Tuesday, October 18, 2005

like a natural woman

Is our culture’s fixation on the pursuit of sexual attractiveness oppressive or adaptive for women? Some interesting perspectives on this in the papers lately. I’ve been considering the ideas of academic Sheila Jeffreys whose new book
Beauty & Misogyny
was recently discussed in an interview with Catherine Keenan in Spectrum ("The bare-faced radical", September 24-25, 2005; no link apparently available). Then along came Ariel Levy selling her book on raunch culture.
Both Jeffreys and Levy are very concerned that the mainstream is becoming extreme and both accuse women of collaborating in their oppression. But is it really a slippery slope from lipstick to labiaplasty? I too have sometimes found it sad that we’re part of a culture so fixated on appearance and attractiveness. But I think I agree with Eva Cox, quoted in the Levy story, that perhaps raunch is healthy or at least adaptive. I could even reframe ‘raunch culture’ more positively as ‘fertility chic’. In Western cultures which have been vocally paranoid about their declining birthrates for many years now, this doesn’t seem all that surprising. Suddenly, it’s chic to be a young mum. Influential role models like Kate Hudson, Britney Spears, Bec Cartwright have made fertility fashionable. Gaudy Paris Hilton may have made her name with raunch but even she has waxed lyrical about how she intends to be married with children within two years. Similarly, raunch star Jessica Simpson made her squillions trading on moral values--on religiosity and on her virginity before and fidelity within marriage. Simpson is a poster girl for fertility chic because she’s sexing up marriage and most of her market still see marriage as coming before children. The interesting thing is that the role models mentioned above aren’t advertising the idea that you must give up your job to have kids. They’re saying, “I’ll just have the kids first”. Maybe the younger generations took on board the message that, if you’re not careful, career might come at the expense of children. Maybe they have figured out an answer: Careers don’t have a biological clock.
It's likely raunch culture will eventually give way to less extreme expressions of sexuality. Already pop culture is getting bored of the ‘skanky ho’ and is moving on to celebrating ‘nice’. Think the virginal but oddly pregnant Katie Holmes.
I have some sympathy to Sheila Jeffreys' arguments. Not only do women still earn less than men, they must spend a lot of money in order to conform to standards within corporate culture, possibly resulting in a kind of economic oppression. So there’s value in thinking about that. But it’s hard to know at what point Western beauty practices stop being just costume and theatre and become male-imposed oppressive beauty practrices. At what point does something cross the line from decorative to dangerous? I also don't see where she accepts that there can be beneficial aspect to beauty regimes, whether it's a psychological boost from using pleasantly-fragranced products, or from taking 'me time' out, or just from prioritising health and care of the body.
Isn’t it all just fashion and costumes and uniforms for different worlds and subcultures and milieus? For example, the ‘dangerous’ practice of wearing heels to the point where they lame you is probably limited to pockets of the corporate world. It’s the extremes that are dumb, but it’s only ever going to be a few idiotic women who have toe surgery to fit into Manolo Blahniks. At the other extreme, there’s someone like me, who only ever wears thongs. The bulk of ‘normal’ women will probably wear a shoe to work that doesn’t hurt them and save the nine inch nails for dressing up.
And maybe the percentage of women who’d undergo cosmetic labiaplasty is similar relative to the numbers of men who have penile implants? Numbers might be increasing for either group, but that could just be because there was a previously untapped market for that kind of thing.
There seems to be a certain logic behind some things, though, like shaving. Men and women are physically distinct. Men tend to be larger and hairier. Therefore, in our concept of “the feminine”, we have “that which is not masculine”. And we trying to differentiate ourselves as much as possible from the masculine to the feminine end of the spectrum. We shave; and men continue to desire hairlessness. Seems fairly simple and harmless to me.
Jeffreys objects to lipstick, I believe, because of the same argument I grew up hearing from my mother: that lipstick, which you eat off your lips, is toxic. Well, there’s the solution to that problem: there are companies that make lipsticks that are non-toxic. Problem solved. The fact that it’s a practice imported from prostitutes doesn’t scare me. It’s also been used in opera for some time. Apart from these arguments, it feels as if Jeffreys is really just objecting to decorating the body, which doesn't seem reasonable. Who hasn’t observed a woman doing her face on the bus, like a master painter. Maybe it is art.
What’s more, in many ways men are as much a victim of prevailing fashions as women. They conform by shaving their faces daily; they wear ties and suits, stress about going bald. They are more limited in ways they can alter their appearance as they do not have as socially-sanctioned access to methods of doing so, though with the rise of the “metrosexual” this is changing. You could even argue men have been disadvantaged by not being able to wear makeup to conceal flaws and accentuate positive features as we can.
Clearly, we should draw the line in encouraging practices which involve pain or illness. But maybe we should ease off on hassling women for decorating themselves, or for advertising their fertility or availablility by trying to conform to ‘sexy’.
Mia Freedman, editor-in-chief of Cosmo, Cleo and Dolly magazines is quoted as said in another story on raunch culture:

Freedman believes it is important to distinguish between the benign, even positive, facets of raunch culture and those that are a cause for concern. "The poster girls for raunch culture would be Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson and they are our two top covergirls in this market at the moment…I find it alarming that one is famous for making a sex tape and having no job, the other is trading on the idea of being stupid."

Notice it alarms her--but not enough to stop her sticking these women on her covers. How typical of a magazine editor to pretending they are reactive, when in fact they (or rather their advertisers) are influential opinion-makers for teens. I noticed a similar sentiment expressed in an article on the supposed death of cool (via Jozef):
"Marketing people, in general, are always engaged in producing this fiction whereby they claim that all they're doing is responding to stuff that's already out there," says William Mazzarella, a University of Chicago assistant professor of anthropology and social sciences, whose expertise includes mass media. “The critical response is marketing and advertising create trends or steer us, rather than responding to us."

Watch out for those Katie Holmes covers.