In my previous post, I discussed how there are some real problems in Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign. Some of these issues include problems related to retouching photos and, in their most recent installment, a lack of diversity along lines of race and age. Other issues involved Dove’s affiliation with Unilever, which has also been known to promote skin lightening creams in other parts of the world. I ended that post with a brief discussion as to how Dove explicating a link between certain aspects of people’s physical features as beautiful implicates other features as non-beautiful, aka ugly. I also pointed out that due to the lack of diversity, and due to the qualification of certain features as ugly, like wrinkles, scars, moles, freckles, dark/shut face, and fatness as ugly, the focus of beauty remains what it has always been: clear skin, smooth skin, whiteness, and being thin. As such, Dove has not done what it claims to do with these videos as found on Unilever’s website: They have not put forth advertisements that are challenging or changing notions of beauty – they are merely telling us that women who happen to fit the existing criteria for beauty do so better than they already think.
Finally, due to the emphasis on women “valuing beauty” in themselves, Unilever sends a darker message. In the video, we are told that beauty matters to which jobs you apply for, how others see you, and indeed, to everything in your life. In other words, not only are we inundated with a message about valuing physical beauty in other women and in ourselves, we’re told to value concepts and notions of beauty, in general. We aren’t taught, by Dove, to challenge the idea that a woman’s worth is rooted in her looks – and why would we be? The entire concept of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign isn’t about linking their product with getting cleaner, which is the ostensible purpose of a soap – it’s to do with being more beautiful, which is the angle around every soap marketing strategy. Dove can’t afford to tell women “hey, beauty shouldn’t matter in these ways”, because they are invested in making us, as consumers, further invest in those notions of beauty that they can easily capitalize on. I mean “invest” in the literal sense: they need our buy-in.
But in thinking about these ideas about beauty – about buying into it – I had to confront some very real truths about my own life: I want to be beautiful. I do. Nearly every single person I know wants this. Well – at least, every single woman I know wants this on some level. And we want it in the supposedly “superficial” way we’re also taught to simultaneously hate. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know there are parts on my body I do not like. And the concept of beauty is embedded in multiple discourses around how femininity is structured. While some men may value notions of beauty in themselves I do feel that the majority of these men who value also wrestle with notions of beauty in general and the way the term is embedded into how femininity is structured. There is a link between being beautiful and being feminine.
So it’s not enough for me to sit here and bash Dove and Unilever for cramming the notion of beauty down our throats, when most of us engage in practices of reifying normative standards of beauty in our own lives. But it’s one thing to support women in their different and varied projects to reclaim some measure of peace about being and living as women – and beauty is a part of that. It’s another thing entirely to have corporations exploit these projects to sell a fucking product under the disingenuous crap they pull about valuing beauty and diversity and inclusion.
It honestly burns a very sore spot in me to see terms like “inclusion” and “diversity” appropriated, misused, misaligned with corporate projects specifically designed to further marignalise women, and further reify notions of beauty that we already subscribe to while claiming to do the opposite. A polite, honest person might call it hypocrisy. What I’d call it is intentional corporate hijacking of good ideas to serve really shitty ends. Murray (2013) rightly suggests that *social justice has largely been coopted to actively, discursively, reproduce, perpetuate, and even create the “issues” that they are supposedly “addressing”*. But it’s not enough for me to sit here and bash corporations because I have to acknowledge that beauty also is a part of my life in many, insidious, tiny, stupid, infuriating, reassuring, comforting, soothing, fucked-up, love-hate, dysfunctional ways.
In this post, I want to talk a little bit about beauty in general – how it functions in my life, and in the lives of some women I know. I also want to talk about ugliness. Some of this stuff will get a little personal and will get a whole lot political, because beauty is personal and beauty is political. How does beauty matter to me? Why does it matter? In what ways do I think about beauty? How do I conceive of ugliness?
I’m writing this in a coffee shop, as I write many of my blog posts. Normally, I’m sitting in a corner, sipping some tea that I get for free thanks to a refill card that I happily use. Normally, the corner gives me some cover when I’m writing, even if I’m not writing about particularly personal issues. Today, I’m unable to snag the corner. For want of an outlet… and so it goes. So I’m sitting here in the middle of the café, feeling slightly more exposed than usual due to the spatial location and also because I’m about to write about some pretty personal things. It’s a little funny how suddenly self-conscious I am – I think most of my friends would think of me as someone who isn’t particularly concerned with notions of beauty, at least in my personal life. My roommate and her friends, as well as others, are well aware that my makeup collection is virtually nonexistent, that I don’t go clothes-shopping often, that I own precisely 3 pieces of footwear – and I think some of them chalk this lack of collection up to my ‘feminism’.
My makeup consists of one (1) black eyeliner pencil, the same brand I’ve used for years, and one (1) lipstick, in the shade of number 315. I think it’s called “iced mocha” or something, which sounds awful, but I like the way it looks on my lips. I’ve of course, used this shade for about 3 years now, and will likely continue to do so. I also own one tiny little, fairly low-end eye-shadow kit that my mother bought for me recently after I expressed to her my surprise at the intricate world of makeup that my roommate and her friends are so much a part of. I think she bought it out of some sense of maternal responsibility for transferring the ‘secrets of beauty’ onto her daughter. My mother –and her mother – also didn’t wear much makeup, and many would consider her, in her youth to be extremely beautiful. I sometimes think that line of beauty – from my maternal grandmother down to me, has been somewhat diluted through the generations! I’ve used the eye-shadow precisely once. I do not own nail polish, foundation of any kind, or mascara. I do not own tools like eyelash curlers, hair curlers, hair straighteners or… other things. Until this year, I’d never even seen eyelash curlers. I’ve used a friend’s hair straightener on my own hair precisely once in my entire life. The event in question was the athletic banquet, and I thought I’d straighten my hair for the affair. (Don’t get me wrong – I’m no superstar athlete, and so whatever tenuous link between notions of athleticism/lack of femininity/lack of consideration for beauty should be put to rest when speculating about my (lack of) motivation here: other, more athletic women at the event, definitely went to more lengths than I did.) I will say that for prom, I wanted the full shebang: makeup caked on, hair done up, all of it – the reasons behind this are tied to strong feelings of ugliness in high school. (I hate those pictures of myself now and find the makeup quite ghastly.)
So. Why didn’t I wear makeup growing up? Why was there no interest in me in typically feminine things? Why do I continue to not wear makeup, or take an interest in typically feminine things? Am I saying beauty is all about makeup, or shoes, or clothes? I’ll answer, in horrifying fashion for essays, the last question first: I am not saying that beauty is all about makeup, shoes, or clothes. I am, however, making an argument that the way beauty is constructed in our world, with respect to women, has always been about physical features. Beauty, in the context of this essay, is mostly skin deep – except when they try to convince us that smiling somehow makes us prettier. I am talking about how people look at you on the street or don’t look at you. The way people are envious, jealous, admiring, kind, or cruel in their kindness about what you look like. I am talking about what you look like. Makeup, shoes, and clothes are convenient and tangible examples of things that affect what someone looks like, so yes, some of the focus in this essay is about these specific things.
I’m also going to state now that currently, I think I have a certain type of privilege related to beauty. I want to be clear here: I don’t think of myself as beautiful very seriously. But I say I am beautiful here, in a comparable way to how one can think of thin privilege. In the article I just linked, the author describes how thin privilege doesn’t necessarily have to function in ways where someone is “super thin”. And the author acknowledges that thinness can come with its own type of oppression in terms of how women tend to be pit against one another, feature for feature, body shape for body shape. ‘Being thin’ is about being caught in a web of ‘acceptability’ and so is ‘being beautiful’. However, the author helped clarify some of my own struggles as being someone of “average” weight, but never feeling as though other people judged me for my weight. Don’t get me wrong: I do the sideways turn in the mirror. I suck in my stomach. I try to be skinnier. I do these awkward, stupid, things to my body because on many days, I do feel fat. And I do link it with undesirability in myself on some level. I’ve been attracted to people who do not have thin privilege. But it seems to be something I have so much trouble reconciling in myself. The point is, I never really have to reconcile my weight, or defend my weight, in the context of other people’s judgments about me. So I also have thin privilege. I can walk into shops, eat chocolate, eat French fries – eat anything, really – and not be judged. At least, I am judged less often. I do not have to go to “plus-size” stores. And for all my rhetoric of being anti-fat-phobic, I know I struggle with issues related to size in myself, and I know I have thin privilege. Similarly, I have some kind of “beauty-privilege”.
I will acknowledge that I have some privilege in how I am seen and treated, due to markers of beauty as constructed in this society. My face is mostly symmetrical, aside from my nose occupying a very slightly off-center place in my face, and my left eye being very slightly larger than the other. My skin is clear. I am thankful/feel lucky for this fact, even as I write it – and even as I write it, I wonder how I can hold gratefulness and privilege in one hand, while also being aware that I do wish, on a real and deep level, that such standards didn’t exist. This is complicated though because if I really ask myself, do I think people with acne should be considered beautiful, the answer is immediately yes. Someone I knew once pointed out that I myself never seemed to notice them as signs of ugliness on other people, due to a history of being attracted to people with acne. The problem is, I never noticed them at all – though I’m sure that other people felt glares from others, and I certainly never found acne to be beautiful. It just wasn’t something I really looked at in others… but if push comes to shove, would I be comfortable with acne on my face, shoulders, back, and chest?…. No. I wouldn’t be. So here’s the thing: I’m not saying that I find acne beautiful – I don’t. I also don’t find it ugly – on others, having been attracted to various people with acne (and not because of their acne – it was honestly something that didn’t matter to me). But I would find it ugly on me. And that’s perplexing, and awkward, and means I’m speaking from a really privileged position.
When I visited the drugstore to make my yearly trip for eyeliner/lipstick, the woman at the counter wanted to know if she could help with anything, and listed a few items off the top of her head, like foundation. Feeling out of my depth in any makeup aisle, I went “uh yeah – I think so –oh I don’t use foundation but yeah” It was late in the day; I’d been working on papers and was not the most coherent. She looked startled, and immediately smoothly said “oh wow, but you have such clear skin!” It’s sort of strange – maybe she suggested foundation because she thought I needed it! Who knows – but it’s a sentiment I’ve heard from others as well. So again, I’m grateful for this clear skin. I also feel funny writing about it here, because, as my grandmother and mother have often said, engaging in vanity will lead to a ruined face. Clearly, beauty matters to me. Clearly, I’m uncomfortable “reclaiming beauty” for myself. Clearly, there’s a cultural precedent telling women to be modest in certain ways – and this is not a precedent isolated to my South Asian background. This is a precedent prevalent enough in the west that a white woman on Dove’s commercial pointed out that there is a stigma around the word “beauty” when women apply it to themselves. My goal here is to problematize notions of beauty, and I hope I’m doing that by showing how beauty can function in similar ways to other privilege/oppression issues.
I own 2 summer dresses, both of which were selected by others. And I own 1 pair of winter boots, 1 pair of sneakers, and 1 pair of slender, closed-toed shoes. They are all black. Oh and 1 pair of indoor, bright purple flip flops for indoor use. My clothes are for the most part, solid greys, blacks, browns, dark blues, maroons, and bottle greens. I don’t do bright colours, though I’ve been told I pull off pink and yellow very well. I don’t own other clothes, or tons of makeup right now because I genuinely believe I don’t need it. I’m not saying this with pride – I’m saying it as a true fact of the world we live in. If I had acne, I would likely give in to the socially constructed need that involved purchasing and using foundation. I often wish I had higher cheekbones, but never to the point of learning to use blush on a regular basis – though occasionally my roommate will indulge a request and apply some to my face. But I don’t actually feel it makes a huge difference on my face, to be honest. My legs are slender. I have an hourglass shape, pretty much exactly in the manner that is praised on TV and in magazines. I’ve put on a bit of weight in recent years, but the shape remains, and on my frame, a little bit of weight carries well. (What do I mean by frame? Well, I have broad shoulders, broad hips, and somehow, bigger curves appear proportionate by whatever arbitrary standard of beauty that we are told and sold and fed until we puke it out and shit it out and wallow in it.) So. Why do I continue not to wear makeup, or take an interest in typically feminine things? Well, for one, I feel I don’t need it. If I did need it, I’m sure I would have picked up things to try and “fit in”. I know I would have moved to other products because there are things I do to “fit in”. I used to regularly wax my upper lip, and eventually learned to thread the area as well as my chin. My eyebrows tend to “not be bushy” by whatever standard of bushiness people apparently think is too much, so I generally leave them alone; I do occasionally get them threaded once or twice a year because I do think my face looks prettier when they are slightly shaped. I shave my legs and my armpits. But friends of mine who link my decision to not use makeup to defying patriarchal notions of acceptable beauty for women – they aren’t entirely wrong.
I say this matter of factly, but there was a point in my undergrad where I genuinely struggled with notions of beauty, being appreciated for my looks, being and feeling beautiful. I went for a month without shaving my legs, at first only wearing jeans, then moving up to capris, and then finally wearing a pretty blue summer dress with entirely unshaven legs – and I was comfortable in my own skin. I walked around town – Montreal, at the time, where people are more than fastidious about how they appear in the public – and I wondered, pondered how my unshaven legs would come across.
Flashback to being in grade 7, 12 years old, begging my mother to let me shave my legs, and her insisting it would grow back thicker. I wanted “clean legs” prior to a soccer tryout. She forced me to epilate instead, and it burnt like a bitch, leaving red angry patches all over my legs. It hurt especially to use the machine over bony areas, near my knees or ankles. Needless to say, I “shook off” the pain, and was happy to fit in with the other girls – but I didn’t make rep, and I didn’t make all-star. (Eventually, in high school, I was good enough to play first tier – but even then, my skills were never brilliant on the field.)
Here I was in Montreal, playing with notions of beauty, of resisting what I was taught was beautiful. Older, wiser, with soft hair coating my legs… but I still threaded my face. And I still shaved my pits. There seemed to be limits as to how comfortable I felt pushing against these lessons of normative beauty – and the experiment taught me something useful: If I wasn’t willing to really go au naturel, then who was I to judge other women who used foundation, or tools I considered “excessive” at the time? And also: clearly I don’t appeal to “natural” notions of morality in other respects, so why should that apply to beauty? Don’t get me wrong – I think women are held to often contradictory and impossible standards of beauty – but I also don’t think (anymore) that ‘au naturel’ necessarily makes someone “more feminist”. There are ways to use makeup as art to be subversive. There are ways where we, women, just want one less fucking headache and just fit in, not be gawked at. We’re already gawked at in so many ways.
I was gawked at, when I was younger. Before my mother let me wax my upper lip, I was 11 and sitting in class and a boy made fun of me for my moustache. I remember crying to my mother about it later, begging her to take me to get rid of it. There was no question in my mind: the boy had simply voiced what I already self consciously always felt. And my mother didn’t have the tools to tell me that no one deserves to be made fun of for how they look – or at least, not in useful ways. Ignoring doesn’t stop them from making fun of you. Ignorance is a poor way to deal with bullying, pain, and hurt. She finally did take me to my first waxing – and that sense of apprehension as they pat down the strip over the wax, right before they rip it off… my skin still tingles as I think of the sensation. Something else happened that year – there was some budding feminist consciousness that made it clear to me that superficiality, as encouraged by magazines, was bullshit.
But the patriarchy functions in mysterious ways with evil magic at its disposal; my noble intentions were subverted, and I implicitly grew to think that anything typically feminine was unworthy – that being more masculine-like was actually just being more “normal”, and “good”, and I wrinkled my nose at makeup, nail polish, skirts, and anything feminine. I thought women who liked those magazines were stupider than me. I had very conveniently dealt with the cognitive dissonance of wanting my moustache gone, and yet wanting to be masculine, by telling myself: ‘well girls aren’t supposed to have moustaches, so it’s ok. This is “natural” for me to do” And of course – I didn’t want to be the target of some dumbass kid. In other words, I was a tomboy who had internalized the notion that women were inferior to men, and that I was better, truer, less superficial, because I was less feminine. I speculate that many feminists go through strange phases like this, when they see a disconnect between how they are viewed, and how they want to be viewed. I played soccer extensively – and my class at the time was strangely egalitarian when it came to sports or academia. All 8 girls participated in sports in gym class, though arguably they were all (aside from one other example) more feminine than me. And there was an equal representation in gender related to the top marks in math/science, and the language arts. So why did I never do “girly” things as a youth? Because girly things were bad, worse, less real, more superficial, less noble than “boyish” things. Boyish things were normal, and if girls only let themselves not be inundated with messages, they’d be just like me. I had internalized the notion that masculinity was both normative and positive.
In high school was when I felt truly ugly – physically, but also on a deeper level. I won’t get into the details here, but much of my feminist consciousness, my ideas about racism, the struggles I engage in now were shaped by experiences in high school that I did not have the vocabulary to address at the time. I do now. The point is, I felt very much like a blob. Beauty was implicitly connected to how one looked, and, due to my explicit positioning from middle school, I continued to wrinkle my nose at “girlish” things. As a result, I never read Cosmo, was never into typically feminine magazines, and yet – I felt blob-like because notions of beauty had somehow slipped into my life, and suddenly, it mattered very much if I was pretty or not. Other people were judging me for it, among other things. I wanted to “feel beautiful”, and I genuinely, naively, believed that the feeling was independent of how I looked – after all, isn’t that was feminism was about? What was on the inside?
But of course, the boys started playing soccer on their own, and then moved entirely to football. What I could offer them no longer made sense in the world they were in: it didn’t matter that I wanted to play soccer, unless I was also feminine in other ways. Boys were starting to value and judge femininity too. Though I made first tier for the soccer team and played for my school, I was never taken seriously by the boys in my group of ‘friends’. And this bothered me. Partly, I was never a brilliant athlete. But partly too, I was slowly being boxed into notions of who I was, and what I could be, and what I couldn’t be.
Things I was allowed to be: nerdy. Smart. The doormat. Hardworking. The last rung on the ladder that everyone stepped on or mocked in order to get a leg up in social hierarchy. Things I was not allowed to be: sporty. Athletic. Witty. Funny. Clever. Beautiful. I think of that time now as my “blob” phase. I recall instances of dressing up, and being mocked by people in my circle of ‘friends’. “Who are you dressing for?” They jeered. “Myself” was never a good enough answer – and approval from friends was never going to happen. I had jeered at femininity before in subtle ways, but now others jeered overtly at my attempts at being feminine.
Already quite busty, I was also never allowed to, by my circle of friends, wear revealing clothing. It’s a testament to my memory that I can rattle off exact times, events, and detailed descriptions of what took place – but I won’t enumerate them here. My clothing choices were policed, even by someone I considered a close friend at the time. I mentioned that the boys had started to judge femininity – well so had the women. I had rejected femininity in so many ways from a young age that I hadn’t even taken an interest in bra shopping. My mum took care of that, and generally just bought a bunch in bulk from India. “Friends” pointed out that these bras made my breasts “look funny” and “different”. I’d never set foot in a La Senza, none of my bras had underwire or support – they were thin, cotton things, with cups that collapsed upon removal – what my mother called “French style” – and they were made for hot, Indian weather and a generation of ladies who wore loose saris and skin-tight blouses who sweated through a heated day. These were bras that were functional, in conjunction with tight blouses – my grandmother and mother to this day have pretty perky breasts. This isn’t easy to write about, particularly because I recall my mother sometimes making comments about how I looked – commenting that my breasts sagged, or that I was eating too much, or too little. I remember lashing out at her once, after my friends informed me that I was “buying the wrong bras” – they had noticed in gym class. “You never buy proper shit for me, so of course they sag” I screamed. And I remember my mother, so startled. “Underwire is bad for you,” she said, but she was hesitant, stumbling over her words. And I remember in her hesitancy, I found strength and conviction to lash out, demand “better bras”. I worried and fretted over stretch marks that had started to appear along the tops of my breasts, the skin seemingly desperately trying to hold them up.
Nowadays my mum and I go bra shopping together, and we buy bras with underwire, sometimes lace, never padding because, as we both giggle: “we don’t ‘need’ padding!” The relationship has improved. But I cannot help but think that I made my mother self-conscious about her own appearance as retribution for how she may have inadvertently made me feel. And now, we both participate in the notion that our breasts must look a certain way, and that since we are “so big”, we don’t “need padding”. Because padding is a “need” clearly, for some people, like my current roommates, who are smaller than me at As and Bs. Living with women, and being comfortable in my skin now, I remember walking around in bra and panties around the apartment – and how they stare at me. While I’ve contemplated female gaze in my own life, and quite like breasts on other women, there is something unnerving always when other women, straight or not, gaze at my breasts. I mean, my roommates gaze in awe now – my breasts are things they ‘desire’ – but it will be forever connected to how other women: my “friends”, my mum viewed them when I was younger.
I dressed up as “Pretty Me” for Halloween in grade 10. I remember cutting my hair, layering it, wearing a green top. It was acceptable because it was funny because it was a joke because I was never pretty. One day, as parody. I remember that same year, two friends of mine who sent me a fake Valentine’s day card during Candygram sales – they sent it anonymously. For a moment, I felt special, wanted, desired, and slightly suspicious. They built it up, and then burst out laughing telling me it was them instead. Other things, including what I suppose may be chalked up to typical adolescent insecurities, made me feel that I’d never be wanted. There’s never anything as brutal as genuinely believing that you are not liked. And I couldn’t figure out why. All the other women in my group had boyfriends or people they were consistently seeing – and this gave them some immunity against the kind of humour that was directed at me, and also against the kind of insecurities I was experiencing.
I will also say that it is a total myth, at least in my life, that women did most of the teasing and bullying. In my experience, the majority of bullshit I dealt with were from boys. I remember once, screaming at a boy, tears streaming down my face for his racist shit he flung at me, telling me to go back to my home country in the crate I came in, as a “joke”. I remember too, everyone else as silent or snickering participants. Girls I considered my friends stood silently, and told me later to “ignore him”. For that, I will likely never forgive them. I’ve tried, for my own sake; it’s just never happened. Partly, it’s because I think, they were all comfortable moving on and not making an effort with actually reaching, rectifying, and starting new beginnings. There was no room in the conversation for apology, only room enough to “move on”, bullshit rhetoric about “people changing” and I’d rather think of them as nonexistent in my life.
So yes, I was utterly, desolately, unwanted and ugly in high school. I did not have beauty-privilege at this time. It was acceptable – actually, it was entirely normalised – that I was someone who could be made fun of. The excuse? “Oh, well we know you can take it! We don’t really mean it” I was “strong” for dealing with hearing awful things about myself. I remember I stopped hanging out with them in the mornings, and would sit outside the door to the class, writing in a journal. I wore baggy clothes, didn’t care what my hair looked like, wore no makeup, except for prom, and was never ever desired. And that mattered to me. I wanted to be desirable. I felt I had so much to offer. But I understood there was no way I was “allowed” to be. I still had my pride, somehow – after all, intellectual worth was all that was necessary right? I didn’t “need” to be beautiful, or wanted, or sporty, or athletic, or anything else. Did I? I aced my final years in high school. I was not happy, and those incidents have eaten away at me over the years, reframed and reframed until all I remember now is ugliness: my own and theirs. But I averaged something like 98% one year, and again, in the 90s the year after. I felt vindication, and, even now, I would say that feeling beautiful has that same subtle sharp edge as revenge – where you know you are feeling good at the expense of others.
So I’ve experienced what it’s like to be ugly. Really, I have. In university, I wanted to be beautiful – conventionally and totally. So I, with my utter lack of knowledge about makeup, decided to get eyeliner and lipstick – the two things I knew how to use on my own after countless dance recitals in my childhood. Due to my rejection of typically feminine things – and my mother’s relief that I never seemed inclined towards makeup at a young age – I knew virtually nothing about makeup. If I felt I needed anything more, foundation, etc – I’m sure I would have been self-conscious about such issues by the time I hit university and would have gone out of my way to buy them. After enduring 4 years of the blob-phase, I was entirely insecure about my body and what it looked like… and here is the weirdest thing: it was through men and other relationships of a sexual nature where slowly, the shape of my body and its beauty were validated. I consider myself to have a fairly round face, but I’ve always found androgynous, sharper angles to a face to be beautiful. Yet recently, in discovering that a male partner really values rounder faces and finds them beautiful as compared to angular faces, made me somehow value my own face more. But I still value angular faces. I do not think of them as lesser than. This experience simply allowed me to better think of my round face – my roundness – as beautiful, because someone else found it more attractive than other faces I found attractive.
Male gaze, in a very real, practical way has helped me think of myself as capable of being beautiful. These are men who have seen and felt my sometimes hairy legs – have seen me bloated on my period, have seen me when I don’t necessarily “take care” of the scruff on my face – and these are not explicitly feminist men. Most simply didn’t “notice”. They noticed other parts of me – to the point where now, I feel comfortable with it on my face and in public. I’m only casually seeing people, and I do still thread occasionally – but during Movember, I can easily joke around: “I bet I can grow a bigger one than you” – there’s something subversive about that, I hope. It’s self-aware. It’s explicitly feminine in how I choose to structure it for myself. In some ways, it’s me pushing the boundaries of prescribed beauty, particularly for brown women. And it’s also, in some ways, a challenge: I can grow a better ‘stache than you, Mr manly man. I can grow a bigger beard. I like to use my moustache and facial hair to resist biological notions of testosterone as connected with masculinity and ‘physical strength’ or ‘virility’ or even…. handsomeness. I still wear dresses, am utterly feminine, desirable, kissable. But what does it mean if I reached this point through the help of men, looking at me, gazing at me, appreciating me with their words and hands and lips?
I will say it again: I support women in their different and varied projects to reclaim some measure of peace about being and living as women – and beauty is a part of that. Not everyone may get what I got out of being gazed at: I learnt to value myself in different ways, ways that challenged how I think about beauty and myself. Others might have understood that “only round faces are beautiful” or “I am only beautiful if others look at me”. Those are real and practical ways in which patriarchy functions – but when a budding feminist consciousness meets some sort of struggle or tension… the result is at least, at the very least, some generation of ideas about beauty on some critical level. Maybe it’s feminist notions I have to thank for letting me navigate the perilous waters of male gaze. But I’ll offer a nod to my experiences with male gaze, which I value in some ways – not for letting me see me as “others see me” – but for, perplexingly enough, letting me value parts of me that others do not value or even notice. Knowing that men did not see ugliness in those features let me normalize these features. Yes, they were likely busy with other features – I don’t deny this. But I still see subversive power here – in making visible that which is ignored or unnoticed. See my moustache, if it happens to be there. See my soft skin, my big eyes. Dissect me, but acknowledge me, all of me, and if I’m laughing, joking, challenging you about moustache growth… that is more than me not caring about my moustache. That’s me owning it, using it. 😉 It’s true also though, that I do have some level of beauty privilege now. And there is subversive power here too – there is power in to-be-looked-at, in some ways, under some circumstances. And perhaps it is this privilege that acts as a buffer against potential bullshit that could be thrown my way. Could I have done such a thing in high school? Likely not. I didn’t have the courage, but more importantly – I didn’t have the physical means, the credibility of already fitting into prevalent and normative ideals of beauty. My subversion of normative beauty thus is thus orchestrated in specific ways, and limited in certain ways.
I will say too that the ways in which I was “appreciated”, or my beauty validated was not an unproblematic one. I am not white. My features are sometimes valued in particular and racialised ways, as the majority of people I have had such interactions with have been white men. (The reason for this is complicated, and is the topic for another post.) “I love dark skin and light lips” I was told once. It was supposed to be a compliment I think. “Indian women are so curvy.” Some oblique compliment about how certain weights were acceptable on me, and not on others – that I am “allowed” to have rounder curves – that it’s “hotter”, more “exotic”. But by no means am I slender. I don’t “need to be” since I fit this “other model of beauty”; released from the Blob Dungeon of people who never let me explore ways to “be” me, I was suddenly beautiful enough to have beauty-privilege. A dangerous perspective would be to say “aha! See! Different and opposite things can be beautiful!” – only if they’re rooted in oftentimes, racialised notions of what is considered “hot” on some women. Certainly, my weight might be seen as “too sexual” on a black or Latina woman due to how these women are sexualized. My weight might be seen as “fat” on white women. And, certainly, I’ve felt the need to apologise or “warn” partners that I’m “not exactly super-skinny or anything”. Usually partners have shrugged it off and have seemed utterly unconcerned that this would be something I felt the need to bring up. Sometimes, they add “oh I don’t like skinny, anyways – I’m afraid I’ll break them!” I wonder what this means – it seems to be a compliment, but how should I take that? Am I less breakable, less hurtable because I’m bigger? Are skinny women more fragile? “you look just like [insert name of other brown woman who looks nothing like me]! “I tend to like small, white women – but I don’t mind brown.” There was, and sometimes remains, an element of exoticisation and curiosity.
There is a prevalent theme here, in how I write about beauty. Beauty is made up of parts. Breasts here, lips there, eyes in the corner. I feel myself dissecting myself, rearranging, shifting, considering, weighing, measuring. It’s almost scientifically precise in how we look at ourselves and each other. I have dissected animals before in my biology classes. I have worked with pro-sections of human cadavers as a teaching assistant at a fairly well known university. I love the body and I love analyzing – is it any wonder that I take scalpels, sharpen them, as I think about how I think about my body? It bothers me sometimes that I do this, dissect parts – but this is also a matter of how I feel notions of beauty are instilled into us. Consider this latest “Beauty Spot” commercial by Dove. Consider again how the commercial reifies the notion that beauty is not something women claim about themselves – it is a title others give to us, approve for us. Beauty in this commercial is definitely all about how others see us, as was the case with their latest “documentary”. Consider the ways in which this commercial is portrayed to be positive – they’re supposedly “diverse” because they have one black woman. (note too that the only comment directed at the black woman has to do with her bum. Dove is seemingly unaware about the ways in which black women have been historically sexualized and reduced to certain body parts such as their asses.) And of course, having more than one black woman would “make Dove seem like they’re trying too hard” as a friend of a friend tried to tell me. Because the women are “complimenting each other”, this is seemingly a show of solidarity. But in saying “beautiful eyes”, “I love your smile”, “I love your bum”, “beautiful hair”, “lovely skin”, there is the implication that there also exist in the world, “ugly eyes”, smiles that are hated, bums that are despised for being too small or too big, “ugly hair”, and “ugly skin”. (Many women of colour have died from feeling their butts aren’t beautiful enough. I wonder if they stood in this lineup, if their butts would have been selected as “choice meat” by others.) Breasts weren’t mentioned in this particular Dove advertisement, but many of these concepts apply. Too big and too small. We, as women dissect each other with our eyes every day. We watch, scrutinize, judge, nip, and tuck with our eyes like needles and knives expertly poking ourselves and each other. It is routine for us to try and love parts of ourselves, while hating other parts. And, like a second slap in the face, our personal struggles with valuing beauty are exploited by corporations intent on selling us a particular product. This is why Dove cannot afford to sell us anything other than a normative image of beauty. If they were, there would be more women of colour, fat, old, with acne, moustaches, freckles, scars, moles – but there aren’t. Dove isn’t changing what it means to be beautiful – at best, they are encouraging the practice of “positive” dissection amongst women. There is still the notion that women are being judged by their physical appearance – that beauty is indeed, manifest physically, and that it is indeed something that we must strive for to be worthwhile. Dove is encouraging a practice of “valuing what is already considered normatively beautiful” – women are still making very real and practical judgments as to what “counts” as beauty.
And yet, in reflecting on my experiences, there is a subversive, maybe perverse power in valuing beauty and its links with femininity. There are ways in which I reclaim it, redefine beauty for myself. I still nip and tuck – but I try to do it in ways that push back against norms of society. I am willing to experiment with my body and what beauty it can hold in all its multitudes. I am also willing to see how notions of beauty, while tied to insecurity, expectations, unreasonable demands – have also held some measure of subversive power. That there are spaces of resistance in how I “use” existing notions of male gaze to redefine beauty. Perhaps it would be more accurate in some ways to say that I “reclaim” or try to “reclaim” notions of ugliness. Still, while this post has focused on how notions of beauty have pulled me in different directions in my life, I want to consider ways to move towards a politic beyond desirability. (To be continued in…Part 3)
*enclosed text has been copied verbatim as analysis by an astute friend who linked me to the Murray article. I couldn’t have stated it better than Melanie Large*