16 October 2006

beauty contestation

over the weekend, j. sent me a link to this thought-and-(in my case)-rage-provoking post by amanda marcotte, with whom i most always agree. this time, however...no. oh, no, no, nononono NO. (and so on.) beauty is a tough one, of course. yes: we're always going to want to see things that we think are beautiful, and we're always going to want to be attractive to people we are attracted to. being a very precocious and very fat pre-adolescent led me to a variety of thought experiments in which the whole world was blind, or the whole world was required to wear garments that looked like big censorship boxes, but it turns out that real life just doesn't function that way. however, real life also turns out not to function in the way that choice feminists, or third-wavers -- whatever you like to call them -- would have us believe. i am SO TIRED of hearing that compromise behaviors are actually activist behaviors that i could just spit.

a key question for people who are involved in social justice has to be: if i think that some action shouldn't be mandatory in order to receive some social benefit, how does my doing that action affect its mandate status? if i think that heterosexuality shouldn't be necessary for marriage, how might my (presumptively heterosexual) marriage affect my queer friends' rights to cool tax breaks and sanctification? and if i believe that adhering to patriarchal norms about appearance shouldn't be necessary to a woman's success (in whatever realm), how does my (behavioral if not attitudinal) adherence to those norms affect other women's choices and chances?

here's one difference (of many): marriage isn't visible unless you wear a ring or have it announced. my participation in the appearance culture, on the other hand, is always there for people to see. (in fact, i think it's usually *only* there for other people to see.) when it's necessary, you can put your own words to your reasons and hopes for participating in the marriage institution. but participation in beauty institutions -- unless we want to walk around wearing sandwich boards or something -- can't possibly be explained enough. no one can tell by looking at that i'm participating for my own reasons, or participating against my will, or whatever. to the extent that i participate, whether i perceive that participation as a choice or not, i'm always adding incrementally to the presumption that everyone must participate.

but of course, we're all participating all the time. i participated just this morning by going to the gym, even though part of my brain went to the gym for health reasons. a couple of days ago i participated by joking with a friend about irritating weight fluctuations. later this week i'll participate by buying new and hopefully more flattering pants. i also give to democrats instead of greens and episcopalians instead of the UCC, buy non-local, non-organic produce because it's cheaper, fail to speak up in workshops, and avoid interpersonal conflict. i can't be apologizing for all (or any) of this stuff all the time, but i should be thinking hard about the choices i make. i suppose that's one reason i liked jill's piece at feministe. it recognizes that there are compromises we all make (although i question whether we are making them "to get by") and is mostly sensible about how to deal with them.

last thing: feminists should not be in the business of making and then responding to strawfeminists. please, let's not talk about why we like makeup by claiming that other people are groping blindly after unattainable androgyny, or that people who worry about participating in patriarchal appearance rituals "have a grudge against color and beauty." it reminds me uncomfortably of phyllis schlafly and the unisex toilets.