May 19, 2010

Five Feminist Criticisms of Beauty: Is It Worth the Fight?

In light of Britney Spears’ recent unaltered photos, a recent guest post at Jezebel proclaimed feminism’s battle with the beauty myth as bourgeois and not worth the fight. Author, Helen Razer, claims that the efforts to expose the gruesome reality behind the beauty myth is a tiresome and unworthy battle that detracts focus from issues of  “real gender equality.”

I recall an era when feminism’s purview was not limited to banging on about the need for more fat chicks in glossy magazines. While others fight for the right to force-feed Kate Moss, I continue antique fretting over equal pay, domestic violence and federal representation. At 40, I am old and clearly out of step with a movement that demands Size 14 representation.

She continues:

Yes. This just in: heat is hot, water is wet and teenagers are obsessed with their appearance. As such, let’s spend money on developing an industry code of conduct so that we can all enjoy the spectacle of more cottage cheese on Britney’s thighs.

Is it as simple as “teenagers are obsessed with their appearance?” I don’t think so. While the obsession with beauty has long been considered a narcissistic rite of passage among teens, beauty and body image issues are not limited to this demographic. Research shows that eating disorders and the preoccupation with beauty is found younger and younger girls as well as increasingly older women. Disordered eating, eating disorders and an overall obsession with the physical form is not limited to teens as part of a passing trend.

Not only are the consequences of the beauty myth not limited to a specific age group, it is not limited to rich (“bourgeois”), white girls. In fact, the Eurocentric beauty ideal is exported the globe over via the mass media and continues to erase our physical diversity. The global reach of these manufactured and altered images result in more and more  individuals conforming to homogeneous definitions of beauty.

As Brumberg traces in The Body Project: An Intimate History of Young Girls, physical beauty has become the sole measure of the worth of girls and women. This reduction of value and self-identification to the numbers on the scale and shape of one’s figure signals a  sociohistorical shift in the ways in which girls and women are valued. It doesn’t matter if you’re intelligent, independent, competent, charismatic, artistic, or successful unless you’re thin, toned and flawless. In other words, you’ve got to be hot, too.

(more…)

May 8, 2010

What does a “real woman” look like?

The barrage of images of ideal beauty drown diversity, tout the unreal as real and leave us wondering, “What does a real woman look like?”

This is what real women look like (feast your eyes):

All photos taken by Melanie Klein, May 6, 2010, as part of a dual-part class project. The body collage and photo-shoot allowed students to compare and contrast manufactured images of beauty and authentic representations of beauty. Body collages were taped from floor to ceiling to allow students to “feel” the onslaught of one-dimensional images and place themselves in front of the mass illusion disseminated via the mass media and remind themselves that “this is what a real woman looks like.” Body image film to follow.

May 7, 2010

Windows 7: No Fat Chicks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Melanie @ 8:27 pm

A few years ago, Apple released a brand new ad campaign.  “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” was an instant hit, starring hipster movie star Justin Long and John Hodgman, and ran for years, generating lots of revenue for Apple.  Microsoft‘s rebuttals to this fell flat for quite some time, but their new ad campaign for Windows 7 proved successful.  Instead of focusing on mocking Apple, they highlighted the features of the new operating system, as told by “real people”, stating “Windows 7 was my idea.”  The first two ads I saw featured overweight, older men who are shown imagining idealized versions of themselves (as male models) when they “get the idea” for Windows 7.

I laughed, I loved it, and then I watched a commercial break a couple months back – same campaign, one major difference.  This ad utilized the same concept, except the latest ads featured women, all of whom are pretty enough that they could be the “ideal” person, the model that someone imagines themselves as.  Their “ideals” are women who are heavily made-up, and appear to be digitally enhanced.

I think those pictures speak for themselves, yes?

There are two theories that I hold about where Microsoft is coming from with this approach.  Either they are completely unwilling to show an “unattractive,”  overweight woman in their ad because, ew, that’s grossOr they deem these women “not worthy enough” and think they’re on the same level of attractiveness as the “regular” men in their ads.  One of the criticisms of the “beauty norm” is the double standard – men are allowed to be unattractive, women aren’t – I’d say that applies here.  The YouTube upload dates on the Windows 7 official page shows they set a precedent with the original ads – Steve, Jack, and Widmark were uploaded late last year, followed by Charline and Crystal in more recent months.  I would have deemed this a successful and funny campaign if they had been equal in their treatment of both genders.  Instead, they just cemented the fact that I’m a Mac.

May 5, 2010

A letter to Hollywood and its beauty myth

Written by Dororthy Snarker. Originally posted at AfterEllen.com. Cross-posted with permission.

Dear Hollywood Dream Factory,

For decades you have been the Pygmalion to our humble lumps of clay. You have molded us, cajoled us, berated us and pretty much forcibly formed us into whatever shape you wanted. You have made us feel bad about our bodies, made us nip and tuck and enhance and suck ourselves to meet your standards. We’ve plumped and sculpted and even paralyzed vast swaths of ourselves to win your approval. Quite frankly, all this trying to look like Barbie is exhausting.

Now that some of us have reached the zenith of Plasticine perfection, are so taut and shiny that we stretch the bounds of reality, you decide you want something else. Plastic is out, according to a new article in The New York Times, and natural is in.

And so, for the first and possibly last time in my life, I feel bad for the Heidi Montag’s of the world.

Now, of course, I applaud any championing of normal and natural beauty standards. Women come in so many different and beautiful sizes and shapes that to expect us to conform to one singularly strict standard is not only absurd but unconscionable. Perfection is boring; flaws make us special.

Still this recent about-face from you, Hollywood, smacks not of an earnest belief in the underlying value of everyone’s true self, but a trend as fickle as flapper dresses and fake tans. While the Times article touts the “small but significant” wave of filmmakers and casting executives who are “beginning to re-examine Hollywood’s attitude toward breast implants, Botox, collagen-injected lips and all manner of plastic surgery,” if you read a little deeper you realize why.

It’s not that they suddenly grew a conscience. It’s that “the spread of high-definition television — as well as a curious public’s trained eye — has made it easier to spot a celebrity’s badly stitched hairline or botched eyelid lift.” Basically, the seams are showing.

So now instead of favoring the cookie-cutter American beauties you have so long demanded, studios has started casting overseas actresses – where there is less of a penchant to go under the scalpel – to pretend to be all-American girls. Over the last few years the influx of imported talent has been obvious including Anna Torv (Australia), Lena Headey (England), Rose Byrne (Australia), Yvonne Strahovski (Australia), Anna Friel (England – and as long as I’m ranting, I miss Pushing Daisies, dammit!).


And again, this is all fine and good. I’ve often praised our overseas counterparts for their fastidious refusal to futz with their faces. If you need to see what aging gracefully (and sexily) looks like, look no further than Helen Mirren. Wrinkles are hot, pass it on.

But instead of telling overly enhanced actresses the reason they’re being passed over for parts (and therefore stopping the cycle of unending alterations in its tracks), executives seem to be snickering behind these poor women’s backs. They are purposely not telling women with too much plastic surgery that that is the reason they aren’t being cast. Yet still they have no problem telling a newspaper that they think that “everyone either looks like a drag queen or a stripper.” This is an instance when being kind to someone’s face is really the cruelest thing you can do.

Look, Hollywood, you created this monster. This is your doing. You can’t just stuff it back into a box so simply. And you can’t pass value judgments on these women who were only doing what they thought you wanted in the first place without some serious soul searching. What is beautiful shouldn’t be based on the latest trend or the emergence of high-definition TV or anything but actual beauty. Is it good that you’re finally tired of the silicon and stretched faces? Yes. Is it your fault they exist in the first place? Big fat yes.

Gabourey Sidibe – beautiful. Meryl Streep – beautiful. America Ferrera – beautiful. Amanda Seyfried – beautiful. All different, all beautiful. Beauty isn’t a trend, it just is. Get it together, Hollywood.

Sincerely,
Ms. Snarker

April 30, 2010

Celebrity Fitness Trainer To New Moms: “You Can Have Your Best Body Ever”

Originally posted at ClaireMysko.com. Cross-posted with permission.

After hearing Biggest Loser star Jillian Michaels say that she probably will adopt because she “can’t handle” what pregnancy might do to her body, Gwynnie and Madonna’s trainer Tracy Anderson wants to give hope to women whose body image fears might have them thinking twice about getting pregnant (while she conveniently plugs her fitness program). She’s laid out her plan in this Huffington Post piece. Take heart, dear readers. Anderson understands what you’re going through because she’s a mom too! Her workout advice is predictable–it involves a lot of “discipline,” “focus,” “dedication” and “patience.” She also says it’s okay for moms to take time for themselves and that children will benefit from healthy moms. That’s all well and good, except for the fact that when she talks about her own approach to postpartum fitness, she doesn’t sound all that healthy.

Even though I was tired and could hardly catch a shower as a new mom, I found myself with a new power and belief that I could achieve anything…As soon as my OB-GYN gave me the green light to work out again, I started experimenting with my workouts whenever my son Sam was sleeping or with his Nana.

Six weeks after having Sam, I was smaller and more fit than I had been in my entire life. It took a lot of work, but I am a testament to the fact that pregnancy is not the end to your dreams of a perfect body.

Hmmm…I gave birth to my daughter seven weeks ago. I just got the okay to exercise from my doctor at my six-week check-up. For Anderson to have been her smallest and most fit at six weeks postpartum means that she must have been hitting the gym pretty hard at a point when most new moms are still physically healing and coping with serious sleep deprivation, hormone crashes and the general OMFG factor of caring for a newborn. As for that sage wisdom about napping when the baby naps? Apparently in Anderson’s world, there is no rest for the weary.

I absolutely get what she means when she says that she came to appreciate her power after giving birth. Bringing a baby into the world does make you feel like you can achieve anything. It also makes you very tired. And sore. And in desperate need of any tiny bit of shut-eye you can grab in between feedings, diaper changes, and the madness of managing baby meltdowns. Anderson sculpts and molds bodies for a living–I suppose it makes sense that she would want to immediately channel her new mommy power into her quest for the “perfect” body. That doesn’t mean the rest of us should follow her lead.

Obsessing about baby weight is the opposite of empowering. It prevents women from giving ourselves a break at a time when we need it most, and it keeps us disconnected from the amazing feats our bodies have just accomplished. Anderson’s timeline for getting her “best body ever” is unrealistic at best and it could be downright dangerous for some new moms.

Exercise is important, but sometimes the best thing we can do to take care of ourselves is to take it slow. You wouldn’t run a marathon and then wake up the next day and try to run another one. Hopefully you would pat yourself on the back and give yourself permission to relax for a while. So why should mothers put pressure on ourselves to work out six days a week (per Anderson’s recommendation) when we’ve just been through the biggest workout of our lives?

February 16, 2010

Bodysnarking

Filed under: Body Image,Gender,Media — Tags: , , , , , — Melanie @ 11:56 pm

Lani’s recent post on Christina Hendricks’ curves prompted me to point out that the public scrutiny of and derogatory comments about women’s bodies (celebrity or not) is referred to as bodysnarking.

Miss Jay says that social-networking sites mean teenagers now focus even more on how they look. “I know girls who have entire photo albums just of their face at different angles. On the flip side, the unflattering photos can’t just be tucked away somewhere. They become the basis for publicly displayed ridicule,” she says.

It sounds a lot like the way we treat famous people. “The conventions that a lot of these celebrity magazines use have trickled down to everyday conversations,” says Claire Mysko, the author of “You’re Amazing! A No Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self.” She mentions celeb sites like PerezHilton.com, TMZ.com and photo-rating site HotorNot.com that obsessively scrutinize people’s flaws and assets.

“I remember sitting at a restaurant with a friend who made a comment to me that the waitress shouldn’t wear shorts because of the way her body was shaped,” says Sharon Lamb, co-author of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketer’s Schemes.” And few women seem immune from being the objects of such scrutiny — from people of both sexes. New York magazine columnist Kurt Andersen, commenting on the political prospects of Hillary Clinton, noted that she has a “Wal-Mart shopper’s bad hair” and a “big bum.”

Bum, however, is just the beginning of the bodysnark lexicon. Jezebel’s Ms. Holmes, who has worked at InStyle, says that 10 years ago people would have looked at you weird if you used such now-common and harshly descriptive words and phrases as “pooch,” “muffin top,” “fugly,” “cankles” (fat ankles and calves that lack definition) and “whale tail.” Also, she notes: “In the ’90s, magazines weren’t really publishing unflattering photos. Today we have been trained to look for the potentially mockable thing, whether it’s of a celebrity or of someone we know.”

It seems counterintuitive, somehow, that ugly pictures sell magazines. But according to Ms. Holmes, stories about celebrity weight-loss with before-and-after photos now fly off the shelves.

As the article notes, bodysnarking as sport among women along with fierce competition is nothing new but the rise of social media has propelled this mean-spirited and hurtful pastime to epic, and public, proportions.

Placing women — especially celebrities — under the microscope is certainly not new. Neither is the fact that women can be mean to each other. What’s different now is how new media — blogs, social networks and YouTube — have encouraged and escalated public participation. Where it might once have been considered déclassé to remark on someone’s appearance, at least publicly, today it’s done with the same ease as sending a text message.

And the impact of this public body hazing has tangible consequences. Women and girls understand at a gut level that their bodies are public property and not entirely their own. They understand and expect people they don’t know to survey their bodies, dissect and comment on their appearance. This creates an incredibly vulnerable place to be inside one’s own skin. That vulnerability tends to breed insecurity and insecurity too often leads to dangerous, costly and time consuming body practices.

The next time you feel compelled to call a stranger or your best friend (!) a “skinny bitch” or comment on the size of her ankles, remind yourself that these comments aren’t benign and that we have the ability to create change in our lives and the lives of other women at every moment. Ultimately, this creates cultural change and, perhaps, that shift will foster a healthy, happy environment for our bodies and minds.

May 15, 2009

How much are your looks worth?

We know the beauty industry pulls in billions of dollars.  According to the Economist via this latest post @ Sociological Images:

…beauty spending–on make-up, diet and exercise, fragrances, skin care, hair products, and cosmetic surgery–adds up to a $160 billion-a-year worldwide.

But, how often do we personally think about what we spend and the amount of time it takes us to get ready? I’m not considered “high-maintenance” and, even so, I spend a tremendous amount of time and energy on my physical appearance:

I shave my legs, armpits and bikini area, I get my eyebrows waxed, I use body lotion, facial moisturizer and eye cream, toner for my face, facial serum, SPF, get manicures and pedicures, use deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, hair oil and shine, nail polish, mascara, liquid eye liner and eye shadow.

Wow!

It’s sobering to write it out. As I said, it doesn’t take me hours to get ready, I don’t look like a woman that takes hours to get ready, my hair is not perfectly coiffed and groomed, I am not “flawless,” and don’t look like anyone featured in the media.

Sociological Images provides the link to a slide show of women photographed during their monthly beauty routine and calculates the costs associated with it.

How much do you spend each month on diet, exercise, make-up, hair, scents and oils, and/or plastic surgery or various enhancements such as Botox, teeth whitening, photofacials and/or laser treatments? How many products do you have in your bathroom that you haven’t used completely before buying another brand name?

March 30, 2009

Selling out yoga

I began my yoga practice in 1996 and knew I had stumbled upon something exhilarating, insightful, challenging and delicious.  There weren’t a lot of yoga studios in 1996 and I had to truly seek out a practice that fit my personality and my needs.  My friend, Marla, led me to Bryan Kest in 1997 and by 1999 I ditched the gym and developed a dedicated and consistent practice with Bryan and Caleb Asch.

My yoga practice was a wonderful constant in a sea of change and chaos.  It also provided a truly unique place to get to know my body in a new way. It was the first time I paid attention to my body’s rhythms and desires without imposing my own expectations and will.  I became more forgiving, more loving and more in tune.

My teachers and my practice inspired me to give up my obsessive tendency to beat my body during a workout and made movement pleasurable, beautiful and loving. My teachers and my practice taught me how to respect and nurture my body, accept my body and, best of all, love my body.

As a person with a past rooted in dieting, obsessing, over exercising and generally abusing my body, this was new and welcomed territory.  The yoga mat had been one of the few places in our media-driven, thin-obsessed and youth-oriented culture that I was not subject to these distorted messages about what I should look like or who I should be.  I could just be.  Sometimes that meant happy, other times sad, often times tired and curled up in child’s posed without judgement and at other times, fierce and energetic.

As yoga became more and more absorbed by the mainstream and yoga studios popped up around town like Stabucks coffee houses, I noticed yoga’s message of unity and acceptance become filtered through the lens of the dominant consciousness and consumerism.  I began making public commentary on these changes in 2003 that I presented at  a variety of conferences and public lectures: Celebrity Yogis: The Intersection of Yoga, the Cult of Personality and Consumerism, Yoga and Popular Culture, McYoga: The Spiritual Diet for Consumer America, Consuming Spirituality and Spiritual Consuming: Capitalizing on Yoga, and the McDonaldization and Commodification of Yoga: Standing at the Intersection of Spiritual Tradition and Consumer Culture.

I was particularly interested in the reproduction of mainstream beauty standards in the pages of yoga magazines. All the models were thin and polished. After examining the mainstreaming of yoga for several years with frustration and sadness, I put down the yoga magazines and withdrew from the increasingly commercialized yoga community that had previously provided me with solace and acceptance and made my practice more personal and, in many ways, made an attempt to safe guard it.

It worked.

Recently, though, I picked up a copy of Yoga Journal and was dismayed to find advertisements for diet pills. I’d noticed more and more corporate ads before I abandoned my subscription but this hit home.  Not only had Yoga Journal succumbed to accepting corporate dollars for products that seemed unrelated to a healthy yogic lifestyle but now they had allowed the ultimate self-esteem crusher to enter: advertisements that reinforced larger cultural messages telling individuals that they must lose wight and that they don’t have to do the work of eating healthy and exercising.

Pop a pill.

In so many ways, the proliferation of ads for diet pills confirmed what I had already known for years: yoga had passed through the filter of the mainstream capitalistic consumer culture, and in passing through that filter, had emerged altered.

Yoga had come out thinner, sleeker, more polished with soy latte in hand, designer yoga bag slung over a lean shoulder and a bottle of diet pills in the belly.

January 21, 2009

Sizing up Michelle

Not surprisingly, there was a tremendous amount of scrutiny paid to Michelle Obama’s inaugural wardrobe choices and the “message” each outfit was sending.

In addition to the fashion police riding up her train, Internet discussions tackled the question of whether or not Michelle Obama is “hot” or not.  Case in point, the website AskMen.com. The website has a series of “top” lists from that rank women.  There’s the “Top 99 Women: 2009 edition,” “Top 10: 2009 Top 99 Rejects” and “Top 10: 2010’s top 99,” to name a few.  But, you get the picture.

In each of these lists, there is very little variation and/or diversity.  Essentially, all the chosen women resemble one another and the women of color that appear conform to Eurocentric beauty norms.

Compare AskMen.com’s #1 pick, Eva Mendes, and Michelle Obama and the usual measurement of beauty and Michelle Obama’s departure and transcendence become clear.

Some of the comments to the questions AskMen.com posed, include:

Oi yiddo, you moron! She ugly as hell

OMG like a cow :-S

She kind of looks like a female version of James Brown. Anyone agree?

Baby got back, her hips are wider than my 60′ high def. She’s not even in the same ball park as Palin. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is only skin deep, ugly is to the bone

Michelle Obama, as the new First Lady, is a female role model unlike most that we’ve seen before.  It’ll be interesting what the cultural conversation and cultural response will be time goes by.

Will we see cultural changes?  Will she inspire young women to move beyond the confined boundaries of femininity that have been constructed?  Will the conversation tackle the unequal definitions and expectations that have historically existed and continue to persist in terms of which kind of women are considered feminine and what that acts and looks like?

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