Originally posted at The Delphiad Blog by Dominique Millette in response to my post at Ms. Magazine yesterday, Unretouched Photos: Empowering or just more “Empower-tainment?” Cross-posted with permission.
The following post has been inspired by discussions in the blogosphere of whether or not unretouched photos are progress. I argue they’re not: because beauty as a public discourse is a trap for women, unretouched or otherwise. No matter how we change definitions of beauty, the fact that women are constrained by the requirement of being beautiful above all else is the main problem. It remains whether or not we retouch the photographs.
Women are separated at birth from the right to their own beauty, just as they are separated from the right to their sexuality. Within patriarchy, both exist only to service male expectations and fantasies. We stop owning what belongs to us — it gets appropriated by men. Our beauty, like our sexuality, becomes a commodity to be traded and bartered, to be put on display, to be graded and tinkered with, for the profit and enjoyment of men.
The problem isn’t beauty itself. As a photographer, I see beauty everywhere I set up a tent to go on a shoot. The problem is that beauty has been coopted as an instrument for the control of women and for the entertainment of the patriarchy (like sex, in the case of prostitution). Sure this phenomenon is as old as the hills. So was slavery on this continent, until 1867.
Everytime I hear “men can’t help looking, they were born that way”, I think well, I can’t help grabbing another ice cream because *I* was born that way, but the way both acts are perceived and mediated is radically different: he gets off the hook, or gets a high-five, and I get shamed for having taste buds. The fact that we’re “just born” one way or the other has completely different consequences depending on where you stand in the hierarchy, doesn’t it?
Beauty is coopted and appropriated for the use of the patriarchy in several ways. Its manifestation is the manifestation of male entitlement, and to men’s feelings of being entitled to use women:
- Its mainstream function is to fulfil male expectations. Women are socialized to derive fulfilment and identity from complying with this function. This is part and parcel of internalized oppression, in which the subordinate class identifies with the master class and internalizes the opinions of the master class concerning itself.
- Its standards are set by prevailing opinion (the patriarchy) even though they are policed and enforced by everyone, including its targets (women).
- Women must go to bizarre lengths and spend inordinate amounts of attention and money to comply with the notion of beauty. In a free society where beauty is a joy to the soul, rather than a commodity or a shackle, this would not be necessary. Therefore, beauty once again emerges as an instrument of control and as something to be engineered by male expectations and male happiness. How the hell else could anyone explain “vaginal rejuvenation”, which cuts off crucial nerve endings, or even breast implants, which can desensitize nipples (an essential erogenous zone)? This is not about us, or about our happiness.
- Women are shamed if they do not conform to prevailing beauty standards. They are insulted, silenced and marginalized. This shame is held up to silence and bully other women, who then wish to escape such opprobrium.
The proof? It’s everywhere. What’s the ultimate insult hurled at feminists? That we’re ugly. There: that ought to shut us up and discourage young women from joining the ranks. Sadly, it does indeed, however blatant the lie behind it.
We are so deeply internally colonized that we cringe at the very thought of not being beautiful. It’s the final humiliation. “Not being beautiful” is presented as the reason we don’t buy into the collective Matrix of oppression. Would anyone try to say Nelson Mandela was the head of the ANC because he couldn’t get a date? Of course not. That would be considered absurd. Yet, this is the assumption made about every feminist warrior. It’s just as stupid. We simply need to think about it.
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