I rarely blog. I mean, sure we update this blog from time to time, and I used to write a weekly grammar blog. But I don't write anything about myself or about what I think. (Partially, of course, this is due to the fact that if most people knew how I really felt about things, I would have no friends -- or readers -- left.) Today is going to be an exception. These ideas have been weighing on me for some time, and I want to share them. Lately, I have seen many articles, posts, and even "Facebook images" about how "Bigger is better", how the awkwardly-named "plus-size" women are actually even more beautiful than their thinner counterparts. I understand the sentiment; I appreciate the motivation. I do not think that those making the statements believe them. All of these posts and articles, or at least the ones I have seen, remind me of Queen Gertrude's words: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."
Women want to be beautiful. It is a natural desire, a longing to be thought attractive ... by men. (Lesbians want to be thought attractive by other women, but this seems to be only because their potential mate pool is women. It's not that they want their friends to find them attractive.) Women want to be found beautiful, and this continues to hold true even after they find mates. This desire does not appear to be connected to a general desire to please other people or to care about what other people might, in general, think. A woman who prides herself on her maverick tendencies, on her wild opinions and unconventional attitudes, still wants to be beautiful. When praising a woman, saying that she is "beautiful" means more than saying that a man is "handsome". Though women at various times in history (now being one of them) have ogled men and made known their preferences about men's appearance, men do not seem to care so much.
Part of this is because women do not care as much about men's appearance when it comes to finding a permanent partner. Yes, this is a cliché. Yes, you probably know a woman or two who seem shallow enough to make looks the priority in a mate. But really, by far most women -- and they would agree if you asked -- find other things more important, things such as conversation, kindness, personality, intelligence, and the ever-popular sense-of-humor. When years have passed, a woman is less likely to leave her mate over his looks. (Not less likely to leave in general, mind. I am aware that, for instance, in the USA over 70% of divorces are filed by women.) But a woman loves, or doesn't, based primarily on other criteria than looks. Men place a higher value on looks. Shakespeare pointed that out centuries ago and phrased it better than I could.
"For, boy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women's are."
Here we have a man admitting to a friend (ironically, a woman in disguise) that men's affections are less stable than women's. The friend is, understandably, saddened to hear this. Where does that leave women in the long run? They want something that will inevitably disappear--beauty according to the standards of their culture.
But why does it seem that this ordinary preoccupation has ballooned out of all proportion? Why are women trying, through "Bigger is Better" posts and campaigns, to convince themselves that they are attractive? If they truly thought so, they would not bother posting. Men don't.
There is a combination of factors that, I think, has brought the female body both into a sharper focus and into a more restrictive ideal.
Up until recently, sociologically speaking, in most Western cultures, women were thought attractive when they had more meat on their bones. There were actually "weight gain" advertisements, encouraging women to gain weight to be thought beautiful. Though some of this weight, of course, was desired to be in the breasts, overall women were considered more attractive when their bones were not in any way visible. This was a boon to women, despite the fact that this larger size was attractive because weight was a symbol of wealth. As a woman ages, her body collects fat deposits, particularly around the waist and hips. This meant that an older woman was still able to compete physically with younger women, despite the disadvantages of age. Furthermore, due to the much lower rate of partner-change, the competition was much milder. Though a woman naturally wants to continue to be thought beautiful, in the past she was able to embrace the different beauties of her age.
This has changed. Partially, this is due to the shift in what symbolizes wealth. Now thin=wealthy, as the cheap foods are now the ones high in empty calories. Even more this is due to the ubiquity of a single type of beauty. What do I mean by this? I mean that, due to television, movies, and magazines all promoting the same style of beauty, that same body type is considered beautiful everywhere by everyone. In the past, there could be more local variants of beauty. Though the attractions of a Southern belle and of a Yankee heiress were somewhat similiar--Godey's Lady's Book, anyone?--they did not have to be the same. Now the same movie will portray the same actress across the world.
And this particular type of beauty is a more fleeting one than most. The flat hips and belly of a teenage girl are not something that a grown woman, even the thinnest, can naturally hope to retain. This "thin" obsession (usually partnered with a "youth" obsession for double the detriment) is everywhere. If you are reading this, you are no doubt familiar with the Marilyn Monroe pictures, the ones that show one of the sexiest women of all time, and point out that she would be considered, by today's standards, fat. Though this is not quite true, as can be evidenced by looking at her clothes, she was certainly larger than would be considered "beautiful" or "sexy" now. Looking at the "sex symbols" of previous eras can show us how far this "thin" obsession has gone. Even Elizabeth Taylor is large in some of her films, and she was incredibly beautiful and sexy.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to illustrate this is to look at the two Uhuras. Nichelle Nichols was not, by any stretch of the imagination, fat. She was not plump. She was thin, athletic, voluptuous, and the most gorgeous woman they ever had on Star Trek. But the new Uhura was played by Zoe Saldana. She is pretty, yes, but she is much thinner than Nichelle Nichols was.
And what is the point of all this meandering? What does it matter that Hollywood chooses unnaturally thin women to hold up as the ideal of beauty? What does it matter that airbrushed and Photoshopped pictures are plastered everywhere? What effect does that have on you or me?
Women are now held--and hold themselves--to a standard of beauty that is more fleeting than most, for after her teens a woman will be forever fighting her body's shape, and this standard is both more inflexible and more ubiquitous than it has been in the past. I have seen the effects of this in my personal life, and the frustration of it is much of what prompted this post. To explain, I will have to give a bit of background about myself. I am a US citizen, and I am Caucasian. I did not, however, grow up in the US. I grew up in various places around the world, but by my early teens my parents had settled in Japan.
In Japan, the same standards of beauty are present as in the West, but they are even more stringent. The natural size of a Japanese female is smaller than that of a Caucasian female, thinner overall, and with smaller, flatter breasts, hips, and waist. Given the current standards of beauty, that is, unnaturally slim and with undeveloped hips, any Caucasian woman will be hugely disadvantaged. I have never known a Caucasian woman living in Japan to escape unscathed. Inevitably, she will grow to consider herself fat. I saw it in my family and myself. My two younger sisters both developed eating disorders, one anorexia and one bulimia. I myself did not bother with eating disorders. I simply accepted that it was my lot in life to be fat and unattractive.
My sisters recovered, though I have no doubt that spending some time back in the West, where their size 3 figures were obviously slim, helped. True confession time. I consider myself fat. I look in the mirror, and I see a fat woman looking back at me. I am, however, reasonable enough to admit that, were I to see another woman of my height and weight, that I would not consider her fat. I can still wear my wedding gown from 16 years ago. Nearly 40 and having had half a dozen children, I can still wear the dress I wore to my wedding reception. I “look good for my age”.
And to say, “You look good for your age” is practically an insult to a woman. Why? Because women are not allowed to be their age. The competition for a woman is not other women her own age and stage of life. No, it is young teenage girls in the first blush of womanhood and women surgically altered to match teenagers.
I once heard a man dear to me say, “Women can still be thin and beautiful in middle age.” He then proceeded to list off several Hollywood actresses as examples. Hollywood actresses, who have personal trainers and plastic surgeons, not to mention airbrushed photographs, to contribute to their beauty. How is that supposed to to say to me, an ordinary woman without a personal trainer or the money for plastic surgery, that I can be thin and beautiful? No, what it says to me is that I will always fail, always fall short.
And what can we do? Reposting Facebook pictures of “Bigger is beautiful” does not help. The bitter and distressing answer is … nothing. There is nothing that any one person can do. The ideal of feminine beauty is now decided on a global scale, and we are left to dislike ourselves in the wake of it. My husband has been, with varying degrees of success, trying to teach me that I am not ugly. I am a slow learner, but I have taken enough of his instruction to heart to write this.
Just wanting to add my two cents: pornography is largely to blame, and as long as it is deemed acceptable and undamaging, this will continue to get worse. We have generations of men wanking to fantasies and ignoring the real women around them. Men are no longer men; we have become at best puerile boys and at worst ape-like beasts more content with our hands than with women. Real women cannot compete with this.