One of the foremost things that patriarchy uses to judge women is their appearance, held against an arbitrary standard. Every culture has its own standards of beauty, and they primarily are about women and how they should look. This is used as a way to rate women, like we’re just animals. There are no such standards for men. They may say that there are, but you will not see men attacked and vilified for not meeting certain standards, while women are.
The problems with beauty standards are often seen from the perspective of those who don’t meet them. They indeed suffer, they are constantly judged and are always told that they should be different, that they should change. Someone, who by sheer chance, happens to meet the standards set by our society, is seen as lucky. I personally am one of these ‘lucky’ women. I am thin (okay, skinny, but that for some reason is seen as good. I personally would rather have a healthier weight), I have long hair, large eyes, and what seems to be most important, my breasts are relatively large (prompting questions about how much they cost. In terms of surgery, nothing, because I didn’t have any. In terms of things like bras and the like, I don’t even want to make a count, but it’s a lot).
There are benefits to it. Of course, there always are benefits to meeting expectations. Unlike many girls, I was able to pay for at least part of my studies by just standing around, having pictures taken of me in different outfits, walking over a stage, or just standing around at a stand. Yes, I did (and occasionally still do) modelling work and have been a so-called booth-babe. Especially the standard modelling, so to say, was incredibly silly. I put on some clothes, had a few pictures taken, and got paid for it. Basically. Funnily enough, these things often wouldn’t fit me, because I’m too thin to just get them from a store. They want to show beauty standards, but it can’t eat into their profits of course.
But there also are disadvantages. I know that this sounds an awful lot like the complaining of the privileged. I know that I am immensely privileged, I am white, I’m well-educated, and I even have decent looks. But I think that it’s important to be aware of these things, also to have a better understanding about how the patriarchy uses these things to divide us and to eat up our time.
The foremost is attention from men. They refuse to leave me alone for even a moment. When I’m alone somewhere, they immediately try to join me, to talk to me, and they get angry when I don’t immediately respond with my full attention. Even when I’m waiting for a friend for lunch, they want to sit down next to me. I know that this is an issue that affects all women, we are all constantly harassed, but sometimes, I have the feeling that women who do meet the right standards in appearance are harassed even more, because they are what they want to control most of all. I’m still sickened by the constant stares, remarks, and worse, and I often wish that I could just give up. I wish that I could just cut off my hair, that I could gain weight, and that I could perhaps even have my face changed.
Added to that, there is the pervasive idea that I have to be stupid. I can’t really put it in a nicer way. When you look like they want you to, they expect you to also have the brain that they want women to have. None at all. Perhaps the size of a pea so I can still smile and do the dishes, but that’s about it. Again, this is something that all women suffer from, but I have noticed the difference. At lectures for instance, when a male student asks a male professor, there aren’t any issues and his question is just answered. When it’s a female student who would be average on the patriarchal scale of beauty, she often also gets an answer, although there already are a few who refuse to take it seriously. When I ask a question, it generally gets treated like a child asking something stupid.
This is something that I internalised to an extent. Whatever I do, I have the idea that I’m being silly or stupid. That whatever I do, it’s just a folly. When I say something, I expect people to laugh at me. Especially men. From women, the reactions tend to be different, but I’ll get to that later. After years and years of this, I began to learn that I’m not as stupid as people think I am. I’m not extremely intelligent either, but at least I wasn’t too stupid to do my PhD or to learn a few languages. But despite that, the reactions haven’t changed. I’m still being treated as though I have the mental capacities of a child.
Another big issue is what happens among women. The arbitrary standards of beauty enforced on women are used not only for men to control our appearance, but more importantly, it serves to divide us. Because beauty is one of the few things that matter for women under patriarchy, it serves to do so in multiple ways. First of all, we are taught to look down on those less beautiful than we are. This goes all the way from the very top to the bottom. The other way around this creates a deep jealousy, a desire to change to be more like that.
That in turn has several awful effects. The first is that many women mutilate themselves in order to be closer to the arbitrary standards. Of course, there are more reasons for this, which I plan on talking more about in a later post, but this jealousy that is fostered also plays a part in the decision to go under the knife.
But this jealousy also has different effects which are less directly visible. The foremost is that it divides women. We are made jealous of each other, directing our energy towards fighting each other instead of our oppression and the system of gender that causes all the problems. And worse than that, it divides us, strengthening our oppression.
This can be seen time and time again. As someone who is closer to the top in this regard, I am used to countless remarks by other women, aimed at tearing me down. It’s always there, a never-ending attack. And I can’t really blame them. They after all have suffered far worse and they are used to seeing women like me as the ones looking down on them, kicking down with high heels (and let me tell you, that really hurts, for both the person wearing those awful things and the one getting kicked).
Added to this, many of the stereotypes have been taken over from men. Many women also assume that I’m stupid. And it’s not just me who has suffered from it, but also several friends. Just to make clear that it’s not all just because I’m a terrible human being. Which I am, of course, but that’s besides the point.
I even am arrogant enough to blame it in part for the failure of some of my relationships. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an absolutely awful girlfriend and have as many exes as I’ve had birthdays, and far more shorter things. This is because many women also are indoctrinated with the beauty norms, and that makes me desirable. At first, this works very well, they like my body, they fall in love with how I look. Usually to such an extent that they can overlook my rotten personality. After a while, it however surfaces, causing issues and frequently, a breakup.
But I’ll be honest, with the way the world is now, I wouldn’t switch. Beauty might have its disadvantages, but there also are the advantages that help in our patriarchal society.
This all sounds awful, but still, I have hope, a fair lot of it even. I think that it’s important to see that first and foremost, we all are women. We all are sisters striving for a better world. We should try to not let ourselves be divided by jealousy and arrogance. We shouldn’t look down one each other, but we should see each other as equals.