We all know, theoretically, that standards and conventions for beauty are a load of crap, but that point was driven home from me today. I was idly searching for ideas for how to wear two different colors of lipstick at once. A Buzzfeed post called “17 Easy Ways To Make Your Lips Look Perfect” popped up. Column 1, Row 2 of “Borrowed” Image #13 (originally via Vintage Make-Up Guides) gave me pause.
A Cupid’s bow can be toned down with foundation. Trace prettier lipline with stick.
If you watch or read make-up tutorials or know something about beauty, you will immediately recognize how bizarre that statement is.
It’s a trope as old as remembered time: The relatable protagonist sees a woman, assesses her based on some criteria that we the audience are presumed to intrinsically understand, and sighs some version of “She’s too good for me.” This is intended to relay a fear of inadequacy on the part of the protagonist (one that he is probably going to overcome with her help, natch).
Despite its transmission of insecure feelings, saying “She’s too good for me” is paternalistic, patronizing, and rather patriarchal.
When you change your clothes, take a shower, or otherwise do things in the nude in a private space, and that space has a publicly-facing window (i.e. a hole in your wall where the only thing separating your bare flesh from the outside world is clear glass), do you close the blinds or draw the curtain?
If you don’t for whatever reason, this isn’t for you. Also, I hope you don’t get arrested, since exhibitionism is genearally frowned upon in the eyes (or should it be the mouth) of the law in most places.
If you do obscure the world’s view of your body, why do you do so?
If you’ve never thought about it, this might be for you. If your answer is something along the lines of “peeping Toms” or “creepers,” then this is definitely for you. You assume that someone who hopes to do so might catch a glimpse of your flesh.
Some people don’t expose their bodies for general consumption not because they fear others’ arousal in response to our exposed flesh, but because they fear something else. They fear the viewer(s) may become disgusted.
There are certain body types that are demonized and stigmatized in society. Bodies that are hardly, if ever, depicted as delicious, enticing, inviting, and/or beautiful. Bodies that are hardly represented in the visual media that we consume. Bodies, in the rare instances that they are depicted, as portrayed as ugly, smelly, disgusting, awkward, horrible, even monstrous. Any individual’s personal feelings on the attractiveness of those body types doesn’t invalidate how the majority (or perceived majority) of society doesn’t feel that way — and isn’t exactly shy about letting people with those body types know how gross they are.
Disgust and arousal aren’t mutually exclusive, either. If a woman’s body is outside society’s widely-accepted norms and yet found be attractive by a man looking at her, he might take his disgust at being attracted to her and project it onto her. That sort of resentment is, at best, distasteful, as when men refuse to be seen in public with certain types of women with whom they have sex. At worst, it can be a dangerous thing.
Women who can, most of the time, safely assume that their bodies will be considered desirable rather than disgusting lead different lives from those for whom such is not the case. Much of what is described by Men’s Rights Activists as “female privilege,” like paid-for dates, free drinks, and other preferential treatment, would more accurately be called “ways in which certain types of women are treated favorably by men.” Both men and conventionally attractive women often fall into the trap of assuming that conventionally attractive women’s experiences apply to all women, effectively erasing the lived reality of women who aren’t conventionally attractive.
It can be very difficult for conventionally attractive women to acknowledge that they have looks-based privilege. Part of this is the social training that makes women feel that they must deny any compliments they receive. As difficult as it can be to do so, being sensitive and cognizant of these differences is key to ensuring better and more accurate communication and understanding. In already-fraught conversations about gender, sexism, and harassment, avoiding the assumption that what applies to conventionally attractive women applies to all women is key in ensuring that women who aren’t conventionally attractive aren’t further devalued
In a world where calling a woman unattractive is considered an expected, if not quite valid, rebuttal to her ideas, it’s accurate to acknowledge lookism. In a world where all women, hot or not, are subjected to misogyny, it’s critical in ensuring that we see problems in an intersectional, rather than reductive, fashion.
I grew up in the girl power 90s; my motto was “Anything you can do, I can do better.” I thought the need for feminism was over.
Of my nearly two dozen first cousins, the boys were closest to me in age. As the girls were teenagers too cool to willingly deal with a grubby-fingered tomboy, I spent most of my childhood playtime with three of my boy cousins. They taught me about soccer, the Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers, and Nintendo. Later, we spent our joint time collaborating on creating Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style QBasic programs and 3D Movie Maker films as well as on perfecting our Force-moving and lightsaber dueling skills. Though it meant that many of the delicate young ladies at school refused to accept me, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
So I was more than fine with the Internet being a male-dominated space. It didn’t bother me. I was one of the boys, right? It would be fine. I didn’t need special treatment like those other women, whether they were prisses or feminists.
Then, the Nice Guys came along, both online and as friends of my teenage self. At first, all I learned from them was that I wasn’t woman enough. I lacked all the hallmarks of the basic level of attractiveness as per their comments: small, pink, upturned nipples; a small mons with tiny bubblegum-hued labia (as they called it, “tight pussy”); hairlessness; large and “natural” (i.e. non-surgically-enhanced) yet very pert breasts; and overall thinness, perhaps with some ass (hips were acceptable only to the more adventurous and kinky men). Fair enough, I thought. I was a chubby, grubby-fingered tomboy, not exactly some kind of desirable woman.
Who would want to be a desirable woman, anyway? I knew what those women were like. The Nice Guys told me all about their wives and their girlfriends and their female “friends” (as in women they secretly wanted to have sex with, which, they strongly implied, meant that they weren’t actually friends). Women, as per them, are obnoxious creatures only worth putting up with for the sex. They take too long to orgasm, annoy men with their requests for cunnilingus and cuddling, friend-zone nice guys while dating and sexing up jerks, waste men’s time by never giving an straightforward “no,” can get sex whenever and with whomever they want, stop giving blowjobs and get fat after marriage, demand free meals and drinks but still won’t have sex, and are fussy and high-maintenance.
The Nice Guys were wrong on both counts.
There were men out there who found me to be desirable — not as an attainable consolation prize or a symbol of “settling,” but actually desirable. And, because they saw me the way that the Nice Guys saw those more conventionally-attractive women, i.e. as an object of sexual desire, I was subjected to the same judgments and accusations. More importantly, I learned, in short, that there’s a reason the women at whom I scoffed act the way that they did. There’s always another way to look at it.
Friend-zoning? Some straight men seem to believe that they are entitled to love and/or sex, sometimes without ever having even asked for it.
Not giving a straightforward no? Being a woman means that responding to certain men overtures at all is an invitation for rebuttals, while ignoring them doesn’t give them the opportunity to engage further. In addition, there’s the issue of female socialization where women know that they will be seen as rude or mean for issuing outright refusals.
Sex on demand? Only if they’re willing to lower our standards (and men could probably have sex as frequently as women if they did so as well).
Demanding of free stuff? All those free drinks don’t exactly rectify the wage gap. When it comes to fat women, we both earn even less than our thinner counterparts and aren’t exactly bombarded with free drinks at Ladies Night (if we’re even allowed in). Plus, women generally have to put much more in the way of time and resources into our appearances in order to be seen as even baseline presentable. And then, of course, we’re berated for being high-maintenance for maintaining the accepted standard for female appearance.
It was through all those realizations that I began to question exactly why women are so widely reviled and wonder if it wasn’t that there is something especially wrong with women but that women are held to impossible standards. I fell down the questioning-the-status-quo rabbithole and ended up a feminist.
So thank you, Nice Guys. You turned one of you into one of them with your bile. May your thinly-veiled misogyny lead legions of other women to freedom from internalized self-hatred.
This post contains graphic discussions of bodies and pornography. TW for body image issues.
I can’t pretend that some of my reasons for engaging in the comment sections aren’t personal.
I first hopped online when I was just over a decade old. As I had been socialized almost exclusively among other Muslims, the Internet was my chance to interact with people who resembled the mean and mode in American society far more than my family and community did. Had I stayed a good Muslim girl, what I learned online about gender and sexuality would have affected me very little. Instead, I left Islam and began to navigate the world of dating and sex with the assumption, courtesy of the comments, that I was so physically repulsive, any male attention would be a boon.
Because almost every body type can be found depicted in a sexualized fashion online, the Internet is often hailed as a great sexual equalizer. It is far from so for those uninterested in seeking out visual sexual imagery. I fell into that camp; accordingly, whatever I saw in the way of porn was a video or picture link that I encountered on non-porn sites.
I am a child of the much-maligned self-esteem-obsessed 1990s. Jean Kilbourne had made her Killing Us Softly presentation at my school, I had heard Oprah talk about loving yourself, and so on. Despite all that, I fell for the Internet’s version of the beauty myth. I failed to apply media literacy to what I saw online since what I read did not represent The Media. No one was trying to brainwash me into thinking that I wasn’t beautiful so that multinational corporations could sell me stuff, the commenters were men directly informing me of their desires.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with people expressing their sexual desires. The problem was that they didn’t stop at “she’s hot” and instead defended their lack of interest in the women they found unappealing with incredible vitriol. Their vicious verbal evisceration of images of women whom I found to be impossibly attractive led me to wonder how exactly I could hope to be found beautiful by anyone but my mother. Any dissent from the overall opinion of women was so rare that, out of all the things I saw in the hours and hours I spent online, I can remember the specific instances when it occurred.
In two words, I learned that what straight men physically craved in women was not me.
Convinced that I had to compensate for my utterly flawed body, I paid attention to the most-repeated complaints that straight men made of straight women. As was the case with my exposure to porn, I did not seek out the information as much as stumble upon it during my usual Internet use. The consensus in the comments was that women are invariably terrible for a variety of reasons and the only reason to bother with them is their sexual desirability. Although my own experiences directly contradicted many of the things the men said about women, I resolved that no man would ever complain about me like that. After all, with my inadequate body, what else did I have to recommend me to a man? It took me years to even realize that I had such a hot mess of internalized misogyny entangled in my brain, let alone that I ought to rid myself of it.
My particular extenuating circumstances are certainly not common. Being young, naive and online, however, is a situation that grows more common by the day. Whenever someone tells me that it’s not worth the effort to provide a dissenting voice to a shitty opinion on a mainstream website, I relay the implicit message back to my teenage self and her current-day compatriots:
No one’s time and energy, even in the small amount that is required to drop off a comment, is worth your coming to understand that what is said here is not the only way of seeing things.
This is not to say that I recommend that everyone get on YouTube or any of the other more mainstream yet vile places and engage in ceaseless debates with obvious trolls. Lowering yourself to the level of the lowest common denominator can affect life outside of the comments there, and not in a good way. What I do advocate is, at the very least, a drop-off.
Whenever I can, I drop off a simple “no,” “that’s not always true,” or pointed “for you” into comment sections dominated by unquestioned yet horrid opinions. By this, I mean that I make as reasonable (and pointed as well as funny, if I can manage it) of a comment as I can muster, downvote a few things, and leave. This isn’t due to some vague hope that the asshole I’m responding to will suddenly have a change of heart thanks to a single comment, it’s so that the kids following along at home know that the opinions they’re reading are, at the very least, not quite unanimous.