While I could say any number of serious things about this article, all I can think is come on, preconception care?
November 28, 2006
November 16, 2006
November 13, 2006
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.')
November 8, 2006
“I came to teaching to touch lives and educate and be this enchanting artist in the classroom,” she says, “and I have done nothing but lose 10 pounds in a month and develop a disgusting smoking habit. These kids need something much greater than anything I can give them. They need a miracle — and they need a miracle like every day.”
I've been pushed, shoved, and lifted out of the way, ducked around, called dyke and bitch, had my hair and shoes insulted, been told to quit, that nobody likes me, and that "I will hurt you," had my stamp, stamp pad, coffee mug, clipboard, transparencies, marker, pencils, and wallet stolen, been full-on cussed out 7 times by 3 people, been sorta cussed out at least every other day and usually a couple times a day, had my fingers slammed in my classroom door, had paper balls and pens thrown at my head, and had the plexiglass window in the door to my classroom broken out of its frame. And this is just what I remember.