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Feminspire | April 23, 2014

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Beauty or a Beast: Women Can’t Win When Looks Are Everything

Beauty or a Beast: Women Can’t Win When Looks Are Everything

| On 06, Jun 2013

Being found attractive is hardly a good thing for a woman. It immediately makes her a sexual object, with her worth connected to what she’s willing to do with her body. And this is beyond infuriating—different cultures and parts of the world have different standards of beauty, so why do all the other wonderful characteristics that a woman may possess pale in comparison to the sexual desire she produces in individuals of her particular society?

But at least perceived beauty in a woman is a fulfilled expectation—if you fail to meet that expectation, you have done the world a disservice … or so it would seem. How many women are scrutinized in the media every day because of a tiny pooch of fat, an unpopular fashion choice, or a “bad” haircut? Stevie Nicks, a talented singer and songwriter, says here that “Singing is the love of my life, but I was ready to give it all up because I couldn’t handle people talking about how fat I was.” A woman’s success relies too much on perceived beauty, though few career fields rely upon aesthetics whatsoever. We are often perceived as vain, caring too deeply about makeup, fashion, and overall appearance, but isn’t this what we are forced into? Companies and make-up ads tell us we are ugly so that we feel like we have to buy their products, then the rest of society belittles us and tells us we’re superficial for doing so.

But is it even a blessing to be considered attractive? Many women experience cat-calls, harassment, or slut-shaming due to being conventionally “beautiful.” It’s no secret that being publicly successful for a woman is difficult if she’s not beautiful, but even if she can dodge constant belittling of her appearance, sexualization is even harder to avoid. It’s never a compliment to degrade a woman by equating her value to her sex appeal.

Even everyday instances demonstrate the expectations placed upon women everywhere. I was never considered particularly attractive at school, especially when younger. I did much better at school at that time, and worked hard to do so. But it didn’t matter—all people ever said to me was that I was ugly, would never have a boyfriend, and that I should be grateful for what I considered  to be sexual harassment. One of my close friends has always been very beautiful, but did she get a free pass? Of course not—she as well suffered from harassment. Boys expected more from her than she was willing to give, and ignored her other desirable qualities. Despite being an all-around wonderful person, there was only one part of her that people paid attention to.

Diversity in women is also unacceptable—our model of beauty is that of a thin gazelle, or an hourglass shape with curves only in the areas that society deems desirable. Unfortunately, as many people know, achieving this kind of appearance is not as simple as it’s made out to be, if not altogether impossible. Yet however beautiful a girl is, many consider “fat” to override everything else. Why are we made to feel unattractive or less worthy for having a different body type?

Many men and women have joined a body positive revolution, denying the standards and promoting the idea that beauty is not weight related, or even health related, as some fat-shamers try to prove. But even if you can learn to love yourself, it doesn’t necessarily protect you from the overwhelming view of society. If your boss tells you that you have to lose weight, do you respect yourself — or keep your job? Your own viewpoint may be healthy and self-accepting, but everywhere in the media you see famous women either the epitome of what one culture finds sexy, or shamed for being a representative of the “average woman,” as Adele describes herself.

And race has been portrayed by our media as though it is a fashion, desirable or otherwise. It’s not even possible to change race, although the media definitely tries. Women of color are too often either fetishized or made to feel undesirable, with tougher standards of beauty than white women. How many sickening ads have popped up on your computer telling you that there is a surplus of a certain race of women, just waiting for a man to have sex with them? Yet a realistic visualization of these races is rarely shown as a model of beauty the way white women are.

In an ideal world, “beauty” wouldn’t even matter—because whatever a woman looks like, she is composed of too many other attributes (good or bad) for her aesthetics to take the plate. At the moment, however, it’s impossible to win, no matter what you look like, and the overlapping standards make it difficult to even try. All a woman can do is fight back against misogynistic standards by not allowing them to police her, silence her, or define her.

Written by Sarah Gay

  • Taylor

    Brilliant article, Sarah!

    I made the mistake of clicking on the heartiste link and now I think I’m lost in hell. But the rest of the links were great reading.

    • Sarah Gay

      Thank you! And whoops, sorry

  • Amanda Duncil

    This times a million! Beauty and women is such a complex thing and often a double-edged sword, and I think you pinned it really spot on.

    • Sarah Gay

      Thank you!

  • California Frost

    thank you for this great article! :)
    i often think about this, especially the question of make-up – do i participate in this misogynistic view of women by wearing it? sometimes i feel that yes, i probably do, so i go without it for a while. but then i change my mind again, because i actually just LIKE it, for myself, not anybody else, and if i stopped wearing it just because i don’t want to be sexualized or participate in weird patriarchal beauty standards, i would not really be doing what i want either. i’d be submitting to these standards too, just in another way. and this is why i go back and forth and can’t really make my mind up about it. to me, it seems frustrating, to others probably petty and unimportant. but at least, i have learned to disentangle my self-esteem from whether i’m wearing make-up or not. (it’s just a bit horrible if you consider that i had to learn this in the first place…)

    • Sarah Gay

      I can totally identify with you there, I think, because at first, I was entirely against make-up (although more because everyone told me I had to wear it to be pretty) and even before I thought about everything in feminist terms, it seemed ridiculous that somehow this mattered more than anything else. Then I wore it to please them, and got treated as if I were dumb and vain by others. So it didn’t last. Now I wear it how I want, and only when I want. But it’s still a huge deal to everyone when I do, which shies me away from it, but I don’t want to wear it all the time and feel like I can’t leave the house without it. Sigh.
      So yeah, you’re right, it’s dumb that you have to have a bunch of things deciding for you whether you want to do something to YOUR appearance. So wear it when you want to, because that’s the only good reason for doing it, and you’re not submitting to the standards of others or the patriarchy.

      • California Frost

        probably the best approach, yes. ^^
        because nowadays, i mostly don’t feel like i need it at all. which is an important step in itself, in our crazy society. but then sometimes, i just feel like it. i do love to draw, and not just on paper, after all. :P

  • Abbey y

    You really capture the complexity that is feminine aesthetics… Thanks for provoking thought on the matter! Great read