Tag Archives: the beauty myth

It’s all in a look: vagenda, body hair and the rage against the beauty machine

Unshaven armpits

Julia Roberts dared to bare all in 1999

I recently read the article in Vagenda mag about female body hair, specifically about not removing it. I feel for the author. In the face of hegemonic gender norms, it’s hard to be the voice of dissent, crying foul play. We don’t like body hair in mainstream western society and I wouldn’t have the guts to fly in the face of that heavy, if ridiculous, disapproval. I am weak.

It’s because I don’t agree with gender norms that sometimes I lack the conviction to say what I really want to, for fear of opposition. That opposition is so entrenched and so ignorantly accepted, without deference to gender ideology. So sometimes, when I catch a dirty look from another woman – and all women get those, no matter what – sometimes, it affects my ‘fuck gender stereotypes’ conviction. ‘The Look’ can bring you down from the giddy heights of happiness, or it can throw you over the edge just when you’re keeping it together. On a really good day, I can shake it off completely, but The Look is powerful, because it speaks to so much more than a nose-wrinkling distaste for your outfit choice.

For the author of the Vagenda article, it is probably down to her hair in places that are unacceptable for woman to show hair in public. (Which is pretty much anywhere but our heads.) I put the looks down to my dishevelled appearance in comparison to the onlooker’s attempt at airbrushed perfection, or my ‘quirky’ attire. At those moments, I crave a stamp on my forehead that says ‘Fuck you, I’m a feminist! I don’t subscribe to your value system!’ My value lies in more than the clothes I wear or the way I look. It’s hard to be defiant all the time though.

Defiance is hardest when those you’re defying are the majority and misunderstand your defiance. Beauty is so omnipresent and omnipotent in our society. But most people don’t analyse their beliefs for long enough to realise they may be indoctrinated by a dominant cultural mindset, reminiscent of the here and now, the particular zeitgeist of the moment. They don’t think about their treatment of beauty as political, cultural or historical.  To be curvaceous used to be considered beautiful. Now we favour the emaciated look. Most models have a BMI of 15-16, which counts as ‘starving’ by the World Health Organisation’s standards. To be hairy in places where you’re naturally hairy used to be ‘normal’. Now it’s not. And to go against this norm apparently warrants a torrid reaction nowadays. Just ask Vagenda.

For the moment, a mindset dominates. Female body hair is gross. Women must be beautiful to be worthwhile. That mindset sees women from the male gaze. It has made women see themselves from the male gaze. If our bodies were functional and not aesthetic, why would we remove hair? It’s costly, annoying and time-consuming. It’s also there for a reason and bites back hard when you try and remove it. Persistent bastard, it is. But my conviction that there is more to life than beauty is automatically trumped by prevailing messages running through all parts of society.

Advertising. Pornography. Fashion. Diets. Lapdancing. Music videos. Shop windows. Cosmetic counters. Magazines. Page 3. Girl talk.

Why do they win? Because I am an individual. I am fragile. The above are (almost) all connected to huge corporations. Mostly the same few corporations at that.

And all of this analysis I can get, yes, just from a casual caustic look. A throwaway bit of malice from a passerby. I am empathetic. I want to understand other perspectives. But it seems Aryan to me, the superiority complex of The Look. It’s screams ‘my idea of beauty is right because I say so, because I think so, because I feel so.’ I think, therefore it must be. This is alien to me, the unquestioning, unconscious decision-making process based on personal convictions. Because I am constantly questioning feminism as a whole, my feminism and feminism’s various forms. Because not all of it is right. Not all of it I agree with. This can make me feel like I lack conviction, but really it’s because I want my conviction to be genuine. I can’t assert something without thought it through properly, without research and bouncing off other people, without question.

The Look, however, is self-justifying. And The Look makes me wonder how we will look back at this time, right here, right now, in decades to come. You know when you look back at a photo of yourself from years ago and you look so different to how you perceived you looked at the time? The whole world around you looks a bit old-fashioned and like something you’d rather forget happened. It’s like the feeling we get when we look back at the treatment of women in the 1950s, where women were encouraged to find fulfilment only in domesticity and marriage. ‘How quaint’, we think. Or when we watch Mad Men and think how hilariously funny it is that men routinely went unchallenged when they treated women as inferior. How men felt they could talk to women as lesser beings and use them as objects for their sexual gratification, without any sense of wrongdoing.**

**I don’t think this is funny ha ha or funny strange, but I hear a whole lot of people do because we’re supposedly so far from the Mad Men model of gender now. If only.

It’s hard being a feminist in the current  climate, where women compete in a beauty war and feel pitted against each other in some sort of imaginary femininity stakes, even when ‘beautiful’ and loved. I put beautiful in inverted commas because beauty is subjective and cannot be stated as a fact. (Naomi Wolf captures this more astutely than I ever will in the excellent book The Beauty Myth.) Women are so often comparing their outward selves to other women, but only in relation to the discourse of mainstream society. Not in relation to their own version of ‘beauty’ or success’. But that’s the problem with continually checking yourself against the male gaze.

If I go against what is now the accepted norm of femininity and go to a party with hairy pits on show à la Julia Roberts and no attempt to cover up my various human imperfections, no attempt to airbrush myself into an idealised version of a woman, then I am made to feel I am less worthy, less ‘beautiful’, less valuable. Because I’m more me and less Barbie. And that’s hard to accept and hard to go brazenly go against. Especially when the company around you largely fails to understand just what it is you’re going against and brands you as ‘ugly’ or ‘lazy’ instead. How often do we hear things like she ‘could have made more of an effort’ or she’s ‘letting herself go? Too often.

Because opting out of beauty isn’t a choice. Just ask these guys:

It’s a slippery slope, this beauty war. But I am gradually finding strength in my ‘weakness’.


Miss Representation – holding media accountable for objectification and misrepresentation

California Gurls - Katy Perry

An atypical (and genuine) music video still. California Gurls by Katy Perry.

I went to see Miss Representation at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre last night. (Trailer here.) The message of the film is intensely powerful. To sum up, it traces how the media both reflects and shapes our society in a hugely powerful way. It shows just how much media we are exposed to daily and explores the representations of women in those media. The dominant representations of women as alternately bitchy, ditzy or a collection of body parts leads to highly problematic relationships for everyone. Between women and other women, between women and men, parent and child – who isn’t affected?

(Reading that back, I realised I had written ‘women and men’ rather than the conventional order, ‘men and women’. And it jarred as unusual language. Interesting.)

Given that TV channels, newspapers, magazines, publishers, radio stations – all media – are largely run by men at the highest echelons, it is men that are having the first and final say in what the media put out. And they are largely bound by the demands of their advertisers, who provide their sponsorship in exchange for their product getting airtime. In the case of magazines, the falling price of UK magazines has been reflected in the sheer volume of advertising inside. Editorial copy is now increasingly predetermined by advertisers who want to send out a certain message of ‘buy, buy, buy’ – or more importantly, not send out a certain message – of working on your ambitions outside of your appearance or your relationship to men. (Which they tie neatly back in to working on your appearance.) Here’s a typical spread from a magazine’s content:

 Marie Claire: Make the Most of Your Shape with Best Haircut for Your Figure – 7 Silly Sex Tricks That Really Work – Would You Marry for Money? – Four Designer Looks for Christina Aguilera – Get Beautiful Skin – Instantly – How Much Time Do You Really Spend Thinking About Your Body?

Advertisers have an interest in perpetuating unhealthy body images to women, because they are aspirational and largely unattainable. Without demand, products flounder. And the way to create demand? By tapping into women’s insecurities about their appearance – because they will never be sated. Unnecessary beauty products claiming to make you look younger, decrease wrinkles or otherwise impossibly transform your face and body can always be sold to those attempting to conform to The Beauty Myth. The film contained many shocking statistics about just how much insecurity there is amongst women – for example, 65% of women have an eating disorder. As a woman, where are we supposed to find material to read that informs us about what is actually going on with women today? Or even just material that interests us? I read The Guardian, but what about when I want something a bit lighter? I wouldn’t be seen dead reading any woman’s magazine.

Only 20% of newspaper articles concern women and girls. Mainstream newspapers are failing to contextualise stories about female survivors of violent and sexual crime as an endemic problem of society. A recent PhD study found that the vast majority of newspapers (tabloid and broadsheets, with tabloids faring slightly worse) report rape after page 10 of the newspaper UNLESS there is a sensational aspect to focus on that detracts from the actual events, such as ‘Husband kills wife after she changes her Facebook status’ (link takes you to Leveson Enquiry submission on this very story). Instead of focusing on the facts of the case, this prioritises social media’s role. The articles fail to mention that a woman is killed every two minutes by a partner or ex-partner. They often sympathise with the perpetrator. Essentially, the use every tool they can to downplay the gravity of violence against women on a personal and political level by misrepresentation. In my experience, men don’t want to face up to the problem of sexual violence because they feel somehow implicated. They feel tarred with the same brush as rapists when they see how terrible the statistics are. The problem is, they are implicated. Any good person keeping silent is a huge problem. Keeping silent about sexual violence adds to an atmosphere where rape myths perpetuate and misogynistic attitudes go unchallenged. And funnily enough, rapists and wife murderers tend to hold attitudes of women as inferior to them and as having a set gender role which they must stick to. So allowing such views to go unchallenged does implicate you. That goes for both men and women. (See this fascinating blog post for more.)

Essentially, it comes back to capitalism and consumerism. What sells, or what the advertisers want to sell. Celebrity stories are cheaper than weighty news stories so we see more and more of them packaged as ‘news’. Only 22.6% of national UK newspaper journalists are women, so the stories are likely to come from a male perspective. Capitalism is about making money, not about social responsibilty. In America, there are hundreds of TV channels competing for attention – so they go for the most outrageous content. News channel guests shout and bellow to get heard and confuse opinion with fact. Music channels bid to air new videos by popular artists first, regardless of their feelings about its sexual content. There is also no watershed in America, so all of these messages are seen and consumed by children of all ages. Miss Representation’s terrifying montage of images is depressing – woman after woman in a state of undress, on tv programmes, in music videos, in advertisements. It shows Hilary Clinton’s portrayal as a bitch and Sarah Palin’s portrayal as a ditz. Both were undermined by either being too masculine or too feminine in their approach. Both were taunted about their appearance – Clinton for being haggard and Palin for being attractive. How can they win when both ways are wrong? Both were made to comment on this alongside their policies, while men were left to talk about their actual jobs, without reference to their appearance. Clinton was followed by people holding signs and interrupting her speeches with the slogan ‘Iron my Shirt’. I mean, what kind of world is this really? The US is supposedly the most powerful country in the world and it does not take women politicians seriously. Only 17% of congress are women and 22% of UK parliament are women. The figure in Afghanistan, most dangerous country in the world for women? Twenty seven percent. 5% more than the UK and a full 10% more than the US. Does that not say something huge about the state of the world? Women are 51% of society, but the world is run by men largely ignoring their issues.

Back to the media. How about Hollywood? Hugely influential – obviously. Well, have you heard of the Bechdel test? See how many films you can name off the top of your head that pass the following test:

1. It has to have at least two named women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
It might be harder than you think. Only 16% of all films contain a female protagonist. And most of those show her attempting to find love, rather than any other type of fulfilment. Love is great, obviously. But women do other things than sit around trying to find a man. Not reflecting that in our films allows other media and general society to legitimately ignore women as well-rounded people or as more than [half-naked] window dressing for a man’s story. It relegates us to the Second Sex, with the men as the primary, ‘normal’ mode of being. (Sorry, Simone de Beauvoir moment there.)
So, how much role does the media play? Huge amounts. We need to see more women lauded for their achievements, to give young girls positive role models and give young men a rounded picture of different types of women. We need to represent society as it actually is onscreen. We need to get government to make media be socially responsible. Because it’s all just gone way, way too far. If you’re not convinced of how bad it can be check out this advert calling for organ donors:

Organ donation ad objectifying women to attract male donors

Enough said, really.

Find a screening of Miss Representation here. Follow them on Twitter here. Sign up to be notified when the DVD comes out here.