The Fairest of Them All
A few weeks back, my little sister celebrated her sixth birthday and got a ton of gifts, most of which were typical Disney-sponsored princess-related glitzy toys and books. Living in a house with a child whose parents (namely my dad and his partner) painted her bedroom hot pink and pastel green as soon as we learned she was going to be female has been quite the eye-opener for me. When she was born, she was just this tiny little creature in a white sleep suit; now she cries every time I suggest we cut her long blond locks a little shorter, tells me her favorite colors are hot pink and pastel green —I wonder why— and there’s more glitter in her drawings than in a Ke$ha video. She went from that fresh mind waiting to open up into the girliest of all the girls. Case in point: as I was frantically finishing up my Master’s thesis on representations of femininity in pop culture over the summer, I remember her watching a Barbie movie entitled The Princess and the Pop Star which, when I asked her what it was about, she simply defined as “a girl thing”. Clearly my work starts at home.
As much as I roll my eyes every time she gets a princess costume, there isn’t much I can say about it, because she’s just as entitled to like princesses and pink as she would be zombies and black. But sure enough, for her birthday, she got a purse and a hand mirror. Given that she already owns plastic shoes with heels and a furry pompon on the strap [Side note: she and her parents call them her “princess shoes”, but anybody else WITH EYES knows that they’re stripper shoes], I was a little horrified that she basically already had all the necessary equipment to make her foray into sex work. It wasn’t even the part that bothered me the most, though. When she told her mother and me how cute her mirror was, I couldn’t help but say: “Yes, darling, it’s great. Now you can look at yourself all you want instead of doing something intellectually stimulating” which was a bit of a low blow, I admit it. Then again, I’ve let so many others slide I don’t feel like one passive-aggressive response is that terribly traumatizing: it’s not as though she really understood the second part of the sentence, and it’s nothing I haven’t already discussed with her parents before. There isn’t anything essentially wrong with a little bit of vanity —it would be very rich of me to say otherwise, considering the thumbnail of this blog is a big fat “I”— but the issue here pertains to the many ways in which women are taught since childhood that they should care about their looks. Something which, incidentally, men are not.
In 1975, Susan Sontag knew what was up (like, for realz) and wrote a really great piece entitled “Women’s Beauty: Put Down or Power Source” where she explained how Western culture shifted from the Ancient Greek conception of beauty as the virtue of being wholesome to a Christian view of beauty as a synonym for vanity. She explains how women are told they are “beautiful” when men are told they are “handsome”, because God forbid we had one compliment for the two sexes, eww, gross, like no way. Beauty is moral weakness, women are weak, ergo beauty is feminine —yey Christian dogmas. And because sexists are just THE WORST, they’re all about women having to look so perfect all the time but, please, let’s also call them shallow and superficial for actually trying. I usually tell my students that a forty-year-old source is probably outdated but, sadly, this is not the case here.
Very recently, Paris was abuzz with designers, models, journalists, bloggers, celebrities and fashion victims of all kinds dying to get a glimpse of what was shown at Fashion Week. A friend of mine brought me along with her as she snuck into various fashion shows, as she does every year, three times a year. I got to see two beautiful runway shows (i.e. Junko Shimada and Paul & Joe), and even managed to chit-chat with some of the most respected people in the industry [Side note: I also took a picture with Janice Dickinson, but that’s a whole other story right there.] It was a lot of fun and I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly everyone turned out to be. However, I couldn’t shake a feeling of discomfort which I found myself unable to pinpoint. It wasn’t so much the fact that I felt out-of-place (which I knew from the very beginning was going to be the case) as it was that, however beautiful the shows were, there was a huge discrepancy between how varied and subtle the creations read and how uniform the models looked. It all seemed like a collection of vibrant colors and creative shapes thrown onto the same emaciated pale bodies with slicked-back hair and protruding spines. Needless to say, my friend and I were the only ones eating at the buffet backstage [Side note: no joke, it was literally raw mushroom and candy. Thank God they had champagne.]
I really shouldn’t be that shocked that female models all have that same body type, simply because designers have repeatedly explained how there needs to be a standard to create on and that the main focus should be on the clothes worn, not the coat hanger in human form we all know as “the model”. I get it: haute couture is art, it’s not supposed to be ACTUALLY worn by ACTUAL people, blah blah blah. But, first of all, fashion can’t really be that devoid of life, or else we’d see garments hanging from dress forms technologically engineered to slide down the runway by now —I have a hard time believing there wouldn’t be a market in sartorial robotics. Yet designers choose to display their creations on beings of flesh and (mostly) bones, and that’s because fashion is not just pieces of fabric sewn into an article of clothing, it’s the art of bringing life and movement to textile. And second of all, the shows I saw were ready-to-wear so I find it quite odd that, given the variety in shapes and colors the designers put in the garments, there didn’t seem to be any willingness on the part of the designers to put as much effort into booking models. Never mind tall and skinny, those girls were also all White. It was the case pretty much everywhere else this year, bar Rick Owens, who gave us a breath of fresh air with a show featuring muscular, mostly Black step dancers with an unapologetically angry look on their faces. Considering how that was all everyone could talk about the next day, it is sad to see how exceptional it was, as opposed to normal.
So let’s go back a bit: forty years ago, Beverly Johnson marked history as the first woman of color to grace the cover of American Vogue, prompting every major fashion magazine to feature a Black model on theirs in the following year. After that, Black models became very present on the runway and opened up the debate on beauty in the Western world. Iman created a line of luxury cosmetics for dark skin-tones, Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America [Side note: She also lost the title but that’s not really the point here] and Tyra Banks became a Victoria’s Secret Angel. And then after that, the novelty sort of wore off and Black models started to get less visible, fading into the layman’s imagery of fashion before disappearing off the runway altogether. And that’s just Black models: do you know of any, say, Native American supermodel? I’ve researched it, there is one, her name is Brenda Schad and she was famous for five seconds in the eighties. Then, we have Aishwarya Rai for South Asia, Adriana Lima for Latin America, Liu Wen for East Asia, Samantha Harris for Aboriginal Australia and then pretty much no one mainstream for the Polynesian Pacific, the non-Caucasian Middle-East, North Africa or anyplace of which we see so little in fashion I didn’t even think about looking up.
It’s bad enough that there are so few supermodels of color but what is even sadder is that all but two of the aforementioned women are either partially White or light-skinned, and all have very Caucasian features. Consequently, the image of beauty to which women, and not least of color, get to aspire is skewed: South Korean girls get so much work done to look “Western” that you can’t tell one from the other [Side note: I mean that in the plastic-surgery-critic way, not the racist-uncle way], African-American women want anything but natural hair (#self-loathing) and the newest Miss America, who is of Indian descent, gets called Miss Al-Qaeda —proving, once again, that racists should probably spend more time in school than on Twitter. And that’s not even talking about the pressure that big women are under to get skinny, butch women to be feminine, and aging women to look young.
But that makes sense in that it is part of a constant objectification of women on the part of our society. An object is defined on Merriam-Webster as “a thing you can see and touch and that is not alive.” So when we talk about the objectification of women, we shouldn’t only think about the ways in which women are reduced to their abilities to feed or fulfill sexual fantasies, but also about the fact that we tell them being pleasant to the hegemonic eye is most important. Just look at how many female YouTubers are known for their beauty channels (I could write a whole article about make-up tutorials…) as opposed to male ones. Women are literally telling each other what make-up to wear to look good at work. It’s no wonder Jenna Marbles, one of the biggest YouTube comediennes, got famous for her spoof video entitled “How to Trick People Into Thinking You’re Good-Looking”. Again, there is nothing wrong with a little bit of vanity and I think it’s great that women want to feel beautiful and I’m the first person to spend hours in the bathroom getting ready in the morning. But I don’t do it because I feel that it is what is expected of me —as a man, all I’m asked to look at work is professional— I do it because I think style is a great form of self-expression and because it makes me feel empowered to look at myself in the mirror and think “I look nice.” But anyone should be allowed to feel that way about themselves by choice, not by societal design. Being Black and having natural hair can be beautiful, being big and feeling pretty is not an oxymoron, and having style as a woman does not equate being feminine. It’s such an important thing to celebrate female beauty as well as feminine beauty, but one needs to distinguish between asking women to be beautiful and letting them feel that way.
And that’s why my sister is entitled to her princess tiaras and long hair, just as long as she’s aware that it’s not what we, as her family, expect of her. She is incredibly pretty, and everybody tells her so, but it’s also important to let her know that she can (and should) value other qualities, which is why I’ve had a lot of “you is smart, you is kind, you is important” moments recently. As Susan Sontag wrote: “It is not, of course, the desire to be beautiful that is wrong but the obligation to be —or to try.”