As a feminist with body dysmorphia, to say that I have a complicated relationship with my appearance would be an understatement.
I am obsessed with the way that I look, and yet I fundamentally reject the view that my looks are in any way important. That said, I want nothing more than to be beautiful (in my own eyes and in others), and it tears me up inside that I am unable to see beauty in myself. It is at this point that I will berate myself for perpetuating the notion that one’s worth is tied to one’s appearance – I want to be judged on my merits, after all; my ‘hotness’ has no bearing on my ability to do my job or be a good person or achieve my goals, right? So what the fuck is my problem? Just get on with it and let’s get shit done! At which point I catch sight of myself in a mirror…
And on and on it goes: my desire to be beautiful butting heads with my rejection of a worldview that prizes beauty above all else in an eternal and utterly pointless battle. Super.
So… what? It’s no secret that society rewards beauty both implicitly and explicitly – a fact that is not likely to change any time soon, no matter how much it annoys me – so other than sorting out my own shit and finding a way to reconcile my cognitive dissonance, what is a girl to do?
Step 1: Recognising the Problem
While it may seem that rewarding people for winning the genetic lottery is nothing more than a harmless quirk of the human condition (people like to look at beautiful things – what’s wrong with that?), there are a couple of things to consider:
People are not ‘things’ and treating them as such is dangerous
This is the very definition of not only judging a book by its cover, but also buying said book and giving it a 5-star review on Amazon… without reading it
Beauty ideals are, more often than not: racist, ableist, fat-phobic, elitist, and a product of the male gaze
If the people who are most likely to benefit from the ‘beauty premium’ (in terms of their income, career prospects, perceived competence and trustworthiness) are those who are also white, able-bodied, thin, wealthy, and traditionally attractive to the presumed heterosexual male viewer (i.e. top of the privilege tree to begin with), then that’s all kinds of fucked up. It is yet another way of systematically oppressing groups who do not fit in with some arbitrary standard set by those who happen to be in power – I’m looking at you: rich, straight, white men. And, my God, it’s pervasive. I mean it’s fucking EVERYWHERE. I challenge you to spend one day in this world without having the accepted definition of beauty either rammed down your throat or insidiously seeping in through the cracks in your awareness. Unless you’re prepared to cut yourself off entirely from visual media it’s just not going to happen.
So yeah, it’s a fucking problem.
But just to clarify: simply appreciating a person’s appearance is not harmful; but valuing a person as nothing more than the sum of their external parts and allowing this to value judgement to have a potentially profound impact on their life is.
Step 2: Checking Yourself
If you are a woman and you know me personally to any degree, then you’ll know that most text or in-person conversations with me are likely to start with one of the following:
“Oh hi, gorge!”
And I mean it. I say it with utter sincerity. But I also say it because I want to make you feel warm and fuzzy. I want you to associate interacting with me with feeling good about yourself. On some level I am playing into your insecurities and reinforcing the limiting view that your looks = your worth, and that’s not OK.
I can do better than that. And this is just one small way in which I am inadvertently upholding a value system that actively works to make me – and many others – miserable. I do not want to be part of it anymore.
Again, I’m not saying that appreciating someone’s appearance and/or giving them a sincere compliment is a bad thing – of course it isn’t – but it is a problem if that’s your go-to; if your compliments are always appearance, rather than personality or achievement-based. Why? Because it’s limiting. Because to be judged and valued solely and consistently on one’s appearance is to be devalued to the point of an object on a pedestal: a reminder that you are defined not by how hard you work or by your contribution to society, but by how ‘cute’ your nose is or how ‘perky’ your tits are.
It’s depressing as fuck.
Step 3: Change it Up
The next time you feel the urge to compliment a woman by remarking on her looks – don’t. Try instead what Jean Kilbourne, global expert on the relationship between media narratives and gender inequality, calls a ‘compliments swap’, whereby you shift the emphasis on to talents, achievements, or acts of kindness. For bonus points, apply this rule with extra vigour if you’re talking to young girls. Your prize is the smug satisfaction of knowing that you’re not contributing to what might otherwise be a lifetime of harmful gender stereotyping. Win!
Is this small shift going to change the world? No.
Might it go a little way towards undoing the harm we inflict when we reinforce detrimental, rigid stereotypes? Definitely.
Are there a hundred other ways we can be working to unpick this harmful bullshit? Abso-fuckin-lutely.
So let’s get to work. Let’s see each other for who we actually are – complex, wonderful, flawed, unique, ridiculous human beings – rather than for what we are lacking. Let’s screw ‘beautiful’.
Article by VERVE "She Said" Contributor Sarah Bradnum