Beauty Politics.

I read an article today by Hugo Schwyzer on titled The Right Way to Talk to Young Girls About Beauty. This article delves into the way we speak to young girls about themselves: either about their bodies or their minds, but not both.

Some argue that we must only comment on young girls’ attributes outside of the physical so that they do not develop some type of complex that will scar them for life and create instability in their self-esteem regarding their appearance.

Others, like Schwyzer, argue that ignoring a child’s interest in fashion or beauty, or ignoring such things altogether, perpetuates the notion that intelligence and beauty cannot be synonymous.

When I was younger, a good retort to bullying was that my intelligence would stay with me long after their good looks had faded. This made me feel slightly better, until I realized I was arguing in my defence that I was unattractive. As an adult, and as an avid consumer of fashion and art, I now side with Schwyzer, for indeed, why should it have to be one or the other? Why is feeling good about one’s physique or features bad? Why do girls have to be ugly to be literate?

For a long time, I have been extremely interested in studying female or feminist politicians, and women in the media. The intersection of beauty and the policing of women’s bodies, and the social paradoxes and values revealed in these intersections, is depressing, frustrating, and highly motivating for a young woman attempting to build a career  in media and change things up a bit.

I pre-ordered this documentary, titled Miss Representation, a few days ago. This film highlights the portrayal of women in the media, and the media’s power in dictating how women will feel about themselves. It is amazing to me that we are still discussing these issues today.

In 2008, I was beginning my university career at the same time as the American election. As a Journalism student, I was fascinated by the Obama campaign and its ability to generate such a level of support in a society that was still struggling with intense racism. While this campaign certainly revealed these social tensions (and ignorance), the end result clearly shows that it was successful in uniting many. And that Obama looked damn good while doing it, but who really cared about that when his words were so inspiring.

As a Human Rights and Women’s Studies student, however, I found the whole election enraging.

First, there was the way Hillary Clinton was treated (or rather, chewed up and spit out on repeat). The media described her physical traits but not her politics. The media and society questioned her ability to make “tough” (read: manly) decisions simply because she was a woman. They questioned her strength when she called for more social services and better education (such “nurturing” [read: womanly] things), and then questioned her womanhood when she took a stand in topics like the military.* They commented on her clothing, her hair, her mannerisms, to defend their arguments. In my grade 12 media project about the questionable death of feminism, I found a picture of an unflattering “Hillary Clinton Holiday Nutcracker,” because obviously all strong women with half a brain were not only ugly, but also created to destroy mankind, kill their husbands and eat them alive.

Then there was Sarah Palin. Oh, Sarah Palin. When I first started following her campaign, I could not believe that the most “developed” nation in the world had this to show for one of its two parties. I believed she was doing a disservice to women everywhere by opening her mouth. Is this because she was ‘pretty’ for an older woman? No, I didn’t correlate the two, but a lot of people did. We’re doing the exact same thing now to people like Michele Bachmann.

Recently, I read an article in the October 2011 edition of Curve magazine, titled The Other Side of Power, by Victoria A. Brownworth, that made me realize an important point: Republicans have had more visible women in their party (even if they have all been identical), and these women have contributed greatly to their party’s goals (even if, in my mind, their politics suck). From the very left side of the political spectrum, I can still acknowledge the contributions they have made.

Yet still, these politicians have to try to embody certain beauty ideals to fill their positions, something professional yet feminine, pretty yet subdued, attention-worthy, but only to generate the right kind of press. What men do you see being criticized for their clothing, or shoes, or watches, to the same extent as women? Why do we care what the leader of a country looks like? Why does it matter?

This point is exactly why the issue of beauty politics is so important. Not only is it an example of the blatant sexism that remains in our so-called “equal” societies, but also because the amount of time and effort that is devoted to the scrutiny and enforcement of female beauty ideals is an unjust burden. Having to devote more of their time to such issues is a detriment to a woman’s political race, it is another strike against female athletes or other professionals, and it can even be used as a reason to scrap a woman’s sketch or part on a television show. Unfortunately, it takes even more time to defend oneself as to why one did not live up to these unrealistic expectations, and usually generates a lot of eye-rolling without a whole lot of understanding.

I finished reading Bossypants by Tina Fey on the bus ride back to Ottawa this afternoon. Every sentence is absolutely hysterical, and Fey threads with a feminist voice throughout each distinct chapter a critique of American society and its views on women. Much of this, due to her life in the public, focuses on the pressure on women to embody consumeristic beauty standards, but also about how this expectation silences women’s voices in other facets of public life, whether it be on the stages at Saturday Night Live or a presidential candidates debate (or a mixture of both, as Fey so eloquently portrayed Sarah Palin back in 2008. I owe that sketch many thanks for inspiring my Halloween costume that year, as  my glasses also make me look quite similar to the Alaskan politician. And I proudly own a horrendous pant suit).

Fey concludes with an important yet simple message on body politics: it doesn’t really matter so long as you feel good.

We all need to recognize that one’s physical being and one’s mental being are often two very different things. Sure, the two can cross over from time to time, but that does not render women incapable of providing a rational and valuable opinion on child care or nuclear weapons. And that doesn’t mean she can’t feel good and confident about her appearance at the same time.

Schwyzer writes: “A day doesn’t go by that I don’t tell my daughter how beautiful she is. But I also praise her for the other things she does, and as she has grown more vocal, I engage her in conversation in a host of other topics.”

So too should we raise our children, encourage our peers, and relax our chokehold on our public figures, in regards to the dichotomy of beauty and mind. We need to expand not only our beauty ideals, but also our conversations with women to topics beyond cosmetics; to blur the lines of what it means to be beautiful to becoming all-encompassing, with both a physical and intellectual definition.

*For a fabulous article on Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the media, check out:

Carroll, S. (2009). Reflections on Gender and Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign:the Good, the Bad, and the Misogynic. Politics and Gender. 5: 1-20.

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