Hi folks, I’m afraid my posting has been a little sparse lately, due to the time (and more importantly, intellectual) requirements of taking a condensed seminar and finishing my thesis, but I’m going to try for at least one post a week.
Today I want to talk about the myriad ways we are told–both implicitly and explicitly–that we are not good enough as we are and the systems that benefit (and propagate) these messages.
The other day I was watching a new (occasionally funny but by no means unmissable) show called Friends With Better Lives, and the recurring theme in this episode was how disgusting women’s pubic hair is. Seriously. That was the running gag. The heavily pregnant Andi is told by her two closest female friends that having pubic hair is DISGUSTING, and that going to the beach with her is TRAUMATIZING. They weave the disgustingness of pubes into the entire 30- (well, 22-) minute episode. There is also a brief bit about how a pretty face doesn’t necessarily equal a “pretty vagina”–with the unfortunate term “flapjack” used to refer to a “hot” woman with an “ugly” vagina.
Now, I could rant for days, DAYS, about the symbolism of popular culture erasing entirely the vulva (home of that wonder of wonders the clitoris which is responsible for not just external orgasms but, it would appear, even so-called g-spot orgasms thanks to its wonderfully complex and expansive nature) in favour of the vagina which is literally Latin for “sheath” and, though admittedly wonderful, is culturally bound up with baby-making rather than pleasure. Especially in a show about two gynecologists! But I’m more interested, for today at least, in the messages we constantly receive about our bodies and how they are supposed to be arranged.
Now, I don’t want to rehash the pubes-wars that are trotted out every couple months for click-bait on nominally feminist websites (Jezebel and XoJane I’m looking at you!) because, frankly, I’m bored of it. And while I have firm political thoughts on the trend of shaving/waxing/what-have-you, personally? I don’t give a fuck. Whatever works for you and makes you happy to get down with yourself and/or others, do it! But what I do have a problem with is the messaging that the natural state of women’s bodies is disgusting. And that every woman is removing her pubic hair and that men (because I don’t think I’ve ever seen this conversation happen in a non-heteronormative frame) are liable to kick her out of bed for–gasp–having hair on her mons. As well as the idea that the only “pretty” vulvas are the small-inner-lips, single-crease type seen in porn–which has profoundly harmful effects on young women and, one would think, young men–after all, if your first exposure to sex and women’s bodies features only one (fairly unusual) type of vulva, coming face to, uh, vulva with nature’s variety may be a jarring experience–which the lady attached to said vulva will surely pick up on. In fact, I have heard from at least one woman who has the (relatively common though rarely talked about) groovy kind of vulva with inner lips that extend beyond the labia majora who spent much of her adolescence and early-twenties feeling ugly and ashamed because her vulva didn’t look like what she saw in porn. (For a very NSFW tour through the wide variety of vulvas check this gallery out.)
So we feel bad about our vulvas and our bush, right? Okay, good. What else can we feel bad about? Well, our leg and arm hair is an easy one. But how about the things we aren’t explicitly told are wrong with us?
Let’s think about what bodies are commonly represented in the media. They are thin (with even women like Beyonce who are celebrated for being *CURVY* and shattering beauty ideals clocking in at a massive size 2/4), they are overwhelmingly white (and those who aren’t are often whitewashed to appear lighter-skinned), they are able-bodied, and they are photoshopped sometimes literally beyond recognition.
Now, the less critical among us will often cry out that the media just gives us what we want–we clamour for unattainable bodies so they give them to us, but the truth is that culture is both liminal and iterative–it is both reflected and shaped by media in an ongoing and somewhat cyclical nature. Interestingly, in the age of globalization and 24-hour news cycles the ideal body cycles have also sped up, though they seem to be doing so in an inwardly spiralling nature rather than a circular one–though (some) women’s bodies are increasingly being allowed to show (slight) muscle definition and have some curves, the expectation remains that these muscular and/or curvy bodies will be much thinner than most women can attain through sane, healthy habits.
But why? On a very basic level, pushing unattainable, toxic ideals about beauty seems like madness, does it not? If we’re all just trying to live our lives and love our people and, ideally, leave the world a tiny bit better than we found it, why would we accept and promote white supremacist (meaning idealizing and normalizing whiteness, not wearing robes and listening to David Duke), unattainably thin, ableist (where disabled bodies are undervalued and treated as abnormal), and unattainably perfect norms and expectations? Doesn’t that seem like a perfect recipe for misery?
Well, bad news: it is! See, late-stage capitalism requires near-constant consumption. And since there are pretty natural limits on the number of houses and cars we can reasonably own (and I’ve spoken elsewhere about the problem of inelastic demand with regards to food), we had to move beyond the basics. Shaving legs and armpits became a norm in North America when shaving companies (specifically Gillette) saw an untapped market and created a new need by demonizing what had, until then, been seen as a normal part of women’s bodies. Interestingly, like with many trends, it started as a symbol of status among upper class white women and slowly trickled down to the rest of society. And whereas soap used to just be soap, we can only use so much soap. But body wash and face wash (because our faces…aren’t part of our bodies?) and clarifying shampoo and normal conditioner as well as deep conditioning conditioner and moisturizer and primer and foundation and concealer and powder and blush and bronzer and highlighter and moroccan oil and cellulite-cream and body wraps and self-tanner and skin-lightening cream and wax and razors and depilatory cream? Well, that’s a $400 BILLION+ industry.
But it’s not just the beauty industry (and, more broadly, capitalism) that benefits from the almost incalculable hours, dollars, and energy that goes into changing how we look. Cause all those hours and dollars and energy could be going into far better things. Things like equal pay campaigns; the labour and union movements; reproductive justice; ending corporate personhood; lobbying for policies that make residential and retail redlining illegal; protesting racist immigration policies; ending factory farming; getting national affordable child care; art; dancing; laughing; cooking; anything but feeling shitty about ourselves and propping up the industries and systems that exploit vulnerabilities for profit. Systems like the patriarchy which relies on women being preoccupied with shit that just doesn’t matter rather than organizing our considerable numbers and talent for true equality; globalization which exploits primarily women of colour in developing nations while simultaneously extracting and poisoning their natural resources; and white supremacy which relies on the continued oppression and marginalization of people of colour to prop up the invisibilized economic and social privilege of whiteness.
So where does this leave us? We’ve got fucked up industries and systems that make us feel bad in order to distract us and exploit us. And though it sounds like a nice idea to just opt out, it isn’t that simple. Because the rest of the world isn’t going to opt out with us over night–so we will still be judged unprofessional for not wearing make-up, we may be judged as lazy for being fat, not good enough for any and every way we choose not to buy into this broken system.
Well, I think the first step is really understanding the scope of the issue and understanding how our choices are shaped by cultural norms. Once we have done that, we can start to decide which pieces we’re going to hold on to (for now) and which pieces we’re throwing onto the compost heap out back. Me? I like make-up. I find it fun, so I wear it sometimes and on days I don’t feel like it I remind myself that expectations of a made-up face are bullshit. I’m going to continue working on loving my body as it is and remembering that my worth is entirely unrelated to the size and shape of my body. I’m going to engage critically with the messages that tell me I must buy! buy! buy! and ask myself 1) Do I legitimately benefit from this or am I harmed explicitly or implicitly by buying this? 2) Why do I think I need this? and 3) Who benefits from my dollars and energy going into this product and/or idea?
But more than that, I’m not going to give away my time, energy, and dollars to bullshit. I’m going to spend time working for the things that matter to me through my academic work, through my professional work, through writing, and volunteering. I’m going to vote for progressive parties committed to abortion and labour rights, I’m going to support progressive independent media, and I’m going to surround myself by awesome, critical, body-positive people.