November 13, 2013

The Beauty Conundrum (part 1)

I keep putting off writing about this topic, because it seems big and scary and so serious. But I'm drinking some more coffee and I've been sniffing bleach (it's laundry day) so I thought I'd give it a try. Hold on to your butts.

I got the idea to write on this topic after posting a photo I took of myself to my Facebook page, to see if people would give me their opinion on whether it was good enough to put up on my website.

I was not expecting the responses I received, which were, with a few exceptions, almost exclusively about my appearance. Granted, I was not very specific when I posted the pic that I wanted feedback about the quality of the photo, not the subject matter. I was flattered that my friends and fans took the time to comment and tell me I looked nice. But all the comments on my appearance (as positive as they were) also made me oddly uncomfortable, and it took me awhile to figure out why.

I realized that maybe it came across that I was fishing for compliments about my appearance. And probably some part of me was. I'm not gonna pretend that being told I look gorgeous doesn't make me feel good on some level. But the attention on my appearance also made me feel bad and scared.

Women are primarily valued for their appearance in our society (and most societies throughout history). Especially in every aspect of the entertainment industry. It's unfair, since it's not a necessary requirement for the job. Except for being a model, I guess. By the way, models are some of the most insecure people on the planet, and it's no wonder. We can eat right, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, wear the best makeup money can buy, get our hair did, and try to make sure we're only seen and photographed in the most flattering light, but with time you and I will lose what physical attractiveness we have. Imagine having to compete for every job assignment based solely on your appearance.

It's also frightening that so much of a female artist's success depends on it, like it's an essential feature, when it's really not. Because it's a feature we lose over time, unlike our skills or talents. Well, until our minds start to go, anyway, and our fingers cramp up with arthritis, and we collect an alarming number of cats. But you get the idea. I know plenty of talented musicians and singers who aren't nearly as popular as they should be, and all because they don't fit the narrowly-defined standard of what is beautiful.

But to get back to my earlier point, women, whether they are in the entertainment industry or not, are primarily judged on their appearance. Men are allowed to age gracefully, women are not. Men are allowed to be merely not-creepy looking, whereas women must be at least passably attractive any time we are in any social setting. We are bombarded with advertisements telling us to smooth out our skin, hide our gray hairs, and get rid of any flab, or nobody will love us. "She really let herself go," is what is implied with so many words. Or just said outright. Rarely is that phrase applied to a man, because having wrinkles and gray hair just makes a guy's face "seasoned" and "full of character." I'm not saying the focus on appearance doesn't apply to men, because I know it does, and it's only getting worse for both sexes. But if a man is looking a bit worse for wear, if he's put on a little weight, or has gray hair and lots of wrinkles, it doesn't devalue him in society's eyes the same way it does for a woman, because his value to society was never primarily about his appearance, even if he's a male model. There is even a certain amount of ridicule directed at a man who troubles himself too much about his appearance.

But it's taken for granted that a woman will wear makeup, dye her hair, shave her legs, push up her boobs, suck in her gut, and basically do everything in her power to maintain her youthful and beautiful appearance for as long as possible. No one will view her as too silly or vain, because everyone understands this undercurrent of importance that is put on women's looks. We may judge a woman as being too vain if she goes to the extremes for her appearance - getting plastic surgery, spending thousands of dollars a year (or month) on clothes and beauty products, but we certainly understand why she does it. That's not to say a woman's looks are the only quality she must have, but it is the foremost quality. A woman can be a passable cook and conversationalist, merely maintain a job and a few friendships, and she'll be considered quite a catch, as long as she is attractive enough. (By the way, I am a passable cook and conversationalist). As children, girls are often socialized to play dress up (among other "gender specific" actions, like cooking) and look pretty.

I don't want to shame anyone (male or female) for doing everything they reasonably can to look their best. Studies show attractive people tend to make more money, are more easily trusted, and just have more opportunities in life than unattractive people do. Life is not fair, so I put on my hot girl disguise when appropriate just like the next girl - including to take my pictures for the website. I'm wearing makeup and I did my hair real purty, and I used the best natural light I could find in my house that day. And then I changed the white balance levels to conveniently wash out the dark circles under my eyes. Yup, that picture is digitally enhanced, y'all. You would be shocked (shocked!) to see just how homely I look without makeup, hair up in a bun, and glaring lighting. No, I'm not going to show you a picture. If you want to see what I really look like, you'll just have to come see me at a show, where there will no doubt be unflattering lighting. How's that for enticing you to come to a gig? "Come see me look shockingly average in unflattering lighting as I sing you the songs of my people! Beer, wine, gluten-free pastries available, too."

I know my friends were commenting on my picture, not my songs, so naturally they are going to comment on the visual. It would be weird if I posted it and someone said, "you have a GREAT personality!" For the longest time I didn't even want to post videos or pictures at all, because I don't want my music to be judged on my looks. I want people to like my music, not be influenced by whether they like my appearance. But alas, we are visual people, we make evaluations based on looks, and lots of people won't even bother listening to the music if you don't first give them some idea, through pictures, of what you might sound like.