A note to men on righting the culture ship that forces unrealistic notions of female beauty

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.


27 thoughts on “A note to men on righting the culture ship that forces unrealistic notions of female beauty”

  1. It’s refreshing to read something like this written by a man. Sometimes it’s exhausting being a woman and jumping through hoops to be what everyone expects – that someone sees beyond that relieves some of that tension.

  2. Joe I’m really quite grateful you’ve taken the time to put these thoughts down. It is still very much a reality that women are judged moreso for their appearance than men are. I think it’s great you’re having discussions with male friends to bring more awareness because it can make a difference. I used to perform in a diversity education group and it was a spoken word I wrote about my gender being more than beauty products and after watching, I had a gentleman actually get involved with the show and open his whole mind- which had been a very prejudiced and racist one- to becoming good friends with all of in the show!

    Words really do make a difference!

    1. Thanks Jess, I think when we stop generalizing and deal in the specific (which is what’s really beautiful about other humans anyway) there’s a lot more potential for change, so I do what I can in that regard. Great post today & thanks for the intro to BOAW =)

    1. Thanks for the kind words Caroline, I see this stuff as everyone’s responsibility to address. We all deserve to be considered as multidimensional humans. Thanks for the tip, reading the article now =)

  3. Beautiful post, Joe. (I’d say that regardless of the fest!) Having endured an eating disorder, your insight really hit home. My heart goes out to you, as I know the strain such diseases place on loves ones… Kudos for learning from the experience and having the guts and will to share!

    Overemphasizing body shape and size is an epidemic problem in today’s culture, and we simply can’t have enough posts like this one. Thank you!

    1. Thanks August, I really admire BOAW and what you’re up to. I was a long distance runner for many years and struggled with unhealthy attitudes about food and exercise at times, which also informs how I feel about reconfiguring our culture. It’s really important stuff and needs to keep being addressed by both men and women.

  4. Thank you for a fabulous post. Conversations about societal view of beauty must, by definition, include men and women, but too often it seems like a woman’s conversation. Its great to part of a blog hop where that richer, more nuanced and more inclusive discussions occur.

    1. You bet Sabrina – thank you for being an advocate for thoughtful conversation. August did a really nice job of encouraging constructive and healthy conversation and even though I’m only about halfway through all the posts I’m already learning a lot.

  5. Like this post, Joe. I’ve got the theme song from Cheers in my head right now, specifically the line “where everybody knows your name.” I think it’s true that we all want to be acknowledged and appreciated for who we are. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much Coleen. I couldn’t agree more….acknowledgment and acceptance are definitely something we all want regardless of gender or other lines people draw.

      I enjoyed your BOAW post and will be stopping by again soon I’m sure

  6. Joe, Thank you so much. This post has such an impact on me, knowing that there are men that accept women for who they are, acknowledge them for what’s on the inside and don’t base it solely on their appearance. You are an amazing writer and I appreciate your thoughts!

    1. Thanks! I think the responsibility belongs to all of us to redefine beauty and value by attaching it to the intrinsic value an individual has. The specific is beautiful.

  7. Joe your post takes me back to a course I took in grad school called Masculinities. That class was by far one of the best (and one of my favorite) courses I have taken in all my years of school. We addressed issues like this (the appearance of women in media) and then we took it further and discussed how it pertained to men. I wish I could say that educated discussions about not seeing women as objects are helping, but I think the sadder reality is that those pressures of stereotypes are being applied to men more and more.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this. I enjoy reading your thoughts. 🙂

    1. Hey Amie,
      I’m afraid you’re right about that. Although I’m not a Luddite by any means, I think there’s something to be said for considering/filtering every piece of media you consume. In the last couple of years I’ve cut television from my life, changed my reading habits, etc… and there’s been a noticeable change in what I consider normal, and how I think about concepts like beauty, strength, and intelligence. That’s the crux of it to me, this problem we have with wanting to be better humans, but still clicking on “Revealed: New Mystery Man in JLo’s life”

      1. Yep. And the fact that the majority of people don’t want to put the work into actively filtering (or questioning) the media they consume.

        It’s not an easy fix b/c the media still does (to an extent) get to dictate what we see and consume (although the internet is drastically changing this) …. anyway I think it’s fascinating to think about. But then again I studied Media and Communication …. so I’m completely biased. 😛

  8. Good post, I agree w/ other comments that it’s nice to hear this from a guy. Maybe I was raised wrong, but I never struggled greatly w/ body image 😉 One reason I think was there were times in HS/college when a guy would go for a girl that me and my girlfriends would think “OMG she’s so not hot”…(mean I know) but at a young age I realized that of course men are attracted to pretty girls, but it’s still subjective. Also remember a couple times when guys went for me over other girls who were way prettier than me, but I beat them in the confidence department by far. I think that goes a long way. Happily married now, so women: go for a guy that loves you, you love him, and the rest follows. Ridiculous to think otherwise.

    1. Yeah there’s a kind of warped messaging that suggests it’s ok to judge someone’s worth based on one quality they have, which is absurd. I also heard a funny quote yesterday, about how someone turned out not to be a very good partner, to which my friend replied “anyone can send out a representative for a couple of months”

      1. Yea ppl can put up a front. I would add too- I don’t think women are necessarily looking for outward affirmation. I have a good dad, and really protective older bro. I don’t remember a lot of like, ‘you’re pretty’ comments growing up, but I knew they were fiercely protective of me, so I think that led to me valuing myself. If women don’t have self-worth, they can’t fake it no matter how pretty they are, I’ve found 😦

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