confidence and creating extreme psychological distress, acne could generate a breakdown in social functioning. Acne was considered dangerous because it could foster an “inferiority complex,” an idea that began to achieve wide popularity among educated Americans.

Facial blemishes were no longer considered a sign of inner weakness or impurity; they were a potentially dangerous blow to a young person’s self-esteem. They were something to be dealt with swiftly, before they could cause any serious damage:

In magazines popular with the educated middle class, parents were urged to monitor teenagers’ complexions and to take a teenager to a dermatologist as soon as any eruptions appeared: “Even the mildest attack is best dealt with under the guidance of an understanding medical counselor.” Those parents who took a more acquiescent view were guilty of neglect: “Ignoring acne or depending upon its being outgrown is foolish, almost wicked.”

Whereas worrying about one’s appearance and trying to correct it was once viewed as improper for young women, it was now considered acceptable and even productive. Even state health departments issues pamphlets urging young people to make sure that they are “as attractive as nature intended you to be.” It was understood that beauty was an important and necessary quality to have, not only because it opened doors for people but because it was just another aspect of health and wellbeing.

Today, our views on beauty seem much more rife with contradictions. Obviously beauty is still important. Women (and, to a lesser but growing extent, men) are still encouraged and expected to spend money, time, and energy on improving their appearance. We know from research that the halo effect exists, and that lends a certain practicality to what was once viewed as a frivolous pursuit—trying to be beautiful.

At the same time, though, we insist that beauty “doesn’t matter,” that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.” It’s difficult for me to imagine a modern middle-class parent immediately rushing their child to the dermatologist at the first sign of pimples; it seems that they would be more likely to encourage the child to remember that “beauty is only skin deep” and that one’s “real friends” would never make fun of them for their acne. (Of course, I grew up with no-nonsense immigrant parents who rejected most forms of conformity, so maybe my experience was different.) Nowadays, costly medical interventions to improve teenagers’ looks are more associated with the upper class than the middle class, and we tend to poke fun (or shudder in disgust) at parents who take their children to get plastic surgery and put them on expensive weight loss programs.

It appears that our culture has outwardly rejected—or is in the process of trying to reject, amid much cognitive dissonance—the idea that beauty is a good way to judge people, that it reveals anything about them other than how they happen to look thanks to genetics or their environment. No longer do we consider beauty a sign of purity and spiritual wellbeing, as in the Victorian era, or of health and social success, as in the postwar years.

Of course, that’s just outwardly. Although we’re loath to admit it, beauty still matters, and people still judge others by their appearance, and we still subscribe to the notion that anyone can be beautiful if they just try hard enough (which generally involves investing a sufficient amount of money). While people are likely to tell you that beauty is a superficial thing that shouldn’t matter, their actions suggest otherwise.

An interesting contrast to this is Brazil, where plastic surgery, or plástica, is generally covered by the state healthcare system. As anthropologist Alexander Edmonds describes, many in Brazil believe that beauty is a “right” that everyone deserves, not just those who can afford it. One surgeon says:

In the past the public health system only paid for reconstructive surgery. And surgeons thought cosmetic operations were vanity. But plástica has psychological effects, for the poor as well as the rich. We were able to show this and so it was gradually accepted as having a social purpose. We operate on the poor who have the chance to improve their appearance and it’s a necessity not a vanity.

Brazilians, too, have been influenced by Alfred Adler’s concept of the “inferiority complex,” and in this sense the meaning of beauty in that context is similar to that in postwar America, although with a few differences. Like Americans in the 1950s, many Brazilians believe that improving one’s appearance is an important form of healthcare that heightens self-esteem and confidence. It’s not a matter of vanity.

However, unlike Americans, Brazilians (at least the ones profiled in Edmonds’ study) believe that self-esteem is important for the poor as well as for those who are better-off. In the United States people tend to scoff at the idea that people living in poverty need (let alone deserve) entertainment, pleasure, or really anything other than what they need to survive, and in the postwar years the focus on adolescents’ appearance seemed to be confined to the middle and upper class. But in Brazil it’s accepted as a “right”–a right to be beautiful.

Looking at how Americans in the past viewed beauty, as well as how people in other cultures view it, exposes the contradictions in our own thinking about it. Our outward dismissal of beauty as vain and unimportant clashes with our actual behavior, which suggests that beauty is quite important. This tension probably emerged because we have abandoned our earlier justifications for valuing beauty, such as the Victorian view of beauty as a sign of morality and the postwar view of beauty as a vital component of health. Now that we know that beauty has nothing to do with morality and relatively little to do with health, we’re forced to declare that it “doesn’t matter.” But, of course, it does.

 

“Love Yourself”: A Beautiful But Flawed Idea

Ever since the 1990s, we–especially women–have been hearing about the importance of self-esteem. It’s associated with better mental health, relationship outcomes, academic achievement, career success, you name it. It’s part of what it means to be a mature and emotionally developed person. Much time and resources have been expended on the development of children’s self-esteem–I remember all the participation awards and being required to summarily tell my parents what I’m “proud of” about my schoolwork at a parent-teacher conference–and I’ll have to write about these initiatives some other time (spoiler alert: they’re mostly failures, and those correlations I listed above may not actually be true).

Along with all this are constant entreaties from various sources–friends, advertisements, PSAs, motivational posters–to “love yourself” and “love your body.” Sometimes this is painfully ironic, like when it’s in advertisements for beauty products or weight-loss aids, but usually it’s earnest and well-meaning. There are plenty of blogs and books and organizations dedicated to helping people (especially women) foster love for themselves (especially for their bodies).

Before I criticize this concept, I want to reiterate that I understand that it’s coming from a good place. It’s meant as a rebuttal to a culture in which people’s flaws, especially their physical ones, are magnified and used to sell as many fake panaceas as possible. A culture in which plastic surgery is $10 billion industry, in which people are getting their genitals surgically altered to be more “attractive,” in which the majority of teenage girls are unhappy with the way they look. I could go on.

Furthermore, part of the reason women are so unlikely to express positive feelings about how they look isn’t just that they don’t have positive feelings about it, but probably that they face social rejection for doing so. The pressure not to seem like you think you’re “all that” can be strong, and “fat talk” is one way women bond socially. Given this, encouraging women to “love themselves” and their bodies can be a way of fighting back against these norms.

But the problem is that when we prescribe ways of thinking or feeling, failing to follow them becomes stigmatized. Not loving yourself and your body isn’t just unhealthy anymore, it’s uncool. It’s immature. I wrote once a long time ago about how a classmate told me that loving yourself is actually a prerequisite for being a good person–implying (accidentally, I hope) that not loving yourself means you’re not a good person.

Not loving yourself means you have Issues and Baggage and all of those other unsexy things. It means you just haven’t Tried Hard Enough to Love Who You Truly Are. Loving yourself and your body becomes the normative state, not an extra perk that some are able to achieve. For instance, someone wrote on Tumblr in response to an article I posted about makeup that “girls should learn to love themselves before fucking around with eyeliner.” Loving yourself is a requirement, according to this person, for something as basic as putting on makeup.

Maybe this would be fair, except for this: according to our society, we are not all equally worthy of love. We are all pushed down in some ways, but some are pushed down more–and in more ways–than others. You can tell a woman who isn’t conventionally attractive to “love her body” all you want, but if everything she encounters in her daily life suggests to her that her body isn’t worthy of love, these are empty platitudes.

When it comes to loving the entirety of yourself–not just your body–the concept breaks down even further. How easy is for a child of neglectful parents to love themselves? How easy is it for someone subjected to a lifetime of bullying for being LGBT? How easy is it for someone who grew up in poverty and was blamed for being “lazy”? How easy is it for a victim of assault or abuse?

Our society pushes certain types of people down, and then mandates that we all “love ourselves”—and if we fail to do so it is our fault.

Yes, loving yourself is great. I wouldn’t say I love myself, but I do like myself quite a bit. But the only reason I’m able to do that is because I haven’t been told for my entire life that who I am is fundamentally unlovable because of my weight, my skin color, my sexual/gender identity, my socioeconomic status, my politics, my personality, whatever. Although I’ve definitely hated myself at times (thanks, depression and college), overall I’ve been raised in a loving and supportive environment and consistently told that I have worth as a person.

I have (mostly) been free of societal persecution. I have never been falsely accused of a crime because of my race. I have never felt like I’ll never find someone to love because I can’t come out. I have never been taught that because I don’t believe in god, I deserve to go to hell. (Except for a few evangelical Christians, but they were easy for me to ignore.)

Loving yourself is a privilege that not everyone gets to share.

I do think there are things that anyone can do to cultivate self-love even when it’s been consistently taken away from them. I don’t think anyone has to “view themselves as a victim” or whatever buzz-phrase people are using these days. But if you do feel like a victim sometimes, honestly, I wouldn’t blame you.

As well-intentioned as these body positivity and self-esteem campaigns are, it starts to feel very alienating when everyone around you is busy Loving Themselves and you just can’t seem to get there. With every injunction to “love yourself” comes an implicit blame if you do not.

I’m not saying that “love yourself” is a bad concept. It’s a beautiful concept and a worthwhile goal. But we should be aware of the unintended consequences it can have when shouted from the rooftops ad infinitum, and we should also consider that “loving yourself” may not be necessary, important, or even possible for everyone.

Instead of “love yourself,” I would say:

Try to be okay with yourself. Try not to listen when the world tells you that who you are is wrong. Loving yourself and your body can wait, and besides, it’s not necessary for a happy and healthy life.

~~~

Edit: Paul Fidalgo responded to my earlier Tumblr rant on this subject and said in a paragraph what I just laboriously tried to say in a thousand words:

Whenever I’m told I need to love myself, I feel like I’m being asked to lie, to pretend to feel something I don’t. I spent most of my adolescence being informed continuously that I was lowest of the low and unworthy of even human decency, let alone love, and I learned to believe it. Messages about what it is a man is supposed to be in the media were not at all helpful. And other things happened, too. So I really don’t feel like “loving myself” is a fair expectation, not in any immediate sense.

Yes, this exactly.

The Role of Feminist Criticism

In one of my recent pieces, I criticized a particular aspect of the love stories often found in popular books and movies. Whenever someone critiques pop culture–especially from a feminist perspective–it raises a lot of questions for many people. Questions such as:

  • Does it really matter that this work is “problematic”?
  • Can you even have media that isn’t problematic in any way?
  • Am I a racist/sexist/etc. if I find a racist/sexist/etc. joke funny?
  • Would people really take this seriously?
  • What’s the point of talking about this?
  • Am I a bad person if I enjoy this book/movie/show?

Of course, people rarely come right out and ask these questions; they usually couch them in objections instead: “You’re just looking for flaws,” “It’s just a movie,” “There’s nothing that would make you feminists happy.”

But if you read between the lines you’ll usually find questions like the ones above, and all of them eventually condense into the same question: What is the role of feminist criticism? In other words, what’s the point of picking cultural artifacts apart and finding their flaws and analyzing them?

In my view, the role of feminist criticism is not to prescribe what you should and should not read, watch, listen to, wear, or otherwise consume. It is not to say which things are “bad” and which are “good,” since, as some detractors have pointed out, everything seems to have flaws. It is not to create some list of 100%-feminist-approved media and boycott everything else.

Rather, it is to use cultural artifacts as a way to analyze our prevailing norms and values and see how they might be harmful. For instance, in my earlier post, I used the romance genre to show how people are encouraged to maintain abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationships because that’s the “romantic” thing to do.

In this situation, I’m definitely not saying that you shouldn’t consume those books, films, and TV shows, because then you wouldn’t be able to criticize them. I’m not even saying you shouldn’t enjoy them, because ultimately I don’t care what you enjoy and what you don’t. That’s up to you.

Sometimes, though, it might be more ethical to avoid something “problematic” entirely. The role of feminist criticism is also to remain aware of what we consume so that we’re able to draw the line when it’s gone too far. For instance, I don’t eat at Chick-Fil-A and I don’t purchase any music from Chris Brown. Others may draw their personal lines differently, which is okay. But I wouldn’t have been able to decide that this business and this musician do not deserve my money had I not kept myself informed of what they do and what the criticisms of them are.

For me, the most important insight that feminism has given me is that we do not live, love, consume, and decide in a vacuum; we do so under the influence of society. That doesn’t mean we don’t have “free will” (and I do hate to get into that debate), but it does mean that we might not always be aware of all of the reasons for which we want (or don’t want) to do something. We will probably never be able to disentangle ourselves from the influence of society, and that’s fine. What’s important to me is to be aware of what some of those influences might be.

To use an example that’s slightly off-topic: makeup. Many women like to wear it, and many women are, unfortunately, under the impression that feminism opposes the use of makeup unilaterally. Hence the “I’m not a feminist, I wear makeup and dresses” thing that you get sometimes. (Maybe second-wave feminism did oppose makeup, but no feminist person or piece of writing that I’ve ever come across has said that.)

Again, in my view, feminism doesn’t prescribe whether or not women should wear makeup. What it does is ask questions:

  • Why does makeup exist?
  • Why are women expected to wear it and considered lazy, ugly, or unprofessional if they don’t?
  • Why aren’t men expected to wear makeup?
  • Come to think of it, why are men shamed if they do choose to wear it?
  • Why do some professions require women to wear makeup to keep their jobs?
  • Does wearing makeup ever actually make a woman better at her job?
  • Why do makeup ads show women who are considerably more flawless than any foundation or cream could actually make you look?

And so on. Answering those questions for yourself is enlightening, a bit disturbing, but also (in my opinion) kind of fun.

In my own case, becoming a feminist and learning about feminist criticism of makeup and the beauty industry didn’t change my makeup-wearing habits at all. I still do exactly what I did back when I wasn’t a feminist: sometimes I feel like wearing it so I do, and sometimes I don’t feel like wearing it, so I don’t.

What feminism has done for me, though, is to silence that petulant voice I get in my  head on days when I choose not to wear makeup–the one that tells me I’m being lazy, that I’m not a real woman, that people are going to judge me, that I look bad. Before I’d stubbornly choose not to wear makeup on days when I didn’t want to but then have to deal with that voice in my head all day. Nowadays it’s gone. Maybe people do judge me for not wearing makeup sometimes, but I no longer give a fuck.

So feminist criticism hasn’t kept me from doing things i want to do or forced me to do things I don’t; it’s merely given me a framework for understanding some of my own desires, fears, triggers, values, and so on.

The same sort of thing applies to feminist criticism of pop culture. I still enjoy popular movies and TV shows (except How I Met Your Mother, perhaps), but I understand how some of the assumptions they contain are inaccurate and harmful. Thinking through these things helps me think about our culture as a whole and how it might be improved. It also helps me construct a blueprint for how I want to live my own life, raise my future kids, and so on. (For instance, I will never tell a daughter of mine that if a boy treats her like crap “it’s just because he likes you.” That’s the most dangerous bullshit I’ve ever heard, and He’s Just Not That Into You is with me on that.)

And on that note, feminist criticism has one more role–showing us ways to improve the stories we tell. It reminds us that casts should not be all-white, that the Bechdel Test should be passed with flying colors, that glorifying violence against women (or anyone, really) is not okay. We can’t produce better books, movies, and shows unless we criticize the ones we have thoroughly.

In summary, feminist criticism is important because:

  1. It allows us to analyze problematic aspects of our culture.
  2. It lets us know when we should consider avoiding something entirely.
  3. It helps us understand how culture influences our behavior.
  4. It points the way to better media in the future.

It’s unfortunate that some people think that feminist criticism “ruins” everything or that feminists are here to take all the stuff you love away. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are ethical ways to consume problematic media, and I’d say it’s easier to enjoy something when you understand exactly why you sometimes get uncomfortable feelings about it.

I’m sure many feminists would disagree with a lot of what I’ve said, but I’d probably respect their views nonetheless. The view I definitely do not respect is that we should just ignore critiques of the stuff we like because it’s boring and not fun and who cares that the stuff we read, watch, and listen to is selling us a version of reality that we might despise if we actually thought about it.

The Real Problem With “Slutty” Halloween Costumes

Scooby Doo costume for men and women. Source: the ever-brilliant Fuck No Sexist Halloween Costumes.

Tonight is the night when a large number of people my age put on costumes and get drunk, and a smaller number of people my age scoff and roll their eyes at what the women are wearing.

There is a lot to criticize about the way we “do” Halloween in our culture, but here’s what we shouldn’t be criticizing: individual women who choose to wear so-called “slutty” costumes.

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to dress revealingly. It can be fun, and as long as you’re not feeling pressured into it, there’s no reason why you should need an “excuse” to show off your body if that’s what you want to do. Not really my thing, but not everyone has to be like me.

Second, if you’ve spent any time at all on a college campus, you know that the way some women dress on Halloween isn’t really that different from how they dress when going to a frat party any other night of the year–that is, pretty revealingly. To me, this says that the problem isn’t really with Halloween itself or with individual women’s clothing choices.

Third, women are often shamed for not dressing revealingly when they go out, especially on Halloween. Friends have told me that they’ve tried to wear “normal” costumes on Halloween, only to be shouted at by men, “Why are you wearing so many clothes?!” So, in a way, women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and I wouldn’t blame a woman for deciding that she’d rather get called a slut than a boring, no-fun prude.

Fourth, although dressing revealingly can be intrinsically fun, women in our society grow up learning to base their self-worth on their looks. It’d be nice if everyone became a Super Duper Feminist and broke down their assumptions about gender and beauty and only wore revealing clothing for Completely Personal Reasons, but that doesn’t happen. At least, not for now. The idea that you must look good and you must put on a display for (heterosexual) men is one that can take a long time for women to dislodge from their minds because it’s often so subconscious.

Fifth, “dressing slutty” is a stupid phrase and I wish we’d stop using it. How someone dresses has nothing to do with how much and what kind of sex they want to have, and with whom. Saying that someone is “dressing slutty” promotes rape culture because, in saying so, you are making unfounded assumptions about someone’s sexual availability. Stop saying it.

Sixth, just try finding non-”slutty” Halloween costumes for women. Not everyone has the time, money, and skill to make their own costumes (but here’s a great resource for those who are so inclined). Also, not all female-identified people are willing to wear men’s clothing.

So if we can’t necessarily criticize individual women and their choices*, what can we criticize?

Well, our culture.

And that’s where it gets difficult. It’d be a lot easier to point at women who wear “slutty” costumes and blame them for the problem. It’d also be easier, and definitely more to the point, to blame costume manufacturers. But even that fails to get to the heart of the problem, which is this:

We still make a number of destructive assumptions–we, as a culture. One of those is that women exist primarily to be “on display,” and that anything else they do is secondary to that. Another is that female bodies are attractive and pleasant to look at (assuming they fit into the narrow criteria we prescribe), whereas male bodies are not. Why do we never see men “dressing slutty”? Why aren’t men expected to wear garments that restrict their movement, make it difficult for them to breathe, and require constant readjustments to make sure that nothing “indecent” is revealed? Because female bodies exist to be looked at, and male bodies exist to do things.

Another destructive assumption is that women who admit that they find themselves attractive and that they enjoy getting attention for their looks are “full of themselves,” “attention whores,” “think they’re all that,” and so on. We need to put this to rest right now–not only because it’s barely-veiled misogyny, but also because it’s part of the reason “slutty” Halloween costumes even exist. Women feel like they need a special “excuse” to show off their bodies, and Halloween provides such an excuse. As Cady narrates in Mean Girls, “In Girl World, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.”

It may be tempting to ridicule women who wear “slutty” costumes, but it misses the point. Although we ultimately make our own choices, we don’t make them in a vacuum. In this case, we make them in a cultural context that still treats women as objects for display.

*Of course, that’s not to say you can never criticize people’s costume choices. If you wear this (TW for anorexia) you’re just a terrible person, for instance. And also, here’s a PSA: don’t be racist.

And meanwhile, enjoy:

Edit: A number of people have been misinterpreting point 3 above to mean that because men (sometimes) ridicule women for not dressing revealingly, that means that they should dress revealingly. No. While I’m glad my readers are all disagreeing with that idea, that’s quite an impressive misinterpretation of my point. I’m not prescribing what women should or should not do. I’m explaining why women should not be ridiculed for wearing revealing costumes by showing that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Likewise, I’m not saying ridiculing costumes is wrong. I’m saying ridiculing people is wrong–if you’re doing it in a gendered way.

So, OK: “Whaaaat that costume looks nothing like Scooby Doo/the Doctor/Super Man/Big Bird/Angry Bird/whatever”

Not OK: “Ugh, look at that slut.”

[storytime] An Abridged List of Lies I Was Taught as a Child

  • Money and success will make you happy.
  • Being beautiful is an obligation.
  • Being fat is the worst thing that could happen to you.
  • College will be a magical la-la land where you will finally be happy.
  • Men don’t like strong, opinionated women.
  • Being gay is wrong.
  • Never ask a guy out.
  • Never have sex with someone you’re not dating seriously.
  • Casual sex will make you depressed, and a slut.
  • Intelligent people are better than nonintelligent people.
  • Your parents know best.
  • Family comes before friends.
  • You should be willing to sacrifice anything for your family.
  • Fitting in is important.
  • If you’re upset, you’re probably being too sensitive.
  • Your friends should come from your cultural/ethnic/religious group.
  • If a guy likes you, he will let you know. And if he doesn’t, he’s a wimp anyway.
  • Your career should be as high-powered as possible.
  • Your husband should make as much or more money than you.
  • It’s okay to let men do things for you rather than learning how to do them yourself.
  • Never, ever trust another woman. She will stab you in the back at the first opportunity.
  • If someone doesn’t like you, you should probably ask yourself what you’re doing wrong.
  • If your boyfriend is unhappy, you should try to make him happy.
  • Politics doesn’t matter anyway.
  • Everyone can tell how many men a woman has slept with just by looking at her.
  • Your clothing should always “flatter” your figure.
  • Sex can only be one of two things: Dangerous, or Special and to be saved for The Right Person.
  • Getting ahead is more important than sticking to your principles.
  • You can always just choose to be happy.

I learned these things as a child and a teenager. Now I’m an adult and I finally get to reeducate myself. A decolonization of the mind, so to speak.

Most of these lessons have been proven false by experience and common sense.

What lies were you taught as a child?

[Guest Post] The Evolution of 'El Tigre': A Feminist Discovers the 'Beauty' Aisle at Walgreens

Here’s a guest post from my friend Emily.

I have stretchmarks, acne scars, oddly shaped eyebrows, a decades-long nail biting habit, rough spots on my feet, and hair that is generally nice, but tends to be boring.

So, given that I’m not a girl who spends a quarter of her paycheck on creams, gels, goos, brushes, tweezers, and other body products, I had just lived with my imperfections—accompanied by a self-hatred and guilt worthy of any Jew joke you can make out of it.

So steeped in the hot water of my own shame was I that I didn’t even want to go to the gym for fear of wearing tight clothes (in public!) that showcase my lumps, bumps, and the outline of my underwear. So, the pounds slowly marched further on, till I was 50 pounds overweight, which really shows on a 5’4 frame.

Then I put my big girl panties on and got over it.

I realized that the only way to look the way I wanted to look (so maybe I’m a little vain), feel the way I want to feel, and be as healthy as I want to be was to GO TO THE GYM. I also realized that I had to do it for myself and no one else.

That decided, I bought some gym clothes, signed myself up for a spot in the torture chamber (gym), and hauled my needs-its-own-zipcode ass up on a treadmill. I’m not even halfway to my goal, but I’ve lost more than ten pounds, which is better than nothing.

And I felt SO much better about myself. I can like… run and stuff. If I clench my stomach, I can feel abs. They are hiding, snuggled deep down under the remnants of Papa Johns and chocolate, but they’re there. I know I’ll find them one day.

Then I looked at the rest of the things on my laundry list of self-pity, shame, and loathing and realized I could fix them too. I got what was probably the third manicure of my life (after my bat mitzvah manicure, and one before a family vacation years ago), which helped me stop biting my nails. I’ve gone over a month without biting them, and I have long claws now (so watch yourself).

I actually marched myself to a salon wherein I allowed someone to pour hot wax on my face and slowly rip out my eyebrows, And even though I won’t doing that EVER AGAIN, I now know what eyebrow shape best suits my face and keeps me from looking like an angry troll doll. (And I found some tweezers).

And speaking of trolls: I got a little hair cut, I stopped washing my hair so often, and I bought some leave-in conditioner which has smoothed the frays and brought out a shine I didn’t know was possible without flashbulbs going off.

As for the stretchmarks, I once again donned my big girl panties and waltzed back into the beauty aisle I had spurned and misunderstood before. BioOil is now my personal savior, as it has turned my stretchmarks—formerly livid red lines—into meek little white squiggles that know better than to show up again.

And all of this isn’t to say that I’m some beauty queen who will get a boob job, rhinoplasty, and a pedicure. No. No one will ever touch my feet (it feels weird and I’m very ticklish). My eyebrows will still attempt to belie my Russian ancestry. I still have a few many more hours to clock at the gym.

But I feel a lot better about myself.

I had always shunned the beauty aisle from the get-go because of its ridiculous name. Oh, I can go to the soup aisle and pick up some soup; I can go to the bread aisle and pick up a loaf of wheat; I can go to the beauty aisle and buy beauty? Hell no. But after a little growing up and some experimentation, I realized that it’s not vain, or stupid, or shallow, or anti-feminist to want to look nice or feel good about yourself as long as you’re doing it to make yourself happier. I’m still not an object to be ogled. I’m not doing this to satisfy what my gender studies classes have told me is the “male gaze.”

My bright red nail polish makes me feel more confident and powerful, like I can go sit in a boardroom and tap my claws against the table as I intimidate a bunch of people—or something.

My new nickname for myself: El Tigre.

Emily Davidson is a loudmouth from the State of Tennessee who enjoys talking about politics and correcting other people’s grammar. A Senior majoring in American Studies at Northwestern University, she has many accomplishments that she would love to brag about. She loves reading, books, literature, and belles-lettres as well as science, history, and the color purple. She writes about feminism, religion, and politics.

[In Brief] Most Beautiful Teenager

I stumbled upon (don’t ask me how) this Facebook page today. It’s called “Most Beautiful Teenager.”

Teens post photos of themselves on the page and see how many likes and comments they can rack up. Sometimes there’s a “scale” for the number of likes, usually going from “ugly” (100 likes) to “OUT OF THIS WORLD” (100,000 likes). The page itself posts photos too (the best ones, I’m guessing).

Both girls and guys post photos on the page, although most of the photos come from girls, and virtually everyone is white and thin.

The comments are pretty predictable, both the creepy ones and the hateful ones. Some people post photos asking to be added as a friend, or requesting “no hate” (they usually get it anyway). Here and here are two disturbing examples, but there are many.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with valuing and taking pride in your appearance (to a reasonable degree, at least), and I’d take issue with anyone who slams these individual teens as vain or superficial.

But I think it says something about our culture as a whole that young people are willing to post pictures of themselves, with their full names attached, to a public page, knowing that they’re going to receive at least a few incredibly mean or creepy comments, just to see what others think of their looks.

All the casual racism, homophobia, and misogyny on the page is telling, too.

For the record, I don’t think the page should be shut down or anything like that. Nudity is banned, so it’s not breaking any laws, and it’s not like people can’t post photos publicly to their own profiles anyway. It’s just disturbing how many users it has, how many photos get posted, and how obsessively its fans defend it when criticisms come up on the page, as they sometimes do.

 

[storytime] These Streets Are Mine: On Street Harassment

I got sexually harassed today.

Actually, it happens all the time. Like, almost every time I venture out on the city streets for longer than ten minutes. It’s kinda like when you have to drive in the city and you can never find a good parking spot, or when you’re stuck behind a group of sluggish tourists on the street.

You know, annoying stuff that happens when you live in the city.

Except this is different. Because this only affects people who are (or appear to be) women, and because this is a conscious, purposeful attempt to make us feel unsafe and violated. It is not a compliment. It is not “boys being boys.” It is harassment.

This time, I’m on a dark El platform at 10 PM. I’d just been out with a friend and had a great time. I’m wearing a nice dress, same one I wore to work, not that it’s any of your business. An old man calls something to me from 10 yards away; I ignore him.

A few minutes later he ambles over, passes in front of me so close as to brush against me, and says, “Mhm.”

He stands on the other side of me until the train comes and gets into the same car as me. He doesn’t get a seat near me because there are too many people, but I see him looking over.

I slowly reach into my bag and pull out my pepper spray, letting it dangle from my fingers. And I look up with a face of stone, and he knows that I know what he did.

I am attractive. You can think I’m vain for saying that, but I don’t really care what you think. It’s hard not to know you’re attractive when you’ve been told from birth. My parents always say, “You’re so beautiful, you can get any guy you want if you just stop being in such a bad mood all the time.” They say, “Make sure you have a guy walk you home.” They say, “Try to find a job where your boss is a man. It’ll be easier that way.”

In the past, when I had friends who didn’t get it, they did it too. They thought I couldn’t possibly have any trouble in my love life. They thought I couldn’t possibly have a problem with the number on the scale.

Beauty carries a lot of privilege in our society–and, really, in any human society, although standards of beauty vary. But, unlike most kinds of societal privilege, this one comes at a cost. I’m not particularly interested in debating who has it worse, but suffice it to say that I would rather not have strange men brushing up against me when I’m trying to take the train home at night.

And no. I will not demand that my male friends take me home; that’s not their job. I will not dress in ugly, baggy clothing. I will not stop leaving my apartment in the evenings. I will not stop taking public transportation. I will not stop walking down these streets, because these streets are mine.

I’m not afraid. Not because I have no reason to be, but because I couldn’t keep living if I were. I can’t keep crossing the street every time I see a man. I can’t keep wincing visibly every time I hear their slurred come-ons. I can’t keep tugging at my clothes in front of the mirror, trying to figure out how to cover up what I never chose to have in the first place.

I’m not afraid. I’m angry.

A while back, the writer Norah Vincent dressed as a man for a year and a half and wrote about her experience. This is what she said about the first time she went out in drag:

I had lived in that neighbourhood for years, walking its streets, where men lurk outside of bodegas, on stoops and in doorways much of the day. As a woman, you couldn’t walk down those streets invisibly. You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren’t pretty. But that night in drag, we walked by those same stoops and doorways and bodegas. We walked by those same groups of men. Only this time they didn’t stare. On the contrary, when they met my eyes they looked away immediately and concertedly, and never looked back. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring.

They can choose to look away from women, too. But our society teaches them that women are there for their eyes.

There are things I can do. And I’m not talking about the “don’t go out alone” types of things. I find that anger deters these pathetic men more than anything else. They don’t want a woman who’s going to cause trouble, who’s going to whip around and snarl, hit, tell them to fuck off. They don’t want a woman sitting straight up, glaring, with a can of pepper spray ready in her hand.

Nine of out ten of them will stop at that.

As for the other one, well, I suppose that’s a risk I have to take if I’m going to fight for my right to walk down the fucking street.

Just like any man can do.

For more information: Hollaback and Stop Street Harassment