Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Two Standards of Beauty

Nobody's perfect, not even the perfect. A 1945 "pin-up," via.

We often hear of 'our society's beauty standards,' as if there were these standards that one could point to, consistent across all messaging. When in fact, women are presented with two mutually-exclusive possibilities of what 'beautiful' might consist of:

The first is from high fashion - an industry dead set on presenting exactly one vision of beauty, unattainable except to 0.001% of Estonian 15-year-olds, and even they will probably be asked to "sleekify" their hips in time for fashion week. (Cue the conundrum: is it progressive or the opposite when a slender man models women's clothes? The short answer: both.) The presumption here is that this is a beauty ideal invented by some assembly of women (likely but not necessarily straight) and gay men - perhaps with the help of cold and calculating straight male businessmen who are thinking of what sells clothes, not what they personally would find attractive.

But there's still this semblance of a more open-minded sphere - greater acceptance of androgyny, of straight-up-and-down physiques, of outrageous makeup and of not giving a damn what your boyfriend thinks of your outfit. It's a kind of liberation, if you happen to have a flapper build. And if we're talking fashion-broadly-defined, not just the runway, there's a celebration of eccentricity. It's not just designer denim and sneering at those who are so last season (she types, in her Old Navy lounge-pants).

The second is, of course, the male gaze. Straight men outside the fashion world will tell women not to worry about what that industry says - they like us despite our likely non-waifishness, no, because of this. (Although rest assured, the waifish have their male admirers.) This will be on the one hand appealing - the vast majority of even slender women are robust compared with high-fashion models, and that whole 'breasts and hips are tacky and interrupt the line of the garment' narrative is tiresome. While in certain definitions, what-men-want that basically amounts to runway models with breast implants and more conventionally sexy attire, in another, it's a category that consists of all women, on account of, tastes vary.

On the other, it too is problematic for all the obvious reasons. Who's to say female appearance is all about pleasing men? Most women are straight, however many more are bisexual, so yes, most women are sometimes interested in looking good for a man. But still. Even these women tend not to be into all the dudes, and will often bristle at remarks from men (perfect strangers, internet commenters, men they know and aren't interested in) about what women generally should do with their clothes-and-makeup in order to most do it for them.

These two realms are mistakenly conflated, but they do have a good bit of overlap. Both tend to value youth, slimness, and expensive clothes. But it is outright impossible to be fashion-beautiful and male-gaze-beautiful at the same time. The same woman might manage it - think the crossover Victoria's Secret models - but as a rule, one might well be neither, but one simply cannot be both.

Which means... a bunch of things. For one, it means that style and build have a way of getting mixed up, as though a woman chooses to have 'curves' on account of preferring to look sexy, or somehow magically scraps them if her preferred look is understated chic. But mostly, it means that no woman can lay claim to physical perfection. If she's flawless in one arena, she's somehow lacking in the other.

We can, then, interpret this in two ways. One is the bleak - how unfair, we can never win. The other, the one I prefer, is to say, look, since no woman could ever possibly measure up, this reminds us how ridiculous these standards are in the first place, and how pointless it is to beat one's self up over failing to meet them.


  1. "For one, it means that style and build have a way of getting mixed up, as though a woman chooses to have 'curves' on account of preferring to look sexy, or somehow magically scraps them if her preferred look is understated chic."
    Amen. I keep hearing this all over... not necessarily stated bluntly (though yes, that happens -- some people say really quite stupid things), but definitely as an undercurrent. It's everywhere.

    I can see why we want to use size (maybe of certain parts, too) as a visual cue to predict personality, just as another way of simplifying the world so we can grasp it. But it's ridiculous, and it's even more of a problem for people who don't "match" not only the standard but also parts of their own bodies, following public perceptions of the numbers/letters we use to label ourselves.
    E.g., my jean size says I should enjoy camping, but the tag on my bra suggests that I should want to make you cupcakes instead...

  2. Like Tiffany I'm waving my arms about at that style vs build part. There is SO MUCH there.

  3. I concluded as a teenager that I would never meet the fashion standard of beauty. I am tall enough, but I have always had a defined hourglass shape. I'm robust too, my smallest measurements without a minimizer bra on were about 40-26-38, far closer to pinup than fashion model. My bra cup varies from E-G, depending on how small my current band size is, but I've never been able to lose breast tissue through dieting. The only beauty standard I have ever been able to meet is the one defined by heterosexual men, at least that of men attracted to a buxom appearance. It's strange to be rewarded as attractive by men while knowing that women are thinking "pretty face, but she'll never fit into a size 4." My personality isn't exactly vixenish though. I'm introverted, serious, smart, and I prefer the dainter looks designed for boyish builds to the hourglass-based styles that fit my frame. Regardless of what men think, I tend to feel smaller breasts are more feminine because smaller-breasted women can wear more feminine clothes without looking vulgar or overstuffed.

    I've actually had men apologize for stereotyping me based on my body type. The claim was that my body made them want sex instantly, and it was hard to think about me more holistically.

  4. Tiffany, illustratorclaire, and Anonymous:

    Yes, this is a huge if overlooked beauty issue. While some women do indeed get surgery/padding to look va va voom, the vast majority of va va voom (or, if dressed more modestly, frumpiness) is more or less unavoidable. The popular imagine of an intelligent/intellectual woman is one of a woman who is simply too serious of a person to go around with a big chest, as though this is something one can simply put aside on days one spends at the library. Styles meant to be an alternative to conventional/sexy are ones we understand as only 'working' on women with a very slim, straight-up-and-down build. Now, one might say that the same goes for women with that build who want to look va va voom, and it kind of does, but as I mentioned above, the options to shall we say add are somewhat more accessible than going from curvy/average/large to 'gamine.'

  5. I agree with you about the disconnect between sexual appeal to straight men (and of course, we're generalizing here) and fashion's "standard of beauty," but depending on how you are using the phrase, "male gaze," these are actually both products of the "male gaze." Laura Mulvey's 1975 article, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" is THE essential reading for the coining of this phrase and the way it (the phrase, "male gaze") is used in discussions of women's agency in a male-dominant society. However, what you identify here are actually two aspects of what Mulvey would term "male gaze"; they're not at odds with each other, and yes, in both cases, the actual, real, physical, tangible WOMAN loses - loses agency, loses cultural currency, is demeaned, confined, etc.

    But it's important to distinguish what Mulvey meant by the term the "male gaze," as it's actually not referring to the physical gaze of a physical human being at all. She's drawing upon Lacanian philosophy (see: Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis ... or don't. Blech. Lacan's own theory undermines the applicability of theory to anyone who isn't sexed male and gender-identifies as masculine.) about the way meaning is structured in Western society. The phallologocentrality (or the way western culture organizes the phallus - which, again, is the SYMBOLIC concept of the erect penis, an abstract principle of masculinity - as the most basic unit of meaning/worth; see, for example: "In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God") at the heart of Western culture (which every human living in said culture interpellates into, via the use of the "I," the enunciation of subjecthood through the symbolic realm of language, which occurs at Freud's mirror stage) presupposes the devaluation of the feminine, which is reflected in BOTH of these so-called aesthetic ideals (the flapper body, the pinup body). In short: they're one and the same, and they're both caused by this "male gaze" which, Mulvey wrote, was an underlying principle which organizes experience and information in Western society.

    ugh. academia explosion. sorry.

    1. I'll have to read that then! It's certainly not immediately obvious how a beauty ideal constructed by women and gay men would relate to patriarchy. My own relatively uninformed theory had been that they relate insofar as women trying to look good for men believe they'd do better to look younger and thinner, and thus that the high-fashion ideal is basically about capitalizing on already-existing insecurities. Such that even if a fashion model isn't a typical straight man's ideal on account of being 'too' thin and pre-adolescent-looking, these two ideals relate. But yes, I have some reading to do.

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