Not an Odalisque

On Being a Looker

with 7 comments

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.

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Written by Not an Odalisque

April 5, 2010 at 12:05 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I like your last paragraph. Yep. My idea of beauty can be another person’s horror show.

    swissknifev

    April 5, 2010 at 7:43 pm

  2. I like women manicured or shaved. I like the way it looks, I like the way it feels. I like women with some meat on them, but basically slenderish, and certainly not grossly fat. I don’t like porn types or most hard-bodies. I like certain types, styles, and looks. I like a woman who knows how to flash a bit, flirt a bit, and who knows who she is.

    A lot of women don’t want to do all that, or be bothered with it – or they just can’t for some real reason meet my specific definition of “sexually attractive.”

    And I’m totally good with that. If I were gay, none of them could grow a penis, either – so what’s the difference?

    I like these “not my type” women, I like being their friend, I like the way their minds work, I like hanging around with them. But I am not attracted to them, as a rule, although not a hard and fast (so to speak) one, and I’m usually not interested in sex with them. Note that most are not all that interested in sex with me, either, if it gets to that.

    And yet I am assailed because I’m NOT interested. They won’t shave, lose weight, gain weight, or whatever to make themselves fall even marginally within my parameters – they consider furry legs and bushy underarms as a “statement”. And one which I’m 100% behind them making, if they please. And there are a LOT of men who are sexually attracted to it.

    But *I’m* not.

    And they come to me, these women, broken, offended, outraged – how dare I like what I like and NOT THEM?!?!

    Explain, as you will or not, how it is that women who are unattractive, or less attractive TO ME (not necessarily anyone else), are OWED my lust, my appreciative eye? And for all the fixation men supposedly have on sex, which of us is making the issue, making it the focal point of their very existence?

    I’m not demeaning them. I’m not asking anything from them. I don’t demand they meet my standards (or lack of standards). I love them, on a non-physical level. I work with them, drink with them, see them as my equal (or better) in every respect. They don’t disgust me or make me uncomfortable – I’m just not attracted to them.

    Why is that not enough, even if they don’t want to have sex with me in the first place? Is my approval REALLY so important to them that my failure to consider them as someone I’d fuck THAT egregious an offense?

    And if they DO want to be with me, why is it MY problem if they refuse to make any even marginal effort to move into what *I* think is sexually attractive?

    Why the demand that *I* change, re-gear my entire head, and lust after them as they are? Why must *I* look past the colorless grey sacks they clothe themselves in, past their granny panties and utilitarian bras, past the “furry as a wharf rat” legs and manly arms and afro-pubic hair to lust after the (to hear them describe it) beautiful core of their essense?

    Sorry, it isn’t happening. No more than it is for a woman who looks at my pot belly, thinning hair and three-day beard trying to see how it is that I’m really the soul-equivalent of Brad Pitt in here, and she ought to wet her panties and thank God I bother to pay any attention to her at all. That’s what they apparently want from *me* anyhow.

    Speaking for myself, I’m tired of trying, and I’m beaten down and worn out trying to not offend, trying to not cause pain, trying to pretend that any woman off the street anywhere at any time is as blindingly attractive to me as any other. I like what I like. If that’s not you, that’s OK – it doesn’t have to be, you know. But I won’t be held hostage to your insecurity any more.

    Get over it.

    AD

    April 11, 2010 at 10:31 pm

  3. I’m going to assume “get over it” is directed at girls who want your approval, rather than at me, since I don’t think that I’ve held you hostage to my insecurity.

    I think you have a genuine complaint. No one should get to dictate your preferences and, frankly, liking your women manicured is hardly a horrifying or grotesque desire, it’s not like you’re demanding bound feet or tightly laced corsets. It would really wind me up.

    I think I can answer your question. Women feel judged all the time. They aren’t just being judged by men, in fact I find that the people who comment on specifics of my appearance are almost always women. Women are usually the ones who point out changes to my weight, new clothes, hair styles, etc, but the authority they are appealing to is masculine. The reason they go on about it is because they assume that a woman’s attractiveness to men is of ultimate importance.

    It is very difficult to be told your value can be assessed by your sexual attractiveness in hundreds of different ways every day of your life and not come to believe it. Everything from fairytales about beautiful princesses to adverts to how men treat us conveys this message. We hear it all the time. That’s why we put so much time and money into looking good. And that’s why it is so awful to hear that a man doesn’t want us.

    None of this is your fault. You didn’t create the system, but you have a lot of power in it. From what you’ve written, I think you have enough empathy to understand what it would be like, after being convinced that your attractiveness is incredibly important, to be rejected. It takes a huge amount of security to deal with that, and our entire cultural system seems to be geared to making women feel insecure.

    So, yeah, it’s not a good situation for you. All I can say is that it is worse for them, so you’ll be a good bloke if you didn’t give up treating them with understanding.

    I’m going to say one critical thing, too. Men can be quite nasty when talking about what they find unattractive. Your comparisons with rats and grannies (I’m not going to touch the race issues around “afro-pubic hair”) are pretty graphic and harsh. You’re entitled to your opinion, and we have all said cruel things about people we found unattractive. I, for one, remember inducing hilarity among my friends with a description of a short tubby man in an orange PVC cat suit, which he would have been mortified to hear. That being said, I more often hear these sorts of comments about women, and from men. Your analogy with sexuality is a good one: how come I never hear men going on about how hairy and unattractive other men are? How they have boring underwear (they invariably do), sport too much or too little hair, have manly or less manly physiques? I don’t think there’s a fair distribution of criticism. There certainly isn’t a fair distribution of praise, and that takes me back to where I began.

    Thank you for your comment, it was very thought provoking.

    Not and Odalisque

    notanodalisque

    April 12, 2010 at 12:07 am

  4. Yup, that’s who the “get over it” was directed at. As for the tone of the rest, perhaps it’s more apparent than I’d intended how irritated this has me.

    I get it. Women have had a tough time. I empathize. And all the empathy in the world is not going to change how I “tick” on matters of sex and attractiveness; and haranguing me, or demanding that I find you (in the general sense) attractive if I don’t, especially if you are “making a statement” by making no slightest effort to attract me is beyond ridiculous – it is actually counterproductive.

    You spoke of men – we are hairy, churlish, pot-bellied, and damned few of us are whichever brooding little putz is Twilighting the panties off of everyone. And if there is someone I’m attracted to, and she makes it clear that hairy, churlish, pot-bellied men aren’t on her menu, I’ll trim, shave, get haircuts, learn some manners, and drop a few pounds to see if I can make some headway – OR I’ll just get over the fact that she’s not interested.

    Pretend you’re her: And now pretend I’m DEMANDING you lust after me, overlooking my hairy, churlish, waddling characteristics and THEN ensuring that you understand that you are a social defective for failing to do so.

    THAT’S my problem. And, yeah, it pisses me off.

    AD

    April 12, 2010 at 1:28 am

  5. PS: Forgot to say “thanks” for the reply – you DO understand this isn’t directed at you personally, right? Just a certain brand of – feminism? politics? – that’s at least counterproductive. When worn down after wrestling this non-resolvable demand, it becomes incredibly tempting to just disregard the entire package – including the stuff that might actually be legitimate issues.

    AD

    April 12, 2010 at 2:05 am

  6. Thanks for the reply.

    Yes, I do know what it is like, because it happens to me. In fact, I bet that it happens to me more than to you, because men are told that perseverance is a good thing when chasing women, and often won’t take no for an answer. Then they start feeling sorry for themselves because “women don’t go for nice guys.” I know plenty of women who do, but personally I have many preferences, from being taller than me (and I’m 5’10”) to enjoying tying me up for a beating every now and again. I also like beards and an aptitude for foreign languages. Does this occur to any of the men I reject? No, they decide that it is because they have been too nice and harangue me about it as if I had no good excuse for not returning their affections. So I get it.

    Demanding that you lust after them is silly, it is annoying, but as I said, I think it is understandable. Personally I’m in the accept rather than change camp. I make an effort for people I want to seduce, obviously, but I wouldn’t make any big changes for them. My appearance expresses my personality, and there seems little point in impersonating someone else, since I haven’t got anyone to offer but me, it will only lead to disappointment. I recognise that I might feel differently if I wasn’t rejecting offers. It is quite easy to say that I have no problem with one person not fancying me when I can be quite confident that soon someone will come along who does.

    I can understand your frustration, but I don’t think the problem is feminism, it is the insecurity of the women you know, their need to be found attractive. There is nothing that will make them universally attractive (nobody is) and so they will always be disappointed in that need, whether you like them or not. Feminism isn’t the problem here, it’s the solution.

    notanodalisque

    April 12, 2010 at 10:21 am

  7. “…personally I have many preferences, from being taller than me (and I’m 5’10”) to enjoying tying me up for a beating every now and again. I also like beards and an aptitude for foreign languages.”

    Wow. I’m 6′, and like a bit o’ the rope & leather in a relationship. (Rope & Leather – sounds like a new cologne, doesn’t it?)

    Anyhow, it’s like we’re made for each other. Except for the part about beards. I don’t do beards. Oh, yeah, and foreign languages. I couldn’t learn a foreign language at gunpoint. And I’m reasonably happily married. And I’m politically extreme right. And I’m a bit overweight, hardly enough to notice, really. And it’s fair to say that my memory is my SECOND shortest thing.

    Other than that, I’m perfect for you. Love me.

    (Ha! Kidding…thanks for the replies…)

    AD

    April 12, 2010 at 4:30 pm


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