Note: Although it didn’t start out that way this post is sort of my supplement to today’s Beauty of a Woman Blogfest II. Please take a moment to hop over and look at some amazing writing by a diverse and passionate group of women.
I was in a relationship a while back with a woman who had an eating disorder. Because her identity was bound up in cultural notions of what a woman is supposed to be, a big part of its formation came from being thin or physically fit/healthy. Although I did my best to be supportive I found the experience maddening, which gave me a small window into the paradoxes women regularly face.
Well intentioned men (and I’ve been guilty of this in the past) often use phrases like “real beauty is more than skin deep” (I’ve never used that cliche, thankfully) or “stick thin models in magazines aren’t attractive, real women are” or “I’m attracted to healthy women, not women who are just thin.”
It bears worth saying that men and women who are thin are beautiful, too. Not because of their physical attributes, but because they are living, breathing, dynamic human beings with the same passions and motivation as the rest of us and judging them solely on their physical appearance furthers the problems in our culture.
Humans come in large variety, yet women are most often put into two mutually exclusive categories when it comes to beauty, one is high fashion and the other is what Phoebe Maltz Bovy calls the “male gaze” which is characterized frequently (in my opinion) by the phrase “real women have curves.”
The second category is what men often refer to when they suggest that stick thin isn’t the way to go.
This is problematic for a couple of reasons. One is that, as Ms. Bovy points out, this assumes that female appearance is all about pleasing men. The other is that it takes a positive (women come in all shapes and sizes) and makes a negative (you don’t have to be thin, but if you don’t fit this other definition, you aren’t “real beautiful”).
I’ve found the expectations of men who use that phrasing to be well intentioned, but just as troubling as the ones who point to high fashion as the ideal for how we understand what is beautiful. Men who say “real women have curves” are usually referring to hips and breasts, and not stomachs or thighs, and women know it. The underlying message seems to be that you don’t have to be model thin (Great! Because that isn’t going to happen for the majority of women anyway) but you still have to meet externally imposed standards to be beautiful.
When I have conversations with men that I respect they seem as frustrated as women about double standards. “Am I not supposed to complement my wife?” or “But I want to be able to appreciate what’s sexy about someone and how they look is part of that” are common complaints.
And the truth is, yes, you can complement your wife, girlfriend, or good friend on their physical appearance. In the context of a personal relationship when you are appreciative of the entire human, occasionally saying “I like the way you’ve done your hair” or “neat shirt!” isn’t going to break the bank. As Ms. Bovy carefully notes, this is also part of a subtle distinction between style (which you create) and build (which you are born with).
But enacting a beauty standard that someone has little control over is a sickness our culture needs to get over. Women who are thin by virtue of genetics are not going to have C or D cup breasts (at least not without surgery) so saying “real women have curves” makes them feel like they aren’t real women. Women who are born with thighs and stomachs that aren’t featured in the typical high fashion magazines aren’t going to suddenly start looking like a board of wood from the side angle so suggesting that they “slim down to become more attractive” makes them feel like they aren’t real women.
A friend of mine asked a few people (including me) to answer the question “What makes a woman REDHOT?” over at her blog as a part of BOAW. I was a bit surprised to find that the majority of answers were more about women being smart, passionate and engaged in their lives and less about beauty. I guess someone’s doing something right on the blogosphere, in opposition to the beauty industry’s constant “you’ll be beautiful if you just do X” mantra. I liked Jess’ closing the best though (click here to read the full post):
“Women wish to be loved not because they are pretty, or good, or well bred, or graceful, or intelligent, But because they are themselves.”
There’s no shortage of commentary about how women look. Maybe it’s time men focused more on who they are.