Sunday, March 16, 2014

Beauty: Feminism, single standard, and haircuts

You know how you run into one mention of a topic, and the topic keeps popping up everywhere you look? That's been happening to me with regard to fashion and feminism and femininity and beauty and such things.

I recently participated in a forum discussion about beauty. In that discussion, it became apparent that some participants--a small subset, admittedly--felt that runway models were the ultimate definition of feminine beauty. Not one possible definition--the definition.

Now, the specifics of the definition were a little fuzzy--for example, I'm not sure if those advocating runway-model beauty were aware of the relatively small chest size of most runway models. I suspect that these men might have been dreaming about the actresses who depict models in movies, rather than the actual models. They also seemed reluctant to accept the idea that those women may not look, when they step out the front door to get the paper in the morning, precisely the same way that they look in movies and magazine covers.

But those are nitpicks. What struck me was the idea that there is a single definition of feminine beauty, and any other beauty is not merely different, but inferior. That women who don't strive for this particular brand of beauty are failing to make the most of themselves and resigning themselves to a miserable man-free existence, and that men who don't want this specific kind of beauty in a woman, who want something else, are deluding themselves, or "settling", or so weird that they don't count statistically.

This was accompanied by the idea that when women strive for beauty, they are of course striving to please men and to gain male attention. The idea that a woman might want to take joy in her own appearance, might have her own idea of her own beauty, seemed to be...well, simply not there.

On that topic, The Reluctant Femme led me to The Brainy Femme which led me to Felicia Day's blog post about the reaction to her cutting her hair which led me to "Why Patriarchy Fears the Scissors" from The New Statesman. The writer of that article referred in part to yet another article, one about women who (gasp) cut their hair, the message of which she summarizes as:

The essential argument is: men like long hair, and what sane woman would ever want to do anything that decreases her capacity to please men?
Yes. That, yes, is what I was getting from that small percentage of the men in the thread: The incredulous reaction, somewhere between indignant and pitying, to the idea that a woman would have any priority--in particular any priority with regard to her appearance--other than the priority of pleasing men.


You know, I seem to have veered. The idea that women are frantically working to please men, and that women who have other priorities are deeply disordered, is certainly one that makes me indignant. But that one doesn't seem like as much of a puzzle--I can see the motivation behind it. People in power want to believe that the people not-in-power adore them and want to please them. They want to believe that the powerless are content with the power structure and are striving to fulfill their assigned role in that structure, rather than trying to change it. It's a happy comfy belief, one that could logically be held by some men, hopefully a steadily shrinking number of men.

It's the idea of a single definition of female beauty that I'm curious about. What, exactly, makes that a happy comfy belief? I think that people believe what they wanna believe, so I think that the happy-comfy has to be in there somewhere. Who benefits from the idea of one and only one definition of female beauty?

I suppose that such a definition means that more women are not beautiful. If we accepted tall-and-willowy beauties, and short-and-curvy beauties, and round-faced beauties and long-faced beauties and all kinds of beauties, more women are beautiful. And more women are close to beautiful. And more women can choose which sort of beauty she wants to emulate, or even (gasp) declare their own kind of beauty.

And that would give those women power. Is that it? Is that all? Is it like corporations that try to keep every employee convinced that he's not good enough? Confidence and security leave an opening for reaching for strength and power?  But I see a little too much planning there. I find myself wanting to quote that quote about malice and stupidity--I see too much effort put into malice. I think that comfy beliefs are usually about ego or reducing anxiety, and I don't see that here.

But, and ah, then we've got advertising. Advertising does benefit from, and actively work to encourage, insecurity and not-good-enough feelings. Advertising can convince women that they're not good enough, and then, not necessarily even by intent, convince men that they need the premium product, the woman that fits the single definition of female beauty. And so then both sexes see just one definition of female beauty.


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

(Edited to clarify that the folks advocating a single standard were a small percentage of the men involved in the thread, not, as the previous phrasing might have implied, a small number but all the men.)


  1. That's probably why I never dated/married 'normal' men! I have been in a 'bubble' forever. That typical way of thinking about beauty still astounds me; no one I hang out with thinks like that.

  2. Howdy, Carol! I don't think that I know anyone who thinks that way in real life--at least, not anyone that I know well enough to know how they think. But it does seem to be not-too-unusual online.

  3. I took part in a series of blogger / perfumer interviews on the topic of beauty, and every one of us independently said they preferred a bit of a quirk factor in our definition of feminine beauty ie not vapid cookie cutter 'pretty as a picture'-ness. It was over on Purple Paper Planes if you are curious.

  4. Yo, Vanessa! That sounds like a cool discussion. I'll go have a look.