Thursday, December 2, 2010

Beauty standards and victim blaming

Women put huge amounts of efforts into our appearance. We pluck, wax, shave, paint, polish, shop, exercise, starve, puke, pore over fashion magazines, and go under the knife to achieve the “perfect” body and style. Debate has raged for years among feminists, in women’s magazines, and in the media over how much of this is women’s choice and how much of this is women’s response to the pressures of a sexist culture.

However, I am more interested in how and to whom it matters if women are responding to the pressure of sexism rather than their own individual choices. I argue that the criticism of women who give in to sexist beauty standards is simply another form of victim blaming, which women already experience too much of.

Virtually all of us, male or female, feminist or not, are influenced by our culture when choosing how to present ourselves. When we choose to put on a suit rather than sweats, a thawb rather than a sari, a keffiyah rather than a tzitzit, normal clothes rather than bubbles or a carousel, we are influenced, usually without even thinking about it, by what is an acceptable appearance in our culture.

Very few people would judge an Emirati man for not bucking cultural norms and showing up at work in a sari. In fact, they would judge him if he did so.

However, women are judged for not bucking cultural norms, for worrying about their weight or obsessing over style, for being girly, shallow, a tool of the patriarchy. On the other hand, women are also judged even more for bucking cultural norms, for refusing to shave or diet or wear make-up, for being fat, lesbian, a man-hating feminist. Women are put in a double bind- don’t conform and be judged, conform and be judged anyway.

This double bind is not restricted to beauty and is in fact characteristic of the double binds women face. Work outside the home and you’re a bad mother; work inside the home and you don’t have a “real” job. Have sex and you’re a slut; don’t have sex and you’re a prude.

Underlying these double binds is an inability to distinguish between the situation and the character of the situated. (Judith Baer Our Lives Before the Law 63-67 (1999)) Baer identified the confusion between the situation and the situated in the context of violence against women- men abuse women, therefore women are weak or wish to be abused. (Id.) However, it also applies in the context of beauty pressures on women- women are expected to be beautiful, therefore women are shallow. A woman’s decision to wear make-up, buy nice clothes, diet, or get plastic surgery is taken as a sign of her character (her shallowness), rather than her situation (a culture which favors attractive women.)

Also underlying these double binds is a tendency for responsibility to flow downhill. (Id. at 6-8). Responsibility for preventing rape flows downhill from the men who commit it to the women who must evade it. (Id. at 8) Responsibility for defective breast implants flows downhill from the companies who produced and marketed them to the women who bought them. (Id. at 64). Responsibility for fighting sexist beauty standards flows downhill from the corporations that put millions into promoting it and the individuals who shame or criticize women’s appearance, to the women who are responding to those pressures.

None of this means that women do not make choices about how to present themselves- it is just that these choices are structured. (Joan Williams Unbending Gender 37-39 (2000)) Society pressures women overtly and covertly to take care of their looks, through magazines, television shows, and movies that glamorize the process of the makeover and show primarily skinny, beautiful women and through family, friends, and strangers who express “concern” about women’s weight or hairy legs. Women make choices but they make them with a (conscious of unconscious) awareness of the rewards and punishments society attaches to them.

Some women choose to drop out of the beauty game, age naturally, and wear what they wish- and we should support their choices. Other women genuinely love pretty clothes and would choose them even without societal pressure- and we should support their choices too. Some women wish they could drop out but reluctantly choose to comply with female beauty standards to escape censure- and we should support their choices too, without blaming them for the accommodations they have made or pretending their choices are entirely free. The blame should be placed where it belongs- on those who restrict women’s choices in the first place.


2elle said...
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2elle said...

I found this great quote online which I think kind of sums up the dilemma women are presented with:

"As a matter of principle I stopped shaving my legs and under my arms several years ago . . . but I look at my legs and know they are no longer attractive, not even to me. . . . To ease my dilemma, in the summertime I bleach my leg hair to a golden fuzz, a compromise that enables me to avoid looking peculiar at the beach. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only woman in the world who puts color into the hair on her head while she takes color out of the hair on her legs in order to appear feminine enough for convention."
Susan Brownmiller, Femininity (1984)

I definitely agree that women get blamed either way -- too much effort= shallow, but not enough = unfeminine. It's a personal choice and I think that feminists should not condemn either option as long as a woman makes the decision freely for herself.

Dusty said...

I have been thinking a lot lately about the double bind for breast feeding in public. I think it brings up extra tension around the women as beauty objects in the social sphere because it brings the mother/whore dichotomy into direct conflict and the tension is obvious. People are so uncomfortable with breastfeeding because women's breasts are still subject to such intense social sexualization while still being a primary archetypal symbol of motherhood. I know you didn't get into this specifically but I think it comes from the same issue.