Friday, August 27, 2010

Gender and beauty standards

How long do I have to hold strong feminist values before some of the dominant views of women begin to erode? Or how strongly do I need to hold beliefs about healthy body images before I stop comparing myself to other women all the time? Have any women reading this made it that far? If so, please share your story, as I am getting frustrated with some of these knee jerk reactions that are so incompatible with my politics.

I was at an event not too long ago where there were a couple other women about my age, and right away I found myself sizing them up, comparing their physical appearance to my own, judging them based on their appearance. This lasted about a second and a half before I caught myself and snapped the proverbial elastic band around my wrist, but it was a lesson for me. I, of all people, am still buying into these dominant gendered beauty norms.

My friends and family know better than to make a sexist statement around me, and are careful when making any comment on a woman's appearance, as they know that I will call them out if I believe it to be inappropriate. I tell people off when they make catcalls on the street when I feel safe doing so. I think I have shaved my legs 4 times in the last year, and I've recently made a commitment to not shaving anymore because I miss the soft hair. I wear make up maybe once a month. I style my hair about every other week. More often than not, I wear jeans or capris and a T-shirt. I am not remotely high maintenance, and I try not to care what I look like in relation to dominant standards of beauty, but I still worry about body image.

Maybe it dates back to when I was a competitive figure skater and gymnast, as we were very hard on each other and ourselves to look how we thought a female athlete was supposed to look. Note that I said female athlete and not just athlete... athletes are supposed to be strong and muscular, female athletes on the other hand, at least in the sports I participated in, were supposed to have long lean muscles. I know I define myself by my figure to an extent... I still exercise regularly and get concerned if my pants start to get too tight (although I have convinced myself that I just don't want to buy a new wardrobe... maybe that is only part of the problem).

So, now I am trying to find a balance of some sort. How do I exist in a world where everywhere I look there are photoshopped images of women posing in various (often contorted) positions, and still try to maintain a healthy body image? How do I try to enjoy television programs that feature women who were often picked because of their appearance along with men who are allowed to be chosen because of their acting abilities (not that being a conventionally attractive woman is incompatible with strong acting skills, all I'm saying is that there are different standards for actors and actresses).

I think another part of the problem is that appearances do have actual consequences in real life. I have been wanting to dye my hair purple and teal again.. not sure why... but I am hesitant to do so before I present at an academic conference in a few days because I feel as though I may not be taken seriously if I don't have "normal" hair. When I worked as a server at a bar, my tips were largely dependent on how well I fit into the box that has been constructed for hetero cis-gendered women. So, I am trying to change my beliefs about what I am supposed to look like, while realizing that there are actual consequences to whether or not I fit in to a specific mold.

It is not incredibly difficult for me right now. I am a grad student, work at the university, and am very involved in an academic union- not really areas where gender conformity is highly scrutinized. But, I wonder if this will still be the case when I graduate and go into the workforce- when I have to worry about being passed up for raises and promotions if I don't conform to specific standards.


  1. I'm sure you've read it long ago, but I'm aware on a very conscious level about 70% of the time of the impact The Beauty Myth has had on me. It's brutal.

    I blogged about it with a lot of rage when I was blogging at (deleted that).

    With a seven year old girl it's especially at the forefront of my mind. I happen to be one of the women who's on the very low end of the "maintenance" scale. Still, explaining to my daughter that balance between feeling good about myself, taking care of myself and my appearance because I like myself while not being sucked into trying to look a certain way... Oh, it's massive. It's an enormous undertaking.

  2. Funny that you bring up the Beauty Myth... That book was one of my biggest lightbulb moments... in intro to sociology one of my profs read a few pages from it and so much of it resonated with me that I began reading feminist books and never looked back.

    My daughter is also 7 and I am having a hard time trying to get her to understand that balance too. She wears pink every day, and sadly that is not an exaggeration.

    Even worse, I think I've mentioned on here before, a few weeks ago, she told me that she would rather be pretty than smart. That sentiment hit me like a ton of bricks... I've tried so hard to get her to think critically about beauty standards... I've shown her the photoshopped before and after images from Jezebel so she doesn't think magazine covers are real, we've talked at length about make up and stuff that Hannah Montana and Taylor Swift uses to look a specific way, and about the length of time it takes from women to get ready (She doesn't think that is fair at all). But she's still buying into it... It is an enormous undertaking, but I'm just going to keep trying to get her thinking critically and hope that is enough.

  3. It will probably be the case for a long time; I don't think these things that masquerade as common sense (either normative gender constructions or anything else) are capable of disappearing through individual effort. I was raised on a leftish commune when I was a kid, along with my cousins and other kids, and there was definitely an attempt to create a gender neutral atmosphere. To some extent, and for a limited amount of time, it worked, but there's a larger society where systemic patriarchy (along with systemic every other oppression) functions and so it didn't work that well.

    Until the social relations that form the material substructure of society are liberated, these things will continue. We can't just reprogram our minds, sadly, when we're being socialized every day. We can be conscious of socialization, though, but being social animals we really can't escape it completely.

  4. well put, JMP... thanks for the insight... and making me feel slightly less guilty about my inability to move past some of this.

    I loved the Marxist/materialist analysis at the end that my post was lacking, about changing the social relations before we can really change our ideas.