Archive for beauty

What is “Real Beauty”, Anyway?

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

My social media network has been alive, these past few days, with two things:  the Boston Marathon Explosions, and Dove’s latest advertising campaign.

There’s not much I can say about Boston that hasn’t already been said.  It horrifies me that people can plan & commit such acts of violence.  It scares me that we still, a couple of days later, have no idea who did it, or where and when they might strike again.  I’m afraid of the what the political fallout will be, since if it truly was a terror attack on American soil … well, we have Afghanistan and Iraq and the past 12 years to tell us what can happen as a result of that.

So instead, I’ll talk about the other thing that’s been bugging the hell out of me for the past few days:  Dove’ “real beauty sketches” campaign.

real-beauty

For those unfamiliar with the campaign (although seriously, have you been living under a rock all week?  This thing is showing up everywhere right now), Dove marketing people hired a police sketch artist to do a series of drawings.  In the sketch on the left, you see a woman as described by herself.  On the right you see the same woman as described by a random stranger.  The point of the exercise (besides selling Dove products — I’ll get into that later) is ostensibly to show women that we are our own harshest critics & that other people see more beauty in us than we do in ourselves.

Most of my issues with the campaign have been covered quite eloquently by tumblr user Jazz in her post on the subject.  Jazz’s post, too, has been making the rounds on social media, so this may not be the first you’re seeing of it (I shared it via my Facebook page yesterday).  I agree with the points that she has made, and definitely suggest that you go and read what she has to say.  I’ll reiterate a few of the main points, and add some new ones of my own.

While the idea that we need to focus less on our flaws and think more positively of ourselves is a good one, the overall message of the campaign falls far short of the mark from a feminist perspective.

As Jazz points out in her post, the majority of the participants are white women, with light hair & eyes.  They are young (probably all under 40), slim, and conform to a very conventional standard of beauty.  There are women of colour in the campaign, but in the video they see very little face time, and none of them are featured in the extra interviews available on the website.  This is the standard of beauty that we are always shown by the cosmetics industry:  young, white, and slim.  For a campaign that claims to break boundaries, it’s very much inside the box.

Why not feature some people who are NOT conventionally beautiful?  Someone significantly overweight, or in their 80s, or with very obvious scars/birthmarks/other “deformities” on their face, or with very “ethnic” features (even the women of colour shown in the video are people with relatively neutral features).  Why not show a man, or a transgendered person?  Why is beauty something only for cisgendered women?

Just as important are the descriptive words being used in the video.  The “negative” terms that women are using to describe their own features are things like “fat, rounder face”, “freckles”, “40 and starting to get crow’s feet”, “thin lips”, “tired looking”, “big jaw”.  While the sketches revealed that the majority of the participants were overly focused on these “negative” aspects, the video did nothing to destroy the perception that these are “bad” traits … and this is incredibly sad, because for the most part these are not “bad” things.  A rounder face or thinner lips or a wider jawline may not be what’s popular in the media right now,  but if it’s the shape you were born with then there’s nothing you can do about it, and you should feel beautiful even if you’re not like what you see in make-up ads, because beauty comes in all shapes.  Freckles and crows’ feet and tiredness: that’s all just life.  None of us look airbrushed; the life we’ve lived is going to show on our faces, and we should LOVE that, not feel pressured to cover it up.

While the video tries to be uplifting, it’s still delivering a hurtful message to women who don’t fit that conventional standard of beauty.  Someone who honestly looks more like the sketches on the left might come away actually feeling worse about themselves, because they’ve been reminded yet again that they’re not thin and white and young.

Perhaps the most troubling thing said in the whole video is this, though:

[Beauty] impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.

Because if you’re female, the most important thing is to be beautiful.  It doesn’t matter how skilled you are; how intelligent; how kind; how loving and giving and wonderful.  If you’re not beautiful, you’re a second-class woman.  There’s something “critical” missing from your life, and you cannot be happy without it.  You can’t even be a good person and treat others (your children, even!) right if you’re not beautiful and don’t believe that you are beautiful.

That’s right.  If you’re ugly, you’re a bad person.  If you doubt yourself, you’re going to treat other people wrong and your life will suck because of it.  Thanx, Dove.  Thanx for reminding us all that the most important part of being female is being aesthetically pleasing.

And of course, when it comes right down to it, that *is* what Dove is trying to sell you.  They want you to buy their beauty products and their moisturizers.  They want you to buy their “pro*age” lotion to get rid of those crow’s feet, and their “colour care” shampoo to keep your dye-job shiny and “natural” looking.  They want you to shave off all your body hair, smell like a flower garden, and cover up your “flaws”, just like any other cosmetics company.  So they need you to believe that you ARE flawed, and that you need products to make you better.  It is, in the end, marketing.  And advertisers discovered long ago that the way to make you buy a product, is to make you feel as though you’re not as good without it.

If I were to redo this campaign, I’d rather see them focus on things that aren’t traditionally beautiful. I want to see someone’s scars being complimented as a sign of strength, or their round “overweight” belly being loved for its soft warmth, or their adorable freckles being complimented rather than showing this constant quest for “clear” skin. I want beauty to be about more than just cisgendered women.  I want to love people for their bald patches and their places where there’s too much hair and for their stretch marks and their crooked teeth and their beautiful asymmetry.  I want people to meet up in darkened rooms where they can’t see each other at all, and can only use talk & touch without sight to tell them what they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. I want to be truly colourblind, and blind to gender, and blind to sexual orientation, and blind to traditional ideas of “beauty”. I’m kind of an idealist that way.

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Expectations of Genius

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

I stumbled across this story today in my ramblings around the Internet.

It bothers me how the media buys in to the stereotype of the “dumb blonde” and the idea that beautiful women cannot possibly be intelligent, too — I’ve talked about this before.  It’s hard to be judged as “stupid” before you’ve even opened your mouth, just because of how you look.  It’s hard to fight an uphill battle every day against the preconceived notion that if you’re pretty, you’ve had everything handed to you on a silver platter and have never had to work or to fight for what you have in your life.  It’s hard to stay positive when people attack you based on those assumptions, or avoid you entirely and refuse to get to know you.

But what actually struck me more, in reading this story, was the commentary surrounding how this girl is “wasting her potential”.  How she’s wasting valuable time, thought, and energy on a beauty routine that involves self-tanner and fake nails.  How she’s wasting her mind by watching trash TV shows.  How she’s wasting her thoughts and her potential on dreams of a future in performance.  The general disdain for beauty and so-called “superficial” pursuits is prevalent throughout the article, and even more so in the comments being left by readers.

This kind of pressure is commonly faced by those of us with higher-than-average intellects, and it can be absolutely crushing.  When everyone’s telling you how much you could do and pushing you to “live up to your full potential”, it feels as though the expectations placed upon you are almost impossible to live up to — as though nothing you do can ever possibly be good enough.  Any “wasted” time becomes a source of guilt, and whenever you can’t be in two places at once or do everything perfectly on the first try, you feel as though you’re letting everyone down and not doing as well as you “should” be.  And when you need to ask for help, you feel bad, as though you’re somehow failing by needing someone else to lend a hand or show you the way.  And it can feel incredibly unfair when you feel those expectations being put upon you, but not on anybody else:  I still feel a huge sense of injustice when my parents brush off my siblings’ lack of scholastic ability, when they spent so much time berating me for every “A minus” grade that I “could have done better” on, or when a well-meaning friend or relative criticizes my choice to pursue an arts career when I “could be” a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist or whatever other career they happen to think is more suitable.

This is a pressure that I’ve faced throughout my life, and I’m sure the girl in this story is feeling a huge wave of it right now.  And it’s completely unfair.

First of all, there’s the simple fact that just having a high IQ does not mean you’re good at every single subject.  You may be able to grasp unfamiliar concepts more quickly, remember things more readily, or assimilate information in a quick & easy fashion, but that doesn’t mean you’re good at everything you do.  I still have my subjects that I struggle in, and so does every other “genius” I’ve ever met.  I’ve needed extra help, from time to time, and it’s often frustratingly hard to get — it’s amazing how often people will say things like, “but you’re smart, why can’t you understand this?”, or dismiss your efforts as though you’re not even trying because “you’d get it if you just put your mind to it”.  But just being generally smart does not mean you’ve got a natural aptitude for everything.

And along with aptitude, there’s interest.  Different things catch different people’s attention, and we shouldn’t feel limited to only certain areas of study because those are traditionally seen as more “intellectual”.  So what if a smart person wants to apply their brains to an artistic field, or if they’d rather do a job that involves using their hands?  A person shouldn’t need to feel intellectually challenged by their work every single day (unless that’s what they themselves actually want).  And if a person decides to go into a field that’s not “intellectual”, they shouldn’t feel guilty because they “could” be doing something else.  I may be intelligent, but I wouldn’t be happy working in a lab — spending my life trying to cure cancer or blaze new legal trails would leave me feeling unhappy and unfulfilled, and ultimately I’d never have the sort of passion for the work that drives true innovation.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that IQ is only one measure of intelligence.  As we come to understand more and more about the way the human brain works, we’re beginning to place more important on things like the “emotional quotient” and on different learning styles and “types” of intelligence.  A person who has a relatively average IQ, but is very passionate about their subject, is likely to spend more time and energy working on it — and if they’re coming at it from a different angle or “learning style”, they may see things in it that a traditionally-intelligent, “booksmart”-type would not see.

There’s a high level of “burnout” among high-IQ individuals, and a lot of that is directly related to these pressures that we face.  We’re expected to be highly self-reliant and to need less teaching.  Our peers often rely on us to help them out when they are struggling with a topic (“hey, you’re smart, can you explain this?”), but who do the “smart kids” turn to when we’re in need of a little help?  If we choose to spend a few hours relaxing and playing a video game or watching TV, we face the criticism that we “should be” learning something instead, never mind that down-time and letting your brain shut off for a while is important for all people (“why aren’t you off curing cancer right now instead of watching that reality TV show?”).  And often our less-intellectual friends come to rely on us for things that aren’t even really our responsibility:  we’re the ones who are expected to remember every little detail, even if we’re not directly in charge (“well you should have known better”).  Sometimes the more you deliver, the more it seems people expect of you, until everything in life becomes a thankless struggle to keep up with the expectations that are being placed on you.

Beauty vs. Brains

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

There’s a bit of a flame war going on over at Christie Wilcox’s blog over on ScienceBlogs, and it has inspired me to sit down and write a quick post in response.  For those who don’t keep up with SB, I’ll summarize what’s happening:  Christie is currently competing for a $10 000 blogging scholarship, and her closest competition in the race is a makeup blog called Temptalia.  Intrigued by the juxtaposition of two blogs with such very different content, Christie wrote a post about some of the biological reasons why makeup is effective.  Flames ensued, as Temptalia readers became enraged at the perceived slur against their passion for makeup (although I honestly have to say, I don’t see where they’re getting the impression that Christie is bashing them — she’s just looking at it from a different angle, not saying that her take on it is somehow “better”).  The flames were, of course, fanned by many SB commenters, some of whom have been very lacking in tact in their dismissals of Temptalia’s content.  SB commenters are often lacking in tact when it comes to non-science topics and non-scientist commenters, so no surprise there.

Anywhos.  All of this shit-flinging has gotten me thinking about a topic that often intrigues me: the western perception that brains and beauty cannot exist within the same person at the same time (especially if that person is a woman).

There are a few stereotypes that we all know.  The “dumb blonde” is one that I run up against pretty regularly — it’s one of the reasons I prefer to keep my hair dyed, instead of its natural shade, because people do treat you as though your IQ is lower when your hair is blonde.  The “sexy librarian” is another:  the woman who looks dowdy and bookish, but then removes her glasses and becomes a bombshell, defying all expectations.  The “damsel in distress” is beautiful, but totally incapable of taking care of herself — same goes for the “princess”, who needs the support of a prince to give her happiness.  The media rarely gives us a female protagonist who is both drop-dead gorgeous AND incredibly brainy (sci-fi is probably the best genre in that regard, with thanks going out to Star Trek and Nichelle Nichols for starting the trend, but I’d argue that us smart-and-pretty types are still kind of underrepresented).  Beautiful actresses and models who have brains and minds of their own are often encouraged to hide the fact (how many people know that Lisa Kudrow has a biology degree, or that Natalie Portman went to Harvard, has a graduate degree, and speaks 4 languages?), playing unintelligent or subservient characters who require constant help and support from more intelligent (or male) individuals.  Women who are more in-your-face about their braininess, like Sigourney Weaver, are often criticized for being “butch”, “bitchy”, or “feminazis”, and their beauty is downplayed.

Being both beautiful and brainy is, apparently, a difficult combination.  And if you do happen to possess both of those traits, then you can’t possibly be a nice person, too.  Having all three would just be too much. [/sarcasm]

It’s this stereotype, I think, that underlies the hostility going on over at Christie’s blog.  Women who enjoy science and technology get sick of being treated like butchy/bitchy girls, while women who enjoy makeup and beauty get sick of being treated like superficial, brainless princesses.  Defensiveness ensues, creating even more hostilities between the two groups, despite the fact that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying both sides of the equation.  I’m a biology/physics nerd, I have a passion for arts and literature, and I’m also (if I do say so myself) pretty damn good looking.  Dying my hair and wearing pretty clothes doesn’t detract at all from my knowledge, nor does knowing lots of facts about a variety of topics make it more difficult for me to apply makeup or make gorgeous jewelry.  Nor does any of that stuff make it more difficult for me to be friendly and kind to other people.

So yes, when I put on makeup I do understand that I am playing on ancient and hard-wired biological pathways in the human mind that determine what is healthy and attractive.  My background in theatre also tells me a lot about the psychology of masks and how the face you put on creates the character you portray, and how that affects social interactions.  I don’t wear makeup every day (frankly, I’m lazy, and I don’t like cleaning it off), but I don’t look down on those who do.  It’s a personal choice, like wearing t-shirts and jeans as opposed to dress slacks and blouses.

In the end, people (and especially women) need to just stop finding ways of dividing ourselves, and instead focus on what we have in common.  And when we’re voting on which blogger should get a scholarship, we shouldn’t dismiss any blog solely because of its subject matter: it’s the actual content, the writing style, and the understanding of the subject matter that should be on the table here.  Deciding that a blog about makeup is automatically inferior to a blog about biology (or vice-versa) is judging a book by its cover.  And considering that all of us, whether we wear makeup or not, would prefer to be judged on who we are as opposed to how we look — well, I guess the end of that statement is kind of obvious.