Friday, July 18, 2008

When I am an old woman I shall give young women compliments
(I already wear purple)

I’ve been seeing more and more comments about women and appearance around feminist blogland recently (not that this is a topic that ever goes away for long) and I find myself feeling rather irked about the whole thing. This is one of those issues where I feel fundamentally out of step with most of my fellow feminists. I don’t have an instinctive distrust of the very idea of conventional beauty, as it seems many feminists do. I don’t distrust or resent women more attractive than myself. I don’t hate younger women for having tighter asses. In fact, what is it with the constant “perky boobs” references from so many feminists? Seriously, what is that about? Are they under the impression that those women in possession of such boobs have chosen to tweak their own genetic make-up in such a way as to make their boobs perky on purpose, just to spite the less perky? Why is this being used as a dismissive insult by feminists?

This is one of those moments where I bless the fact that I didn’t grow up in America or the UK. I grew up mostly in the Middle East. In all honesty I think that growing up there influenced my feminism in all kinds of ways, but one of the clearest ones is that I find this sort of constant ranking of other women in terms of their appearance and inability to empathize with those women who fall at different points in the ranking absolutely baffling.

I like looking at beautiful women. Now, admittedly this is probably in part because I am attracted to women. I think it’s more than that, though. My mother also loved looking at beautiful women and she was as straight as a ruler. Most of my mother’s friends were the same. I remember my mother’s friend Elizabeth, a gorgeous woman who looked like Natalie Wood, who I spent much of my childhood observing. As a little girl I always thought that it would be great to grow up to look like Elizabeth, but even knowing that I wouldn’t (I always wished that I could have really dark eyes like her, instead of the light brown I ended up with), I still always found her fascinating to observe simply because she was really, truly beautiful. And I wasn’t the only one. I can remember my mother’s much older friend Theresa, whose house felt almost like mine as a kid and who used to cut my hair till I was in my teens, fussing over Elizabeth, doing her hair and helping her with her make-up. It was always clear to me that she took pleasure in having young, beautiful women in her home, and that part of the reason was that she had three sons and no daughters or granddaughters. When I hit puberty, it was those two women, Elizabeth and Theresa, along with my mother, who taught me how to take pleasure in my own appearance, how to see personal adornment as a game, as something fun and creative that you did because you felt like it, and that if you didn’t feel like it on any given day you just didn’t do it. That was how I grew up, with the idea that beauty is a fun thing, something to be enjoyed, a way that women bond with each other.

I was always aware that there was another way to see things, but it seemed sort of blessedly irrelevant to me, cocooned in the warmth of my mother’s circle of friends (a circle, by the way, in which it was always clear that men were essentially peripheral – they were allowed to share part of us, but there was another part that we all reserved just for each other). That other way never really hit me full-force until I went away to school, and was confronted with just how much ugliness British and American culture is able to create out of women’s beauty, how it poisons the pleasure that we take in our own appearance and that of other women, how it teaches us to rank ourselves and hate those above us on the scale, and despise those below. And every holiday I would go running back to my mother for reassurance that things didn’t have to be that way. I would sit cuddled up in a big chair with Elizabeth’s daughter (my pretend baby sister since I never had a real one) and watch her putting on her make-up and re-learn the fact that beauty could be a game, sit at Theresa’s kitchen table and let her remind me that food is supposed to be a source of pleasure too and wish that she really was the grandmother that she felt like to me (my own paternal grandmother was a horrible, bitter, angry woman who never had anything good to say about another woman in the entire time I knew her). And then I would go back to school, and try to shut down and not take in any of the poison that was being fed to me, and deep in my heart refuse to learn to hate other women just because some of them were prettier than others, because I knew that it didn’t have to be that way.

It wasn’t until my thirties that I realized that there was a term for what I was doing, the way that I talk about women and beauty around the women that I grew up with and the women that I trust who I know now (Mr. C’s mother and his brother’s wife, a few close friends) and the different, more careful way I talk around all the other women who I don’t feel it’s safe to be honest with. The term is code-switching. Like most other people who code-switch, most of the time I do it without even being consciously aware of it, pick up subtle cues about which people I can be my real self around and which people I need to be wary with and adopt the way of speaking that is expected of me. I still think that the mainstream American way of talking about women and beauty is poisonous, and I go out of my way to avoid people who gulp down the poison and insist on feeding it to others, but really, it’s impossible to avoid completely. It’s too pervasive. All that you can really do is to observe which people are completely invested in that framework, which ones automatically rank all other women and either envy or scorn depending on that ranking, and try not to get too close to them.

It hurts me to see that poison coming from feminists, though. It hurts me no matter which target it’s being aimed at. Every time I see someone making generalized comments about “blonde bimbos” or “fuckbots” on a feminist site I lose a little more of my faith in the ability of the movement to effect any lasting social change. Every time I see the term “collaborator” being used in a way that makes it clear that the judgment being made is being based purely on the appearance of the woman being described, I wonder where it all went so horribly wrong. How can we possibly achieve anything if we don’t learn not to hate each other? How can we work together if we can’t learn that the fact that a woman doesn’t look like us doesn’t mean that she can’t be trusted? The anger that some women are treated differently by society than others based on their looks is a valid anger, but why the hell are feminists directing it at the women who happen to fit the preferred look rather than the system that insists on ranking all of us?

So, this whole thing has been bothering me. Of all the odd things to bring it back to me, it was actually a random meeting with a stranger that did it. I was on the train on my way to meet a friend for dinner and there was an older lady sitting in the seat in front of me. She wasn’t familiar with the train system and asked me how many stops there were until the place she was going (presumably because I was the only person around who looked like they might speak Spanish…which I actually don’t very well, sadly, but I do know enough to give directions so we managed). So we chatted back and forth for a while, and I was trying to explain that I was getting off at the same stop and could show her where to go, but my Spanish sucks so I wasn’t able to say it properly. So, we get to the stop and she gets up, and she doesn’t realize until we’re actually getting off the train that I’m getting off too. The she sees me and smiles and we get on the escalator together and I lead her over to the map and try to explain where she needs to go. And then I realize that I’m running late and that I have to get going, so I say goodbye and I’m trying to explain in my crappy Spanish (I understand what’s said to me a lot better than I can speak myself), and I feel bad for having to run off and not just walk her over to where she’s going, because she’s an old lady and it’s kind of a rough neighborhood if you don’t know your way around. And then she smiles and pats my cheek and says “mi nina linda, esta bien”. And you know what? That little comment made my day. Hell, my week. Because it’s been so damn long since I had to leave the warm safe little cocoon that I grew up in where women were actually nice to each other and we gave compliments just because we could. And I want to live there, and not in this alternate hell-world that is mainstream America in which older women hate younger women for their perky boobs and fat women hate thin women and thin women look down on fat women and everyone seems to hate tall skinny women just because the fashion industry loves them. And the fact that that hell-world of ranking and competition and constant sniping has infected feminism breaks my heart, because we of all people should know that hating other women because of something as random as how they look is poison, and yet I see it all the time. Why do we do this to each other? Can we please just stop?

When I’m an old woman I want to be like the older woman I met on the train. I want to be like my mother, and her friends. I refuse to hate younger women because they have perky boobs, and I refuse to participate in this system where we cut each other down based on where we fall in some stupid ranking system that’s almost totally arbitrary anyway (this season big boobs are in! next season, super straight hair!).

When I’m an old woman I’m going to randomly tell young women they’re beautiful, just to make them smile. In fact, I may just start now.


Arwen said...

As a young woman, telling older women they're beautiful is also good.

lankydancer said...

First off, hi! I'm fairly new to your blog and like it quite a bit.

Secondly: thank you for this post. I've never, ever understood how making women fell ashamed of or hate their bodies is remotely feminist (or remotely new, progressive, radical or otherwise different from what's been going on for centuries), much in the same way that I'll always cringe at some feminists' tendency to slut-shame. I really liked your descriptions of the group of women that you grew up surrounded by--it sounds so positive.

And thanks for reminding me how important it is to acknowledge other women's beauty as, well, a beautiful thing instead of dumping all of our society's baggage on the shoulders of whoever is next to us in the ranks.

Octogalore said...

"Like most other people who code-switch, most of the time I do it without even being consciously aware of it, pick up subtle cues about which people I can be my real self around and which people I need to be wary with and adopt the way of speaking that is expected of me."

I didn't know that expression, but it's a great one. It certainly rings some loud bells for me. There are very few people who don't bring out the chameleon in me. You're right, it'd be nice if there were fewer feminists in that category.

I can semi-understand if a behavior is reinforced by a lifetime of being treated a certain way by people who look a certain way. But I don't think that's happening. I don't find that conventionally fill-in-the-blank people are statistically significantly more likely to be assholes.

I like looking too, and I'm (mostly) not attracted to women. I like to look at attractive flowers, rooms, scenery, clothing, and people too, and many times but not always, there will be overlap with what's conventionally considered attractive.

Interesting question about why the perky boobs references from feminists. If I had to hazard a guess (which I don't but I will anyway), I'd say "perky" comes up in the context of "thin" or "boobjob." Both of which are controversial. "Thin" becuase it can, although doesn't always, involve working on nutrition and exercise which is presumably for the "menz" (although often not).

And boobjob -- kind of a triple whammy. (1) Presumed to be for the menz (see above); (2) Considered too risky for something cosmetic (which other women are always better qualified to judge) and (3) involves money, which always throws certain subsets of feminist bloglandia into apoplectic fits because of (wait for it) patriarchal associations between women and money that these subsets unwittingly internalize.

Cassandra Says said...

Arwen - you're right, and as a young woman I did! Especially with Mr C's mom, who really is gorgeous.

Cassandra Says said...

lankydancer - hi! I've never understood it either. It used to seem like pure spite to me, but I've started to realise that there's some sort of feminist analysis involved that just went horribly wrong at some point. I think people see critiquing conventionally attractive women as striking a blow against the system? And somehow they forget that those women are as much trapped in the system as they are.

And the slut shaming gets to me too. It's just so profoundly sexist, I'll never understand how people can fail to realise that double standard that they're reinforcing.

Cassandra Says said...

Octo - I've found the code-switching concept very useful. It's kind of distressing to realise just how much I do it, though, and even more distressing to realise that it isn't something that one should ideally have to do around other feminists.

I haven't found the conventionally pretty to be any more likely to be assholish about looks issues than anyone else either. In a way it seems more as if their very existence is taken as being a personal critique by some people. Some of the comments in the Feministe thread had that feel to them, that commenters felt as if the presence of conventional-looking young women as a rebuke to them. Which makes no logical sense but I guess makes a sort of emotional sense. I just wish people could see past the knee-jerk response to the fact that the women provoking it don't actually mean them any harm.

The issue of feminism and money/success for women is one that really deserves it's own post. Suffice it to say I agree - there's a lot of knee-jerk stuff going on there too, and I don't think most people have ever stopped to think about how much of that response is based on sexist programming about how women are supposed to be.

lankydancer said...

cassandra - Yeah, I think another bit of feminist analysis gone wrong might be seeing beautiful women as benefiting from the system, and therefore as having a vested interest in its continuing survival. Of course, that would be assuming that there are absolutely zero costs that come with beauty, and that they're petty enough to perpetuate the mistreatment of others just to get a little ahead.

As far as I can tell, the slut-shaming seems to be another part of the "but you're doing what men like and therefore propping the patriarchy" thing, with a healthy dose of "and you're making the rest of us proper women look bad". Of course, it's a nasty double standard no matter how you slice it.

octogalore - I think you're right about the "perky boobs" thing.

lankydancer said...

Gah, cross-posted with cassandra. I was responding to your response to me, although I think that your third comment (in response to octogalore) is also interesting. There seems to be a surprising amount of emotional knee-jerk even among people who are really heavily invested in examining things like emotional responses.

Cassandra Says said...

I don't think there's any question that beautiful women are seen as benefitting from the system, and therefore wishing to perpetuate it. That assumption is made all over the place. The question is WHY feminist make that assumption. In order to make that assumption you have to assume that A. beautiful women are incapable of empathy, B. they're too stupid to realise they won't be beautiful forever, and C. they benefit from the system in an uncomplicated way which doesn't come with a price tag. None of which assumptions are true in all cases, and some of which are true in very few cases.

lankydancer said...

Well, because it's a fairly easy assumption to make if you've been beaten over the head with the beautiful but cruel/stupid vs. plain but kindhearted/smart dichotomies that have been set up for ages. I think a lot of women get drilled into them that we can never "have it all"--you can't be beautiful as well as caring and smart, there has to be a lack somewhere. It's like some strange inverted neoplatonism: being beautiful on the outside is a sign that you are somehow empty inside--either a "dumb blonde" (and therefore too stupid to see that beauty is fleeting), or an "ice queen" (and thus completely lacking in empathy).

It's still frustrating to see otherwise intelligent and observant women perpetuating such harmful stereotypes without seeming to notice. Maybe it's easier to blame other women for seeming to capitulate than it is to take on an entire system of inequality? I don't know. It's an enormous blind spot that confuses the hell out of me.

Cassandra Says said...

I guess it is a common enough assumption, it's just one that I would think a feminist would be smart and self-aware enough not to make. And yet I've seen it from the smartest people, the assumption that pretty women are stupid, the idea that smart=ugly. It's such a messed-up idea that every time I see if from an otherwise intelligent, aware person my jaw just hits the floor.

I do think that it's partly that it's easier to snipe at the pretty women and see them as the problem than to tackle the actual problem, though.

Sarah J said...

Wow, this was timely.

I intern at BUST mag, and yesterday one of the staffers blogged about a Vans party that she went to for the release of some model's shoe line.

The comments were vicious and rotten from women who felt "betrayed" that BUST was covering something done by a model. (Because of course BUST never has models in its pages, or conventionally attractive women...yeah, right.)

You can see that immediately the eating-disorder thing gets tossed right out there--which makes me absolutely burning mad.

I'll be blogging on this myself later today, probably, but wanted to say thanks for doing such a good job of it. I try to make it a point to give compliments, and after the last couple of days I'll be doing even more of it.

Renegade Evolution said...

this post is full of win, thanks for writing it.

Lindsay1984 said...

You have been quoted, and thusly, warned. Of what, I'm not sure. This post kicked ass. Of that, I am sure.

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether objectification doesn't come into play with the idea that it's okay to insult conventionally attractive women. I'm thinking in some cases, people are falling for the propaganda just as much as the rest of society is -- conventionally attractive women are not people but objects to them, but instead of seeing the women in question as sex toys, they see them as yardsticks to measure themselves against. Yardsticks aren't supposed to have feelings, so it probably doesn't even occur to them that someone might actually feel hurt over being called a fembot or a bimbo or whatever.

Dana said...

Sorry to comment on these old threads! But this was really interesting. And made me smile, which I'm not very good at when it comes to people (animals always make me smile).

Other women generally terrify me and traditionally attractive, made up, smartly dressed women are the worst. I have to try so hard not to judge them with the assumption they'll judge me.

As I get toward my mid-twenties I'm discovering the desire to play with makeup, to dress up. I've always been so er, masculine? I don't know, I like almost exclusively traditionally masculine pastimes and refuse to wear feminine clothing unless going out because it's so damn awkward, but because of that I've felt nervous of allowing myself any femininity! Scared of being put in that box as a woman - because I have noticed how differently I get treated when I try and look "pretty" and I don't like it.

But your take on makeup is how I feel - I don't want to make myself perfect, I want to make a costume for fun, to look different and maybe feel a bit different.

I've never felt close to other women so reading about your upbringing, and that woman on the train, made me smile and wish a little bit for something like that.

Thank you. :)

Cassandra Says said...

Hey Dana, welcome! I get comment notification so late comments are not a problem. Glad the post was able to make you smile. I know what you mean, most of my friends have traditionally been men and I'm not very femmey in terms of pursuits and interests, but because of my Mum and her amazing friends I never thought that meant I couldn't have fun with clothes and make-up. When I was 17 a friend once said I was the mentally butchest vamp he'd ever welcome to the club.

Dana said...

"When I was 17 a friend once said I was the mentally butchest vamp he'd ever met."

lol I like that. I like it a lot. :D

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