January 9, 2014

The Beauty Conundrum (part 3)

So, what is to be done? Besides become aware of male privilege and work to make others aware of the damage it causes?

Well, it's helpful if those who are beautiful/attractive acknowledge their privilege. Anyone who possesses an unfair advantage in life must own up to the preferential treatment they receive if they want to live in a truly just and merit-based society (instead of one where winning the genetic lottery gives some people an unearned advantage over others). It's hard to acknowledge that advantage when you are blind to it; when you'd like to believe everyone is treated the same and any advantage you have in life is due to your own efforts, and especially when acknowledging it means you are now responsible for giving up power which you did not earn. We're all self-interested, and that will always bias what we see as reality. So until we live in a truly merit-based society where we all treat each other justly rather than based on skin color, race, sexual preferences, gender attributes, or physical appearance of any sort, those who have such privileges must acknowledge the unfair advantage they possess and champion those who don't.

First, acknowledge that women are people. Duh, you may say. You said that already. But what I mean is that women are just like men in that they have autonomy and agency over their thoughts, feelings, actions, appearance, sexuality, and body - and they should not have to live their lives in such a way that it must meet some man's approval in order to succeed in life. They should not be defined by what relationships they have with men.

Women are physically different from men, which often excites men's wonder and curiosity, but they are not mystical beings to be put on a pedestal like some prized object, or scorned for not living up to someone else's idea of what entails "womanhood." If you are a man, recognize that you don't "own" any woman, any more than you own your male friends, sons, fathers, etc. Don't comment on any woman's appearance when it's not appropriate. Appropriate: if a woman asks for your opinion on her looks, for instance, "does this shade of green look good on me?" Inappropriate: when a woman does something or says something with which you disagree, such as hold a political opinion which differs from yours. When a woman is not asking for your opinion on her looks, just minding her own business. Don't tell a woman she looks tired. Don't tell her to smile. She is not here for your entertainment and approval. Would you start a conversation with a guy by commenting on his appearance? No? Then don't start one with a woman that way. These rules apply to strangers, of course, not necessarily friends. Although I've often been annoyed with friends/acquaintances (always men) commenting on my appearance when it wasn't relevant to a discussion. Recognize and encourage women in their accomplishments and characteristics that are more directly under their control.

Second, if you are a parent, sibling, or other important role model to a girl, recognize and encourage her other characteristics and accomplishments. Don't praise or belittle other women's looks in front of her, or you'll teach her that looks matter more than words or deeds. And for the love of chocolate-covered peanut-butter filled pretzels, don't berate or praise a girl exclusively on her looks. If she is self-conscious about her looks, reassure her, but don't let the conversation stay focused on appearances. Remind her that being kind, wise, honest, and courageous is more important than being pretty. When you observe her looking at commercials, advertisements, magazines, movies, TV shows, etc., where women are objectified or spotlighted for their appearance, point out how that's wrong, and educate her about how extensively these images are retouched.

For instance, check out this great tutorial demonstrating what lengths magazines and advertisers go to in their quest to present us with an unobtainable level of beauty. Teach her to be confident in who she is, that she has worth apart from any man's approval, and that she shouldn't have to change who she is to earn basic respect as a human being.

I know many girls are fortunate to grow up with people in their lives who let them know they are valued for their kindness, bravery, intelligence, talents, and other qualities that have lasting value. But even with supportive and wise parents, teachers and friends, who do everything they can to help girls place their confidence and self-worth in their more worthwhile and lasting character traits, advertisers play on our insecurities to trick us into buying things. The beauty and fashion industries want women to buy their products, and will imply very strongly that you are less of a person if you don't look (and smell) as alluring as the woman-girl in their advertisements (or as ripped and suave as the hunk, if you're a guy). Women and girls are bombarded with such advertisements every time they open a magazine, turn on the TV, or walk down a city street. Female celebrities are scrutinized on their appearance, and there are periodic "exposés" on them without makeup (shocking!) or showing that they have muffin top and dimply thighs (the horror!). Shaming them for being less than the idealized versions that those same magazines perpetuate. Yup, pretty much every celebrity or model to grace the cover or interior of those magazines is photoshopped to within an inch of her life. Studies have shown that extreme retouching of photos makes a large percentage of people feel inferior when compared to this inhuman and unobtainable level of perfection. Many girls today are feeling pressured at increasingly younger ages to focus on their looks, and are developing eating disorders in alarming numbers. When even Minnie Mouse is subjected to a makeover and extreme weight loss, it's no wonder young girls are anxious about their looks.

Things are a little better in the UK and other countries, where measures have been taken to curb the amount of photoshopped images in magazines, and to ban models who have an unhealthy body weight in fashion shows. The Brits have long claimed their nation's focus on looks has gotten worse (probably due to the influence of the American media), but bless 'em, they still allow their celebrities to come in a range of heights, weights, and straightness of teeth. I ? you, Great Britain!

And finally, and most importantly, teach the men and boys in your life that women are people. This is probably the most challenging but necessary step. If boys are told they "run like a girl" or "cry like a girl," then they are being taught that girls are worth less than boys, and the way girls express themselves, just going about their day, living their lives, is inferior to the way men operate. If you don't teach the boys in your life that appearances are fleeting, shallow, and no real indication of what kind of person is under the packaging, you are doing them a disservice. They also need to be educated on how extensively women and girls are retouched in advertisements, so they know not to hold real women and girls to this unrealistic and unobtainable standard.

Teach boys that they are responsible for their own actions, and nobody's appearance gives them the right to openly comment on it, bully, take advantage of, or otherwise intrude on someone's life against their will. Just because a girl is pretty doesn't mean she's easy, shallow, stupid, deserves deferential treatment, is insecure, or whatever. Just because a girl is "ugly" or "plain" doesn't mean she's not worth getting to know, is grateful for any attention thrown her way, is insecure, etc.

Check out this awesome interview wherein Dustin Hoffman shares his insight on what he felt like having to portray a not-very-attractive woman in the film "Tootsie."

People are judged more on appearances than they used to be thanks to TV and internet (Video has indeed killed the Radio star). It's always been harder for women, but thanks to being bombarded with more advertisements and visual images than ever before, and the pervasive use of photoshop, it's important to be vigilant about how these distorted and unrealistic expectations contribute to sexism. This is pretty much what my song Corset is about (if you haven't heard it, give it a listen). It's a bit frustrating that it took me three blog posts to try to articulate that. Hopefully I did a better job of communicating my thoughts in song.

More links you should check out:

The Photoshop Effect (part 2)

For women in the workplace; it's still about looks not deeds

Double Standards: Men Are Judged on Their Merit, Women on the Size of Their Asses

The Women Of My Generation Blew It, So Equality Is Up To You, Graduates

Stop Being Mean to Women on the Internet

Redditor who was male and transitioned to female explains how she was/is treated based on gender