Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Damn Unpretty

Good morning, the internet.

Do you like old stuff? The nineties? Sure you do.

TW: eating disorders, medical coercion

TLC and their alien techno-temple never fully made it to my neck of the woods, but this was back when MTV played music videos, like, all the time. So I sure do remember this song. And, not gonna lie, it ruled my life for a brief window of time in 1999, which is 15 years ago, and I'm old, and so are you.

(Content note: discussion of unfair beauty standards, gendered slurs)

In 1999 I was 13, which was just about the perfect age to be obsessed with a song about feeling unpretty and insecure. At the time I never really picked up on the other theme of the song: that these women are feeling unpretty because of jerk boyfriends. The other thing resonated with me a lot more. Everybody feels ugly sometimes. Even the women of TLC, who in my mind were the most beautiful, amazing women in the world, felt unhappy sometimes.

I was reminded of this song when I read this comment by a prominent feminist blogger whom I respect tremendously and whose stuff you should read:

(This is a comment on an episode of Angel where Cordelia visits some Other Realm and an Other Realm inhabitant is shocked to find that she chooses to appear there as just herself, rather than an idealized version of herself.)

This was really more than enough prompting for me to roll off the couch laughing hysterically because I would rather imagine that I too would have decent self-confidence if I looked like Charisma Carpenter. It's a pretty decent bet, after all, that if you're asked to pose nude for both the cover of Playboy and a ten-page nude layout, that at least according to society at large, you're doing okay in the looks department.
But it was while I was confirming via Wikipedia that Charisma Carpenter had in fact posed for Playboy (because I do try to double-check the stuff I write), that I found this quote:
In the June 2004 issue of Playboy magazine, Carpenter appeared on the cover and in a ten-page nude layout. When asked by People magazine in 2005 about her nude pictorial and whether or not she would ever pose for Playboy again, she replied, "I don't know. I did Playboy for a very specific reason. Not only was it a good financial move, but it was about the place I was at in my life. I had just had my son and I'd gained 50 lbs. during pregnancy. I wanted to get back to my old self. I wanted to feel desirable and sexy. So I thought, 'What if I went full throttle?'"
Which I guess just goes to show that even "looking like Charisma Carpenter" is not a full-fledged guarantee of feeling desirable and sexy all the time.   

And it reminded me of 1999, and my female peers getting upset with this song. Something to the tune of: "Yeah, I'm sure everybody is always telling you you're ugly, T-Boz." I guess they developed rudimentary bullshit detectors a lot earlier than I did.

Mine kicked in later, around the time Christina Aguilera did her empowerment ballad for the insecure among us and earned herself a huge side-eye from me. She'd hardly be the last one to do it. Female pop artists telling us we're beautiful no matter what are something of a Thing. (A Thing separate from male pop artists telling us we're beautiful enough to be fucked by them. Very different indeed.) Pretty much every female pop star of note has done it with varying degrees of sincerity, because once a thing becomes a Thing, everyone jumps on the bandwagon. You've got P!nk, Mariah Carey, TLC, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry, the list goes on for miles.

They all have a few things in common. The singer's handlers will not allow her to look like anything but a textbook example of contemporary beauty standards. Most will hire random actresses so the ridiculously beautiful singers don't have to act out scenes where they suffer for being considered ugly. And they'll come across as wildly and laughably insincere when contrasted with the singer's oeuvre. (Except for TLC, who made a bit of a career telling young women not to put up with any bullshit. I miss them.)

Because who seriously goes around telling Christina Aguilera to stop being such a butterface? Who thinks Lisa Lopez could stand to lose a few pounds? Who thinks Katy Perry needs to shape up and get with the beauty regimen?

Everyone, that's who.

I often tell people that we don't live in a society where men are taught to hate women. We live in a society where everyone is taught to hate women.

And analogous to that, it's not just ugly women who are taught to feel ugly. All women are taught to feel ugly.

"I don't think of myself as sexy. I tend to see flaws in my appearance."

"My breasts are saggy, I've got cellulite, my hips are bigger... every 
actress out there is more beautiful than me.”

"I won a 'Best Body Award' from Fitness Magazine and I was too embarrassed to 
accept it. I actually don't have a good body. If you know how to dress, there's 
some tricks you can pull."

These are all women who have been buried in an avalanche of Industry Awards for Looking Pretty, by the way.

Now, there's a reason beyond the bleeding obvious that I'm posting these pictures and quotes here. It goes back to the memory of my middle school peers scoffing at the idea that the women of TLC could ever be made to feel unpretty. Because they are objectively not.

As if beauty is ever not subjective.

And yet most people (including me from time to time) flat out do not believe that female celebrities can feel ugly. When they say things to that effect, the natural response is to roll our eyes and think, "yeah, I'm sure you know what feeling insecure about your looks is like. Try being objectively ugly, then we'll talk."

Which bring me back to that quote about Charisma Carpenter up there, and a question I've been struggling with for quite some time: why don't we just believe female celebrities when they tell us they don't feel pretty, sexy or worthy of award for Looking Pretty? Why are we surprised and suspicious when we find out they feel just as insecure as we all do from time to time?

Celebrities don't materialize from the ether fully formed on a red carpet. They were unknown little children once, growing up in the same mess of a society we all do. And since this isn't Feminism 101, I don't have to explain that ours is a society that holds women to ridiculous standards. The crucial thing to remember about this though, and one I don't see emphasized enough to my liking, is that these standards are by definition unattainable. When your young, malleable brain is constantly assaulted with the message that you could be prettier, that message doesn't just disappear when you hit a certain arbitrary beauty marker. The fantasy of being beautiful is way more potent than the reality of it. Female celebrities probably get that message hammered in even harder than regular non-famous women do, because in many cases their entire careers hinge on conforming to contemporary standards of beauty, no matter what their other talents may be.

(It's not a coincidence that I picked glamour shots to go with those quotes. Google their name plus "without make-up" and an entirely different picture emerges. Suddenly the idea of these celebrities feeling insecure about their looks becomes a lot less laughable. These women don't roll out of bed looking like those pictures. I sometimes imagine what it must be like, sitting in a make-up chair for several hours just to try and live up to what people think you actually look like, and should look like. It doesn't feel nice.)

There's a catch, of course. Women are supposed to be humble. Every last person on planet earth can praise a female celebrity for being the most perfect angel god ever shat into the cosmos, but heaven help her if she agrees with us.

"Conceited!" we gasp when she agrees that yes, she is gorgeous. "Vain and smug! She thinks she's better than us! We must destroy the whore of Babylon!"

I honestly believe that every single feminist talking point can be
illustrated with this picture, and this is no exception.

So am I writing a screed defending the poor little rich girl?

In a way, well, sure. Sort of. It stems from my basic conviction that part of being of a feminist mindset includes respecting and liking women as a default response, even women we don't agree with, and especially the women we are taught to contrast ourselves against. Not because they are women and that's what a good feminist does blindly, but because our default response to other women is set by society to be one of suspicion, competition and outright hatred. Liking other women, or at least making a valiant effort to do so, is a solid way to deprogram yourself. Instead of other women starting at -50 likability points and having to prove their worth to us, you make the conscious and sometimes counter-intuitive effort to let them start at a neutral 0 and go from there. You can always dislike a person for a host of legitimate reasons. But at least it won't be because you're working from the default programming that puts them at an immediate disadvantage.

Because holy shit are we taught to hate these beautiful famous women. On the one hand, we should dehumanize them by putting them on a pedestal for being shining examples of what we should be, but we should also dehumanize them by knocking them clear off that pedestal and into the fiery abyss for lording it over us with their perfectly pore-less perfection. You really don't have to look far to see that principle in action. And that's not fair to us, not at all, but it's also fucking unfair to them. These women just wanted to sing or act or be in movies or hell, maybe they just wanted to be generically famous, and they did that, and as part of the package they are set up to be either divas or fallen idols to every other woman on the planet.

There's a lot we can blame the glossy magazines and gossip rags for, and pitting us against real, human, complex people by painting them as a minimum standard of what every woman should be is one of them. And I'm not saying that because we should all be nice to the privileged white women. I'm sure some of them are genuinely awful people. They're everywhere these days. But I am saying that it's just another bullshit way society succeeds in pitting women against each other in a perpetual motion clusterfuck of unfair standards that none of us can win at.

And that's fucked up.

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