I recently opened up a discussion (on Instagram of course) about lesbians, the male gaze, and the male gaze’s subsequent female objectification and beauty standards.
I figured maybe women who aren’t attracted to men might worry less about looking “hot,” since the whole women-as-beautiful-sex-objects thing was made by and for men, right?
That’s how it used to be back when I read women’s magazines in high school, at least. Literally every story was about how to trick a man into wanting/choosing you (UGH) by behaving or looking a certain way.
I figured the whole thing looked like this:
Women were taught that our whole purpose in life was to be desirable enough that we “snagged” a good partner. Beauty standards got invented to help women be more competitive in the man-snagging market, and the whole thing just escalated endlessly until we all have to look like airbrushed versions of surgically altered celebrities or models in order to be “good enough”.
Intuitively, it all seemed to come back to men. When I asked a client why she so badly wanted to look a certain way, the answer was invariably some derivative of wanting to feel desirable:
“Because I want men to notice me.” “Because I want to be attractive to my spouse.” “Because I want to feel hot/sexy.“
But after I posed this question on Instagram the feedback (from women of various sexual preferences) came flooding in to prove that this shit really has nothing to do with men at all.
Apparently, no. Being gay does not offer a woman a single damn bit of freedom from the pressures of the male gaze, beauty standards, or insecurities.
Which, while I was a bit surprised, this feedback struck a chord with something I already knew deep down.
After all, my fingernails are currently dark green, my favorite lipstick is navy blue, and I constantly put together outfits (think: rompers) that absolutely befuddle most men.
I even recently told a man who wanted to jump on the phone with me to “clear up some misconceptions I seemed to have, about what men want a woman to look like,” that I didn’t see how that was relevant to the work I do.
Men certainly want to think that we women do all this work (dressing up, wearing makeup, etc) for them, but frankly if it was all about them we wouldn’t rock purple glitter eyeliner, ya know? If it was really for men, we wouldn’t have cool short hairdos, or wear platform work boots, or high waisted jeans.
It’s not for men. So then what are we doing all this for?
Note: I know some women will tell me they do all this “for themselves!” and “because it’s fun!” and I get how in some ways that’s true. But there is a constant, endless stream of ways in which women are taught they must do/look a certain way in order to be good enough; to be worthy of love; to be visible, and valuable. We can’t ignore that fact discussing why we do what we do, or how it makes us feel.
All the women who provided feedback on Instagram convinced me that we are doing all this work for social currency: looking a certain way in our society earns us special rights and privileges.
A dolled up woman is treated better than a barefaced one.
A thin woman is treated better than a fat woman.
A hot woman is treated better than a plain woman.
It’s important to mention here the role that privilege plays. Because while some things are changeable (like hair, makeup, products, procedures, exercise, diet, or even plastic surgery) some stuff just isn’t.
Even on my worst day, I’m still treated fine, thanks to the fact that no matter what I look like day to day I always have white, thin, pretty privilege.
That said, there is a huge difference when I’m dressed up, and super lean. Everyone is so nice to me, so warm, so smiley and friendly when I’m dolled up and wearing makeup, and back when I was 13% body fat, people were constantly gushing over me. When I combined the two, I felt like like I may as well have ruled the world.
Truth be told, I don’t miss how my body looked when I was super lean like that, but I do miss how people treated me. Even just 10 or 15lbs heavier now (and still relatively thin and healthy) I experience a totally different world of how people treat me.
But back to the topic at hand.
While we can’t change everything, most women know that with some daily time and effort put toward their appearance, they can dramatically improve the friendliness, attention, and available opportunities of the world they live in.
Going back to the messages women hear about how we should look and act, I can see now that despite the way it was presented, it’s less about “how to get a man,” and more about “how to be a woman.”
Looking hot isn’t about snagging a mate, it’s about obtaining social currency.
So, if men aren’t the beneficiary of women’s insecurity and disempowerment when it comes to needing to look a certain way, then who is benefiting? If our sex appeal isn’t a matter of being sexually desirable, that what is it a matter of?
This is when I remembered that rape is not a crime of lust, but rather a crime of control, hate, anger, and power.
Rape is about making the other person submissive, shaming them, and having power over them. Rape is shaming someone, making them submissive to you, and establishing a position of dominance over them. That’s why rape is used as a weapon of war all over the world, and that’s why conversations about “what she was wearing” are completely irrelevant.
Perhaps our modern female beauty standards are the same: acts of submission to dominance, unrelated to lust or love.
But if so, then who is dominating us?
The answer, my dear friends, is advertisers.
It is advertisers (and the big companies who hire them) who are dominating us. Not because they hate us, but because they want us to give them money. Nonetheless, this is an act of power and control.
Advertisers dominate us with shaming, creating new standards as soon as we reach the old ones, coming up with new fashions, new products, new places to remove hair, and new ways to hide flaws they just made up.
Is it advertisers to whom we submit, without even realizing we are submitting. We are so bowed down buying the cellulite cream and reading the articles on how to look “ageless” that we never look up and see them standing over us.
They create the looks, they create the demand, they create the flaws.
Advertisers intentionally create shame because people who feel shame are obedient. They intentionally create self-doubt, because when we can’t trust ourselves, we look outward to find out what we should do.
When that happens, there they are: whispering promises of love, success, attention, and belonging.
Hush hush my love, I know it hurts that you’re broken and disgusting, but I love you and I will help you.
They break us down, and then sell us back the promise of our our wholeness, all the while manipulating us into thinking they have our back, they just want what’s best for us, they love us like nobody else will ever love us.
Shhh, you’ll feel better after this pair of jeans (or this color of nail polish, this pore-cleansing mask, this fat-sculpting workout). Trust me.
What does this dynamic sound like to you?
Because to me, it reeks of emotional abuse.
Abusers seek to purposefully disempower their abused, through guilt, shame, manipulation, gas-lighting, and fear. They keep their abused dependent on them, by breaking their self-trust and isolating them away from any resources that might make them feel whole, or empowered.
Every day we are battered with advertisements trying to tell us that we are worthless but that with their help we can be redeemed.
Every day we are assaulted with brands and companies whose very livelihood depends on the fact that we never find out we are worthy of love, attention, approval, acceptance, and belonging exactly as we are.
Yes, many of these major culture-creating companies are run by men. But this might be far less of a gender war than I have previously thought.
Don’t get me wrong, the patriarchy is real and has devastating effects on women, but when it comes to us all trying to live up to the standard of beauty, hotness, and sex appeal, I don’t think it’s MEN to whom we are submitting.
And the big manipulation that keeps us quiet *even if part of us logically knows this is bullshit* is that deep down in our hearts of hearts, we believe we are alone.
I recently read the Handmaid’s Tale for the first time since high school, and I was struck by how little they fought back against the devastatingly oppressive regime in power. Each person was terrified to speaking a rebellious word, for fear of retaliation if they spoke to a true believer.
And that’s how it is.
We aren’t just taught “you need to buy all this stuff in order to be worthy.” Oh no, that wouldn’t be effective. That would never work, we’re much smarter than that.
We’re taught “everyone else thinks you need to buy all this stuff in order to be worthy.”
And my god, is that one effective.
The psychology is cut and dry: we humans are wired for connection. We need and want acceptance, approval, and belonging.
We live in a supposedly “free market” where advertisers can say and push nearly anything, and they have teams of researchers dedicated to manipulating us into buying more stuff, and feeling like everyone else thinks we need this stuff in order to be accepted and belong.
This is our economy.
Our economy is an emotional abuser invested in all of us feeling broken, and specifically preying on women, who basically just arrived to the game of land-owning, voting, and money-making in the last century.
Think about it. After centuries of being controlled and dominated, unable to develop our own sense of purpose and self, we had internalized messages that we weren’t as valuable, smart, strong, capable, or interesting as men. When we started being allowed to spend money, we were devastatingly susceptible to manipulation, and the advertisers figured that shit out fast.
Frankly, the whole thing makes me lean toward socialism in a way I never would have thought possible.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that when it comes to negative body image and insecurity in women, this is the result of a purposeful domination. It’s the predictable and understand result of an abusive and manipulative relationship.
And it sucks.
My apologies if you were looking for something uplifting today, this is all I got.
So much love,
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