While women are expected to be beautiful, women's genitals are said to be ugly and unclean. Birth is said to be ugly--pregnant women are ugly--menstruation is ugly--vaginal order (even when perfectly healthy) is ugly. The functional parts of the mature woman's body, sexual and reproductive both, are called as ugly as any other sign of her maturity. The same men who pin Farrah Fawcett up on their walls are likely to consider their own female lovers' or wives' "private parts" faintly (at least) disgusting.
Nowadays, of course, "hard core" pornography spotlights the female genitals--if they are smallish, pinkish, and not too hairy--but not as something beautiful, as the above joke admits. The interest in the vulva is prurient, power-hungry: the desire is to see what women keep private, whether it be our bodies' crevices or our relationships with other women, or our fantasies. The pornographer promises his audience that they will rape all the privacy we have.
The hatred and brutality directed at women's genitals is internationally documented, and I think an inevitable outcome of our enslavement and use as breeding stock. To breed livestock you must control their sexuality and their reproduction; the medieval horror of the "chastity belt" (which could injure or cripple, and did) was invented to restrict access to women's bodies to their owners. In several patriarchal cultures, incarceration until (and after) marriage was used; in others, the female genitals themselves are mutilated to prohibit sexuality and unapproved breeding.
I hope the reader will not at this point think, "Ah yes, African genital mutilation," and feel informed. Let us never forget the epidemic of sexual mutilation performed upon the bodies of American women (without anesthesia) by American doctors (hence white and male) in the second half of the 1800s. The operations were performed to prevent female sexuality (which was by definition unnatural, since sexuality was A) not beautiful and B) male). Doctors commonly tested for the presence of the "sickness" by molesting their patients. The operations (circumcision, clitoridectomy, ovariotomy--female castration) were also held to cure undesirable (unbeautiful) character traits such as stubbornness, anger, independence, or aggressiveness.
The female genitals, then as now, were held to be ugly; to make the women beautiful, they (like body hair or fat or wrinkles) had to be removed. The last such operation officially performed for "psychological" reasons was in 1937. A mere five or so years ago, a Santa Cruz doctor removed a woman's clitoris while she was under anesthesia, without telling her, for whatever reasons of his own. To the best of my knowledge he is still alive and free.
On the one hand, woman is supposed to be beautiful, to represent beauty, to please the eye and raise the spirits of men (and to reassure them that she is indeed utterly alien to and different from them!). On the other hand, hatred of the body in general (of animals, of the earth), reinforced by patriarchal religious tradition, comes together with the hatred of women in general to focus upon women's real bodies a peculiarly obsessive viciousness. Culturally, the body of a woman is associated with dirt, death, and everything "evil" and "unclean"; it must be tamed, bound, forcibly raped and made productive, kept at bay, disguised, pruned, altered, to become acceptable and beautiful and reassuring.
Only the prepubescent body (incapable, perhaps of the mystery of birth, and therefore less threatening?) is clean and innocent. Evidences of physical maturing (other than breasts) are somehow dirty and must be removed. (Why are pictures of unclad women "dirty pictures"?) One woman once told me that she had always understood leg hair (only in women, mind you) to be "unsanitary" in some way.
So we must pluck or wax ourselves, no matter what the pain, shave ourselves, cry over first wrinkles, lie awake over gained pounds, deodorize every fold and valley of our skin, or men will not be pleased (the end of the world--for if men are not pleased, we are not beautiful, and that is all we are meant to be). Then male philosophers and novelists mock our "vain shallowness," our "obsession with our looks" and our "dishonesty." The viciousness with which they describe strong women, old women, fat women, learned women, teach us early that it will be easier to pretend whatever they want. Then they remark how despicably childish and weak the female soul really is.
Then they call us "girl" for the rest of our lives.
Don't cry. You'll make yourself all funny-looking. --how many daughters haven't heard this?
That's not art. It's ugly. Who would ever want to look at that? --young art student, on seeing Rodin's famous statue of an old, tired, starved woman
What's the matter? No smile for me this morning, honey? --boss/customer/father/husband to any receptionist/daughter/wife
Women's beauty, requiring as it does that we be pleasing and non-threatening to men, is completely incompatible with women's anger. An angry woman (even a merely aloof and independent one) is a "bitch" (a hag, a harpy, a shrew, strident, shrill, a dyke . . .); she may be met with ridicule, she may be completely ignored, she may be raped for stepping out of line. We are trained very early to smile at the powerful (men, boys, grownups). Later they will ask us why we are not smiling, if we ever let the mask drop.
It should satisfy the beautiful woman to know that men approve of her. If she wants more (like human rights) she automatically ceases to be beautiful. Accusations of ugliness were among the first to be hurled at feminists; they were true by definition, since feminism itself was necessarily "ugly." Often the most shocking thing about angry women, to male observers, is that they do not seem to be considering their appearance.
Beauty was invented to apply to property, to be sold, to be exploited. It is not possible to object to the exploitation without disqualifying oneself as beautiful.
Why are so many women afraid of feminism?
A nuclear power plant is like a beautiful woman . . .
. . . Nuclear industry ad
The ad goes on to explain: a beautiful woman "takes care of herself" --doesn't "let herself get run down." In effect, she maintains herself as an artifact for male benefit and profit, like a reactor site. Both the nuclear power plant and the beautiful woman are designed and maintained to generate more male power.
They are both business concerns.
But sometimes I like to wear makeup and high heels and things . . . I like to feel pretty sometimes.--woman in self-defense class
The woman who said this was healthy, slim, able-bodied, white, more or less middle-class, and under thirty. Her face was delicate, hairless, and 'pretty' by all conventional standards I have covered so far. It was shocking to me to learn that she honestly did not believe she was pretty unless she wore the full feminine drag.
Beauty Is Scarcely Natural
As Charley Shively points out in a profoundly insightful article ("Cosmetics as an Act of Revolution")--and I have tried to reproduce some of his argument here--beauty is nine-tenths grooming and class. It requires a "normal" body and face (i.e. close to some neutral Caucasian average); but the part that is called beauty is not really the face or the body. It is the technology of beauty, the cosmetics, the costume, the evidence that the individual is loyal to the ideals of the patriarchs. What is perceived as beautiful, I argue, is obedience to the rules of gender separation and definition: the obedience is shown by going to the trouble of the beauty ritual. If women insist that they are not objects or property, the foundation of the world trembles.
Feminists, visible lesbians, old people (especially women), and people of color (especially women) are "ugly." People who are not whole-bodied are ugly. If they are angry at being called ugly, at being cheated and hurt and abused, they are doubly ugly.
Beautiful women are obedient daughters.
They can be rewarded for obedience.
They will almost certainly be punished if they rebel.
Beauty Justifies Violence
A carload of young men once began unanimously to scream at and threaten a woman on a bicycle, because they saw her unshaven underarms. They ended up by chanting FUCK FUCK FUCK, as loudly as they could, and waving their fists out of the car. Had it been a less crowded street, or dark, they might have run her off the road or raped her.
Disloyalty to the patriarchal ethic is punishable by: economic sanctions (poverty) emotional violence (insults, cruses, hostility) physical brutality death.
Some men in an eastern city once surrounded an older (known) lesbian who was walking alone (triple or quadruple disloyalty). They poured gasoline on her and set her on fire. She died. She was not beautiful.
One of the improvements undertaken by the Third Reich was the beautification of the race. To this end, the insane (by whose standard?), the disabled, and the homosexuals were systematically imprisoned and murdered. They were not beautiful.
You will find no women in wheelchairs at a Miss Anywhere contest.
Nazi officers were taught to recognize certain "ugly" facial features as "non-Aryan." Charts were distributed, against which officials could check people's faces to determine the "purity" of their blood (breeding, beauty). If they were not beautiful, they died.
Of the millions of women tortured and murdered during the extermination of the pre-Christian religion in Europe, many were of middle age and older. Physical deviations or "deformities" were said to be signs of witchcraft. Many of these women were not dependent on men; they owned their own property (which the Church soon acquired). They were not beautiful.
"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/ And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" --well-known poem about Helen of Troy
Female beauty is blamed for male violence.
When rape victims are accused of dressing "attractively," or Helen of Troy is blamed for a war she took part in only as a prisoner, women's beauty (the degree to which chance or hard work leads us to conform to the male standard) is blamed for the violence committed by men against us and our children.
"Her beauty set his head aflame," reads any one of ten thousand similar rape scenes in any one of at least half that number of glossy paperbacks available at most major supermarkets. "He could no longer control his desire."
Beauty is used to justify violence (she was too beautiful, he couldn't control himself) and to provide a target for it. On more than one American Army base, the same recruits who are told they are there for God, country, and the girl next door, are told to use centerfolds for target practice.
Beauty sells women--as wives, prostitutes, dancers, actresses, models, dance-hall hostesses, receptionists.
It can be used by association to sell products; beautiful women's bodies and obedient smiles are seen in close proximity to nearly every kind of product from toothpaste to diesel engine parts.
It sells masculinity. The imbalance of power depends on the pretense that women are intrinsically other than men, a different species, not human, not recognizable. The artificiality of the beauty standard helps keep women visibly artificial, different, the wearers of a different uniform. The shape and type of the uniform indicates our powerlessness (hence men's power).
Every woman who refuses to disguise herself is a walking threat to the whole structure, to the law of enforced sexual dichotomy. Obedience to the law is like obedience to any mechanism of social control: it increases the illusion that women (or 'that kind of people,' whoever) are just like that.
Or, to put it another way, there are men who get to the age of twenty-odd and are surprised to find that women have underarm hair--not to mention a clitoris.
Every woman who obediently strips her body of its maturity and paints the acceptable caricature of a child's face upon her face, who presents the learned travesty of a child's behavior which is femininity to everyone around her, is spending her time maintaining the illusion that women are children.
Many women cannot survive any other way.
The enforcement of beauty involves sticks as well as carrots. High heels (a helpless walk like a toddler), shaved legs, lipstick, rouge, are job requirements for all too many of us. Sleeping with the boss is a job requirement for all to many of us--especially wives. I have no contempt for these women, who are surviving.
Let us save our anger for the mold, not the woman.
A Little Personal Recollection
Beauty contests have always held a peculiar fascination and distaste for me. They had about them (for me) the same uneasy sense of wrongness that I perceived in pornography; the two have always been connected in my mind.
The fervid commercialism which saturates them both was no doubt a factor. Perhaps it was an unfairness I felt in the air, a sense of power out of balance. Dammit, I probably thought in my angry teens (not so angry, in retrospect, as my adulthood); Dammit, you didn't even have to be good at anything! What kind of contest is it when it's all just luck? How you look (I believed, then, that beauty was something you either always had or never would; we learn early)--and the whim of the dirty old men who judge the thing.
Later, having read a little, I was reminded of the long historical resonance of the pageants; the entire history of the comparison, judgment, and auctioning of human flesh. In Imperial Rome and in the years of American Black slavery, human merchandise was paraded, measured, and assessed in just this way. The captive women lined up in the marketplace, the king or feudal lord picking among village maidens to see which one he cared to rape; the theme of the contest, the passive women standing there to be chosen, was constantly with us as we grew.
The wallflower at the dance. The 'old maid.' No one chose her. She must have been really ugly! Chosen in marriage. 'Taken' in marriage. Always the passive voice. The theme was constantly reiterated in 'women's novels' (those soft-porn potboilers, mostly written by men under pseudonyms)--two men fight, or armies of men invade: helpless virgin cowers among girlfriends (or stands with impetuous, willful pride), her heart fluttering under her (of course) flawless and snowy breast, just knowing his fierce/cruel/feral/predatory/cold/scornful eyes will focus on her, he will choose her . . .
Still later, the history of women and children as the property of violent men began to fall together for me; historical and contemporary events fell into a pattern. The dimensions (added late and with difficulty) of race and class move depth into the pattern, broadened it, opened it, never contradicted it. I realized that the beauty contest really is a contest; that the contenders really do have to be good at something.
They have to be good at the old, dishonest, demeaning trade of femininity: or, pleasing men. It is the only way a brutalized and powerless nation of women have survived, over years of inconceivable abuse. The obedient daughters, trying to survive by obedience, must learn the only skill woman is required to have under patriarchy: to cater to the patriarchs' fantasy of what a woman is, what women are, what men are (not). And it is a skill, complex and demanding as any other dramatic art, involving costume, makeup, breath control, and surely method acting (which must reach its finest hour in the old feminine one-act called "faking it"). It also involves cutthroat competition.
Patriarchy means hierarchy. Hierarchy means a few men on the top; a few men who are women's only chance at comfort, luxury, class privilege (part of hierarchy). Competition for those 'eligible' men can be deadly.
I hate beauty contests. Not the women in them.
I hate the contests, because I hate to see paraded and glorified the unpleasant fact that women can and have made a living (by necessity) polishing the illusions of their masters; because I hate to see flaunted before me the evidence and essence of female servitude. Because I hate to see women pitted against each other, competing for Daddy's approval (while Daddy rakes in the dollars). Because I hate to see women's bodies used.
I hate to see obedient American daughters pose and preen and endure indignity for all the profit of the same Nestle that kills their Black sisters' and Brown sisters' babies an ocean or two away.
"A beautiful woman is like a nuclear power plant . . ."
I hate to see it. We need this to stop.
Copyright © De Clarke, 1983. All Rights Reserved
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