What if New Year’s Eve programming didn’t put our sexist, look-obsessed culture into such sharp relief?

As I flipped through various New Year’s Eve shows while I sucked down bubbly, I noticed a common thread – male performers had virtually no skin showing, females had a lot. From Rihanna, who HAD to be freezing in that stomach bearing outfit in the freezing NY weather, to Shania Twain, whose torn t-shirt revealed a skinny-minny stomach, to Fergie’s oddly shiny legs, the female skin was out in full force.

In contrast, Daughtry was covered up in a head to toe black outfit with a white scarf covering every bit-o-chest-n-neck.  Flo-rider didn’t have a scarf, but he too was in a black outfit that covered all but his hands and head.

Flash to Carmen Electra, in a cleavage popping skin tight white dress, whose bubbly-brainlessness made me want to gag. Even poor Allison Iraheta, whom I love, had on a poofy-ultra short red-prom dress number and a crazy long red hair that kept blowing into her mouth as she tried to sing. I am sure this was the work of some “image management” person who is busy trying to make her look more white, more skinny, more sexy, less Latina, less subversive, less smart… And poor, ditzy Carmen couldn’t even pronounce her name. Sorry, Miss Electra, but I think you may need to spend less time on that body and more time exercising your brain.

As per usual, for the men, it was about their music, their art – their bodies were the background, hidden by non-skin bearing clothing. For the women, the skin, the appearance, were foreground. Hence, the fact our culture continues to suffer from a sexism that objectives and sexualizes women was out in spades. Made me choke on my champagne.

Don’t get me wrong — I find female bodies beautiful and I don’t think they need to be hidden or shamed. But, I find male bodies beautiful too. Couldn’t there be some equal opportunity showing of both male and female skin? (Not of the objectifying variety, but of the celebratory, body-loving, aren’t we lucky to live in these great prison-houses of flesh variety.)

Then, there was all the glorifying of hetero monogamy and that golden grail/prison – marriage. How many damn proposals do they have to show? And do I need to see all those hetero couples lip-locking for so damn long? Where was the non-hetero love? Sorry, LGBTQ peeps, your kisses are not New Year’s Eve television worthy!

Ageism abounded too with cameras focused on the young and perky, with presenters with nary a wrinkle in sight, with musicians straining too look like they are still 20 even when they are NOT – Shania, I am talking to you…

Here’s hoping the second decade of 2010 can keep us moving along the progressive track where more women, more people of color, more different ages and body types can be celebrated for their contributions that are not only of the good body/perfect legs variety…

What if bedtime stories could get with the feminist program? (A review of Bedtime Stories)

I should have known better, especially given it was an Adam Sandler movie. But, the optimist in me thought there might be some re-visioning of ‘bedtime stories’ rather than a tired re-hashing of all their sexist mores. So much for optimism.

The film drips with delimiting gender stereotypes.  The evil mom (ala Hansel and Gretel and umpteen other fairy tales) is replaced by the over-controlling, health-food-obsessed Courtney Cox. Life with her is no fun – she is the purveyor of wheat-grass cakes, the destroyer of kid-fun. At least she has a job – a principal no less – but, even this career is played on to further the over-controlling, mean meme. Here, she is a descendent in a long line of evil female school marms, from Miss Trunchbull in Matilda to Miss Umbridge of Harry Potter.

Thankfully, cool bro (in the form of Adam Sandler) comes in to save the day. He plays a number of positive (read: male) roles – savior, deliverer of fun, bringer of adventure, giver of roasted marshmallows.

Of course, it wouldn’t suffice to only put the story in motion with one evil female; we need an entire cast of second-tier xx types.  To fulfill this sexist media imperative, we have Violet, the empty-headed fashionista (who must be saved by Sandler’s character on various occasions and who, of course, rewards him with a kiss – what else do women have to offer but their sexuality?) Then, we have the goody-two shoes babysitter/friend who tries to ruin all the fun with her rule-bound boringness. Thankfully, her saving grace is she is “skinny,” as one fat-hating scene emphasizes. In the scene, a number of women who used to bully Adam Sandler’s character when he was in high school are put in their place when he parades this skinny arm-candy in front of them. So the fat-is-ugly stick can beat the audience a little more, Sandler’s character verbally attacks a woman who – how dare she – is enjoying a plate of pasta even though she is not an acceptable size zero.

To ice this sexist cake, we have the little girl who, though her masculine name Bobby tries to trick us, plays typical second fiddle to her brother. At first we are led to believe that she controls the stories that end up becoming reality, but, no, that would be just too much power in the hands of one without penis privilege. It is, of course, the brother that controls the stories.

And, for the grand finale, said brother is left with a kiss from the older “hot” girl at the movie’s close – because even the pre-ten-year-old-set needs to learn that the main purpose of female existence is their hottitude.

To summarize, this ‘new’ take on  bedtime stories offers the same savior boy/hot damsel in distress paradigm. Sigh.

What year is it again?

What century?

And Ms. Cox – what were you thinking? You have a daughter for goddess sake!

To be fair, the movie did have its funny moments. But, why can’t we have humor, fun, and adventure sans the sexism? Why can’t we have more movies that don’t drill negative stereotypes into girls and boys heads?

Films are showing some signs of improvement, but still have a long ways to go. This last weekend being a case in point, we had the release of Up. Though I have not seen it yet, from the previews it looks like once again all the main characters are male. And, in the recent Monsters vs Aliens we had only ONE female lead. For more adult fair, take the Star Trek previews – though Uhura plays a significant role in the film, she is sidelined or absent in every preview I have seen. As for Land of the Lost, must the preview feature a boob-grabbing Chaka? Please – Jodie Foster, Camryn Manheim, Tina Fey, Ashley Judd – someone with feminist sensibilities – can you produce a few  family flicks?

What if you lose weight the “easy way”? (Reflections on Weight Loss and Weight Loss Surgery, Part 1)

In Germany, the show Big Diet locked contestants into a house to lose X number of pounds.  In New Zealand, an official proposal to tax food based on fat content was put forward in order to ‘cure’ fatties. In England, a child was sent home from school with a “You’re too fat” note while a couple was told they are “too fat” to adopt. In America, shows such The Biggest Loser suggest if you are big (re: fat) you ARE a LOSER and The Swan surgically removed fat from the bodies of already relatively thin contestants, revealing liposuction as (female) necessity.

These examples are only a minute offering of the continued abhorrence of fat in many (most?) cultures around the world. While many societal institutions and beliefs contribute to the ‘thin-is-in’ aesthetic, the media and the multi-billion-dollar ‘diet industrial complex’ are two of the greatest perpetrators of this fat-hating vitriol. Bombarding us with the equation that thin equals beauty, will-power, and success and fat equals failure, gluttony, and ill-health, the media consistently projects negative attributes onto fat bodies. Fat hatred and its ugly sister, anorexic approval, abounds not only in reality television, but in EVERY form of media. Seen any fat news anchors? Been encouraged to admire any flabulous films? Listened to any fat-positive songs? Not likely (unless, that is, you are an active fat acceptance person and purposefully seek out fat positive media – and, even then, it ain’t that easy to find).

Judging by this widespread fat-hatred, it seems the thin-loving media would have embraced the relatively new “cure” for fatness – weight loss surgery (WLS). Yet, coverage of such surgery has been largely negative.  Broadcasting surgical horror stories and framing those who opt for surgery as cop-outs, the media suggests  that being thin takes hard work, sacrifice, and will-power – that surgery is ‘the easy way out’. The now thin post-surgical body may be hailed for its newly acceptable appearance, but the words used to describe WLS from ‘drastic’ to ‘draconian’, from ‘last resort’ to ‘effortless,’ from ‘quick fix’ to ‘surgically induced self-control’ all connote WLS as cheating.

Perhaps the most-outspoken celebrity mouthpiece of this media doctrine is Bill Maher. In the following, he blasts WLS, suggesting that fatties are food addicts:

No more celebrating gastric bypass.  Carnie Wilson, Al Roker and now Starr Jones are all being heralded by the media for stapling their stomachs shut. They shouldn’t be.  They’re not making a brave choice to change. They’re giving money to doctors to reroute their ability to turn food into crap. It’s like kicking cocaine by crazy gluing your nostrils shut.

Drawing on the widely held erroneous belief that fat people are gluttonous, Maher makes it clear that he believes if you’re fat, it’s your own damn fault. However, despite his claims to the contrary, WLS is hardly praised in the media. Rather, typical before and after shots celebrate newly attained thinness while guffawing at former fat grotesquerie. They frame the pre-WLS body as out of control and GROSS. The post body is then dissected for evidence of quick weight loss – saggy skin, chin folds, upper arm sags – with an implicit message that if these fatties had done it right – or the ‘hard way’ – they wouldn’t have to suffer the post-op baggy-body-syndrome.

Thus, while our culture wants us to be thin it wants us to suffer to do so. Moreover, it wants us to be thin at all costs – with the emphasis on cost – to buy diet pills, exercise machines, diet food, etc, etc. Apparently the cost of surgery (which was for several years covered by various health insurance companies) was not generating enough profits for the weight loss industrial complex.

Oprah Winfrey, like Maher, is in line with the media’s message that WLS is the easy way out. Her mantra seems to be, “I did it the hard way, so can you” – yes, the ‘hard’ way with a personal trainer and full-time chef. Embracing her new thin self, and famously espousing that losing weight is her greatest achievement, she still supposedly wants to teach us to love the bodies we are in. Oprah seems to have fallen victim to the idea that the female body must be disciplined into proper shape. Relentlessly shedding her former fat self, she emerged as a new and improved cultural icon of female will-power. Yet, this shedding was, as it is for the vast majority of bodies that are not born to thinness, temporary. Now Oprah is “embarrassed” about her lack of discipline, embarrassed her body is back at the 200+ mark.

Oprah’s sidekick, Dr. Phil, also characterizes weigh loss surgery as the easy option, advising members of his “Weight Loss Challenge” group “If you want a quick fix, get your stomach stapled.” This idea that surgery is easy (and that in order to count, weight loss has to be a challenge) has been widely adopted by the media. Fat people are not supposed to have a cheaters way out, damnit! They should be made to suffer for their self indulgence, laziness, and constant eating! Never mind the fact that many thin people eat as much or more than their fat counterparts, many exercise less or not at all, many have just as many or more health problems. Never mind that such surgeries are hardly ‘easy’ (nor do they work for everyone) and YET they are more successful than yo-yo dieting, pills etc. This is not an endorsement of WLS (nor is it a condemnation) – rather, I ask, WHY does the media only champion certain types of weight loss? Why pick on people who have “chosen” – either for health reasons or for aesthetic reasons – to opt for surgery while celebrating others who make the very same “choices” but do so with pills, extreme exercise regimens, or starvation diets?*  Seems like a double standard… Does it perhaps come from the fact that the diet industrial complex’s main goal is for people to FAIL and that, as of yet, WLS has been one of the most successful ways in which fatties become skinnies? A drastic way – to be sure – but a way that has a much higher ‘success’ rate than obsessive colon-cleansing or chomping down acai berry pills…

While I am all for loving the bodies we are in – and loving all types and sizes of bodies – I understand we live in a world that force feeds us the message we must NOT be fat. As such, many, many people are constantly trying to lose weight. THIS is the problem – yet, too often I have seen people who have been brainwashed into believing they must be thin to be happy/healthy baring the brunt of attack from all sorts of places – including from fat positive activists. Shouldn’t we, as body lovers, be attacking the system and NOT the people who are its victims?

Up next, part 2, in which I consider the fat acceptance movement and condemnation of WLS…

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*I put chosen and choices in scare quotes to indicate the idea of free choice is a bit of an oxymoron given the level of fat-hating cultural indoctrination.

What if O stands for “Overwhelming body hatred”? (Reflections on the January cover of O: The Oprah Magazine)

O January Cover
O January Cover

As you can see above, the January 2009 cover of O features two different pictures of Oprah. On the left, Oprah is aglow. Dressed all in white, she exudes confident joy. On the right, a more quizzical, frustrated, and fuller Oprah dons a purple tracksuit. With her right hand, she indicates her “better” self, with her left,  she points to the question emblazoned across the cover “How did I let this happen again?”

A close-reading of this cover might question how the use of color perpetuates the notion that white is superior. The good white Oprah (or the thin Oprah, all in white with pearly whites blazing) is contrasted to the bad purple Oprah – that color Alice Walker so famously associates with womanism AND with blackness.*

The copy is telling as well, noting that “Oprah on her battle with weight” is “a must-read for anyone who’s ever fallen off the wagon.” Wow, weight as a battle and eating as an addiction akin to alcoholism all in one subtitle! And, in the left corner, “MAKING WEIGHT LOSS STICK” uses capital letters, indicating this is a directive, a must, something VERY important…

I admit to subscribing to the O magazine on and off since its launch. I like many aspects of the magazine- the book reviews, the emphasis on meaty copy rather than fluff, the coverage of global issues. Others I am not so fond of. For example, the “O List,” or those “must -haves,” many of which you would have to be a millionaire to purchase.  As this list indicates, the magazine suffers from rather pervasive class-blindness. Another aspect of the magazine I don’t like is its continual perpetuation of body hating messages that are all prettily wrapped up in a “love yourself” disguise.

This month’s cover, though, is perhaps the first one I will have to hide from my children’s eyes. I do not want them viewing this image, which screams that the “fat Oprah” is a failure. I don’t want them reading the copy that indicates one MUST be “Making Weight Loss Stick” by following a “simple plan.” I do not want them associating the color purple (Oprah, how could you?!?!?) with regret.

One thing I have liked about O in the past is that each month a black woman is on the cover – yes, it is Oprah, and yes, she is the magazine proprietor – but I still like the fact that a powerful, successful, brilliant, radiant black woman is on the cover each month. Having O decorating our coffee table along with Ms., New Moon, and The Nation conveys to my kids (I hope) that magazine covers are not only for thin white sexually objectified women.

Alas, this month’s issue of O will not be given a place on the table- it will hide away in a drawer, to be furtively read in preparation for further posts on Oprah’s “failure” to escape the body hating industrial complex, that prison house in which MOST of us dwell…

(As an aside, my nine-year-old daughter did see this cover and immediately tsked-tsked “That is so stupid mom. Why does she care so much about what she weighs?” Ah, these are the moments that melt a feminist mother’s heart.)

* See In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983).

(For an excellent post addressing  Oprah’s failure to make peace with her body, read Kate Harding’s “Dear Oprah” piece here. )

What if every day was “Love Your Body Day”?

 

Can you remember a time when you felt completely at home in your body? When you looked at your reflection and saw no ‘imperfections’ or areas that needed ‘fixing’? When you loved each and every inch of your mortal coil? When you frolicked around with not a body care in the world – perhaps say, on the beach with no concern for whether your bathing suit was ‘flattering’ to your figure? When you felt confident and beautiful completely naked (with the lights on)? When you didn’t have a body policing voice in your head?

Can you also remember when the policing voice kicked in? Maybe it began when a classmate told you your nose was too big, your dad suggested your thighs were chunky, your grandma noted how her hair was always straight… Maybe the policing voice grew slowly as you watched television and read magazines that constantly told you your body was not ok, that it did not deserve love.

Ten years ago, the National Organization for Women inaugurated national Love Your Body Day to mitigate this policing voice. While this day has spurred lots of activism and awareness surrounding beauty and body image issues on college campuses and among feminist groups, the love your body message has sadly not spread to wider US culture. If anything, the past ten years has seen further entrenchment of body policing and body hatred. Cosmetic surgeries of every type are on the rise while new body policing practices, such as teeth whitening and anal bleaching, continue to proliferate.

Yet, while cultural indictments to hate and police our bodies are ubiquitous, we can resist. In so doing, we are body loving activists. As the popular t-shirt saying “Start a Revolution: Stop Hating Your Body” suggests, we all can be part of this crucial revolution. We can, as Eve Ensler suggests in her wonderful play The Good Body, begin by “stepping off the capitalist treadmill” and “stop trying to be anything, anyone other than who you are,” to realize “we live in a good body.”

So dear readers, today and everyday from here on out, please love your body, turn off the body policing voice, and start a body revolution!

Happy Love Your Body Day!

What if you are not ‘fit to wed’?

So, waiting in lines is one of those activities that most of us humans abhor. As such, it often brings out the worst in people.

The other day, after waiting a LONG time to speak to a “communications consultant” (talk about job title inflation!) at a cell phone store, the woman behind me in line kept edging closer and closer to me, invading my personal space and privacy while she jiggled her keys and jumped agitatedly from foot to foot. I glanced back, hoping to benignly indicate that she was standing a bit to close and her impatience was quite rude. As I did so, I noticed she was wearing a common uniform of the young and fit – a skintight gym outfit in black accompanied by what appeared to be brand new very expensive tennis shoes. The top, much like a bra, had a logo above the left boob that read, “fit 2 wed.”

“Huh, how typical,” I thought – not only is she an annoying space-invader unable to wait in line respectfully, but she is advertising herself as female meat that is ‘fit 2 wed.’ I assumed this was some sort of advertisement to go along with her skintight attire, as in “look at me, I am so hot, you should marry me.” However, upon looking back again after she started complaining that her dog was waiting outside and she was in a hurry, I noticed the back waistline of her workout pants read “getfit2wed.com.” Aha, I thought, it’s an actual company!

Following up my curiosity later at home, I discovered the Fit2Wed website, a “bridal boot camp” offering “an ultimate outdoor workout designed to transform your body.” Ugh. The site is pink-orrific with pictures exclusively of women. Apparently men don’t need to be fit to wed.

With the tagline “Get fit for your wedding day” and copy that encourages you to “look awesome in your wedding dress,” the site claims it is “changing lives, one workout at a time.” Yes, because what is more important for a woman than to get married, to look hot doing it, and to ‘change her life’ by changing the way she looks?

I hadn’t heard of any bridal boot camps before, but my gut tells me this San Diego based company is not unique. As books such as White Weddings by Chrys Ingraham

or analyses such as “My Big Fat Unnecessary Wedding” by Jessica Valenti make painfully clear, weddings are not only BIG business, they are also rabidly sexist, heteronormative, and lookist.

A dear feminist friend of mine is getting married soon. She shared that as she shops for wedding dresses, she is continually asked questions of the “how much weight do you plan to lose before the big day?” ilk. When she replies “none” and shares she likes her body the way it is, thank you, she reports that the salespeople are invariably dumbfounded. I mean, how can you possibly be happy being fat, let alone on your wedding day?!?

This belief is what Fit2Wed trades in, despite the usual claims that its about ‘health’ and ‘feeling good’. If it isn’t all about the inches and number on the scale, then why the before and after photos detailing the inches, pounds, and body fat lost?

This bridal boot camp mentality is very disturbing and is not the purview of only this small San Diego company of course. The fit2wed paradigm is merely another cog in the appearance-is-all wheel that runs roughshod over women’s lives. It is apparent on shows such as The Bachelor that indicate only beautiful women are worth considering as marriage material. It fuels the bridal magazine and television show industry, inducing women to spend fortunes not only on the wedding and the run up to it, but also on ‘beautifying’ their own bodies for the ‘big day’.

While marriage as an institution is problematic in many ways, this ‘bride as booty’ mentality seems particularly worrying and yet massively common. Don’t the supposed ‘new women’ of this century, who claim to sympathize with feminist ideals even if they don’t call themselves feminists, find this mentality a bit insulting, outdated, and downright sexist? Well, apparently not – at least not if the many women who offer gushing testimonials on the Fit2Wed website serve as any indication.

Problem is that this waiting in line experience and later research into Fit2Wed confirmed in me a dislike for the gym clad hot bodies who prance around in public in their skin tight workout attire. I am aware that not all such bodies are like the woman who was so rude at the Sprint store, nor do all people who workout do so to be ‘hot’ according to societal standards. If only people like the woman I ran into weren’t so damn ubiquitous. Seems like a better logo for her to paste above her left breast would be “just another piece of objectified meat.” Hey, now that gives me an idea for a better name for “bridal boot camps” such at Fit2Wed: how about Fit2Bbooty with taglines such as “changing women into objectified bridal booty, one workout at a time”?

What if the beauty imperative led to an 11th Commandment: “If thou are female, thou must be beautiful”?

I was not surprised to hear of a proposed a beauty contest for nuns. In our beauty-obsessed era, the pursuit of beauty, even in its most extreme forms, rarely surprises me. Saddens and infuriates me yes, but surprises me, no.

The Italian priest who proposed the contest, Antonio Rungi, expected 1,000 contestants for his “Sister Italia” online contest. According to the Times Online,

Father Rungi, a moral theologian with his own blog, said that the nuns would not wear swimsuits or revealing outfits. What he valued most in a woman was “inner beauty”. Asked for his feminine ideal, he replied: “Well, I would say Sophia Loren.”

The contestants must be aged between 18 and 40, and can be either full members of an order or novices. Father Rungi said that he expected many who applied to be young, attractive – and non-Italian. He said: “Do you really think nuns are all wizened, funereal old ladies? Today it’s not like that any more, thanks to an injection of youth and vitality brought to our country by foreign girls.” He said there were nuns from Africa and Latin America who were “really very, very pretty. The Brazilian girls above all.”

So “inner beauty” equals Sophia Loren? And foreign girls??? Brazilian GIRLS above all? Uh, Father, aren’t these females actually WOMEN, not girls? This sexist language use of yours undercuts your claim that nuns “are often not sufficiently appreciated by society.” Wouldn’t it be a tad more appreciative if you did these nuns the honor of not infantalizing them by calling them girls AND not objectifying them by rating their hotness (by country of origin no less!)???

Thus, as his comments reveal, Rungi is sexist, ageist, lookist, and, perhaps above all, lacking in the ability to critically anaylyze what such a beauty contest (and the supposed ‘need’ for it) says about culture, society, and religion.

According to Rungi, nuns have both a “physical and spiritual beauty” and carry out work in which an “attractive presence” is an advantage. Yeah, because the work of say, Mother Theresa, would be so much better is she was hot. (Alas, Mother T would not qualify for the contest even is she was still alive due to being a “wizened old funeral lady” and well past the 40 cut off.)

Rungi further claimed that beauty is “not just the plasticised beauty you see on television. There is also such a thing as a chaste ideal, which comes from the heart and the soul, and has a beneficial effect on those who come into contact with it.” Yet, this “chaste ideal” supposedly ahs to come from the “heart and soul” of someone between 18 to 40 who is easy on the eyes.

Rungi didn’t propose an equivalent contest for priests or monks. Guess men don’t need to live up to a “chaste ideal” or prove they are not “old and dour.” Guess they are not expected to live up to the beauty imperative in which they will be judged above all by how they look. Guess I must have missed that 11th Commandment about female beauty when attending Catholic school oh so many years ago.

Alas, Rungi has cancelled his plans for the beauty contest. Apparently a number of people just don’t get that “beauty is a gift from God” to be judged on the internet via photos (habit optional).

What if make up wasn’t used as barometer of feminist cred?

As a scholar who has done a fair amount of work in the areas of beauty and body image, and as one who critiques what I term “the beauty imperative” of our culture, some might be surprised to find out that I am a make up junkie. In fact, I have often been accused of not being a “real feminist” because I like wearing make up. I am aware my predilections for mascara are likely due to my similarly make up crazy mom. I recall the thrill of making up with her collection from a young age. I would get all gussied up and then go out and pet our pigs or talk to the cows about the troubles of my young life. Mind you, I loved horseback riding, swimming, and getting dirty just as much as I loved dips into mom’s make up drawer. Neither of my parents ever suggested I should or should not wear make up, nor that because I was a girl I was limited in any way (thanks mom and dad).

Later, though, I had relationships in which partners suggested I was “prettier without make up” or that they wanted to see “the real me.” Well, a person who loves make up is the real me, damnit! I don’t always wear it, I don’t feel like I have to wear it, but I like to wear it. I am annoyed when people (usually men) suggest I don’t “need it.” Of course I don’t need it! I don’t need espresso everyday either but damn if I don’t enjoy it.

I do not wear make up (when I do) to play up to the male gaze or be viewed as “properly feminine” – if anything, in my job as a women’s studies professor, I am more suspect BECAUSE I wear make up. Last semester, many of my advanced feminist theory students repeatedly challenged me regarding make up. Several of them seemed to believe my fondness for eye shadow made me a sellout (because who cares how well you know your Butler or Hallberstam when you’re eyelids are colored hot pink, right?). The problem I see with this attitude is that telling women they should not be wearing make up is no better than telling them they have to. Shouldn’t we be able to choose for ourselves? Isn’t feminism supposed to be about choice? Heck, if I had my way, men could more readily choose to wear make up if they wanted to. Why should women get all the eyeliner fun? (For a good historical analysis of changing attitudes towards make up and whether or not women/men should wear it, see this post here. Note also the ire and passion this topic generates in the comments section…)

The emphasis Jessica Valenti puts on feminism being about choices, even when those choices include fishnets or red lipstick, is one of the reasons I like the book Full Frontal Feminism. While I personally find high heels fashion torture, and certainly don’t think elementary school girls should be crippled by them, I don’t see a women in stilettos and think, “Oh, that poor unenlightened dupe.” Likewise, I understand why young girls might WANT to wear make up (and even high heels) – yet, as with other choices, I think we as adults should promote girls (and boys) to question why they want to do such things.

Feminism has an ugly history of imposing all sorts of appearance-based rules – no bras, no shaving, no make up. Well, sorry bell hooks, but as a double D woman, I find going braless a back-breaking experience. And, I know I have learned this from our shave happy society, but I prefer all my underarms without hair (even the male ones).

In the world of women’s studies and feminist scholarship, beauty norms and practices have been scrutinized since the get go. For instance, Mary Wollstonecraft warned women about the dangers of valuing themselves based on their looks and her daughter, Mary Shelley, went on to write Frankenstein, a classic novel that questioned appearance based judgments.

Today, there is lots of talk of “empowerment” and claims that owning one’s beauty, sexuality, desire, etc are feminist moves. However, while I agree that women should be able to choose whether they want to look or dress certain ways, I also think it is imperative to remember the socio-cultural contexts in which these choices are made. We don’t live in a vacuum, and as much as we like to resist or subvert the white supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative, patriarchy, we are all still shaped by it. Thus, even those choices that seem “free” or “empowering” are enacted within a sexist society. As such, when a female looks a certain way, even if she chooses that look and finds it empowering, she may be variously objectified, ridiculed, exploited, etc. So, I can see why some feminists claim that wearing make up is anti-feminist. Yet, if as feminists we judge other women’s feminist cred based on whether they wear mascara or shave their legs, aren’t we enacting a gaze that is just as judgmental as the traditional male gaze? As a colleague of mine writes,

“It is an obvious point, but keeping women in the habit of judging each other and themselves by the way they look just keeps us from banding together and overthrowing the whole system! …Your scholarship and work is questioned/judged based on what you look like; are you ‘brown’ enough, are you ‘peripheral’ enough, are you too ‘pretty’…”

This idea that one is “too pretty to be a feminist” arises quite often. It goes against the “feminists are all ugly, hairy man-haters” mantra. Each semester, I hear versions of this belief. Last semester, a student shared that her dad asked her “So how ugly is your professor?” when she got home from her first Introduction to Women’s Studies Class. Yet, I am not sure that students surprised by the fact that I am not “ugly” is a good thing even though it might help to chip away at the ugly feminist stereotype. Instead, I wish students would question such norms and social constructions all together. What the heck is ugly anyhow? (I disagree with the premise that our definitions of beauty are hard-wired that the new book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff makes). One person’s pretty is another person’s ugly, and as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I understand that wearing make up is not without its problems. For example, recent work in ecofeminism and other areas reveals the environmental implications of everything from nail polish to product packaging. However, wearing make up seems like small potatoes compared to so many other social ills and norms. As a post over at Feministe notes, the “patriarchy” benefits from our squabbles over these relatively minor issues. In the post, Octogalore writes, “If ‘the patriarchy’ were reading many of these posts, they’d be chortling right now. Fiddling while Rome burns!” I agree that we often spend far too much time on trivialities and not enough trying to dismantle patriarchy and other oppressive social systems. Examining beauty norms and practices is certainly important, but looking at the wider causes of our obsessions with appearance seems far more fruitful than trying to wrench the lip gloss from every female hand. Further, in today’s era of infinite war, widespread genocide, and toxic dumping, it seems splitting hairs over bodily decoration is a bit trivial. (This is in fact while I have redirected my more recent research at issues of militarization and corporatism rather than at beauty and body image issues.)

Of course patriarchy, consumer capitalism, sexism, racism, classism and ageism perpetuate oppressive beauty norms and bodily expectations, but the wearing or not-wearing of make up need not necessarily bolster all of the above. The enjoyment of adorning the body goes as far back as recorded history, and I for one enjoy adornment practices. I feel they are part of being an embodied entity. Like tattoos or piercings or fashion, make up is another way to decorate and enjoy one’s body. If it is not enjoyable to the individual body, then by all means that body should not feel pressured to wear make up. As with tattoos, make up is not for everyone. It is perhaps a bit like alcohol – not necessarily good for you, but enjoyable. (Now, the puritan minded out there might claim that using any sort of alcohol or drugs is indicative of some sort of dangerous dependency, but that is fodder for another post…)

This to make up or not to make up is a subject that is very complex and could take longer to dissect than all of Hamlet’s soliloquies. Thus, I will end this already long post with the mere claim that while I don’t think wearing make up is a feminist act, (as this post at Alternet suggests), I don’t think NOT wearing it is one either.

What if the beauty imperative wasn’t so profitable? (Beauty Imperatives part 5)

In addition to the worrying (mis)representations of race, gender, and sexuality in reality TV, economic class and body size are represented in ways that either put monetary hardship under erasure (via the ‘we are all middle class or above’ syndrome most shows represent), that mine the body insecurities US culture creates for profit, and/or that perpetuate damaging beliefs in regards to class and body image.

Class was largely put under erasure in The Swan and other surgical shows, with matters of economics being ‘written out’ of the picture via the fact that makeovers were paid for. Questions of affordability, of the relative monetary driven exclusiveness of the surgically altered club, or of the fact that many of the ‘Swans’ could never afford such alterations on their own were never addressed. This plays into the myth of democracy the show upheld, the idea that “anybody can be a Swan,” and ultimately also colluded with the mythical American Dream of individualism – a dream that handily overlooks factors of class, race, sexuality, and ability.

The Swan also predictably emphasized perhaps the most overarching standard of the body beautiful in America today – the thin body. Equating happiness with the removal of ‘excess’ flesh, the show’s surgeons happily ‘liposculptured’ numerous locations on each of the contestant’s bodies. On the show, ‘ugly duckling’ contestants were codified as horrifically fat if they dared to move beyond the region of size 8 and all the women seemingly required not only liposuction but also excessive diet and exercise regimens. Drawing on repeated ‘before’ shots of contestant’s bodies, the camera zoomed in on supposedly disgusting butts, thighs, and stomachs, while contestants repeatedly made comments like “I feel so fat and ugly in my own skin.” Here, the show presented average female bodies as disgusting, as all too fleshy and out of control.

The show, perhaps unwittingly, also revealed that our fat-hating culture has created various lucrative possibilities. For example, when a doctor on the show enthused during a liposuction procedure “See how nice and golden the fat is. That’s a lot of cheeseburgers,” he not only objectified the female body he was working on, but also significantly equated fat with gold, illuminating the links between flesh and revenue.

Similarly, on Extreme Makeover, a female contestant was told she had to lose 30 to 40 pounds or she would not be given her makeover. Claiming her weight of 175 pounds was “medically unsafe,” her surgeon threatened to disqualify her and effectively coerced her into losing weight. Later, after the surgeon performed liposuction on this same patient, he giddily proclaimed, “It’s gold! It’s gold! It’s gold!” while storing the liposuctioned fat in beakers. These shows thus offer us haunting visual evidence of the ways in which flesh quite literally translates into profit for cosmetic surgeons while underscoring the cultural belief that the public performance of the body, to be acceptable, must be a fat-free performance.

I wish I could say this racist, sexist, classist, heteronormative fat-hating beauty imperative had gone the way of surgically based reality TV shows. Unlike the shows though, this imperative has not ended. Rather, it was displayed in all its horror during the July 13th airing of the Miss Universe pageant where women from around the globe trotted around in ball gowns and bathing suits, sporting light skin, long straight or wavy hair, white smiles, and small waists. Even though 80 countries were represented, the women looked hauntingly similar. From what I could bare to watch (about twenty minutes) there was not one disabled women, not one very dark skinned woman, not one woman with a nose that didn’t look like it came out of a surgeons ‘after ‘pictures, not one flat chest. I hope we soon wake up and put an end to all such beauty contests and, in so doing, begin a new approach to beauty, one that realizes that beauty comes in all colors, shapes, sizes, sexualities, and income brackets. For this to occur thought, the beauty industrial complex, which rakes in billions a year, must be dismantled for yet another ugly side of corporatism is the way it mines our bodies (and the socially constructed insecurities surrounding them) for profit. So, next time you are hating your body or feeling unbeautiful, please ask yourself who is profiting from this belief… It certainly isn’t you.

(This concludes the 5 part Beauty Imperative series. But, no doubt I will continue to post on these issues as it doesn’t look like our body image issues  in the USofAppearance-obsession will be going away anytime soon…)

What if you didn’t have to be hetero to be beautiful? (Beauty Imperatives part 4)

 

As noted in the previous Beauty Imperative post, reality programming re-defines and further entrenches the linkages between beauty and whiteness. Less obviously though, it also upholds heteronormative beauty standards. It does so in a number of ways: firstly, by presenting the pursuit of beauty as a pursuit of a ‘normal’ heterosexual relationship; secondly, via the suggestion that heterosexual people are more likely to be beautiful; and thirdly, by either putting homosexuality/queerness under erasure or by mocking it as an entertaining stereotype.

In relation to the first issue, reality shows such as The Swan and Extreme Makeover were informed by heteronormative narratives that equated happiness and success to heterosexual coupling and gave substantial airtime to details of the contestants heterosexual relationships or desire thereof. This trait was particularly evident in the “Where Are They Now” episode of The Swan. Detailing the engagements, new boyfriend’s, and improved marital relations of the contestants, as well as continually emphasizing the ‘newfound thrill’ of garnering appreciative male gazes, the episode continually reiterated an underlying aim of the show: to make women more beautiful for men.

Statements by many of season one’s contestants further revealed this aim, making it very apparent that many women on the show envisioned their surgical alteration as a means to make themselves more pleasing to existing or potential male partners. For example, one contestant pronounced that she thought her husband should leave her “because he deserved someone more attractive.” Another  explained that she didn’t leave her unfaithful husband “because I guess I’m afraid no one else would ever love me”. Here, her radical surgical alteration is presented as able to ward off infidelity and bring about a successful heterosexual union.

Season one’s winner, who the show repeatedly noted had a husband who felt she was “just average,” was surgically altered so as to be more pleasing to her mate. Enthusing that her hubby’s jaw dropped down to the floor when she paraded down the catwalk, she affirmed that she viewed her husband as the primary benefactor of her surgical extravaganza. Similarly, Belinda, whose supposedly ‘fat’ body was problematically equated with her string of abusive relationships, was whittled down to size in hopes of acquiring a mate. This ‘beautifying’ of the female body for male benefit continued in season two with a number of contestants noting they hoped to improve or save their marriages, while numerous others related they hoped to find a male partner after their surgical improvement.

In addition to presenting the pursuit of beauty as means to successful heterosexuality, such shows also suggest that heterosexual people are more likely to be beautiful by not including homosexuals in their narratives. While The Swan is perhaps most obvious in its emphases of the heterosexuality of its contestants, other makeover shows suggest that heterosexuals are more able to approximate beauty by the relative absence of homosexual participants. By putting homosexuality under virtual erasure, these shows enforce the notion that homosexuality is not, in fact, ‘beautiful,’ nor, such shows suggest, can it be made-over into beauty.

By equating the pursuit of beauty with the pursuit of successful heterosexuality, shows like these are saturated with what theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner call “the project of constructing national heterosexuality.” In fact, Reality TV in general, as evidenced by shows such as The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Wife Swap, Joe Millionaire, A Wedding Story, A Baby Story, and Trading Spouses, largely circulates around narratives of heterosexual coupling and reproduction.

Moreover, when homosexuality is showcased on Reality TV, it is often done so in a way that reinforces existing stereotypes and packages homosexuals and queers as entertaining oddities. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, as well as Boy Meets Boy, Survivor, Extreme Makeover, and The Real World all aired ‘gay stories’. Yet, they did so in ways that enforced stereotypes such as the ‘fashion savvy gay man,’ the ‘effeminate hairdresser’, or the ‘radical lesbian.’ Furthermore, gayness was offered as a marker of difference – as what makes one more amusing, more emotional, or more angry. Homosexuality is thus represented as a quirk to be mined for its shock value. Moreover, as theorist Kathleen LeBesco notes, Reality TV “falls short in its representation of lesbians and bisexuals.”

The stereotype of the ugly ‘butch’ lesbian was also repeatedly alluded to in shows such as The Swan via its continual derision of  women ‘looking masculine.’ Here, The Swan trafficked in a surgically inscribed ‘femininity’ through the recurring suggestion that the unaltered contestants were simply not feminine enough.  Show surgeons made statements such as “she’s a handsome woman, the goal is to make her a pretty woman…[to make her less] bulky and masculine.”

When another doctor commented to one participant “you’re nose is too big for your face and it’s not feminine,” he suggested that it is painstakingly obvious noses must conform to normative gender standards or else be cut down to size. Here the show reveals its very limited definition of acceptable femininity.

Further revealing that the show specifically links feminization to being attractive to men, the shows ‘experts’ noted that another contestant needed “to be feminized” so that she could live out “Her fantasy…that when she comes home looking ‘hot’ her husband’s going to wish he had treated her better.” Here, the show implicitly derided any woman who ‘looks masculine’ while simultaneously suggesting females are obliged to attract men. In so doing, it offers a condemnation of the non-heterosexual woman, coding her as ugly, undesirable, and deviant.

However, anyone with any appreciation of beautiful bodies knows that non-heterosexuals are just as (if not more) body beautiful than the rest of us. Been to a True Colors concert or a gay bar? Then you know that queers and homosexuals are a nice-to-look at bunch. Give me a fashion conscious queer over a couldn’t care less if I wear the same underwear 5 days in a row hetero any day!

The point is that ‘beauty’ does not require white skin or hetero desires no matter how much reality TV, pageants, and advertisements instruct us otherwise.