The Problem With Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign, Part 3: Beyond Beauty – to Reject or to Reclaim?

Hey everyone! I’ve been playing around with html and mostly, overall, failing. However, I did figure out page jumps to make the blog post just ever so slightly more readable. Only a bit though. Because if I had to suffer through this so should you. (kidding. sort of.) Anyway, I hope you all enjoy the third installment in my little series that started as a takedown of Dove and has progressed onto thinking about beauty in general. Enjoy, all! And, if you were reading my post WHILE I was struggling to figure out html…my heart goes out to you, really. My post was even less readable than usual. BUT IT IS FIXED NOW. YAY!

Resistance through Reclamation: Performing Beauty
Corporate Projects Interfere with Personal Beauty Projects
Resistance through Rejection: Refusing Beauty
To Reject or to Reclaim?
Femmephobia in Feminism
Struggling with Choice Feminism: Renegotiating Beauty Privilege

I have been blogging lately quite extensively about Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign. What started in my first post as a general sketch of the ways in which beauty is sold and parceled to us – ways that reify current standards of “beauty” – turned into, in my second post, a more personal reflection on how notions of beauty have functioned in my own life. I spoke a little bit about how beauty intersects with feminism – the multiple ways in which beauty is sold to us, how body parts explicitly thought of as “female” are scrutinized, weighed, measured, and dissected. I spoke about how young girls and boys engage in these practices of understanding what is beautiful and what is not, and how it reflects wider societal attitudes that link beauty with femininity in problematic and entirely unreasonable ways. In that second post, I discussed how my own personal struggles with being and feeling ugly, wanting to be beautiful, being and feeling beautiful intersected in surprising and non-intuitive ways with my slowly developing feminism. I spoke a little bit of how I practice feminism and how I practice beauty – and how these have intersected in the past, and continue to shape each other.

In that post, I also acknowledged my current, not-unproblematic, beauty-related privilege. While I focused on philosophical notions such as “symmetry” or socially prescribed notions of beauty that are rooted in “female parts”, I want to now expand the discussion further to talk about how desirability and beauty are sold to us and consumed by us as necessary to being accepted as women. It was implicit in my previous posts – certainly ideas of beauty are embedded in feminine culture, and I explicate the links a little bit. But there are particular ways in which we are repeatedly taught, flooded, with information about what it means to be read as women, what the societally prescribed attributes of “acceptable womanhood” are. Donna Haraway points out that it is through specific mapping practices that boundaries are drawn, and objects are created. Indeed, the notion that women are not read as people or as fully human- or at least, as people with fully developed and multiple subjectivities- is nothing new in feminist discourse. Beauty is tied into what is necessary for self-identified women to be accepted as women. But there are other boundaries that self-identified women must also navigate to be read as, accepted as women; for example, being cisgendered, white, and able-bodied matter to whether or not self-identified women are perceived as women by others. Mia Mingus writes that

[She has] spent most of [her] life as a physically disabled child, youth and adult adoptee of color trying to find [her] way into “human,” let alone “woman.”

As a disabled child shuffled through the medical industrial complex and as a baby of color shipped across the world to “new parents,” [she has] felt more like a different species, a freak, an object to be fixed/saved, a commodity.  Like someone who has been owned and whose body has never felt like it was [hers].  Like someone who they were trying to make human (read: able bodied, white), if only the surgeries had worked and the braces had stuck.  Like something that never could even get close to “desirable” or “feminine” or “woman” or “queer.”  Like ugly.  Not human.

            The words struck an immediate chord with me – not just in the content, but in the cadence of the writing. I’d written something similar back when I was 17. I’ve taken some excerpts of it to share here:

Woke up this morning with the whisper of a dream still echoing in my ear, of failing chem exams, of  *********‘s note pad, and a discussion with her regarding school and subjects, and work. And I remember a doll in the top right corner of my living room, opposite the piano, across the chandelier. A white mannequin wearing promiscuous clothes, a see through dark violet, sheer blouse, and some sort of dark garment on the bottom, and a black bra.

And I woke up with words

ugly unnlikeable unlovable stupid dumb

And i learned a piece on the piano, Chopin’s Prelude in B minor. And then I’m doing economics.

Nothing matters anymore.

There is no point in my efforts, no point to them, I am not socially capable, I am not good looking or smart or pretty or anything, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t need that to make a difference…

I am just someone to play pranks on…

ugly unnlikeable unlovable stupid dumb

There’s a lot in there – it’s reeking with class privilege and well: I sound super emo. I was, what 17, haha. But… there’s the evidence of how I was treated and how I felt. There’s also a cyclical type of writing in it – it’s loose in how I chose to take temporal considerations into account. It’s this aspect, the rhythmic quality of some of the words, the way they played in my head – it’s this quality that resonated with me when I read Mia Mingus’ piece. This cyclicality symbolizes to me, the utter pervasiveness –the quotidian atmosphere of how I felt.

There are notions too – just the budding ideas of what it felt like to be utterly numb, “less than”, and not be socially accepted. In the original document, there are more explicit links to whiteness and acceptability too and my role in a primarily white crowd of people – some of which are (still) so searing that I couldn’t bear to include them here to be available to be publically read. They are searing and painful to read because they reflect the sheer magnitude of struggle that a brown woman may go through in trying to navigate, in confusing ways, why and how whiteness is linked to “socially acceptable”.

            I didn’t remember, until I started writing this blog post today that it was around that time that I learned how to play Chopin’s Prelude in B Minor. Friends from that circle –some people I no longer consider my friends – came to see me play it at a recital where I placed silver. It’s odd right? Odd and surprising. They came, they applauded. They were there for me in some small ways, sometimes. But I’ve always been able to connect that piece with really quite deep feelings of sadness.

Mingus’ words struck a chord with me in their cadence, in the absolute feelings of disconnect and alienation that can come from not being socially accepted, or considered beautiful – but reading her piece also made me consider my own able-bodied privilege and how it intersects with notions of being accepted, being beautiful. Fitting in. It was only later on in university, after being acknowledged as beautiful that I felt the courage to explore – or perform with, in the every-day – parts of my body that were either ignored or unnoticed.


Resistance through Reclamation: Performing Beauty

LaMackerel, an artist based in Montreal does something similar, in a grander, more magnificent way: LaMackerel performs on stage and explicitly calls out the ways in which bodies are studied, scrutinized, and simultaneously ignored. On their page, they write that

Faced with daily micro-aggressions, coming to terms with furtive gazes and curious looks that spit foreignness onto the non-white body, La Mackerel explores the thin line between fascination and disgust with regards to an, albeit francophone, darker shade of skin. ‘Race’ is a drag! thus throws a hint of darkness onto the contradicting tension that characterizes race dynamics in Montréal, i.e. race as invisible (we’re colorblind) and race as too-visible (yet we stare).

La Mackerel also states that they play with how their own bodies are viewed in a world where whiteness is both normative and positive. I had the pleasure of watching La Mackerel perform once, in an “artsy” bar. They had organized the event with a few other artists of colour, including Lady Sin Trayda. Yet I recall, sitting there in the front row, that most of the audience was white. I watched these artists perform, strutting in heels, eyes flashing sometimes with humour, always with a steeled edge. I wondered: could this white audience here the challenge in these voices? Could they hear and see how these performances called out whiteness-as-normative just by being centered on the stage, but also through the content of their words? Could they hear just how much the queer community in Montreal is white – and just how much queer people of colour are forced to choose: queer, or not. White “enough” or not. Beautiful, or not. Could the audience feel the contrast between the performers’ experiences and their own?

Lady Sin Trayda explains that their name is both a spin on the term “skin trader”, and the connections between art – particularly performative art – and sex work. “You give and the audience takes, pays for it, the audience uses you for emotional catharsis.” I wonder if listening to Lady Sin, during their performances, makes the audience uncomfortable in their own skins – enough to become aware of themselves, their privilege, their own darkness, the way they structure darkness in Others. The Lady loves to speak to her audience, to give to her audience, but the audience is at her mercy in terms of what she chooses to offer. And if we get a taste of sin, there is at least a price to be paid: white privilege is often unmasked. Cis privilege is hoisted up, and often burned on stage. Self awareness seeps through Lady Sin’s performances; they are simultaneously coy, cheeky, blunt, deceptive, alluring, and as vulnerable as fortified, translucent glass.

They stated

“When I was little, I thought I was ugly. I hated mirrors. Being beautiful was all I ever wanted…If people liked me, had sex with me, they got to decide if I was beautiful. It took me a long time to know I can be pretty .Three years ago, I started wearing make-up and writing things. […] I always wanted to be beautiful when I grew up—and I am beautiful. That’s why I am a grown-up!”

They believe that “narcissism and self-love have revolutionary potential. Marginalized bodies are seen as unlovable. Beauty is an infinite process. It is a world that you explore and make that is often denied to people. I want to show it to people. Sometimes you have to re-learn it and come back.”

Watching Lady Sin perform, reading their work – and in my private conversations with them, as Ryan Thom, –always leads to a reckoning with deep parts of myself, parts I sometimes consider ugly, sometimes beautiful, but always parts I acknowledge rarely to others. Ryan knows, and Lady Sin sometimes understands and empathises – and at the very least, they acknowledge out loud, some of my secrets and fears. Their description of beauty resonates in real ways with me – it has been a struggle to be beautiful both within and without norms that regulate beauty. (You can find some of Lady Sin Trayda’s work here.)There is an acknowledgement of beauty being denied to people – but there is also an acknowledgement of carving out a niche for oneself, one’s beauty, of forcing others to see it too. It is about creation, carving, inscribing beauty in oneself – it is radical.

There is a reclaiming that these artists have done – in defying how they have been perceived, in taking that perception and making it their own, in owning it, in creating and in revolutionizing the love they have for themselves, in love that they may demand from others. There is a subversive power here, a creative constructive power here, in breathing in and reveling in the audience’s gaze, while turning that gaze back on the audience. Owning and re-inventing how their bodies are seen, often in perverse ways by white, cisgendered folk, is a transformative experience.

            I can’t say I’ve done anything as extraordinary – Lady Sin and I have spoken sometimes about my own pieces – ones I write and am generally more shy about posting online. It’s thanks to Lady Sin that I even post some of my work – but I am currently not as… brave? Strong? Inclined? None of these words truly capture the feeling – but I haven’t posted my politically motivated poetry as readily online. And speaking on stage… I think my words would shake. It takes practice and time, like anything else, I suppose. But I will say that in my every-day life, I think I do make some small effort with playing with notions of ugliness and beauty, in reclaiming my body and reflecting on my body in my own personal life.


Corporate Projects Interfere with Personal Beauty Projects

There is an obvious tension here: rejecting beauty or reclaiming beauty. Which do I pick? Can I hold both? How do I go about engaging with how beauty functions in my life in a way that tears neither myself nor other women down? Is this even possible? So much of struggling with this is tied into how I view myself, how I see others viewing me, and how corporate interests dictate what beauty should be. Dove’s recent campaign – and indeed, their special branding of beauty is exactly that: a brand. As The Belle Jar Blog writes:

“Dove does not give a shit about whether or not you feel beautiful.

They don’t. At all. Full stop.

All that Dove wants is for women to buy their products. And they’ve discovered that the best way to manipulate women in the Western world is to tell them that they’re beautiful. And you know what? This is a really fucking effective advertising strategy… Women are now buying Dove products not because they feel that these products will improve them, but because they’re loyal to a brand that sees them as truly, uniquely beautiful.

All of which would be fine, I guess, if that was actually what Dove thought.

But Dove does not give a shit about how you feel about yourself. Dove just wants to manipulate you into buying their products.”

As I mentioned in my past posts, Dove has hijacked a very real struggle in many women’s lives: the desire to be beautiful, to feel loveable, likeable, desirable, and made it into a brand. Buy Dove, if you appreciate beauty in ~all its forms (not)~. The author continues to write that though Dove doesn’t care, she does. And I do too.  I do care about beauty. She earnestly writes:

“We think you’re beautiful, and we’re not standing to make any kind of profit off of that thought. More than that, we think you’re smart, capable, funny, kind, all-around great people. We love everything about you.”

And you know what? That’s really pleasant. It is a lovely thought to me, at times, to be thought of as beautiful, particularly by people who do not have something to gain – but here’s the awkward truth: we all have something to gain in beauty politics. I like The Belle Jar a fair bit. But what does she mean when she says she thinks we’re beautiful? I do this too – I mean every word too. I love my friends, I mean it when I tell my friends they are beautiful.  But how does The Belle Jar construe beauty? How do I? Again, I appreciate that she wrote that – it is a need for many of us. But I want to ask: does it have to be? The Belle Jar points out other aspects that are also loveable – intelligence, capability, humour, kindness, etc: and here lies my problem: Dove’s commercial would have us believe that their brand of beauty is more than skin deep – that it’s about how “happy” we are, or indeed how open, kind, or friendly we seem. The Belle Jar, Katie Makkai, and I all know different: beauty, as normatively constructed is skin deep. That is why beauty products are related so often to skin-care, how we look, how others literally see our superficial selves. I don’t mean superficial in a negative way – I mean, quite literally, that it’s the topmost layer. And there is a resistance in The Belle Jar’s blog, and in Katie Makkai’s piece – a resistance to be more than beautiful or pretty.


Resistance through Rejection: Refusing Beauty

This resistance is echoed by Mingus, who powerfully calls for a shift to loving the Ugly, respecting the Ugly, to a politic of magnificence rather than beauty. “We all run from the Ugly,” she says, “And the more we run from it, the more we stigmatise it and the more power we give to beauty.” There is inclusivity here, in learning to appreciate the Ugly; here are bodies that “disrupt, dismantle, disturb.  Bodies and movements ready to throw down and create a different way for all of us, not just some of us.” Bodies not accommodated by Abercrombie and Fitch, but which still exist, sometimes unapologetically. She calls us to understand and respectthe magnificence of bodies that have been coded, not just undesirable and ugly, but un-human.” And importantly, she does not think beauty can be reclaimable. It has been so often – too often – used as a form of exclusion, of dividing and hierarchizing people. “ What would it mean if we were ugly?  What would it mean if we didn’t run from our own ugliness or each other’s?   How do we take the sting out of “ugly?”  What would it mean to acknowledge our ugliness for all it has given us, how it has shaped our brilliance and taught us about how we never want to make anyone else feel?… What do we do with bodies that can’t change no matter how much we dress them up or down; no matter how much we want them to?”

Indeed, I think there are valuable lessons from being ugly – I know I am grateful for the gazes I receive now. I know that in rejecting beauty, there is a power in saying that women can be whole, complete persons. I know I will never gaze at another person to point them out, paint them as ugly with my own eyes. I know that I appreciate humanity and compassion in others – that after years of feeling ugly, I know I do not want others to feel that way. Haley Morris-Cafiero embarked on a project in reclaiming ugliness, fatness, in asserting the power of confronting ugliness in others. Aware that she had been mocked for years about her size, she decided to start a photo project where candid shots were taken of herself, on the street, sometimes surrounded by passers-by who were mocking her. In these photos, I was struck by the truly ugly expressions on the faces of people who were projecting, through their expressions, what they construed to be ugly about her. But their expressions stand in stark contrast to the evidence: the relative serenity or calm or every-day-ness about Morris-Cafiero’s face. She is standing, walking, going about her own day. The only obvious ugliness in the pictures is reflected in the faces of the people watching her and mocking her for… simply existing. In viewing these candid shots, I was at once astonished at the contrast between Morris-Cafiero standing/sitting, unapologetically in her body and in her fat… and at the ugliness in people, reflected on their faces. She says:

And I don’t get hurt when I look at the images. I feel like I am reversing the gaze back on to them to reveal their gaze. I’m fine with who I am and don’t need anyone’s approval to live my life. I only get angry when I hear someone comment about my weight and the image does not reflect the criticism. That’s frustrating: when I didn’t get the shot.

But since the project started getting media attention, I’ve received hundreds of emails from people thanking me. There are so many people in the world who feel they have the right – no, the obligation — to criticize someone for the way they look, and to be that recipient of those insults can feel so lonely. I got an email from a 15-year-old girl in Belgium who said my images made her “feel better and not care about what others think and live my life.”

There is a subversive power here in the reversal of gaze, in reclaiming what is seen as ugly about oneself and in finding ugliness in others. Is she thus rejecting beauty as Mingus might have wanted? But in finding ugliness in others, exposing it, I see parallels too to the work of Lady Sin Trayda and La Mackerel, in whose work I also see a subversive power in reclaiming particular kinds of beauty. Lady Sin and LA Mackerel sometimes sport high heels and beautiful dresses in their shows. There is a daring quality about the way in which they structure femininity, sometimes complicit with normative standards of beauty, but sometimes qualitatively different in how they explicate the drag-aspect of some of their shows. Particularly with Lady Sin Trayda, there is a fluid movement on stage that I feel sometimes between their gender expression (sometimes masculine, often feminine, sometimes neither, sometimes both, sometimes different), their subtle shifts into drag and out of it, and the ways in which they play with and demand more from what femininity and beauty can mean.



To Reject or to Reclaim?

Would Mingus argue that such play is inherently flawed, or inherently oppressive? I don’t think La Mackerel and Lady Sin explicitly reject all aspects of beauty but they certainly redefine and reclaim aspects. I have to wonder: what does it mean to reclaim femininity and beauty for me, a cisgendered, brown woman?

I know already that I do not reclaim “normative beauty” wholly – I tease dates about my own facial hair. Even if my upper lip is waxed, I point out that I can probably grow a bigger moustache or beard than my dates can. They are often surprised, forced to struggle, at least momentarily with what it might mean to consider me, someone they consider normatively, with facial hair. It confuses them, and I can only grin harder at their slight discomfort! This is how I play with, and push back against, patriarchal norms of beauty. Some days, I consciously wear makeup – other days, there is an equally conscious decision not to. Some days, I wear makeup, notice stares in a coffeeshop, and take it off in the bathroom, just to see what happens. I like the way I look with some makeup on – a roommate once tried to put more on me, and I agreed to experiment. I found I didn’t really like the effect – I didn’t feel “more beautiful” with it on and I didn’t like the cakey effect on my face, so I didn’t try it again. But it’s true that I care about how I look – personal experiences in my youth have shaped that. I don’t think it’s entirely possible for me to reject beauty altogether, but there are days I do. And I respect the choice of anyone who does and is able to do so with peace of mind. I respect anyone who chooses this precisely to have some peace of mind. I prefer to think of the ways that I engage with makeup as something that can have subversive power: there lies too, the notion of femininity and creativity with outfits and makeup as inherently patriarchal and oppressive. Vigs challenges this notion in “Femmephobia: Let’s Talk Shoes”, writing that

 if a line of reasoning leads you to conclude that most women are too stupid to look out for their own self-interest, you need to re-examine that reasoning, because you are being misogynistic.

Now, of course there’s a difference between “brainwashed” and “stupid,” but if someone is telling you “I am doing this thing because it makes me happy” and you tell them that’s impossible and they don’t know what they’re talking about, that line gets very thin indeed.

 I would even argue that the notion that women are brainwashed into “liking high heels” is at best, a superficial notion. Yes it’s true that patriarchal norms structure beauty and femininity. But it’s also true that nearly everyone makes a risk-benefit analysis of some kind regarding the choices they make. Vigs points out the social costs of not wearing high heels for occupations, or dates. Certainly, I think I feel the pressure to an extent, but I avoid high heels like the plague because I have flat feet and cannot bear the pain of walking in them: I literally am off balance, in tremendous pain, and will fall. These are good feminist reasons to not wear high heels for me; I reject the notion that my legs need to “look good” where looking good involves heels because they cause me pain– but they are not good feminist reasons in general – why? Because some women might like the clickety-clack of high heels on tile – the sound that resonates with some degree of power – they might like the height it offers –. They might like the feel of the shoe, who knows? Certainly, they may not be writhing in pain like I generally do. And they may not feel “they have to” due to norms. After all, there are “some people who are not women and/or were not socialized as women choose to wear high heels. For people whom society reads as male, wearing high heels will have much, much higher social costs than not wearing high heels.” There is something about desiring to see what is normatively feminine in oneself; especially amongst critical and self-aware people, the idea that they are ‘brainwashed’ into wearing heels or wanting to be feminine falls flat.

What do I like about lipstick and eyeliner? Well, for one, I don’t like all lipsticks. I prefer darker shades (just one shade actually) – could this be because I’ve been socialized into thinking that my darker skin looks better with darker shades? Maybe. I love the way my lips look with this one dark shade – dark and matching the intensity of my dark eyes. I like the contrast between the darkness of my lips and my brown skin, which is lighter than the lipstick shade I use. I also prefer dark clothing in general, despite having been told that yellow and pink would look so lovely on me. Why? I don’t like standing out in a crowd. I think when I was younger, I associated brighter colours with feminine attire, and rejected femininity in my own personal enactment of femmephobia. But now, I very rarely use lighter colours because I don’t like the effect it has on others around me – people stare more, and I don’t want to be stared at. Interestingly, I love lighter colours on Indian clothing, and will even go so far as to wear yellow salwar kameezes. I still prefer dark colours and my favourite saris (read: only saris) are deep navy and black in colour. I love black eyeliner – and always have as a child – dark kohl around the eyes is something deeply rooted in certain South Asian traditions. There’s a picture of my mum as a little baby girl, a beauty/evil-eye repellant mark made with kohl on her cheek or chin and her eyes encircled in dark shades.

Then there’s the question of earrings. Piercing the ears of small children is as much a cultural/religious tradition as it is a way to value femininity and beauty. Indeed, my father also technically had his ears pierced as a baby. I recall being surprised and feeling it was absurd as a child. “Daddy, you had earrings?!” I asked, astonished and giggling. He laughed and said “well the holes are closed over now, but yes, it’s part of our culture. All babies get it done!” And in an instant, the notion that earrings were only for girls was significantly tempered. My daddy and uncle had little earrings – there were pictures to prove it! My grandfather had them! And they were men! I didn’t have my ears pierced as a baby however – I was 6 years old and remember the event vividly. My mother couldn’t bear the thought of me feeling pain as a small baby so she waited. Ironically, I of course, remember the pain much better now.  I also recall the impressed looks friends gave me when I wore earrings to school as a young child in Canada. “Your parents let you pierce them?!” They asked. At that age, I found their awe amusing – didn’t they know that everyone Indian got their ears pierced? I had obviously easily and swiftly picked up that getting your ears pierced was a hilariously protracted affair in North American cultures, often involving long negotiations with parents – in India, nose piercings, bangles, ear piercings were all a very normative part of feminine culture. How could they not know this?  (Answer: eurocentrism, obviously!)

It took me four years after they were pierced to demand from my mother that I wear something other than the usual gold jhumkas. I remember my first non-Indian pair: green crescent moons. They felt strange on me, the thin needle-like insert much slimmer than any of the golden rods that I’d been using. The rubber bits to hold them in place felt so different from the gold butterfly clasps I used to wear. I felt less Indian. I didn’t feel more beautiful. But I wore them anyway – these are the compromises I made to fit in. I no longer wear those earrings – but I don’t wear my gold jhumkas anymore either: they, unsurprisingly, no longer fit since my holes had shrunk after I started wearing earrings with slimmer inserts.  There’s probably something tragically poetic and awful about that, but I’ll save that for another post. Anyway, while I no longer wear earrings as often, I do enjoy them on occasion – I like playing with variety.


Femmephobia in Feminism

I don’t wear my makeup every day, but it’s a way for me to be creative with how I look – as is choosing between rings or necklaces or anklets. I love the shape of my ankles and love wearing anklets to accentuate them. I shouldn’t have to be policed for my choice to look a certain way: not by patriarchy, and not by other feminists – and if I have an interest in a traditionally feminine art, that art should be valued. My interest in it should be valued.

It’s only in a really femmephobic society where such ideas are seen as automatically inferior than masculine interests. I pointed out in a past couple of posts that I had normalized and internalized masculine-as-positive when I was a youth precisely because I felt that if girls just let themselves “be natural” they would be more like me (aka: more masculine/normal). But the idea that normatively feminine interests are somehow inherently shaped by patriarchal norms that we must resist is also rooted in some idea of misogyny: that women cannot, and have never learned to, express themselves in ways that can resist. That only “enlightened feminists” have such power, and it is through their rejection of all things “normatively feminine” is in itself misogynistic.

But is there a way for me to separate and re-fit the way typically feminine art like makeup can be reconciled with beauty privilege? What if such art didn’t lead to normative standards of beauty? Kara K, in her guest post for Feministe, writes extensively and powerfully about how in a world where women are so often gazed at, makeup has been a way for her to assert her presence and control over what others see in her. She writes that

if you don’t find my face to be politically correct, or socially appropriate, you should still shut up about my face, because it is my face, and not yours. Asserting control over a woman’s body—her face, her uterus, her breasts—is a betrayal of feminism. If we, as feminists, believe that women deserve autonomy, then [she is] allowed to have [her] face without being shamed for it.

My makeup represents to me control. I can’t stop people from looking at me but I  can absolutely control what they see when they look at me. My  makeup is a way to self-create. As time has gone by, I’ve become less interested in “natural” makeup, instead going for dramatic looks with bright colors and intense lips. Sometimes, I do use more mattes and neutrals, but even then, the entire thing is a construct. You don’t see my face—you see the face I want you to see.

There is subversion here, a highly critical awareness of exactly how the patriarchy functions. There is resistance too – and there is also beauty. Linking fatphobia with beauty politics, Vigs points out the inherently misogynistic, femmephobic tone of policing someone’s bodily autonomy and choice to be more femme, since being femme is often perceived to be ‘less than’ masculine interests.

“People are shamed for being fat or feminine because those are characteristics that our society devalues. How often do you see people shaming mountain climbers for the risks and rigors that they put their bodies through? Climbing Mount Everest is far more likely to have negative long-term health consequences than wearing high heels or eating a piece of cake, but mountain climbers are celebrated.

There are additional sides to this issue, particularly when one considers intersectionality. Trans women are often strongly drawn to feminine expressions, and telling them that they’re just brainwashed is extremely condescending. Many aspects of traditional femininity have historically been denied to women of color, a trend which continues today. There are women who would love to be able to stay at home and focus on raising their children, but who cannot afford to because of poverty and systematic inequality. There are women who would love to be viewed as soft and delicate, despite the fact that our society automatically categorizes them as desexualized mammies or sexually aggressive Jezebels. Telling these women that the femininity they long for is just patriarchal brainwashing is condescending at best and actively oppressive at worst.


Struggling With Choice Feminism: Renegotiating Beauty Privilege

 While Vigs ends vis article with a clear understanding that policing women’s desires to be feminine is itself oppressive, Autumn Whitfield-Madrano struggles with the notions of choice-feminism – that feeling and looking good are not the only struggles that feminist ideas hope to target. As Mingus is clear, not all bodies “fit in”. That chalking up choices to “just choice” is useless – and I agree, particularly when our choices are shaped by a degree of privilege we have and by the norms we continually struggle with. Whitfield-Madrano writes that 

Beauty privilege is extraordinarily difficult to willingly forsake, precisely because even as we’re encouraged to exercise it, we never know exactly how much of it we have. It’s a privilege we may long to possess even as we question our right to it, leaving us in flux, never able to fully develop our sea legs and figure out exactly why and how we can reject whatever beauty privilege we might have cultivated.

The Dove commercials participate in this project – of creating ‘faux’ agency for women: women in real life are told that calling ourselves beautiful is vain, vulgar, gaudy – we are not allowed to call themselves beautiful – we must receive the compliment from others. Such commercials reproduce, and indeed hinge on, the lack of agency or autonomy women have over the perception of our bodies – we’re simultaneously told that we must think of ourselves as beautiful, that beauty is on the inside, but we live realities where trans women are mocked for being and dressing and passing as feminine, and where women in general learn to scrutinize others’ appearance knowing that their judgment matters. We are taught implicitly that beauty is something others perceive in us, that it is in the “eye of the beholder”, but we’re also taught to reclaim it for ourselves. Neither is possible when that “eye” of the subject gazing has such a narrow field of vision that only certain narrow categories count as beauty. Donna Haraway writes that vision is always a question of power – the right to see, to behold, to construct an Other as beautiful or not, acceptable or not, human or not, woman or not.

But Mingus and Cafiero find ways to play with vision – Mingus embraces the Ugly, and asks us to find power and magnificence in bodies that are not seen as normatively beautiful, and likely never will be considered beautiful in our lifetimes. I understand her point: that striving to “find beauty” in bodies that are not normatively beautiful, may be disabled or of colour, often just means we are begging, cap in hand, to extend the narrow range of white, able-bodied beauty to accommodate a few disabled, bodies of colour while still marginalizing others. Disabled, drooling, sometimes paralysed bodies of colour may not ‘pass’ as beautiful enough in ways that my own body of colour might – and so there is value in rejecting beauty altogether. There is always value in rejecting a construct that hinges on hierarchizing some bodies over others. But as Morris-Cafiero shows, there is value too in recognizing ugliness in normatively beautiful people…and so I must also believe that there is value in recognizing beauty in people considered ugly, undesireable. Morris-Cafiero turns the gaze onto those who cast vile glances at her body, and through her photos, she captures the ugliness of their thoughts, contorting their faces into grotesque imitations of what human faces generally are. In doing so, the image presents a contrast between her body, fat, perhaps unapproved by Abercrombie and Fitch and of the people mocking her, who are often of a more normatively accepted weight. There too is a contrast between her face, relaxed and going about her day, and the grotesque expressions on the face of people being cruel to her. Indeed, their cruelty is reflected in their face as ugliness – there is subversive power in confronting ugliness, playing with it; capturing ugliness in normatively beautiful bodies has revolutionary potential for how bodies and people are viewed.

But if there is power in finding ugliness in so called beautiful people, then there lies too a subversive power in reclaiming and redefining what engaging in beauty labour can do. Lady Sin Trayda and La Mackerel purposefully and wittily play with intersections of race, gender, beauty, and ugliness – Lady Sin and I have talked about what it means to feel ugly… and to ask others to see and hold our beauty and our ugliness, however they manifest, but simultaneously. If we have to suffer with some sense of dissonance, so should the audience, and so should our dates! And Kara K. talks about using makeup itself as a way to construct and create – a tool for agency with which she can manipulate light and manipulate sight. Vision. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but like any art, also lies in the skill of the brush. There is a reclaiming here, an artistry here.

Vigs discusses how femmephobia seeps through feminist discourse and adds to the general atmosphere of body policing women’s experiences. Whitfield-Madrano asks us to consider the ways in which beauty privilege intersect with convenience and choice-feminism, and what it means to be critical about our choices. I would add that the best way I’ve found to balance this in my own life is to be supportive of other women’s decisions regarding their femme expression but to critique, sometimes severely, my own. We have to critique our own choices and how patriarchy structures them – that means playing with discomfort, for me. I went through phases where I refused to shave, really invested time in pushing back against normative beauty standards – it helped a lot. We should move beyond superficial choice to really examine how choices are constructed in patriarchy and how they apply to our own lives…while simultaneously of course, valuing the choices of other women who, on average have their choices questioned all the time, one way or another. As Whitfield-Madrano writes

I do not think using makeup means you are a pawn of the patriarchy. I do not believe that using makeup means you are a bad feminist, or that you can judge a feminist by her level of active complicity to or disregard of conventional beauty standards. I do not think that feminists must have an armor about them that allows them to either disregard the immense societal pressure to look pretty, or to somehow magically be able to determine why we’re wearing makeup—that, say, we use it because it’s our choice, but those poor other nonfeminist women are just bullied into it by the patriarchy. I do not think shaming women for whatever beauty work they do is going to help any of us; I don’t think internalizing guilt is helpful either. And in general, I do not think feminist dogma helps most feminists, and probably prevents more people from joining the club.

But neither do I believe that neglecting to seriously, critically examine our engagement with the beauty privilege certain acts give us is the mark of a responsible feminist. If you’re a 21st-century feminist in western society, your beauty labor means something.
We can’t blithely claim that cosmetics use is merely our choice, or that if it makes us feel good then it’s just fine. Feeling good in general is one of the aims of feminism, sure, but getting there through questionable means without, well, asking questions—and aggrandizing our own beauty privilege without closely examining what that means for us and other women*—falls short of feminist goals. If we’re going to inhabit the contradictory space of having our feminist critique of the beauty standard while engaging with and benefiting from that standard, we must scrutinize that space with an honest, level eye that gives us grace for our contradictions while not letting us lapse into convenient answers.

*emphasis mine

It is in this space of conflicted ideas about beauty, how it functions in my own life and in the lives of others, that I wish to stake a few claims as to how I conceive of beauty. There must always be a struggle – looking and feeling good are not enough for me, especially when such feelings are built on a scaffolding that privileges some over others. At the same time, engaging in typically feminine forms of creative expression should not be an act that is valued less than typically masculine actions. In Part 4, I offer a general guide in list form as to the various ways in which I negotiate beauty in my own life. This is not meant to be taken as any kind of dogma – it is instead, just a list of the ways in which I navigate beauty.

Resistance through Reclamation: Performing Beauty
Corporate Projects Interfere with Personal Beauty Projects
Resistance through Rejection: Refusing Beauty
To Reject or to Reclaim?
Femmephobia in Feminism
Struggling with Choice Feminism: Renegotiating Beauty Privilege

This entry was posted in Articles, feminism, Tackling Racism, Thoughts on Life and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Problem With Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign, Part 3: Beyond Beauty – to Reject or to Reclaim?

  1. Very nice article. We would like to point out that Vigs is genderqueer and does not use female pronouns, however. Ve, ver, vis are all acceptable. Again, very thoughtful piece, and we can tell a great deal of time and effort was put into it.


  2. Pingback: The Problem With Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign, Part 2: Rethinking Beauty | Mid Sentence Revelation

  3. Pingback: The Problem With Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign, Part 1 | Mid Sentence Revelation

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