Thursday, October 25, 2012

Women's Worth as a Function of Desirability to Men

Oy. I can certainly tell that my event is next week. I haven't had a chance to stop and write anything much lately. But I'm here now and that's what counts! Plus, I found out this week that I received a promotion and after the event, my work will change. I'm really excited about it.

Ah, but that is all neither here nor there. What is on my mind right now is the idea that a woman's worth in society is directly proportional to how much your average dude wants to have sex with her. In plain language like that, it might sound a bit odd, but when you think about it, it's clear. We all know that there is an expectation on all women to look a "certain" way. In turn, that certain way becomes the particular look that most men are socialized to find attractive. Women who look this way, whether they actively try to or not, are playing by the rules and are subsequently rewarded for their looks.

So really, at the end of the day, a woman's value is unfairly reduced to her fuckability. But let me back up. I started to think about this in reading Lesley's Kinzel's Two Whole Cakes last week. She says,

Our cultural ideology of beauty-as-personal-responsibility contributes to a world in which all bodies are public property, open to criticism, compliment, or mockery, at all times. There is no line drawn between the faux perfection of models in ads and the real bodies of women going about their lives—we are all expected to strive for the impossible, no matter what it takes, and when we refuse, our subversion is punished by social censure. 
A mismanaged body, or rather, a body that is perceived as mismanaged, is a thing to be feared. The overly cared-for body—one that is too obviously embellished with cosmetics and plastic surgery, one that is too meticulous in how it eats or moves, one that is guarded or coddled or fabricated so that the seams are still visible--is as much a source of discomfort and pity as one that seems not to be cared for at all.
She expands on this idea explaining how beauty is supposed to look effortless and "natural" but if you're doing it right, you actually must work really hard to maintain a very narrow set of particulars without letting it show. I think most of us can agree with this idea of femininity as performance. The really interesting part to me is how this model requires that we all buy into the idea that bodies, particularly female bodies, are public property. When we do this, it opens the doors for a lot of male criticism and comments and we accept those comments as reasonable, because if a female body is public, why shouldn't people make comments about it? Let me use an example. My friend recently submitted this to my Tumblr project:

[Facebook status: Lady on TV: "We're here to show the world that super plus-sized models can do anything that skinny models can do." Model a Smart Car for me, babe.]

This post is exactly what I'm talking about. This guy feels completely entitled to share his thoughts about how he feels about this woman. Because she is "super plus sized" she is open to mockery and disdain from him and his "joke." And clearly, he was supported by his peers because at the time of this screen shot he had 19 likes and not one person calling him out.

Another really great example of this mentality is an infamous Ashley Madison ad campaign:

[Ad has a fat woman in small shorts and top seductively posed. Copy reads: "Did your wife SCARE you last night? Ashley Madison, Life is Short. Have an Affair."]
The idea here is that this woman is scary and clearly no man would want to have sex with her. Therefore, she deserves disdain, shame, and adultery. In other words, her fuckability factor is low so she's worthless.

Still not convinced? Think about what happens when a woman who is supposed to be really low in fuckability defies these stereotypes...people freak out. It's a really big deal! I don't watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or Glee, but both of them have displayed evidence of this mentality recently. Firstly, this picture popped up in my Facebook newsfeed.
[Rotten eCard with an older man saying, "Honey Boo Boo's mother has a boyfriend and you're single. Just let that sink in."]
You see, on this theoretical fuckability scale, Honey Boo Boo's mom, June, ranks really, really low. She's fat and not conventionally attractive. She's also frequently crass and loud, so according to the old narrative, she's not supposed to be able to achieve the really important task of landing a man. Women like June are supposed to be single and sad about being single. And according to this picture, you should feel really shitty that she (OMG nasty woman!) can get a man, but you can't.

The outrage is amplified if the man in question is conventionally attractive. Again, I don't watch Glee but I am aware of a story line where the characters Ashley and Puck had a fling. And people freaked out. The questions over and over were: "Is that very realistic?" "Can a fat girl get a stereotypically attractive guy?"

[Photo of Glee characters Ashley and Puck.]
And yet, we are routinely fed TV pairings of fat men and "hot" women and we are expected to believe it without second thought. It's a reinforcement of the idea that what a man brings to the relationship as a man is good enough, but dammit, the woman better be a 10, or what is she worth?

Over and over the cultural narrative emphasizes that a woman's most important task is to be beautiful--and that beauty can only look a certain way. This whole thing is not only impossible and insulting, but it's also exhausting!

Fortunately, there are ways that we can step away from this mentality. One is to actively confront notions of conventional attractiveness and seek to find wider definitions of beauty. A lot of fat positivity blogs do this amazingly.  You can also redefine beauty to take into account personal attributes. In my work with girls, this is often the first, most basic step. We help them see a "real beauty" which values their individual characteristics like creativity, kindness, responsibility, etc. instead of their bodies, hair, and clothes. I've seen first hand that this approach is very accessible to girls in the 5th-8th grade range.

But for those of us who are past the 101 point in feminism and self-acceptance, Kinzle suggests that we seek to actively reject the beauty game, which is a very interesting notion. She writes:

I’d prefer to occupy a space outside the pretty/ugly paradigm, a space where the parameters are self-determined. Because I believe there is no circumstance in which these categories will not be oppressive, to someone somewhere. Because I want to reject that kind of system, not participate in it. The longing to appreciate and value oneself as a beautiful person is a fine notion. Confronting, deconstructing, and redefining what counts as beauty is a valiant effort. But we should also be vigilant: Is it personal gratification and self-love we’re after, or the advantages that being beautiful to others would afford us?
No one should be forced to play the pretty game, though most of us born female spend our lives learning the rules and trying to get ahead. We are taught that we are not allowed to even consider removing ourselves from the playing field. And yet it is a game without end. Pretty is not an accomplishment to be won so much as a state of constant vigilance, even for women who qualify as beautiful in the cultural eye, because so many of these women still cannot see themselves as attractive. An intrinsic part of the pretty game is feeling inferior, imperfect, and incomplete. The players can compete, but no one can win.

[Emphasis mine.]


  1. "In other words, her fuckability factor is low so she's worthless."

    Back when Jezebel had good content, they published this: .

    The comments were an outpouring of women's anguish, and are a really powerful illustration of what you're talking about. It's a great thread for anyone who wants to see a personal (rather than academic) discussion of the issue. Only a handful of the comments left there are cached now, but what remains is a good encapsulation of the discussion.

  2. this is something I really struggle with as a feminist blogger who has a lot of dude friends and a boyfriend and has an office job. I want to reject the "pretty" thing, I really do. I usually wear flats to work because I find heels oppressive. But I usually wear make up, and I love to wear nice dresses to work (when I can be bothered). I enjoy the compliments I get, and I enjoy being "accepted" by people outside my usual blog audience. In a way, I think it helps to make my feminism more acceptable to them, and hopefully gets the point across that feminists are just regular people. But on the other hand, I feel that I'm not doing enough. I know that appearing conventionally attractive (when I'm done up) makes people more receptive to my ideas. Because I consider myself fairly normal looking - not too pretty but not not pretty either - I feel I should be able to say "this is how I look, unadorned, do you still agree with me?" but no.

    I'll be honest - not sure the above made sense. Looks are influential and it's hard to give up that power but I know this is to the detriment of other women. What to do?

    1. It's a complex question and no good answer. I've long argued that feminism can't scorn "girliness" but on the other hand it's important to acknowledge the privilege that is inherent in looking feminine/attractive as a woman. I guess the only thing I am certain of is that each person should be able to embrace masculinity and femininity in a way which feels good for THEM individually and say fuck you to the systems that exist.


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