November 13, 2006

you have to ask why

There's this idea that seems to be ambling around the feminist blogs whenever people start talking about appearance culture. You might see it in the comments on I Blame the Patriarchy (it's probably in this comment thread somewhere), and I don't know where it comes from. To summarize: "Individuals decide who they want to please (and yes, there’s no reason it has to be men), and that.. is a healthy part of social existence. In other words, the problem isn’t pleasing people."1

Ok. I'm going to try not to dump my irritation too heavily on this particular person's head just because he's got a convenient summary. But let's review. It's true, most of us like making other people happy at least some of the time. However, I think we can agree that pleasing people usually means fulfilling their desires. The one thing we can all agree on - Puritans, post-modernists, neo-Aristotelians, feminists, Marxists, maybe everyone except modernists and the occasional Third-Wave feminist - is that desire is not neutral. People want things for all sorts of reasons. Maybe it was on TV a lot when you were a kid.2 Maybe you had a secret crush on your 3rd grade music teacher who always wore that kind of shoes. Maybe you're color-blind and like really really bright colors because you can see them. Maybe desires for sugar and sodium were evolutionarily advantageous to our primate ancestors. Desire comes from a lot of different places, and so when we think about pleasing other people - about our desire to fulfill other people's desires - we need to think critically about where that need to please comes from, and where the specific desires we want to fulfill come from.

It is my belief that most women's desire to 'look pretty' comes at least partly out of patriarchal bullshit on one side or the other. Kugelmass does say that there's a problem "that women are expected to do more to please men than vice versa," but I don't think he gives this problem enough attention. In fact, women are required to put vastly more effort into their appearance than men. There's the time spent picking out clothes so we look just sexy enough (but not too sexy! then we're asking for it!); even professional clothes are a lot more work for women. There's the grooming regimen: at the bare minimum, shaving legs and underarms a couple of times a week, skin care and moisturizing, styling hair, haircuts every 6-8 weeks or fairly maintenance-intensive long hair, and most women add on at least a few other things, like nails or eyebrows or make-up (in some places and jobs, these are required). There are the shoes, and anyone who's ever tried to find comfortable, professional women's shoes knows exactly what I'm talking about. Ah, you say, but women are free to reject these 'requirements' - they really are, at least mostly, about choosing to please other people. You yourself just ignore a lot of these so-called requirements.

That's true, I don't, but I'm under no illusion that I don't pay a price for it. There are a number of office environments - including some of the most prestigious and best paid - where I couldn't work looking like I do. There was a New York Times article in the last year or two in which women on Wall Street talked about how they resent the brutally uncomfortable shoes which they feel they must wear in order to keep their jobs, but which damage their feet permanently. Some of the benefits of meeting the requirements of conventional femininity are just things I'm personally prepared to do without: I'm queer - right now I'm dating a woman, but my queerness means that there are a number of straight guys who just aren't really dating options for me, and that includes most of the ones who care about all the beauty shtick; I don't want to work on Wall Street, or for a high-powered legal firm, or in most office environments; I'm willing to accept the incidental damage it will almost certainly to do to my career. This shit is coercively enforced, and while you can opt out of the work, you pay a price.

So that takes care of why women want to do their pleasing in this particular way; let's talk about why men (or heteronormative culture) enforce these particular standards. Hint: it's not handed down with our genetic code. There are a lot of specific standards, but let's look at three that have particularly elegant patriarchal implications.

1. Shave off your body hair. This makes women look young (pre-pubescent, ick) and powerless. Nuff said.

2. Wear high heels. This makes women actually physically powerless, because we can't run or move freely; it also damages women's feet. Compare to the tradition of foot-binding in China or corsetry in the Victorian era - it's just not that different.

3. Be skinny. There's much to be said here, but what always strikes me about the obsession with thinness is that women aren't supposed to take up physical or metaphorical space.

The people making the argument that it's cool to want to please people - Kugelmass included - seem to ignore the actual content of what it takes to please others, putting the beauty ideal in the same category as cooking your friend dinner once in a while or remembering your Mom's birthday. It's different, and it's different because the desires we're trying to fulfill are social, and systematically oppressive to women. Maybe the worst part is that I really believe that appearance culture is a collective action problem. Here's what I said on Bitch, Ph.D.'s blog:

As long as most people try and get as much as they can from it - by trying to be as conventionally attractive as they personally can - all the flack from it continues to fall on people who can't conform (fat folks, butch women, short men, people with less money). This, I think, is where Twisty's point about femininity being a survival strategy comes in: even if you identify as femme/femmey, even if you actually get some personal satisfaction out of wearing low-cut shirts/high heels/lace underwear, being femininely attractive still gets you cultural approval that other folks don't have access to and makes it harder for those folks to fit in (or survive) by reinforcing our messed up norms about attractiveness. So you have to weigh what you need to survive or feel ok in your own skin or your own life against the social effects, just as you do when you buy groceries and have to choose whether to spend another few dollars on having it be organic so you feel better about yourself or a little less money so you can make it to the end of the month without being broke. For each decision, it's about whether it's going to make your life better, and whether it's going to make the world a better place for you to live in.

You can't just say that pleasing people is fundamental to being social. You have to ask why you want to please those particular people, why you want to do it the way you do, and what effect it has around you.

1. From Joseph Kugelmass, who introduces his post by saying "I really don’t want to fight a bunch of different battles when it comes to gender. I want to fight just one battle, for equality of the sexes. Which is why I’m sorry to report that I find I Blame The Patriarchy alienating, and have to respond to the latest post there." Sorry dude, you don't get to decide that there's only one feminist battle. Also, hey, you find I Blame the Patriarchy alienating? No way! You and 97% of the human race! And Twisty, she does not care. It's part of why she's cool.
2. In a fascinating bit of correlation, women who watched a lot of Disney movies growing up have notably more conventional ideas about gender than women who did not. (This from the prestigious journal, 'some chick in my grad school class.')


amelia said...

omg you are too smart for words. at least too smart for my words.

Joseph Kugelmass said...

So, my thinking on this is as follows:

First, I agree with your specific points about high heels, body hair, and skinniness (which I take to be different from whether or not a person is overweight). I grew up in Northern California, where a majority of the girls in my high school simply disdained those things, and it was much better than the American cultural norm.

While I do agree, in some general way, that every person should reflect on the desires they are seeking to please, I'm not sure whether or not that question is meant to rule out the answer, "In order that somebody will find me beautiful." Hopefully not -- I'm not talking here about any particular look. I'm not talking about wearing pink, dying your hair blond, getting breast implants, and making your skin look like hairless porcelain. I'm certainly not talking about the kind of dependencies that lead to eating disorders or other kinds of illness.

I'm just trying to find a balanced, realistic approach. Sure, I don't think people should need to get haircuts every four weeks. I go for over two months without getting a haircut, and I've seen plenty of my female friends do the same thing, and I support it. But obviously nobody should be saying the following: if you get a haircut, you are supporting the patriarchy, unless you can justify it on the grounds of shampoo savings and increased vision.

If you think I'm not spending enough time on the gender imbalance, and want to rectify that on your blog, I don't really see that as disagreement. If, on the other hand, you want to completely remove the body as an object of desire (which is what a total demolition of all physical criteria, idiosyncratic or not, for attractiveness would mean), then that position is hardly distinguishable from the old Christian hatred of the body. Beauty is based on criteria. I sure don't think those criteria should be patriarchal. I think they should be individual, and actually, I think they should have a lot to do with desiring the other person to look they way that makes them most comfortable.

Finally, I'm not in the dark about my position in the blogosphere versus Twisty's; she's a thousand times more popular, and even if the situation was reversed, she still wouldn't change her opinion to suit me. That's fantastic. To say that she doesn't care -- that's different, and not cool. I do care, and I hope she does, too, or else why blog? So you can show off how magnificently, indifferently opinionated you are? I can do that at an indie rock concert just fine, with a thousand other people doing the same thing.

I know I don't get to decide that there's only one feminist battle. But I can write about what I'd like, and that's all I was doing.

North said...

Last thing first: if Twisty's a thousand times more popular than you, you probably have several thousand times the number of readers I have, because I have three. Well, you just started reading the blog. So four. Commence grandstanding for my non-existent audience.

I think my disagreements with you are in both kind and degree. It's not just that there's a gender imbalance in what women are expected to do, it's that the standards for women are implicitly patriarchal and coercively enforced. In that kind of environment, it's not really possible for someone to make a free choice to want to please people with her excellent grooming and stylish clothes. So arguing that it's normal to want to please people doesn't convince me that the beauty ideal is somehow ok.

Unless I'm misunderstanding your argument, your response here would be, "Well, sure, but I'm talking about a hypothetical world in which there is practically no coercion along gender lines." To which I say, cool, I too will be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy. More substantively, I do not believe that we should presume that the desire to please others is good unless we have specific reason to think otherwise. While I'm not endorsing inconsiderate rudeness, I think we need to consider what it means to have people use their appearance as a means to please others. I think work is a useful analogy: people are generally pretty skeptical of someone whose career priority is to please others. For most of us, work and appearance are major categories of self-definition (along with, say, family, religion/philosophy, politics, and maybe a handful of others), and I think focusing any category of self-definition on pleasing others (and especially on pleasing them rather than something more like the Aristotelian idea of phronesis) should make us uncomfortable.

Personally, I only like compliments on my appearance when I feel that the person praising me is seeing me as I see myself. For example, my family used to tell me about how pretty I looked whenever I wore something feminine, and I eventually hated it because it felt like I was being praised for meeting an external standard regardless of how it made me feel. On the other hand, it felt good to hear people I dated tell me I looked hot in Carhartts (and also in lilac silk skirts), because I felt recognized and appreciated.

In my mind, this points to changing our very conception of beauty away from people trying to meet a particular standard which the viewer already holds to perceiving and appreciating the ways in which those around us are individually beautiful. In other words, beauty doesn't have to be based on criteria any more than morality has to be based on rules (which is an argument for another time.)

Next, I want to make it clear that I'm not saying you can't be a feminist and try to conform to a beauty ideal. Who am I, the feminist police? I have a blog readership of 4. But I do think that we all need to accept that we will do things that contradict some of our principles to survive. I drive to work even though there's a trolley within 4 blocks, I occasionally eat junk food, I often eat processed food or bananas or other stuff out of season, and those are all things that I basically think are wrong to one degree or another. They are comforts I am not willing to give up. I wear professional clothes to work, and I spend a fair amount of money on them, and I choose not to look as butch as I sometimes feel because my students would eat me alive. Femininity is a survival strategy as much as it's an identity. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use it.

Finally, on the subject of Twisty: I was saying that she specifically does not care if she's alienating (not that she doesn't care what you think in general, which, well, I have no idea). It's a response I think she gets a lot, and has written about a couple of times.

p.s. Northern California is my favorite place ever.

the fire boss said...

Hi North. You don't think that cooking your friends dinner is a social activity? I think it's just not public.

You make a nice point. I think an additional component to each of the three appearance norms that you list is, as you rhetorically anticipate, elegance. Clearly, the concept can be picked apart in the way you've done, but in addition, these norms emphasize smoothness and elongation, connating both the ideal and the abstract. The norm of the clean line, as it were, obviously takes on a mutually reinforcing relationship with the predominance of advertising, n'est-ce pas? Because the success of advertising is the success of the *image*, regardless of what it does to our bodies, opportunities, and relationships.

The major difference between this accout and yours is that charges the patriarchy/capitalism with gross negligence, rather than sadism. Not that there aren't sadists afoot.

Another thing would like to question is the conflation of beauty and desire, but I have work to do.

Joseph Kugelmass said...

North, what an interesting reply. I'll answer as best I can.

Here is what I take to be the essential content of your argument: a feminine appearance upholds the patriarchy, because it implies a dominated female subject. Therefore, it hurts all women when a woman acts or dresses in a feminine manner, because it puts those who choose not to do so even more on the fringe.

At the same time, there are ways of dressing and presenting oneself, including as 'butch,' that do not further the aims of the patriarchy because they are not submissive.

Finally, there are many different ways of appearing and dressing that we might come to consider beautiful.

I have to decline to respond to the idea that you are not the feminist police, simply because the fact that you don't have many readers is a contingent fact. If, over the next few years, you acquire a large following, does that mean you would change your position in order not to begin "policing" others? Of course not. So we are thrown back on the difficult task of defining what we really do tolerate, and what we don't.

I agree that there are many different ways of being beautiful; I don't agree that every person, right at this moment, is beautiful either to me or in general. People whose appearance implies a lack of self-esteem, or an absence of care of the self, tend to be less beautiful. (Note that by "care of the self" I don't necessarily mean things like shaved armpits.) Furthermore, people who "see themselves" a certain way, and adjust their appearance accordingly (this apparently includes both you and me), are really internalizing being seen by certain others.

A good example of how pure subjectivity, uncontaminated by seeing oneself as an object to others, actually looks in the real world is male computer nerd culture. Like most bloggers, I know plenty of guys who spent adolescence mostly in front of computers, alternating between work and gaming. (To some extent, this was also me.) Certain things about them are immediately noticeable: they tend to be very mixed up about love, they tend to look terrible, and they tend to have awkward senses of humor. There is a lot one can celebrate about nerd culture, but not this: until they moult, such teenagers have definite ideas about what makes other people beautiful, but no idea how they are themselves implicated in the social. Finally, again, because they have little idea how others see them, they have no problem seeing others as pure objects, rather than as subjects manifesting as objects.

I used the loaded verb "to please" to restore some balance to the conversation Twisty began. Artists are obliged to entertain and be intelligible; they are not merely obliged to throw on the canvas or the page the unsullied image of their own subjectivity. That is a Romantic myth belied at every second by the realities of true artists's preoccupation with her audience. You mentioned rudeness as something to avoid; I would add that, in addition to etiquette, indispensable concepts like "customer relations" bring the concept of pleasing into the workplace, within certain bounds of reasonableness and fairness that also exist in private life.

It makes no sense to argue that every person is beautiful except when they are feminine, or that every feminine woman forces other women to imitate her, while butch women encourage freedom. It does make sense to argue that highly conventional femininity is potentially unattractive because a lack of independence and assertiveness is unattractive. It seems to me that the tenor of the discussion should change from arguing that feminity is what all men truly desire, but is oppressive to women, to arguing that femininity-as-subjugation is something unnatural to free human beings, and therefore ultimately makes both genders miserable even while it affords men the satisfactions of power. The reason that certain articulations of feminism are potentially alienating to me is that I occasionally feel as though I'm being told, "I know what men really desire! It's the patriarchy!" That's actually a position of hopelessness, not a starting point for a movement that can win.

The satisfactions of power are anything but trivial -- but we can still believe that they don't compare to a community of equals, which is also a community of mutual solicitude. Understanding the importance of this solicitude is part of my definition of phronesis. Another way of putting this is that equality is metastatic.