Posts Tagged ‘beauty’
I’ve spent a lot of my life worrying about being attractive. I started in my teens, from the position of believing myself to be grotesque and repulsive, as most people do. I spent a while trying to learn to be less repulsive from my peers, who had their own strategies, from sex to self-harm, and settled for a while on religiously following magazine beauty tips. I soon stopped, because they were obviously stupid, and often contradictory.
I got older. I felt less grotesque. I learned how to be attractive from conversations and observation of friends, a method which promotes constant comparison. Like anyone faced with a situation they can’t control, but really need to, I created achievable goals. If I keep my eyebrows plucked, my hair styled, my legs, armpits and pubis shaved, my face made up, and my clothes flattering, I’ll be attractive. When that failed, I relied on inherent, if transitory qualities. As long as I’m under 30, I’ll be attractive. That sort of thing.
At some point in the last few years, all of the things I used to do to ensure I was attractive fell by the wayside. Shaving is a faff. Wearing foundation gives me spots. Daily washing and styling uses up valuable sleeping time. I’m not willing to pay the heating bills that sexy nighties cause. In fact, I’m not even willing to stump up for a new silk nighty at this juncture. Some of my university friends are turning thirty this year.
A strange thing has happened. I haven’t got less attractive.
While I’ve been distracted by other things, like earning a living and writing a novel, I’ve forgotten to compare myself to other people. Suddenly, now I’m not noticing the miniscule differences, I can see how attractive most of my friends are. The ones who value grooming, the ones who rarely shower, the ones who’ve lost weight, gained weight, not bought a new outfit in a year, the ones in porn and the ones who hide behind laptops and screen personas. I’m not delusional, I don’t suddenly believe that we’re all equally beautiful and special, but I do note that we make an attractive group, me and my friends. . I wish I could go back and tell my thirteen year old self. I wouldn’t tell her that it’s ok, she’s attractive after all. I’d tell her that being attractive isn’t half as hard as everyone makes out.
It would be nice to think that this is the result of some kind of inherent, immutable beauty shining though. Sadly, I don’t think it is. Beauty is something that catches your attention when you aren’t expecting it, you can notice it when no one else has. You know beautiful things about your partner that no one else does. It can make you interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily make you attractive.
When we talk about attractiveness in ways that affect us personally, like who to spend your life with, it operates a lot like beauty, and it’s mostly dependent on personal taste. In superficial interactions, though, personal taste doesn’t come into it so much. In these, attractiveness is a category, and you can assess it in a glance. The category of attractive woman is what the men at the library are reacting to when they say mildly flirtatious things, what the shop assistant reacts to when she suggests a particular dress, what makes people glance at my boyfriend to decide whether he belongs next to me. It’s what divides me from the overweight girl in the baggy clothes when men look around the room at dancing. They don’t seek beauty, they don’t search my face for evidence that I’m their deepest desire. They look just long enough to determine where I belong in the order of things. That doesn’t mean the overweight girl isn’t beautiful, and I’d be very surprised if she didn’t turn some of the men on. When they approach her, though, they do it differently to how they approach me. When they watch her dance, they do it less openly, and when they thank her, there’s a very slightly different tone. I bet she doesn’t get asked why she doesn’t bring her boyfriend along as often as I do, but that’ just speculation.
Now that I’ve noticed this (yes, you might say that it took me long enough), I’m horrified to notice the ways my categorisation is, and is not, in my control. I’m almost in the category by default because I’m under forty (yes, I moved the goalposts), have an acceptable BMI, and no visible impairment. I suspect that being white helps, too, if only because in a mostly white culture, it doesn’t carry interpretive questions or baggage. The biggest factor under my own control is probably my weight, but even here I have a natural advantage in my height, which allows me to get podgier than a short person before anyone notices. After that it’s mostly a case of not doing things: not getting lots of piercings or tattoos, not wearing crazily colours stripy things, getting dreadlocks, hanging spikes and metal from my clothes. I’d have to put some effort in. Just not caring enough to shave or dress prettily wouldn’t cut it.
I ought to be reassured to discover how easy it is to be attractive. Mostly, though, I’m looking at the rules of the club, and wondering why I wanted in.
I spent most of the weekend making porn. On Sunday, I waved a friend off as she went to another city to make porn. On Monday, I read this article. I sighed, and wondered why we’re still having the same conversation.
To summarise: Lying feminists pretend that porn is feminist. It isn’t. Porn is not about freedom, but economics, and therefore stems from abuse, involves coercion and incites criminality. There is too little feminist porn, and in any case it hardly seems to be porn at all. If feminist porn succeeds, it will be absorbed into the mainstream and made toothless. We should ban pornography outright, or at least ask questions about where it comes from. The pornography-meat metaphor isn’t getting tough and stringy.
If you’ve read Gold’s article, with all its prolonged blow jobs and anal penetration, my weekend of semi-clothed photographs, like the one below, and spanking story writing will seem tame. It was hardly ethnically-specific disembodied penis performs opaque metaphor.* Tame things don’t count in the debate about contemporary pornography, because the conversation is always about hardcore film, which allows for specific feminist narrative. Female performers are cast as victims, making them unreliable witnesses until they’ve stopped performing and started talking about how much the experience damaged them, or played on their childhood trauma. The narrowing to one type of pornography, and one narrative of it, effectively silences women.
Inside me, there’s a second wave feminist jumping up and down and waving a literature textbook. How were women kept out of the canon for so long? It wasn’t because they didn’t write, but because their writing didn’t count. The form was wrong, they wrote diaries when men wrote sonnets and plays. The content was wrong, they wrote about domestic affairs when men wrote about monarchs and wars. The perspective was wrong, they painted individual psychological portraits when men wrote with lofty omnipotence about huge casts of characters. Later, feminists dug out women’s writing, and re-drew the boundaries of literature to fit it in. We made the collective discovery that were women writers beyond Sappho, Julian of Norwich and Jane Austen. It had been hidden, not because it wasn’t there, but because nobody talked about it. Women’s work just wasn’t considered, for the most part, to be the proper stuff.
What’s this got to do with pornography? Well, some women are setting up hardcore porn sites, which may or may not look like the ones that are already there. Some women are posing for photos in their vintage lingerie, and whether they sell them or not, they’re still making porn, just as Anne Lister was writing in her diary when lesbian women weren’t represented in literary fiction. Lots of women are writing erotic stories, and say what you like about the quality of many of them, but after the Fifty Shades phenomenon, we can no longer claim that they don’t sell. Sometimes women express their sexuality, sometimes they do what they think the reader wants, or go along with the photographer’s idea. Sometimes they’re in it for themselves and sometimes they’re in it for the money. If I ere in it for the money, I’d have to admit that I’m doing it wrong.
I don’t share all of Gold’s fears about the effects of pornography, although I too am made uncomfortable by porn filmed with low production values, little respect for women, a large dose of racism and a set of linguistic and visual signs that would make Derrida weep. Feminist projects can fail to be feminist, and the label can be used by unscrupulous women with a crazy urge to make enough money to pay the rent. However, the reason that the few women doing feminist porn projects are the focus of all this adulation and criticism is that we’re still focussing on the porn that men produce and consume. While we look at them, and at feminist attempts to do what they do, we obscure work by women in other forms.
I’m not about to go into hardcore film. Spanking films, maybe. Nicely lit photographs of me wearing stockings and looking ecstatic about the fact that I have toes, definitely. Stories and novels, just you try to stop me! The latter things count, so I’m refusing to feel I’m not qualified to comment on the experience of making pornography.
Does making pornography feel feminist? Not really. It isn’t like an assertiveness training course or a take back the night march. In gender equality terms, it’s kind of neutral. I like it that way; not everything in life has to be a battleground. There’s a chance that the worry that I look podgy in this photo stems from a sexist cultural imperative for the female body to conform to unattainable beauty standards.** In that case, the most feminist thing to do is embrace the failure of my stomach to be flat, and post it anyway. I have a feeling I know what Tanya Gold would say to that.
*Who comes up with tags like ‘creampie’ and ‘black cock bangs x’ anyway?
**I also wish we’d remembered to take the cane off the wall before we took this picture, but I can’t think of an interesting feminist disappointment about that.
I have been reading ‘Stone Butch Blues’. When I first saw the title—browsing the library catalogue for books on butch/femme identity and trans issues—I thought it was a musician’s autobiography; I had to go all the way back to the library when I realised my mistake. For those of you as ignorant as me, it’s the story of a butch lesbian in 1960s America, and it’s full of oppression, systemized violence and rape. Her lovers are prostitutes and the gay bars are danger zones. It’s a story about being on the fringes of society, and, for some characters, losing grip on society’s tassels entirely.
I have a sense that this experience should speak to me, as part of lesbian history. The freedom I have now, to kiss a girl in the street, was won by people like her returning to the gay bar, night after night, in the knowledge that if the police come—and one day they will—she’ll be beaten and raped. In a sense she did it for me, yet her fierce identity, her need to refer to all lesbians as ‘butches’ or ‘femme’s (nouns, not adjectives), her intensity, alienates me.
Reading Emma Donoghue’s ‘Passions Between Women’, on the other hand, which explores lesbian identity in eighteenth century Britain, I have a sense of fun, a sense that, in those circumstances, I would form a ‘romantic friendship’ and pen pastorals to my love. I would marry a woman dressed as a man, or do many of the numerous, ingenious things women who loved women did to make room for their passion in a restrictive society. The penalties for such behaviour were not heavy. Female husbands, for example, were generally tried for fraud (as the ‘male’ partner, they owned the wife’s property). In 1694 one was sentenced:
She was ordered to Bridewell to be well whipt and kept to hard labour till further order of the court.
Donoghue notes that,
The punishment, too, sounds mild, in the context of the period, when pickpocketing and rape were hanging matters….there is no record of executions in Britain or America. When British female husbands received any punishment, it was typically a matter of six months in jail and a symbolic exposure.
Adjusting for the harshness of the era (with a lack of subtlety that probably has Foucault spinning in his grave), British lesbians of 300 years ago were afforded more self-expression than American lesbians 50 years ago, and if they wore a suit they did it to create a private space for their love, rather than to slot into an inflexible butch identity. That freedom may be why I feel more affinity to eighteenth century lesbians than I do to the Stone Butch crowd.
I didn’t grow up in a world where lesbians were seriously oppressed. My mother’s cousin used to come to visit, wearing black trousers and doc martens, she leant me tomes on feminist theory, and lived with her best friend. My school had an openly lesbian head teacher, in addition to the obligatory P.E. coven. The head teacher was terrifying, respectable, and given to reading out long passages by Julian of Norwich on Monday mornings. She was in no way transgressive.
Did I find it difficult admitting I like women? Sometimes. Have I played the pronoun game? Absolutely. I’m not worried about retribution, though, I’m just overcome by the weight of misunderstanding.
In my forays into mainstream society, the assumptions about me are so great and so many that I don’t know where to begin changing them. I’m a woman, so I must be obsessed about my weight, elated when complimented on my looks, scared of strange men, reassured by the protective presence of male acquaintances. I must demand monogamy, probably against the instincts of my male lover, I must prefer sweet white wine to real ale, I must want a desk job, and refuse to consider one that involves lifting files (thanks, recruitment agent, for that).
Not everyone makes these assumptions, but enough people do, often enough, that fighting it feels futile. When someone says, “you look good, you must have lost weight,” I could say, “I looked good beforehand, and in any case I have no interest in weight as a measure of beauty, given the socio-economic factors determining both,” or I could be polite and change the subject. When I say I have a date and everyone assumes it’s with a man, or when I say my partner has a date and everyone assumes it’s with a woman, frankly, there are bigger things I’ve let slide.
Which is all to say, the world hasn’t recognised my sexual identity and given me a card and some balloons, and I’m ok with that. In this particular kettle of fish, my sexuality is a sardine to the giant tuna of other aspects of my life. What of ‘Stone Butch Blues’? Well, I’m glad they did it. Maybe it’s because they fought so hard that I’m able to put my energies into frying bigger fish. Maybe I’m missing something important, about how things were different in America, about what it means to be lesbian and working class, and maybe I’ll learn those things if I keep reading. I’m curious, though, about how everyone else feels about our history. Do you feel some affinity for their pain, or are we so far beyond it, that the historical lesbians we identify with have to be the ones with pluck, breeches, poetry and cutlasses?
This week it was suggested that Manchester Under 35′s Munch allow over 35 year olds in, if they have youthful enough partners. I’ve never been particularly interested in debates about age-limited munches, except to note that I’d never invite the people decrying them to a party, because they’d probably be sending out for more beer when I’m rinsing glasses and yawning pointedly. However, responses to the suggestion have been fascinating. There’s a terrifying number of people who think it’s acceptable that younger people should never go to events without their partners. A significant proportion of members don’t think the age limit is about having something in common with other attendees, but about keeping, “predatory older doms” (PODs?) out. I began to ask some questions. Why are so many older people angry about not being able to come? Why can’t young women go to events unaccompanied by their partners? Why is there such a perceived threat of PODs? The answer is obvious: young women are valuable. Everyone wants us. Don’t you just want to tie us up and beat us? Well you can’t, we’re taking our hot, youthful flesh to that pub over there, and shutting you out. Feel free to peer at the goodies through the window.
I’m exaggerating a little. In any case, the rhetoric of the fetish scene is one of inclusivity and acceptance, where many tastes are represented. We’re brought together by our difference from the mainstream; you might not share my love of canings, but you share my sense of exclusion. Because there are so few of us, we have to share a space, so we respect one another. Where there are enough people, we divide into groups by preference to make places where we can go to get what we want, and we exclude those who don’t share our tastes. And that’s personal preference, right? You can’t criticise people for that, surely? Well, it’s not quite that simple.
At 19 I tended not to sleep with fat women, trans or genderqueer people (fat men were less of a problem for me – go figure). At 27, it’s naive to think of that as “just personal taste” and have started to challenge received wisdom about what qualities are sexually desirable. As a result, I’ve had some fantastic sex (and indeed relationships) with beautiful people I would otherwise not have considered as potential lovers.
It’s easy, after the initial “Oh God, what made me like this!?” stage for kinksters to think that because they don’t share obviously mainstream tastes, they exist in a social vacuum as far as their desires are concerned. I think it’s worth considering the factors that shape them. That’s why I remain vaguely insulted by FemSub, for example, even though I can understand why people would want a space where they know they can meet someone of their preference. There’s something distasteful in providing a space for what seems to be the most common and acceptable dynamic, the one that’s closest to the mainstream, and excluding everyone else. And don’t get me started on the advice that there may be play, “should the ladies choose.” Consent isn’t an issue for men, apparently!
But I digress. It’s naive to expect the kink scene to be free of the prejudices the rest of society has: sexism, herteronormativity, racism, the belief that high heels are a good thing. Perhaps I should count myself lucky since I fit my box well; a bisexual submissive woman is a better thing to be, given the prejudices of our little subculture, than, say, a submissive man with a urine fetish. There are women who do better out of conventional beauty standards than I do (I’m never going to be able to do anything about these hips) but I’m on the right side of acceptable, and hairy legs aside, it helps that I’m femme. That’s probably why it took me so long to feel uncomfortable with the scene’s values. I was doing fine out of them.
A while ago the lover and I were talking about the spanko community I know through blogs and Twitter, but for the most part don’t know in real life. He observed that, compared to us, they’re ‘so straight’. “Some of the women are bi” I said. The men aren’t though, or if they are they keep it quiet. The prevalent dynamic is M/f, with (and I say this from the outside, with extremely limited knowledge) a preference for youth among the fs. Presumably they’re brought together by a shared taste, but that doesn’t stop me feeling sad when I look through what’s being shared as hot (Abel’s collection of photos, say) or criticised as not (such as this tall spankee) that I’m not getting any younger, skinnier or shorter.*
I’ve loved the idea of being fresh meat for the predatory older man since before it would have been legal, but just as an idea. Well, I’ve loved it once or twice as a reality, too, but queasily, and before I discovered kink. Now that I’m here, in this world where fantasy becomes play so easily, I’d like to enjoy being preyed on, in my youth and innocence, by older men who covet it, without the real-life repercussions of feeling I lose value with every passing day, or that my partners like my lack of wrinkles or my naivety more than my experience or knowledge or any of the things that make me me. I’d like a world where spanking models don’t have to lie about their ages, and where we don’t think we have to keep predatory doms out of the Under 35′s Munch.
Is it possible, given that I spent half of last year battling a crush on a beautiful woman in her forties (no luck, she has a younger boyfriend), that I have a bit of a thing for a woman who was old enough to be releasing records in the 1980s (and I know I’m not the only one), and that the kink scene is built on such weird tastes as fancying a woman over thirty, that I could find a kinky space where youth isn’t—ahem—fetishized? Or am I being naive?
*Ok, I find it hard to want to be shorter, it must make it difficult to breathe in lifts. And reach high things. I sometimes feel too tall for my kink, though.
Last night, during the interval in a play about queerness, a friend admitted that he’d popped his head around the door of one of the modern jive venues I go to. He didn’t spot me twirling gracefully across the dance floor and spend the rest of the evening staring and entranced. He retreated, he told me, because the place had all the awfulness of a school disco. His school discos clearly differed from mine, which involved metal, grunge and a lot of painful moshing.
I was filled with shame. I don’t know what his discos were like, but his tone left no doubt as to what he thought of them. Modern jive isn’t cool. I attended my first class because I’d moved back to my father’s house in the centre of middle-class, middle-age, dormitory-village nowhere, and when he asked me if I wanted to come, I thought it may be marginally better than sitting at home alone for another night. I discovered I liked it, and realised, as an ex-boyfriend had pointed out months before, that there’s no one following me around with video cameras judging my behaviour.
At dancing, it’s the activity I enjoy. I know that many of the people there are hopeless, the music is often dismal even from my tasteless perspective, I halve the average age* and proper dancers look down on easy modern jive. None of that changes the fact that I leave sweaty and slightly high, reliving the best moments of the best dances. It also provides a good excuse to buy pretty dresses, a high priority for me.
Reflecting on this last night (read: lying awake mentally justifying my uncool choices) it struck me that I have the same feelings of shame and embarrassment about my sexual and play partners as I do about my choice of dance venues. I know what sort of thing I’m meant to like: lithe young men with long eyelashes and big muscles, or slim young women with good cheekbones and shiny hair. But I don’t. Well, sometimes I do, but not usually for those qualities. I don’t feel good about that.
Some criticisms stick with you. The time my best friend said she knew I thought my girlfriend was beautiful, but she didn’t. The disgust when people find out just how much older than me a new lover is. I shrug and say, “does age matter?” or, “it’s not serious,” trying to play down the issue. It does matter to me, though: I like older men. If I’ll admit my kink for being hit with a rattan cane, why is it so much more difficult to say, “middle aged men turn me on,” or even (and this was difficult to type, I admit) “slightly grotesque men do it for me”?
I’m perfectly able to describe the kink scene without alluding to its lack of glamour. My vanilla friends don’t need to know about the tacky PVC or public sex**. They’re unlikely to turn up at a fetish club, leave in disgust and later berate me for giving the impression that kink was all about reading interesting Victorian journals and wearing pretty shoes. They’re much more likely to make judgements about people. So I don’t mention that a play partner is twice my age, although I find the fact delicious, or bring up my intermittent frissons of attraction to an overweight man with a tendency to sweat.
Clearly, I ought to embrace my lack of cool, as I have been doing in any number of areas (fashion, say, or poetry) for years, and proudly go to my dorky dance venues and seek play from people with whom I’ll enjoy it most. There’s a part of me which will mourn the fantasy of myself as the alluring, transgressive kinkster, expressive of others’ secret, dark desires, but I hope for other rewards. Now, and with those in mind, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see how my new white cotton panties look with my gingham dress. It’s an outfit I hope to have a lot of very uncool fun while wearing.
*This is an exaggeration. I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m twenty-six.
**I’ve only ever seen this in one club, but it was the day of my first toe-dip into the fetish scene, and it stuck in my mind.
I own a very girly dress. It’s pink and it’s floral. It sports bows and butterflies. It’s the sort of dress which you only buy because your inner five year old is going to throw a tantrum in the middle of the shop if you don’t let her have it. I bought it because it was the perfect dancing dress. By which I mean not that it had a swirly skirt, but that it was great for sweating in: no sleeves, breathable, washable. I’m a practical woman at heart. All the same, I had an indecisive moment. I stood in the changing room and asked, “Could you take me seriously in this dress?”
“Perhaps,” the assistant replied, “if you tried for a really serious expression.”
I bought it anyway.
Last night I put it on, stood in front of a mirror and thought to myself, “the tongue piercing really doesn’t go.” Usually I think that it provides a subtle, slightly surprising, edge to my image. With the pink dress, wasn’t provocative, it was downright unsettling. Little girly really doesn’t go with something that makes you think of blow jobs.
I sallied out to go dancing. Three compliments later I was feeling good about my dress. Then my father told me, “Two people have said to me tonight, ‘When she first started dancing, she always wore black. Now she looks so pretty and feminine.’” Skipping over the change of seasons, the loss of a dress size and the necessity for investment in clothes suitable for dancing, this seems a strange sort of comment. I’m being praised for becoming more feminine. Being feminine is a good thing. Why? Is it intrinsically good, or do good things come of it?
Nothing very good came of it last night. I didn’t notice any men queuing up to dance with me. No one gallantly fetched me water or chivalrously carried my shoes to the car. One, tiny interaction made me realise the assumptions that people made, though.
I stopped to buy beer. I do so about once a fortnight. Same place, same product, same transaction. This time: different dress. As I approach the counter a lad comments “I wouldn’t have you down for a Fosters drinker.” I wouldn’t, either, three of the four cans were for my father, but then this petrol station doesn’t stock my preferred drink, a good pale ale, which I told him. He was very surprised that I even knew what a pale ale was. Women in girly dresses, it seems, aren’t meant to know their beers. Nevertheless, I went to pay.
I was IDed. I’m twenty-six. I’m five foot ten. I looked like I was twenty by the time I was fourteen. No one ever IDs me. Until I put on the pink dress. To make up for it, though, the cashier flirted his little heart out and made funny jokes about being a potential stalker. He gave me a voucher I hadn’t earned and a cheery wave as I drove away.
It’s only one evening. A couple of tiny incidents. Definitely not a representative sample of society. But I’m left with these two things: praise for looking more girly, and the results of looking more girly, including assumptions of youth, ignorance, willingness to flirt and desire for gifts.
I know that I make a choice when I get dressed about the assumptions I invite. I know that if I wanted to be taken seriously I could probably manage it with a sharp, black suit. What worries me is the pressure to look girly, and thus to choose the assumptions I experienced last night. Women may seem to have a range of available dress codes, but you try going out looking butch and see how much trouble you get for not conforming in comparison to the advantages (assumptions about your sexuality may be problematic for you, too, but since I’m basing my knowledge of this on my ex-girlfriend I don’t know how that one will affect you). I will never know how much the way I dress everyday affects how people treat me, to find out would require replacing my wardrobe overnight. It must be said that this would hardly be an issue if I were a man.
I’m not going to give up my girly dress, although I might get a pink sparkly tongue stud to complete the look.* I think the answer is going to be in balance. My next purchase will have to be something so different from the very girly dress that it throws the whole identity of the wearer into doubt. I think I’ve found it. How about a pretty halter dress on which the cherries, on closer inspection, turn out to be bright, red skulls?
*I’m not really going to do that, it would be unspeakably vulgar.
The last few days of my life have been unrelentingly domestic. Nine guests were staying at my house for a friend’s hen party, so I cleaned the house from top to bottom, kneaded brioche, made beds and counted towels. They’ve gone now, leaving me with a big pile of laundry and instructions to get on with decorating the wedding cake.
I like to think of myself as a feminist, but on days like this I don’t look much like one. Other indicators include my frilly pink apron, hand knitted jumpers and home-made handbags. I buy pink patterned cupcake cases and boil my own strawberry jam. Last week I made my own butter. Yesterday I spent hours sewing half a dress.
Can I be a feminist and still impersonate a 1950s housewife? I’m not sure. The obvious recourse is to consent. Unlike women of the past, my generation has the freedom to do as we please, I’m told, so whatever course we take results from an “empowered choice.” I think that argument is insulting. What were women before the sexual revolution? Mindless automatons? Do we make our choices free of any constraint today? Of course not. We live in a culture and it can be very difficult to defy gendered expectations, as I can verify after getting into a cold sweat about revealing my unshaven legs. Seventy percent of women won’t leave the house without make up. That isn’t free choice, that’s fear. Conforming to a gender role can’t be excused with the word empowerment, and the best way I can describe the impulse to do so is “Stockholm Syndrome.”
That said, there is a key difference between the apron I wear and the one my grandmother did. Hers was more practical and donned earlier in the morning. I doubt she had “Riots not diets” cross-stitched onto one of the pockets. My apron, you see, is singularly unsuited to actual cooking. It covers little of my body and can’t be washed at high temperatures, so I have to be careful not to get it too dirty. But that’s ok because keeping flour off me is a secondary role; I’m not sure whether its primary role is prettiness or to make an ironic comment on aprons.
An apron you can’t get dirty. A signifier of feminine domestic servitude which incites riots. This is a garment which calls itself into question. Furthermore, with its pink cotton and black lace combination, it invokes all sorts of naughty garments you don’t normally wear in the kitchen (unless you have a sturdy work surface), and that brings together two feminine roles to compare and contrast. In other words, my apron is subversive, it reveals the inherent absurdity of the feminine roles by overemphasising them and recombining them in new ways. So, surely, I can remain a feminist by being kitsch in the kitchen.
Well, that’s what I thought. The idea is to play with gender roles, in the knowledge that I can’t fully escape them, I can have a bit of ironic fun. Not everyone recognises what I’m doing, but I don’t intend on worrying about that. A lot of people have no idea what I’m on about even when I put it into words.
As time goes by, though, I begin to question it. That began when I discovered Cath Kidston. She’s the one doing all the chintz and paisley patterned bags women started carrying lately, in pink and pastel shades. Her shops are like temples to a bygone era. She sells fabric and sewing patterns, but in case you can’t be bothered to sew she also sells ready-made items. Her first product was a patterned ironing board cover, but the home wares have expanded to include such items as egg cosies and floral patterned radios. You know, the necessities.
Don’t get me wrong, this is my kind of shop, but it did get me thinking. The radio will set you back £200, the egg cosies are £5 each. Like my apron, they represent domesticity rather than really engage with it. After all, if you can afford £38 for the sewing basket you’re probably not making your own dresses to avoid Primark’s steep prices, and the person who pays £5 for a scrubbing brush can probably also afford a dishwasher.
All this is fine, after all people spend their money on far sillier things than decorative scrubbing brushes, but I do think it interesting that the lifestyle my grandmothers were desperate to escape, one of cooking, cleaning, sewing and washing, has been recast as a product they could never have afforded. Playing is fine, and fresh brioche for breakfast is really very nice, but where is the impulse coming from?
I’m inclined to blame Nigella. She made domesticity unspeakably sexy, pulling off an inspired fusion of mother and whore with every lick of her chocolate covered fingers. I think she’s great. But not remotely feminist. I suspect that, no matter how much quality time I spend with my Kenwood Chef, I’m never going to have the sexual appeal of Nigella Lawson. I may learn to make very good cakes, but at the end of that, I have cake, not sex. That is, to be fair, a very good consolation.
If some of Nigella’s appeal lies in motherhood, the reason I participate in the cult of domesticity must, surely, lead back to my own mother. The mother who made my third birthday cake in the shape of my teddy bear, to my great delight. The mother who sewed me a princess dress from pure gold fabric, on the machine I use today. Putting on my pink apron, am I trying to be the woman I remember, nostalgically, from the sunny days of my childhood?
If I am, I’m doing it wrong. You see, the last time my mother used the sewing machine was when I was five. My father tells me that my third birthday cake looked perfect, but was almost inedible. I don’t remember her making another cake after that. She bought them from the shop.
In one conversation with my father, the world came crashing down. I’d always assumed that my mother had the ability to bake and sew, to help me make Easter gardens and Nativity Play costumes, but had been too busy, delegating to my father, to sweatshops and bakeries, out of necessity. It turns out that I was wrong. The only thing worse than my mother’s attempts with the sewing machine, apparently, were my mother’s attempts in the kitchen. On the other hand, she was rather good at public sector finance.
So who am I trying to be? The mother who never existed? A pale shadow of Nigella Lawson? Am I trapped in a mode of patriarchy I didn’t even know was there? Or am I truly using the freedoms second wave feminists fought for? I’ll have plenty of time to think about it this afternoon as I wash sheets and make rhubarb jam.
Arguments over the size of models bore me. Art has never represented the real world accurately, even during the periods when all the artists spent their spare time in coffee shops discussing mimesis and realism. So surely it comes as no surprise that film stars are more beautiful than the average person, singers are better at dancing, models are skinnier. All that the debate over the skinniness of models tells me is that we have accepted the influence of the fashion industry on real people, and that weight is what we choose to measure.
I don’t read magazines. If I’m going to be sat in a waiting room I bring a book, not because I have a phobia of being confronted with a size zero model, but because I am uninterested in your opinion on the best mascara and I already know how to please my man in bed. Who does read them? The leading woman’s magazine, Glamour, has a readership of 579,761, less than one percent of the British public, hardly a great social force.
There was a time when I read women’s magazines avidly. As a teenager I devoured the make-up tips longing for the money to purchase the goods and the opportunities to wear them. I memorised how to be good in bed before I’d even been in bed with a boy. I read all the dieting tips and went through a brief phase of refusing to eat.
Reading magazines and refusing to eat were related, but not causally. We were on the verge of womanhood, but we didn’t know how to make the transition. We knew that there were rules, things you did and didn’t do, but no one would tell us what they were. Our mothers were either past it or standing in our way, because we knew that lipstick and miniskirts were part of the new code, and they wouldn’t let us out in them. We knew that the most popular girl was doing it best, but she was only one step ahead of the rest of us. So we bought Just Seventeen and More (which was raunchier in those days), paraded it through the school, read it and learned how to be women. Fortunately, as I got older I found other sources of information and other models of womanhood.
Magazines aren’t representative, they are aspirational. Their buyers don’t want a mirror, they want a construction manual with shiny pictures of the thing they are building. Selling instructions on how to be different is predicated on the individual not being good enough to start with. Exploiting insecurities is business.
Even if we do assume that we can destroy the primary aim of magazines and have them depict the real world, rather than an idealised one, which areas do we focus on to represent? I would go for race and gender, myself. But we could worry about the height of models, short people are scarce. As are Goths, hook noses and bitten fingernails. And you know what, you don’t see many people with a strong interest in woodwork in magazines nowadays. Lots of shoes and handbags, no woodwork.
Why don’t we worry about any of those things? Well, no one with an interest in woodwork has ever told me of suffering caused by their invisibility in magazines. Race and gender have serious, measurable implications in terms of racism and sexism which affect people’s lives. (Good article on racism in education this week). The lack of woodworkers has fewer repercussions.
And weight? Fat people suffer. People in the middle suffer, otherwise I’m sure that I would have continued munching without a thought throughout my teenage years. But I’m not sure that’s got much to do with magazines. I often suffer at the hands of people who have never looked at a women’s magazine in their lives.
I was out dancing last week. I was wearing a new dress for the second time, a dress chosen with exceeding care, analysed for breathability, washability and modesty. Not to put too fine a point on it, I sweat when I dance, and my clothes have to deal with it. Also, I don’t want to be shoving my cleavage into men’s faces, they might get the wrong idea. I wouldn’t have bought it if I thought it made me look ugly, but, frankly it was plain black dress. I was surprised when a man asked me “have you lost weight or is it the black?” which was, even on its own terms, an ambiguous compliment. I gave an honest answer of “I don’t know.” I hadn’t been trying to lose weight. He responded with an attempt at humour. He did a little impression of me flicking my hair and simpering “Oh, I don’t know.” All I could think was “what a dick.”
One man’s lack of social skills aside, I think it says something that people are so certain that telling a woman she appears thinner than the last time you saw her is a compliment that they imagine a positive response even when they don’t get one. Other people seem to be more aware of my fluctuations in weight than I am, primarily so that they can tell me I’m looking good when I get skinny. The only exceptions are my very closest friends, who, after a particularly stressful time which resulted in me dropping two dress sizes, told me that I looked like Sonia from ‘Crime and Punishment’. Thanks, girls!
Browsing on the subject today, I came across this article. A woman attempts to show the world how silly it is to be skinny by starving herself. As she lost weight, she says “It made me realise how many people comment on thinness all the time. As a society, we’re obsessed by it. You walk into a room, and your friends rush over to tell you how thin you are. [...] I was constantly complimented on my weight loss, as if it was some sort of achievement.”
It’s absolutely true, and, as she observes, the approval can be a little addictive. I think the compliments are based in assumptions about what women want, rather than personal opinion, though. It is inconceivable that a woman wouldn’t want to lose weight, so it is a good, all-purpose compliment to tell her she has.
The problem with both Porter’s article and arguments for more representative models is that the hegemony of the beauty ideal remains intact. Even the focus on weight remains. It works on the idea that we all want to look like models, so they should make it a bit easier for the ordinary woman by making themselves a bit more like us. Frankly, they can look as good as they want, it’s their job, but it is not mine, so I will worry about other things.
If there is one thing my adventures in dating, in international travel and multiculturalism, and in the fetish community have taught me, it is that there are any number of ways of being beautiful. Since I am not an ornament in your home, I’m not your lover or your kinky play-partner, I don’t have to take account of your vision of beauty. I have no shortage of invitations to become any of those things. With that in mind, perhaps we could lay off holding every specimen of the human race to our personal standards. I usually fancy shortish, curvy girls with dark hair. When I meet such people, or even meet tall, skinny blondes, I usually refrain from vocally making a comparison to my ideal, mostly because they have absolutely no reason to care what I like. Next time I’m in company, it would be nice if others would do me the same courtesy. From a wolf-whistle to a compliment or an insult, it is all the same thing: my proximity to your ideal of beauty isn’t an achievement, it’s an accident, and it is really no business of mine.
I don’t watch television very often, but the last time I did, it left an impression on me. Key terms would be ‘horror’, ‘disgust’ and ‘worry’. The show I saw was “Snog Marry Avoid?”
The premise is this: the body of a woman wearing lots of make-up and little clothing is subjected to our gaze. An unflattering picture of her is shown to men on the street, who give their opinions on her desirability. A faux-computer completes a “make-under” and everyone agrees that she looks much better now.
Last night we had Petergay, a 22 year old law student from Brixton, who goes clubbing in revealing outfits. Her mother particularly objects to the nipple tassels. She is filmed posing in her kitchen, so that we can indulge our voyeurism while thinking her ridiculous, her clubbing outfit incongruous in the domestic sphere. Petergay has loads of confidence. She says she loves being naked, she doesn’t want to be skinny, but is proud of her curves, in her own words she’s “unforgettable.” She says she would be ugly without the make-up, but cheerfully removes it on national television.
With an unflattering photograph of Petergay in her nipple-tassels, a crew heads out to ask men on the street what they think of her. Women aren’t asked; lesbians don’t count. 90% of men say they would avoid her because she looks “mad” and “scary.” She’s frightening the men away! Not men that she feels any desire for, just men in general. The simulated computer uses this as justification for insults, and the clinching argument for the conclusion that Petergay needs to be transformed.
The normativity of this method hardly needs to be spelt out. Asking a random sample of men on the street assumes heterosexuality. Asking them to assess her based on a photograph privileges her looks over say, her personality or her law degree, and is objectifying. Asking them to choose from “snog, marry, avoid?” gives only two relationship options (you’re not in a relationship if you’re running the other way). “Snog” is a not very cleverly coded way of saying “fuck”. They are asking would you fuck this girl and leave her or fuck this girl and keep her? Say hello to the virgin-whore dichotomy, the outmoded belief that women can either be wives and mothers or sex objects. The establishment usually favours the former, and so does the BBC.
Next, Petergay gets slagged off by a faux-computer. She’s “ridiculous”, a “naked boob-bearer”, a “nipple flashing naked nightmare”. She is told that she should look more natural, then given a new haircut, outfit and make-up.
I almost never go out with as much make up and jewellery as Petergay was wearing after her “make-under.” Huge earrings dangled from her ears, an ill-fitting dress revealed curves, cleavage and leg, and she could hardly walk in her high heels.
Note that the aim of the new, natural look is still attractiveness to men, but now concealing artificial elements of beauty. Petergay does not cease wearing make-up, merely has it applied in such a way that an illusion may be created that she isn’t. “Natural Beauty” doesn’t remove artifice, it adds another layer.
Nonetheless, Petergay looked anything but natural. “Natural” for women is, apparently, not very natural at all. Presenting it as natural gives it a currency it does not deserve, and conflates an aesthetic norm of femininity with innate characteristics. Women do not wear makeup, earrings and nylon because they are women, but because they are conforming with an ideal of femininity. It is a different ideal to nipple-tassles and fake eyelashes, but not any more natural. Being naked, after all, was surely more natural than encasing herself in man-made fabrics.
90% of men on the street wanted to snog Petergay in her new outfit. 10% wanted to marry her. I’m sure that this law student is looking for someone whose life partner is chosen on the basis of a photograph.
The programme went on. An overweight girl with a manga-based look was ridiculed but not made over. Another girl was told to wear less fake tan and looser fitting clothes. Men and female family members cooed over the changes. Petergay reappeared in a tight-fitting, partially transparent outfit to tell us that she now has a boyfriend and he prefers her new, “natural” look. Everyone congratulates themselves on the difference they have made to the world.
The rationale of this programme, rammed home at every possible opportunity, is that women should dress more demurely in order to be attractive to men. At various points in the programme, the women’s original looks are critically associated with excessive drinking, hedonistic culture, lack of education and lack of sophistication. They are encouraged to change because then they will be perceived differently. In other words, the message is that women should accept that dressing in the way they think is sexy, expressing their sexuality visually, is in opposition to being taken seriously. “I’m doing a law degree” doesn’t trump a pair of pink hot pants.
Interestingly, the make-unders often conceal their subjects’ sexuality with an appeal to childhood. Just before Petergay removes her make-up, the ‘Personal Overhaul Device’ shows a picture of her as a young girl, saying that she looked “pretty” and implying that she should do away with the trappings of adulthood, returning to her childhood self. The second transformation creates a look of childhood innocence with flowers in the hair. It isn’t surprising that a pastiche of innocence is used to conceal sexuality, but it is problematic when the justification for the new look is that people will better recognise the women’s abilities.
I’m not saying these women didn’t look silly, but if they saw me out in my voluminous ankle-length skirt and hand knitted jumper they probably wouldn’t think much of my style. In fact, the objects of the make-under were fantastic challenges to the ideology. They didn’t accept that their sexuality undermined their other qualities, they laughed in the face of the ‘Personal Overhaul Device’ when it presented the results of its meaningless survey. Petergay told it “I don’t know what sort of people you’re asking this, you need to go to Brixton.”
She made a very good point. Brixton is predominantly working class. What does this show associate with the ‘unnatural’ look? Drinking, hedonism, lack of education and lack of sophistication. Doesn’t that sound a lot like a middle class view of the working class?
The show isn’t just sexist, it purveys a middle class morality. Hiding behind a mechanical voice, it pretends that its standards are universal, rather than situated in a specific culture. It simultaneously criticises women for dressing in a way which attracts male attention and tells them to dress to solicit the right kind of male attention. It does all this while looking at half-naked women with a voyeuristic gaze which cements its hypocritical nature.
The pressure which society puts upon women to create a sexualised appearance is worrying. Amanda Hess addresses the subject very well here .Shows like ‘Snog Marry Avoid?’ don’t help women, they make the problem much, much worse.
We all have our naughty moments. We believe things wholeheartedly, but now and again we allow ourselves a moment of abandonment. For me, it is usually a little window in which I don’t try to be understanding. A few seconds in which I think that the author of this article should stop complaining and cease stuffing his face at MacDonald’s. A minute, while cornered by a woman telling me about her childhood trauma, when I believe that she should, at age sixty, deal with her issues in her own time. Then I feel bad, because it must be awful to be overweight in a society obsessed with slimness, and because I had a happy, shiny childhood, and still manage to bore people with my troubles. At other times, the slipups are entirely personal. I don’t worry so much about those. My inner feminist is coping quite well with the spanking (or would be, if I were getting any).
Last week, however, I discovered a prejudice I didn’t know I had. I was out dancing. As a spectacle, dance encourages you to look at other people’s bodies with admiration, attraction, envy, surprise or repulsion. Dancers don’t mind you staring. Some of them wear eye-catching spangly outfits. Some must consume a huge quantity of calories to do that much exercise and maintain that much weight. Now and again I endure stabs of envy, when, for example, a petite girl is picked up, swung through the air and returned to the ground. I’m five foot ten, no one is ever going to do that with me. Mostly, though, I spend my time wishing I was a better dancer, and owned a pair of sparkly dancing shoes, rather than considering waist to hip ratios.
A couple of nights ago, as I digging in myself for the courage to ask someone to dance, a beginner breezed up to the nearest man and swept him onto the floor. She was tall, she was blonde, and she had the body of a fashion model. “If I looked like that,” I thought, “I would have the confidence to ask men to dance, too.” I had conveniently forgotten my previous post on annoyance about people dancing with me because of my looks.
I didn’t stop there, though. My jealousy grew. “She looks like a boy, anyway, all lanky, with angles and hard edges. Straight men don’t want that. Real women have hips and breasts. I have damn fine breasts.”
With the exception of the fact that I have damn fine breasts, the above is codswallop. She was a real woman, evidenced by her existence. The definitions of femininity and feminine attractiveness are not immutable, they vary from culture to culture; no version of ‘woman’ is any more valid than another. Fortunately, while the fashion world, Hollywood and women’s magazines have a standardised version of beauty, real people are more idiosyncratic. Some would pass me over for a skinny, hipless blonde, and some would prefer a short, obese woman with full lips, or a woman with red hair, or tattoos, or the ability to play the clarinet. I think that’s great.
So why am I threatened by skinny blondes and not short, fat, redheaded clarinettists? Presumably because the skinny blondes are on the front of porn sites, film posters and music videos. Is it important? Well, yes, actually. Our cultural beliefs about beauty tend to reinforce inequalities of race, class and gender. Why did it used to be fashionable to be pale? Because only the wealthy could avoid working outside. Why is it now fashionable to be tanned? Because only the wealthy can afford foreign holidays. Why are we so obsessed by the blonde? Dare I say that it has something to do with the fact that most blondes are white?
Every time we find beauty and attractiveness where culture tells us it shouldn’t be, we challenge oppressive power structures just a little bit. Because I’m not one of the skinny blondes at the top of the artificial tree, that feels pretty good to me. But what if I was?
I’m no stranger to privilege. I went to a private school. I’m middle class, I’m white. I know that these things gave me advantages, but it still upsets me when people hold them against me. They were not choices I made, but facts of my life. You don’t have to tell me that I might not have got good grades if I’d attended the local comprehensive, but what do you want me to do? Hand my education back? I’ve rarely had to struggle against racism. Sorry.
Skinny blondes, with the exception of peroxide-abusing dieters, didn’t choose their genes. They might get advantages because they fit a mainstream model of beauty. They might get more of the disadvantages I’ve pointed out, in the form of constant sexual attention. The system’s a bad one, but they didn’t create it. So one of these days I’m going to do something really radical. I’m going to make a grand political statement, and date a skinny blonde.