First, I’d like to thank the many commentators on the previous post. There’s so much to comment on and clarify, that I figured it was time for another post on the subject. There’s some patterns I see being recreated through the discussions on physical appearance. Patterns we learn early and often. Pre-existing patterns that operate under the surface…..sub-conscious, semi-conscious, unspoken, contradictory, incoherent even. I’m interested in those patterns and unraveling them.
See, one of the lessons I learned early on as a cub was that women have to justify every. got. damn. thing. we do. We’re supposed to come up with some justification for the simplest activities, the basic fabric of our lives. We even have ready-made templates for the pantomimes we’re supposed to engage in. Single mothers (like me) are supposed to apologize for our singleness, explain our singleness, justify our singleness to all and sundry. We’re supposed to promise we didn’t mean it to be this way, that we did everything we could to do avoid that terrible fate, but it just couldn’t be helped. We are supposed to offer up the best made-for-Lifetime-TV movie script of our lives we can muster. Even for strangers. For anyone who questions us. There are pantomimes on just about every female-oriented subject under the sun.
Now, not everyone does this, of course. And even most who do don’t do so in every venue, or on every subject, for every audience. But this is a pattern, and it sure as hell isn’t limited to the feminist blogosphere. Who said we have to do this? How and why did so many women, women from so many different backgrounds, learn to perform what I like to call the Justification Pantomime? I don’t think I’m the only person who’s seen this. I don’t think I’m the only person who’s ever performed a pantomime, either.
And back on the other post—remember the landscapes? How could I have possibly forgotten:
And that denial of sensuality is key when it comes to dissecting the wherefores and the whys of beauty standards and physical appearance. The desire to be sensual, to feel sensual, to indulge ourselves in the pleasures of sight, of sound, of smell, of taste, of touch—that desire has existed in human beings long before the institution of Sexism. And the burden of this denial disproportionately falls on women. After all, we’re the source of temptation, no? Our sensual desire to bite into the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is what led to the Downfall of humanity, no? Female appetites, whether figurative or literal, are to be controlled. We’re even responsible for the controlling of male appetites.
I want to expand on this. Lemme go back to where our paths converge, diverge, and cross us. Each of us, from where we stand, are going to have times where our paths converge with the pre-existing sexism, diverge with it, or cross it entirely—where we will get the neck hairs of sexists (both male and female) up without putting much, if any, effort into it.
Back to Lubu’s short hair. It just happens to either diverge or cross with the predominant sexist paradigm where I live. But my wearing my hair short has fuck-all to do with feminist notions of what the Natural Woman looks like, and everything to do with sensuality. I enjoy the feel of my short hair, the fact I can run my fingers through it without getting them caught. I like the feel of the wind on my face and neck. I like not getting my eyeballs poked with sharp ends of hair.
But that doesn’t conversely mean that long hair can’t also be sensual, or that other women don’t experience it as such. Long hair just happens to converge with the predominant sexist paradigm where I live. I know women who express some of their creativity through their hair. Again, folks were doing this before the rise of patriarchy. So, if we see this as “feminine” expression, or kowtowing to patriarchal standards of Beauty, aren’t we seeing it through sexist-colored lenses?
I’m not aware of any formulae, any means test by which we can tease out just where the sexism ends, and where our natural selves begin. We don’t have much basis for comparison. But I know what my five senses tell me. And I know if I don’t enjoy the simple pleasures in life, like a fresh haircut, or hot food—I ain’t gonna get to enjoy too much. Every choice we make in regards to physical appearance—the collection of small choices, that is—is going to set certain assumptions up in the minds of others. Some right, some wrong, but there’s no avoiding it. Some folks see my short hair and think “dyke”. Some see my short hair and think “fashionable”. To some it says “young”. To others, “old”. It says a whole lotta shit I basically have no control over, because the interpretation lies in the eyes of the viewer. Not with me.
So, since it seems we’re on the subject already, let’s talk about power. I used the word “choice” up above just now, and I’m not really comfortable with that word. I don’t think most of us have a lot of choices, realistically, even about something as inconsequential in the long run as appearance. Whether we emulate (consciously or unconsciously) sexist standards of Beauty, or resist (again, consciously or unconsciously) those same standards, our actions don’t give all of us, everywhere, the same advantage or disadvantage.
See, something about Edith’s comment on the last post really resonated with me, and at the same time repelled me. Resonated, because I have at times been frustrated with the insistence on beauty. Something about the insistence that we have to be beautiful, along with intelligent, accomplished, serene, cheerful, upbeat, articulate, strong, assertive, wise, whatever…..beautiful too, on top of it? Why? If beauty is only skin deep, why does it have to be on the resume with all my other fabulous qualities, that obviously aren’t enough without it? (and shit, like I’ve got the other qualities locked, anyway!) And if Beauty comes in so many different forms (which incidentally, I believe), maybe “cheerful” comes in many different forms as well! Like, maybe my crabby ass is just “Uncoffeed Cheerful” in the morning, instead of crabby, hm? (Sorry, got carried away. This post is strictly stream-of-consciousness.) Seriously—when Beauty is set up in that manner, it makes me feel like it’s another hurdle to be jumped, instead something to indulge, to celebrate.
Does the nod to beauty norms give everyone an advantage? Nahh, it doesn’t. Speaking of power, I stand on a relative bedrock of privilege when it comes to challenging beauty norms, because my job doesn’t require any nod to Beauty, other than not having visible dirt or smellable stench on my person. Soap and water is the only beauty regimen I have to follow to put a roof over my head and food in my belly. Others lack that certain luxury of snubbing dominant beauty myths. There are jobs that require, by custom if not by rule, the keeping of certain beauty rituals—and one abstains from those rituals at a financial risk. Not everyone is in equal position to bear the consequences of resistance—even a small resistance. Not shaving armpits—-how can that be such a big sacrifice? Easy—if it means your employer sees those hairy pits and thinks those pits are losing customers. Then its a matter of having to wear sleeves, even in summer. Or finding another job. In a place where you’ve never seen a woman with hairy armpits.
Here’s what I’m bristling against, far more than concerns about beauty norms:
The norm of falling into the same old, same old sexist trap of female self-sacrifice. Worshipping at the altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Self-Denial and Sacrifice, swearing our fealty by never once claiming our own pleasure without first ensuring that our loved ones are all enjoying life much more than we are. Eating the chicken wing so someone else, always someone else, can get the thigh. Taking the last shower, so no one else has to go without hot water. When do we get to claim our pleasure, say, “I like it because I like it, dammit, what more do you have to know?”
Replicating pre-existing sexist structure by centering the burden of resistance upon the backs of individual women.
Ignoring context, including historical and cultural context. Rejecting the integration and intersection of identities. Not remembering we are all seekers, finding our way home.
But I’ll also add—forgetting our anger. Our anger that we still have to negotiate these obstacles, and that we still haven’t found the common ground on which to even have these discussions, let alone act upon what we can and will learn from one another.