reclaiming beauty

for most of my remembered life, the concept of beauty has been used against me, as a tool of violence so thoroughly internalized that it has been hard to unroot.  either i am considered beautiful and made to understand that if i deviate from whatever physical presentation i am lauded for, then i will lose my power and access to love.  or i am considered ugly and i have to do anything within my means to achieve the beauty standard; in fact that should be my top priority.  neither option is healthy and both sides of the beauty coin ruin my self esteem and self determination.

pax and i have been fighting a lot about the concept of beauty lately, he’s got a dueling blog up here.  he maintains his right to having his own personal relationship to beauty, in which he has physical preferences that translate into an experience of beauty.  of course theres a shadow side to his personal relationship, because beauty requires a counterpart.  yes, he admits, there are things he finds unattractive.  i hate this.  i hate this so much.

but there are two layers to it for me: the first is how he uses his power in connection with his concept of beauty.  i have called him out for loudly broadcasting his preference for long hair on women and it’s impact on the girls and women in his life who want to maintain his affection and attention.  in fact it came out in the course of girls studies that his messaging about long hair had negatively impacted one of the girls in the class.  this is where i most hate it.  but the second layer is how his personal relationship with beauty impacts the subtler messages he sends into the world, how he chooses to engage with individuals based on the attraction factor.  and how that perpetuates the beauty myth just as insidiously.

i almost always feel beautiful.  but i have shifted my definition of beauty and want to work on reclaiming it.  for me beauty is defined in our attention to our self care, our confidence and self esteem, our willingness to face our fears and our bullshit, to be uncomfortable, the ways we engage with the people in our life, how easily we smile, how quickly we cry, the joy we see around us and the joy we bring into the world.  it is rare that i look at someone and dont see some sort of beauty.  you have to be more invested, you actually have to get to know someone, but its almost always there.

and that is really what i notice as beauty, but i also recognize that women have a lot of healing that needs to be done to recognize the beauty of our own bodies.  and all of our bodies are beautiful:  to take in the curves, the lines, to sit naked in front of a mirror and giggle at how lovely our bodies really are.  and i want to know how to do that in a way that doesnt reinforce everything we’ve already built up around the socially prescribed concept of “beauty.”  i’ve been thinking it should be woman to woman messaging: when you see a woman out on the street and she smiles and you notice, stop and tell her how radiant she looks.  but even moreso with our friends, appreciate them for all of their complicated woman selves: for their strength and bravery, for their compassion and generosity, for their confidence and honesty.  for whatever it is about them that draws you to them.

women spend so much time being seen as one dimensional.  there is only one time when i feel ugly, when i despise my body, and thats when i am being seen solely based on my appearance.  i remember walking out on a beautiful morning, enjoying the movement of my body, its strength and agility, the power of my thighs as they carried me.  as i walked further, my experience soured from one of self love and joy to almost feeling nauseated.  in the course of my short walk i was seen by more than 30 men, of them maybe 5 looked at me like i was a fellow human being.  all of the others were merely checking me out, sizing me up and passing some judgment on me based on my appearance.

and thats why i think this has to be a female led reclamation.  it is hard for me to trust a man when he tells me i am beautiful, hard for me to know what they mean by it.  all those boys who want to be our allies can support us by checking their own messaging on beauty and deconstructing their paradigms of what is attractive and what is not.  but i think the power lies in women celebrating women.

also, i wan to recognize that this post does not touch on the way beauty as a form of oppression differentially impacts women of color, women with disabilities, or non hetero normative women.  there is so much more in this discussion, just want to get it started.


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: ugly discord « your passport to complaining
  2. Michael Hobson
    Jun 04, 2012 @ 01:47:48

    I am curious how you know what 30 different individuals were thinking? Perhaps you were checking them out, sizing them up and passing some judgement based on their appearance? Just an observation, I appreciate the things you make me think about. I don’t think I have commented in the past, sorry if my first comes across as negative, but assumptions about what others are thinking rarely turn out as expected.


  3. Sara Tansey
    Jun 04, 2012 @ 13:51:39

    dear michael, i understand your skepticism. and you are certainly right to question my mind reading skills. but growing up a girl in this culture, my survival skills have taught me to recognize when i’m being looked at and when i’m being seen. it is rare that, in passing a man on the street, i feel seen. (which is probably confusing because i use “seen” in the blog itself.) more often than not theres a full up and down look with the eyes, often a lingering stare that makes me uncomfortable, but rarely eye contact. it is my body that is the object of their attention, not my self. it is disconcerting and horribly upsetting. i feel no qualms claiming that nearly 25 of said thirty men werent seeing me as a person. even if one of those men was.

    and thanks for reading and commenting. i am happy to have dialogue on this blog!


  4. Mandy H
    Jun 04, 2012 @ 16:26:32

    Thanks for sharing, Sara! Oh the irony in WordPress choosing to place an ad for women’s jeans on this post of yours…..


  5. Michael Hobson
    Jun 04, 2012 @ 16:48:13

    I do see your point, even if I’m still not sure I agree with it. I don’t have the experience of growing up female and do place some trust in your perception. I appreciate that it is not only your experiences that you draw from, but also the experiences of other women you interact with.

    However, many of my own experiences are contradictory. I have worked in both male-dominated and female-dominated industries. Between that and talking to the women in my own life, I often find that women are more often guilty of the behavior you describe. Obviously, men are more likely to have a sexual motivation, but women seem to sort people out on appearance much more aggressively than do men. I see women who either can’t tolerate this, or don’t meet the female imposed standards, choosing more male friends as they are more accepting.

    Another variable is local culture. Here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, eye contact is most often seen as an aggressive behavior, even downright confrontational. If you don’t know someone, mind your own business. Even after six years here, I still have a hard time with that. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia which on the surface at least is a much friendlier culture, or at least more trusting.

    Ironically, I have been harassed in more than one male-dominated workplace for not meeting societal expectations of beauty. This in places where dirt, grease, heavy machinery, loud noises, tobacco chewing, smoking, spitting, farting and cussing are common. What beauty expectation could there be? I don’t shave my face, which is only marginally acceptable, but it’s the back of my neck which causes all the fuss. Apparently not shaving that patch of hair between your head and your shirt collar is completely socially unacceptable among men, to the point of outright anger and disbelief. Women on the other hand don’t seem to notice or care.

    Unfortunately, as a culture we seem to be moving in the wrong direction. Rather than seeing through mass-marketed beauty expectations for women, we seem to be roping men in to the same paradigm. When is the last time you saw a man with hair on his chest on a TV show or magazine cover? They are all shaved and waxed and tanned. I find the show Survivor most amusing, 40 days in the wilderness and all the men have grown beards, but not a chest hair in sight. God forbid if someone actually had back hair!

    Ha, this is why I don’t often respond. Your posts are thought-provoking and I often ponder them for weeks, never really sorting out any single thing to say. There are so many angles and different perceptions. I give you credit for taking on subjects that are complicated and that for the most part no one wants to talk about.


    • Sara Tansey
      Jun 04, 2012 @ 21:44:10

      Dear Michael, Thank you so much for being willing to engage and for continuing to comment, i understand that i tackle topics that make many people uncomfortable and i appreciate your vulnerability in responding. I think one of the pieces you are alluding to is the way in which women can be even more critical of one another based on appearance. It feels like another dimension of the same problem. Women are taught that our worth and power is rooted in our beauty and that our beauty gives us the means by which to get a man. At a young age girls are taught that we are competing for male attention and so it breeds in us a fear and mistrust of other women and a snarkier relationship with each other. This is in no way universal, but it is a common theme in female to female relationships.

      And i do not have the experience of a male bodied person being objectified by this culture. I definitely do think there are physical standards men are held to as well, that can be similarly damaging to their emotional and physical health. And i want to be having that conversation too. And i do think that women are taught to have a more unhealthy relationship with their bodies.

      Keep commenting, i love it! And thanks for offering me a new perspective.


  6. Whisky Doll
    Jun 04, 2012 @ 20:27:02

    Great blog. You touch on much of what I have also experienced in my life as a female-person… I have always had a hard time in long term relationships with men due to some of what you discuss here. I think it is hard to be a minority in intimate relations with someone without that particular minority experience. Hard because the person(s) you love, respect, and want to be completely open and gain 100% understanding from will never know your life, struggles, and experiences in the same way a best friend of the same minority status might… I don’t know what the answer to this quandary is other than continuing to talk and put yourself in each other’s shoes to the best of your imaginative abilities (exhausting and hopefully an evolution over time).

    On a flip side though, I’ve also felt objectified and repulsed by women lovers who put forth a “macho” attitude about sex, generic visual preferences in their mates, and ideas about sexual roles. Because of THIS experience, I choose to look at this issue in its entirety as one that afflicts ALL people, not just how “men view women”, “women view men”, or what roles we are each supposed to succeed at playing for each other…

    I had a gay male friend once who, when I returned home in tears after walking home and being cat-called, said this to me: “Next time turn around, approach the person who is offending you, and say, calmly and clearly, ‘that really hurt me’.”… This is NOT, by any imagination an easy or lovely thing to consider doing when you are offended!… Though that thought shifted my brains a little… I think about it. I think that having someone tell you they are hurt by your actions in an honest and calm way can only serve to make you consider your actions, and even choose to apologize (perhaps). I think it would definitely make most non-psychotic people question the experience and maybe even apply that questioning to future behavior… As the person advocating for your self, it can deepen your self confidence and shed some of the fear you have in the moment of being offended, it can lead to an apology, or even explanation that the situation was incorrectly interpreted; the possibilities are endless. The point is that we are pointedly calling out a behavior and thus creating consequences for dehumanizing actions.

    I also believe in Men teaching Men not to be inconsiderate assholes, in Women teaching Women to love themselves is important work too… The only thing we are capable of in this lifetime though is being the individual that we are… so conversation needs to be a coupling of how we keep our own individual reactions in check, how we advocate for our needs when we have them, and how we hear, support, and consider the people in our lives telling us how they are hurt by our actions. I don’t think it’s possible to live a life without offense or to not offend. I do like to think we *should* try to be supportive more frequently than we hurt… in this endeavor alone we learn to be better.


    • Sara Tansey
      Jun 04, 2012 @ 23:34:41

      oh i love the idea of trying to calmly walk back and tell a cat caller that they’ve hurt you. i can feel my body cringe and my stomach drop at the thought, but i can also feel the power in the action. i have considered similar calm responses but havent had the chance to practice them yet. and i do think this is an issue that afflicts us all, that we are all hurt by the ways society trains us. i love men holding men accountable and women celebrating women. more soon!


  7. Trackback: Inspiration Broadcast | The Attitude Revolution

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