Read ’em: Elsewhere in beauty standards

Check out the Women of Color and Beauty Carnival on the yennenga LJ community. This looks like an awesome carnival, and I’m really excited to read all the linked posts. You’ll recognize Julia’s excellent post at Fatshionista, which we’ve been discussing around here; some of her posts on LJ are linked as well. Via Racialicious (which, seriously, is such an outstanding blog. If you’re not reading it regularly, bookmark it right now!).

I’m not following the Olympics this year for a lot of reasons, but if you are you should check out these two excellent posts on SP fave Hoyden About Town. Lauredhel writes about the unbelievable difference between the uniforms of male and female athletes in the same sports (example below). Meanwhile, Tigtog posts about the heartbreaking news that two little girls were exploited in the opening ceremonies for the sake of a beauty ideal: one sang behind the scenes, while in front of the audience a “cuter” girl either lip-synched or sang without knowing her mike wasn’t on. The girls are 10 and 9 years old, respectively. (In the US, of course, they’d be part of the “starter market.”)

Quote of the day: Control

Idealizing the body and wanting to control it go hand-in-hand; it is impossible to say whether one causes the other. A physical ideal gives us the goal of our efforts to control the body, and the myth that total control is possible deceives us into striving for the ideal… In a culture which loves the idea that the body can be controlled, those who cannot control their bodies are seen (and may see themselves) as failures.
–Susan Wendell, “Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability” (emphasis added)

My brain’s been whirring too fast to say much about this one, but as soon as I read it I knew I had to share it with y’all.

Read ’em up

From Julia of Fatshionista (also a frequent commenter here), a wonderful post about racism and the politics of beauty.

Presenting oneself well, in the best suit, was an important aspect of being the stereotype breakers. In order to have a chance of being taken seriously, you had to look clean and put together from head to foot. Your hair had to be neat (and for women carefully straightened) because frizzy hair made you look like a “bush person.” The best way to describe the look is “controlled.” If negative stereotypes about black people were about them being savage, flighty, ruled by emotion and lacking reasoning, then the way to counter that was to look modern, tailored, and never have a hair out of place.

Julia’s post is an important rebuttal to and complication of the stereotype that black communities are more fat accepting than white communities.

Over at Feministe, guest blogger Amandaw writes a PSA for well-meaning people who just have to tell people with disabilities about the latest health trend their grandma’s hairdresser tried one time (familiar to many fat people as “Have you ever tried diet and exercise?”):

On behalf of all those persons, let me say: Stop.


That person has had that condition for months, years, or even their entire lifetime. You, on the other hand, have possibly heard of that condition — and possibly not! — and certainly have no experience living with it. Maybe you know someone else who has it, and maybe that’s a person you actually know fairly well (but that is a very small minority out of those who make these comments).

Which of these two people, do you think, knows a broader range of treatment options for said condition?

Alas, the thread gets derailed for a while by someone insisting that people are just trying to help and you little ladies shouldn’t get so hysterical about people who just want you to be healthy, but otherwise it’s an illuminating conversation.

Acne, doctors, and the value of a pretty face

I have a love-hate relationship with dermatologists. Scratch that — I have a hate-hate relationships with dermatologists except for one fine doctor who drastically improved my life. I’ve had acne on and off since I was about 15, and I’ve lost track of how many doctors I’ve seen about it. I’ve smeared countless lotions on my face, taken countless pills (including one that made me simultaneously ravenous and stomach-achey, which still seems impressively weird to me), and suffered frequent bouts of self-loathing about it. I did find one doctor when I lived in Seattle who was both kind and effective, and I had about two miraculous years of clear skin. Now I’m grudgingly back under dermatological care after watching that nice clear skin follow the pattern of redness, acne, and scarring that I know so well.

Acne is often extremely uncomfortable for all kinds of reasons beyond appearance: it itches, it makes your skin sensitive to the touch, it can come with dry skin OR oily skin (both of which are uncomfortable). It hurts! There are a lot of reasons to want to treat acne even without the social stigma, which is of course huge.

But here’s the thing about acne: it’s a medical condition whose most drastic effects are cosmetic. That word, “cosmetic,” is a troubled one. Here are its first three definitions from the OED:

1. a. Having power to adorn, embellish, or beautify (esp. the complexion)

b. Of surgery: improving or modifying the appearance. Of prosthetic devices: re-creating or imitating the normal appearance.

2. fig. That affects appearance only, superficial; spec., intended merely to improve appearances.

It’s the tension between definitions 1 and 2, hinged on that word “merely,” that gives me pause. On the one hand, as we know full well here, there is a lot of social power tied up in appearance, in looking “normal” for whatever your culture deems as normality. On the other hand, there is something so dismissive about that figurative link between “cosmetic” and “superficial” — the phrase “intended merely to improve appearances” drips with condescension. (I should note that I’m not attributing that condescension to the good lexicographers at the OED! I think the tone captures quite well the way “cosmetic” is used figuratively.) In fact, to me this definition perfectly distills one of the great rhetorical tricks of patriarchy, which is to define women’s value in terms of appearance, and simultaneously to define appearance as something so utterly trivial that only completely shallow and useless creatures — like, say, women! — would care about it.

Which is why I’m especially troubled by this NYT article about dermatologists who are turning their offices into mini-spas for “cosmetic” patients — i.e., those who come in for Botox and the like, and who pay out of pocket — while keeping the same style of brutal (in)efficiency for those pesky “medical” patients who come in with, say, acne, or, I don’t know, skin cancer. As with any medical trend story, there are some horror stories (like the woman whose first doctor recommended skin bleaching for a strange mole, and whose second doctor correctly diagnosed it as melanoma). But what I find most disturbing is the way the line between doctoring and beautifying is blurred: patients report doctors attempting to upsell them on beauty treatments when they come in for skin problems. At the same time, other doctors seem to have a bright line dividing “cosmetic” patients and “medical” patients:

In an interview, Dr. Susan H. Weinkle, a dermatologist in Bradenton, Fla., said that she typically spends more time with cosmetic patients because they come in wanting to look better, the kind of amorphous desire that takes longer to satisfy than defined medical problems. One of her staff members always calls a beauty client to follow up, she said.

“It is very rare that you would call an acne patient and say, ‘How are you doing with that new prescription?’ ” Dr. Weinkle said. “But with a cosmetic patient, the consultant calls them the next day.”

“Instead of laying on an exam table with a paper liner, you have them lay on a sheet,” said Deborah Bish, a former nurse who works as a practice consultant in Yardley, Pa. “You have to class it up for these patients.”

You have to class it up for these patients. Class is, of course, the not so hidden factor here. I’m willing to bet that it’s not just “cosmetic” patients who “come in wanting to look better” and would appreciate some information about how to care for their skin’s appearance as well as its ailment — but it’s only the cosmetic patients who are voluntarily spending their own money to look better. And, of course, “looking better” in our culture is a signifier of class status: clear skin, straight white teeth, smooth shiny hair (and, of course, a firmly sculpted figure) all indicate both the time and the money to devote to adornment, embellishment, and beautification. (Tangent: back in 2000, my friend and I met Al Gore at a political rally. We were both shocked — and I mean really shocked — to discover that he has crooked teeth. The Vice President! Whose dad was a Senator! Why wouldn’t they fix his teeth? I’ve been trying to unpack that reaction of ours ever since.)

So “cosmetic” is at once considered shallow (these rich women and their Botox spas!), as if it’s all about vanity rather than about classed, gendered, and racialized cultural mandates, and a jackpot — a never-ending demand that savvy dermatologists can milk for fabulous amounts of money.* If you’re unlucky enough to be one of the many people who depend on the bureaucratic nightmare that is health insurance for your dermatology treatment, you get the short end of every damn stick: you wait longer, you get less time with the doctor, you get the paper liner instead of the sheet, and you still get doctors trying to convince you to get microdermabrasion along with your acne lotion (and to do so, of course, they have to tell you what’s so much worse about your skin than you even thought).

I don’t know what the answer to this is apart from a revolution in the US health care system as well as an overthrowing of the beauty myth. Since both of these are a long time coming, I turn the floor over to you while we plan the uprising. A good part of our energy here at SP goes towards pointing out that what are touted as medical concerns about fat people are often aesthetic mandates in disguise. How does clear skin fit into this system? What are your experiences with acne and with dermatologists? How do your cosmetic practices fit in with your self acceptance?

*”According to a presentation for doctors from Allergan, the makers of Botox, a medical dermatology practice might have a net income of $387,198 annually, but a dermatologist who decreased focus on skin diseases while adding cosmetic medical procedures to a practice could net $695,850 annually.”

Quote of the day: Classic edition

The representation of unrestrained appetite as inappropriate for women, the depiction of female eating as a private, transgressive act, make restriction and denial of hunger central features of the construction of femininity and set up the compensatory binge as a virtual inevitability. Such restrictions on appetite, moreover, are not merely about food intake. Rather, the social control of female hunger operates as a practical ‘discipline’ (to use Foucault‘s term) that trains female bodies in the knowledge of their limits and their possibilities. Denying oneself food becomes the central micro-practice in the education of feminine self-restraint and containment of impulse.

–Susan Bordo, “Hunger as Ideology” (from Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body)

I first encountered Susan Bordo’s work during my first stint in grad school, when I was 23 and teaching composition to first-year undergrads. Her essay “Hunger as Ideology” was included in the composition reader I used, and I assigned it to my students. Bordo, a feminist philosopher, analyzes numerous food advertisements in close detail (reproducing the print ads in the essay) to show the cultural messages that underpin the selling of food. Given that ads rely on pre-existing cultural tropes to get their messages across, they can tell us about the ideological underpinnings of our culture. Some of Bordo’s findings:

-Voracious hunger is considered a sign of manliness.

-Hunger for food and desire for sexuality are constructed as analogous, but this is a gendered analogy. When women are targeted, “their hunger for food is employed solely as a metaphor for their sexual appetite.” When men are targeted, the metaphor goes in reverse: eating delicious food is depicted as a sexual conquest. (The examples for this include hilariously awful ads of men whispering sweet nothings to their Betty Crocker desserts.)

-Female hunger is represented in terms of misogynistic fear: sex is imagined as a form of eating in which the woman consumes and destroys a male object of desire.

-The only acceptable female desire in ads is the desire to provide food for others.

-Women are depicted eating in private, secretly, and this act is explicitly represented as a “substitute for human love.”

I can’t speak for my undergraduate students, but this essay blew my fucking mind the first time I read it. The reason it was so affecting was that these messages were so obvious once Bordo pointed them out, glaring even, but I had not even seen them as “messages” until then. That’s just what ads do! Even as a committed feminist who had been through periods of fat and thin throughout my life, and who had experienced both self-loathing and self-acceptance to some extent, I hadn’t yet taken the blinkers off. The connection between hunger and desire, especially, can be subterranean: the ideal of thinness, of course, depends on you having the goal of a certain kind of fuckability — but even eating itself is depicted as an act of sensual abandon instead of a necessity for every living thing on earth. As such, men are commended for having hearty appetites — boys will be boys — and women are told to keep their mouths (and their knees) shut.

The quote I highlighted above is the one that was most illuminating to me, because it says (in my non-theory translation) that dieting is the ultimate act of repressive femininity. Essentially, what Bordo argues is that not eating when your body needs food is participating in your own marginalization — but it’s marginalization dressed up as a sexual ideal. This, I think, is why trolls and anti-FA jerkwads are so obsessed with the idea that we want them all to have sex with fatties: fat is, on some unacknowledged level, about sex in our culture.

Not incidentally, this is one of the reasons I suggested on the stop dieting thread that buying a new dress is one way to keep yourself from dieting. As I said there: because part of “feeling fat” for me is really about feeling unfeminine, it often helps me to remember that femininity is an act — and it’s an act I can access in ways that don’t require me to be thinner… even though you don’t have to be pretty, it’s okay to want to be pretty. If part of wanting to diet is feeling like you’re ugly and unfeminine, then putting on a dress and heels and a bright red lipstick can remind you that femininity is an act that you choose whether to perform, and not an intrinsic quality that you desperately lack.

I didn’t know it at the time, but teaching “Hunger as Ideology” was my first step toward FA. It hasn’t always been a smooth road between that moment and this, and I needed to examine a lot more of my own assumptions and start paying a hell of a lot more attention to the rhetoric of beauty culture and the obesity epidemic, but that essay is what got me started. To borrow from Liss borrowing from The Matrix, it’s when I took the red pill. It’s when I started to see “the social control of female hunger” as something that was more than just personal, about more than just my one unshrinkable body. It made me angry. And it made me hungry.

Cheating death

Here’s a sobering story in the NYT about a man who almost missed the signs of a heart attack until he remembered reading about the suddenness of the late Tim Russert’s death. Fortunately, the author made it to the hospital in time to get effective medical attention — and he found that he’s not the only middle-aged guy paying extra attention to his heart these days. It’s a poignant article — but I’m sure Shapelings will notice the rhetorical patterns I did: the many references to weight in the article (and, implicitly, the dangerous effects of assuming heart attacks only happen to fat, sedentary people); and the nickname for the author’s cycling club: the Cheat Death group.

This article, which is written from a personal perspective and is (I think) an effective use of anecdata, reminded me of two other things I’ve read recently. The first is Kate’s post on Broadsheet about the fact that heart attack symptoms are different for women than they are for men. If you haven’t read it yet, please do — it serves as a stark reminder that the “default” body of Western medicine is male. And while you’re at it, take a refresher course in the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. A key quote:

As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Not to be morbid, but please, if you even begin to suspect that you might be having a heart attack, call 911 (or your country’s equivalent) immediately. Don’t try to talk yourself out of it: time is crucial when it comes to treating heart attacks. In the meantime, it’s not a bad idea to get certified in CPR and first aid, which you may be able to do at your place of employment (that’s what I did when I worked for a big corporation). If you work in a big office building, there might be an AED in your building somewhere, which should come with instructions and is surprisingly easy to use. Find out where it is, and make sure your coworkers know too.

Now onto more abstract musings. I read Susan Sontag’s classic essay Illness as Metaphor last week, because I’m cheerful like that, and the “Cheat Death” club reminded me of a passage I wanted to share with you all. Sontag, who had cancer herself, examines the ways in which grave, incurable illnesses (particularly cancer in the 20th century and TB in the 19th) get appropriated as metaphors for moral conditions, political events, and the like — and then the negative connotations associated with those metaphors are extended back onto the people who actually suffer from the disease. Cancer becomes a sign of moral weakness, of the wrong kind of personality, instead of a physical ailment that could happen to anyone. Sound familiar, anyone? Physical illness is psychologized to shift “blame” — from environmental hazards, the inadequacies of medical knowledge, and just plain chance — onto the individual. Here’s the passage that really struck me:

Moreover, there is a peculiarly modern predilection for psychological explanations of disease, as of everything else. Psychologizing seems to provide control over the experiences and events (like grave illnesses) over which people have in fact little or no control. Psychological understanding undermines the “reality” of a disease. That reality has to be explained. (It really means; or is a symbol of; or must be interpreted so.) For those who live neither with religious consolations about death nor with a sense of death (or of anything else) as natural, death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied. A large part of the popularity and persuasiveness of psychology comes from its being a sublimated spiritualism: a secular, ostensibly scientific way of affirming the primacy of “spirit” over matter. That ineluctably material reality, disease, can be given a psychological explanation. Death itself can be considered, ultimately, a psychological phenomenon…

At the least, there is the promise of a triumph over illness. A “physical” illness becomes in a way less real — but, in compensation, more interesting — so far as it can be considered a “mental” one. Speculation throughout the modern period has tended steadily to enlarge the category of mental illness. Indeed, part of the denial of death in this culture is a vast expansion of the category of illness as such.

Illness expands by means of two hypotheses. The first is that every form of social deviation can be considered an illness… The second is that every illness can be considered psychologically… These two hypotheses are complementary. As the first seems to relieve guilt, the second reinstates it. Psychological theories of illness are a powerful means of placing the blame on the ill. Patients who are instructed that they have, unwittingly, caused their disease are also being made to feel that they have deserved it.

The impetus for Sontag’s discussion here is the idea of the “cancer-prone personality” that was gaining traction when she wrote the essay, but I think her analysis can shed light on the OBESITY EPIDEMIC OOGA BOOGA, too. The medicalization of fat bodies is clearly an example of her first hypothesis (every form of social deviation can be considered an illness), and the relentless attempt to use shame as a weight loss motivator is a clear example of the second. First, we’re told that our fat bodies are a danger; then we’re told that your body is the legible sign of the inner you, some secret personality that’s just not disciplined enough to lose weight. This double blaming leads not just to personal fat shame, but the tragic instances of fat prejudice in medicine, which often arise from the idea that fat people cannot be trusted to describe the reality of their bodies, and that they don’t deserve adequate medical care anyway. They deserve illness, because they are fat — and if you’re fat, you’re ill by default.

Sontag begins her essay with a stunning metaphor:

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

Illness is a fact, not a manifestation of your morality. Fat is a fact. Mortality is a fact. You cannot cheat death by joining an exercise club any more than you can cheat hunger by eating only carrot sticks. What you can do is try to listen to your body, both its pleasures and its pains, and live a life that is healthy for the body and the mind that you are.

Quick hit: Against baby bumps

So I basically assume that most Shapelings also read Shakesville, since we link there a lot and of course our Kate is a star Shaker… but just in case you don’t, allow me to direct your attention to Liss’s righteous protest against the trend of celebrity pregnancy spotting.

And of course girls growing up in a culture obsessed with this shit will be worried about making sure they don’t look like they’ve got a “baby bump” either—and the thinner a girl is, the more likely a visible pooch is to appear after a full meal or even a bottle of freaking water, making the already-thinnest girls more at risk for deliberately starving or dehydrating themselves to avoid perfectly normal and natural full-belliedness.

Beyond that, there’s a whole other layer of reinforcing the idea that women’s ultimate value is as babymaking machines, and yet another layer of reinforcing the notion that women’s bodies are community property, and yet another layer of reinforcing the straight male gaze as the norm by disproportionately objectifying women’s bodies, and yet another layer of concepts regarding treating pregnancy as a tacit approval for invasion of privacy, and a whole lot of other basic feminist alarms that are all just blinking in my head at once.

Check out the whole thing.

Quick hit: What about the mens, indeed

While Kate, FJ, and I freak out about our busy lives, head to Shakesville and check out the merciless photoshopping of the normally-incredibly-hot Clive Owen. (And check out the rest of Liss’s Impossibly Beautiful series, if you haven’t already.)

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: spreading self-loathing — to men, thin people, or whoever — is not the way to solve the problem of oppressive beauty standards. Feminism isn’t about wishing evil on men, and fat acceptance is not about wishing evil on skinny people.

Also, dude, who would fuck with Clive Owen? He will so kick your ass.