Final notes on appearance (for now)

Finally wrapping up the series that’s been going since I started blogging! I’ve enjoyed writing about appearance from multiple different angles, but after ten posts on the subject (eleven if you count the linkspam), I’m ready to move on to other topics. First, though, here’s a quick recap of the series and a few more stories of my recent experiences with my appearance.

In the first post, I noted that I don’t prioritize my appearance very highly, and wondered why other people do. I explored this idea in several of the following posts in the series, discussing the relationships between my appearance and my gender and my appearance and my asexuality, and pondering the connection between people’s appearances and the level of worth we ascribe to them as human beings. I also wrote about how mirrors inform our interactions with others; discussed the policing of appearance based on gender; talked about what that looks like for women specifically, both in general and within Christianity; and critiqued the notion found within some strains of feminism that everyone should love their bodies.

Now a few random stories… Having short hair (at an awkward growing-out stage, before I buzzed it all off) got me misgendered once, and while I know that can be an upsetting experience, I actually enjoyed it. I was at a busy market wearing gender-neutral clothing, and as someone moved past me from behind, they said, “Excuse me, sir.” Having come to the realization that I don’t feel very feminine, I was excited to have that mistake made, even though I hadn’t been intentionally going for a male presentation. Messing with the gender binary a little, and not looking obviously feminine, just made me happy.

…But, apparently, even wearing jeans and a unisex hoodie and with a hat on my obviously-nearly-hairless head, I’m still feminine-looking enough to be referred to as a “cute girl” by a random old guy. *sigh*

Soon after buzzing off my hair I saw multiple branches of my extended family, and had to explain over and over again why I did it. While I got that same question after going from long hair to a stylish short haircut, it wasn’t to the same extent or in the same slightly baffled way. One reaction I got when I pulled off my hat was, “You did that willingly?” This article describes very well the reasons why women might not feel free to cut their hair (I didn’t really see it as an option for a long time), and the author’s experience of having her desire to go from long hair to a pixie cut be met with surprise and disapproval, as well as the reactions I received to my buzz cut, emphasize how women’s appearances are commodified, their capacity for being attractive valued above all else.

That article also articulates one reason why short hair is actually perfect for me: “[L]ong hair has always been perceived as the pinnacle of a woman’s femininity and sex appeal. A woman who cuts her hair is cutting herself off of her own femininity and from being seen as sexual.” Kind of exactly what I want.

That’s it! Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts and stories with me during this series, and comments on old posts are always welcome if anyone wants to discuss any of the specific topics further. :) There are also many areas I could have covered but didn’t, so I also welcome any further appearance-related thoughts or links on other topics.

Appearance linkspam

Since starting my appearance series, I’ve come upon a lot of writing on the intersection of appearance with gender, (a)sexuality, and/or sexism (mostly, but not all, from the archives of various ace blogs), and I wanted to share in case anyone is interested. My previous posts also include many links to articles that I’ve found interesting and insightful. Continue reading

Appearance, part 9: mirrors and interaction

I’m rarely reacting to other people’s actual appraisal of me. I’m not even reacting to my interpretation of their appraisal. I’m reacting to my appraisal of myself, using perfect strangers as my proxy.

After writing part 6 of this series, where I mentioned the idea of not looking in the mirror for a month, I found two blogs written by women who did no-mirror experiments. The quote above is from Autumn, who spent a month without mirrors, and the ideas she writes about in that post are also discussed by Kjerstin, who skipped mirrors for a whole year (and wrote a book about it). In her post on sociology and mirrors, she writes: “interactions with people inform how we will view ourselves in a mirror and the mirror, in turn, informs how we understand our interactions with other people”.

I definitely relate to this. Mirrors are a huge part of how I get by socially—I use them to make a judgment of myself, and then I assume everyone around me is making that same judgment. When I imagine not looking in a mirror before going out, I picture being filled with anxiety over not knowing how to interpret people’s looks or interactions with me. Autumn writes (in the same post linked above) of seeing a stranger looking at her on the subway during her project, “I had no anchor to hold onto, no private feeling of, ‘Well, I do look nice today’ or ‘I wish he would stop staring at the enormous pimple on my chin.’ Without having any idea what he might be seeing, I had no idea how I should feel about him looking at me.” Continue reading

Appearance, part 8: Appearance and Christianity

Christianity isn’t the only religion that places restrictions, implicitly or explicitly, on the appearances of its adherents—Islam, predictably, is another that springs to mind—but it’s the only one that I have personal experience with, and I ended up with enough to say about it alone to fill a whole post. Also, I should note that my experience is with Protestant Evangelical Christianity, but I’m sure at least some of this applies to Christianity in general. This topic overlaps with appearance and sexism in that Christianity has much stricter appearance rules/guidelines for women than for men (although there are some conservative Mennonite and Amish groups that regulate men’s facial hair and everyone’s clothing), and because these rules are often, if not always, for the benefit of men. The main one that I have in mind is the idea of modesty.

Once a year, my high school Sunday school class would split the guys and the girls (because of course certain things apply to girls only and certain others to guys only), and while the guys learned about not lusting, the girls learned about helping them out by dressing modestly (among other sexual purity-related topics). Of course, what is and isn’t modest is subjective, but we were taught various modesty tests, like, “Does your shirt still cover your midriff when you raise your arms above your head?” and “Do your shorts go past your fingertips when your arms are at your sides?” If the answer was no, your clothing was immodest and you shouldn’t be wearing it around guys—because guys are visual, and even a glimpse of a girl in supposedly immodest clothing could cause them to commit the sin of lust (an idea that made me kind of afraid of men).

I went to Christian camps where two-piece swimsuits were banned; if a girl had brought one, she had to wear a t-shirt over it when she swam. The tightness and lowness of girls’ shirts and pants was also monitored, and the shortness of dresses… you get the idea. If you want to see exactly what lengths some people went to to try to define modesty, check out this post that discusses a survey where teen Christian boys gave their opinions on the modesty or immodesty of different items of clothing, as well as postures and actions. Reading through that survey made the post’s author conclude that to be modest, you basically have to not be female—because every single thing that was asked about, from wearing jeans to stretching, was considered by some guys to be immodest.

As the author of that post says, this is a really harmful attitude because it implies that women’s bodies are bad, the source of men’s sin—and that when a man lusts after a woman, the woman is at least partially to blame. And what is that but rape culture? The idea also has the effect of making women feel bad about their bodies. At a youth retreat, I witnessed one of the other girls crying when a (female) youth leader pulled her aside and asked her to change her shirt because it was short enough to sometimes reveal her belly. The youth leader did it in a really kind, gentle way, but that didn’t change the fact that a girl was being told that her stomach was a problem—or that she was in tears over it.

The woman who wrote this article has experienced even worse situations, and received reprimands that aren’t nearly as gentle or well-intentioned. The article is somewhat upsetting (because of how badly she’s treated by some people, and the effects their words and attitudes have on her; content warning for internalized fat-shaming), but definitely worth a read because it shows what this stance looks like when taken to the extreme, and what a harsh toll it can take on women and girls.

Christianity seems to have kind of an obsession with women’s appearances; besides modesty, there’s the idea of fighting vanity—the point of the mirror exercise I mentioned in this post was to help the female participants not focus on outer beauty, a goal that people support with Bible verses directed to women, like “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self” (1 Peter 3:3-4)—and also the idea that women owe their husbands attractiveness, which I mentioned in that post as well. In contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Evangelical Christians discuss men’s appearances. My youth group had no rules for guy’s clothing (swimming shirtless was fine); there was no such thing as male modesty (although now there is, at least in parody articles).

I want to end with a quote from an article on modesty by Rachel Held Evans, a Christian author I admire and whose blog and books I enjoy (even if I disagree with her on some things):

While popular culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to get men to look at them, the modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to keep men from looking at them. In both cases, the impetus is placed on the woman to accommodate her clothing or her body to the (varied and culturally relative) expectations of men. […] Women are left feeling ashamed of their bodies as they try desperately to contort around a bunch of vague, ever-changing ideals.

The article goes on to try to hash out a more biblically-accurate idea of modesty (and it’s worth reading if you’re interested in a re-examination of modesty within a Christian context)… but I’m going to end there.

Read the rest of my appearance posts here.

Appearance, part 7: a critique of body-positive feminism

I’m planning to wrap up my appearance series soon, but I keep coming up with ideas for new posts…

It’s hard to define “feminism” as one unified movement, because there are so many different branches, some holding views that are in total opposition to others. When it comes to feminists’ attitudes toward appearance, some think that to be a feminist you can’t care about your appearance at all or take any steps to beautify it. I definitely don’t agree with that, and I’ve discussed my reaction to one example of that kind of attitude in this post. On the other extreme, though, you have the “sexy equals empowered” feminists (an idea I may write a post on later), and a bit more toward the middle there’s the idea that loving your body, flaws and all, is an essential part of feminism. And that’s what I want to critique in this post (mostly using two Everyday Feminism articles about the body positivity movement that capture a lot of what I’d like to say). Continue reading

Appearance, part 6: appearance, obligation, and worth

In my last two appearance series posts, I talked about how society compels people to look a certain way based on their sex. In this post, I want to discuss the sense of obligation regarding appearance more generally.

When people are out in public, we expect them to have their looks up to a certain standard. (This can also hold true when it comes to more private settings; one of the most harmful ideas I’ve seen about the obligation to look a certain way is something promoted in some conservative Christian circles, which is the idea that a woman must keep herself attractive for her husband, and that if she “lets herself go” physically, she’s partially to blame if he cheats on her.) I’m not just an observer of this phenomenon but have thought this way myself; despite not prioritizing my appearance particularly highly, I’ve still caught myself feeling that I, and other people, need to look a certain way when we go out.

It’s like we owe other people something when it comes to our looks—cleanliness, neatness, a certain level of stylishness. That it’s framed as an obligation is evident from the wording we use when policing the appearances of others. Just the other day, I thought about a character on a TV show, “He needs to do something about his neck beard.” To someone with unruly hair, we say, “You need to get a haircut.” Appearance is something we feel very free to judge other people on, and we also feel very free to be vocal about those judgments in the form of mandates. When you tell someone they “need” to do something with their looks, you’re saying, “I think you look bad; thus you should change your appearance.” We put our own opinions above those of the person who the body in question actually belongs to.

The ubiquity of appearance-based judgments may be one reason looking good is so important to a lot of people. When you go out, you make sure you look okay, and that the other people with you do as well—think about parents making sure their kids are wearing clean, matching clothes—because (we think) your appearance reflects on you as a person. We make assumptions about all sorts of things based on someone’s appearance (assumptions that are sometimes just going to be wrong)—age, sexual orientation, class, even personality traits like intelligence and friendliness. These assumptions aren’t necessarily conscious, but to some extent we’re judging people’s worth based on what they look like. So if you look good enough (according to whatever the current standards are—what considered to look good and what’s in style is always changing!), you can protect yourself from that. These ideas were touched on in a comment by morgaine has won on my first appearance post.

This appearance-based valuation leads people to feel embarrassment or shame over things that are perceived as flaws in their appearance, such as acne, scars, or a deformity, even when it’s not anything they have control over. You can escape mockery for wearing a stained shirt by changing clothes. But if it’s having a lazy eye that you’re being ridiculed for, there’s nothing you can do about it. Criticizing someone for the choices they’ve made regarding their looks is one thing; the critic is saying, “You have bad taste” or “You don’t take care with your appearance.” But being condemned for having a physical flaw that you obviously didn’t choose and would get rid of if you could hurts on a deeper level, because in that instance what the critic is saying is, “Something is wrong with you.”

As an example almost everyone can relate to, and one that’s kind of in between the two I just talked about, think about those times when, hours after you’ve last eaten, you find that you’ve been walking around with food in your teeth. You think back to everyone you interacted with and wonder what they were thinking about you (and why they didn’t say something!), and feel humiliated. But why should you be embarrassed  about that? It’s not your fault that you didn’t know; you aren’t obligated to check your face in the mirror after every meal. And yet, you do feel embarrassed, and if you see a stranger with food in their teeth or spilled on their clothes or any other sort of imperfection in their appearance that they don’t seem to be aware of but would fix if they knew, you feel embarrassed for them, because people are going to be judging.

Years ago, my sister and another girl I knew did this thing (spurred by a Sunday school discussion of beauty) where they didn’t look in the mirror for a whole month. I couldn’t understand it at all, and definitely couldn’t imagine doing it myself. How would I know if my hair looked okay? How would I know if I had a patch of peeling dry skin on my face? I wouldn’t, and I couldn’t stand that thought. Looking good, or at least not looking bad, was a way to protect myself from the perceived judgment of other people, and being without that protection, which is what the result of avoiding mirrors would be, would leave me vulnerable.

But now that I’m able to see that social acceptance isn’t the ultimate goal anyone should be striving for, and that our ideas of what is and isn’t socially acceptable can be problematic, I see the value in the mirror experiment (especially for women, whose appearances are over-valued and over-criticized). Purposely staying away from mirrors for a month, although still not something I plan to do (since I still have a level of anxiety around my appearance, and knowing how I look helps alleviate it), is a way to send a strong message to other people and remind yourself that how you look isn’t the most important thing about you.

I’ve had times when I’ve had to interact with strangers at a store or the office where I used to work while feeling like I looked ugly. At those times I was very aware of my appearance—specifically the fact that I didn’t look good—and almost expected to be treated coldly because of it. So when I was smiled at by the strangers and not treated any differently than I was at times when I felt I looked okay, I was surprised and grateful. These incidents have been a good reminder that we don’t have to base our entire judgment of another person just on what they look like, and that other people aren’t necessarily always doing that to me or each other (they also make me think that other people probably aren’t critiquing me as harshly as I do to myself). But I shouldn’t have to feel grateful to someone for treating me decently. You aren’t worth less than other people if you don’t look as good as them. You shouldn’t have to feel like you need to change clothes or put on makeup before a trip to the grocery store. You shouldn’t have to fear being judged because of how you look. We don’t owe other people anything in regards to our appearance. Everyone deserves respect and decent treatment no matter what they look like.

Appearance, part 5: appearance and sexism

In the last post in my appearance series, I talked about how the patriarchy makes it hard for men to deviate from a masculine gender expression. Men are seen as the norm in our society, and if a man deviates from looking like society’s conception of how men should be, he’s seen as foolish or weak. Because of this, women are able to present in a somewhat masculine way and receive less backlash than men would for appearing feminine. But even though this is the case, there is still a lot of societal pressure on women to look feminine—which often requires much more effort than looking masculine does.

Putting aside whether or not being feminine actually means wearing makeup and shaving your legs, our society at least has an expectation that women will do these things. In general, men don’t have to remove their natural body hair or add color to their faces to be socially accepted. However, how often do you see a woman walking around with hairy legs? What sort of reaction would one get if she did? Women are told that, because they are female, they must do certain things to their bodies—things that have no purpose other than for looks (and why are women’s looks so important? Because men want to enjoy them, of course!), things that take time, effort, and money. Things that men do not have to do. In one of the articles I linked to in the last appearance post, a boy who showed up at the DMV with makeup on was accused of wearing “a disguise”. No one looks at makeup on women in this way; it’s seen as natural, and if a woman doesn’t wear it, that’s what’s considered strange.

I’ve never actually worn makeup, and have mostly been able to avoid any pressure to do so. But as soon as I began growing leg hair, I was anxious to start shaving it off. I saw the smooth legs of my female peers and didn’t want to stand out for not looking like them. I was nervous about asking my mom if I could start shaving, though, so I went to camp at age 12 with hairy legs, and wore jeans all week and just shrugged when people asked, “Aren’t you hot?” I listened to a girl in my cabin call herself a “hairy ape” because she hadn’t shaved for a few days. My camp counselor said she wouldn’t bother shaving except that “it’s not socially acceptable not to.” And then I had to stand with all the other campers in a big circle around the pool before we all jumped in for our early-morning polar bear swim, with my hairy legs on view for everyone to see, and feel an agonizing shame over them. They were ugly. They were wrong. They made me a social aberrant.

When I finally did start shaving, it was wonderful to be able to show my legs without fear or shame. I fit in! I looked okay! But… I kind of hated shaving. I didn’t want to spend money on nice razors, so I ended up with painful, bloody nicks or razor burn. My showers now took twice as long. I let the hair grow out over the winter, since I wasn’t wearing shorts at all then, and that made the first shave of the summer take forever. But I still kept doing it, because, like the author of this article (which provides a great rundown of the ways the stigma surrounding female body hair is harmful, and ways to combat it), I saw it as necessary for my self-esteem and social acceptance. I felt embarrassed for my mom and sister, who weren’t shaving at the time (they’ve both since started), because they were violating a social norm.

But then last year, after 10 years of removing the hair from my legs and armpits, I read Ily’s posts detailing her experience with quitting shaving, which she dubbed the Hobbit Acceptance Project (she actually says she didn’t directly receive any negative reactions to her hairy legs, which is awesome, but she also mentions how there are certain settings, like work, where she doesn’t display the hair because it wouldn’t be acceptable). In one of them she included two links—one to the Hairy Pits Club Tumblr, which showcases images of women with unshaven armpits, and one to a post on the blog I Blame the Patriarchy, which was one of several posts on that site declaring that feminists must eschew traditional markers of femininity (F-word warning for that link), like shaving.* And those three things—Ily’s posts, Hairy Pits Club, and the I Blame the Patriarchy post—combined were enough to get me to finally put down my razor. Whether or not I shaved was suddenly not an issue of social acceptance, but one of feminism. Society said, “People with vaginas must shave the hair off their legs and armpits.” I said, “That’s bull—-.” (Unfortunately, though, as soon as I started letting the hair grow, I took pains to cover it up, because I was still embarrassed. So sure, I had stopped shaving, and I told a few people I knew, but I didn’t show it off in public. Which kind of defeats the purpose. I’ll try to work on that this summer.)

When I pulled up my pant leg in front of my sisters (one of whom used to not shave—but she had blond hair while mine is dark) to reveal my hairy legs, they reacted with shock, and one with laughter. Women don’t see hairy legs on themselves or other women, because they’re constantly shaving the hair off. So when they do see it, it looks wrong and unnatural, even though of course natural is exactly what it is (Ily points out in one of her HAP posts that nobody knows what’s “normal” when it comes to body hair, because we’re always removing it). But when it comes to women’s appearances, unnatural has become the norm. Of course a million things humans do are “unnatural”—brushing our teeth, living in a house. So my point isn’t that natural is automatically better, but that the standards of what’s acceptable are different for men and women. It’s okay for men to let their body hair grow, and to show their natural faces to the world. But that’s not the case for women.

I think this is why, as I mentioned in the last post, there are more feminine-gendered aspects of appearance than there are male. If men are the norm, then to be feminine, you have to deviate from that norm by modifying your body and wearing clothes that men don’t wear, clothes that are impractical in a lot of situations. Dresses and skirts require you to be careful with your movements and not do anything active, and in a comment on my last appearance post, luvtheheaven mentions her difficulty with finding shoes because of the requirement, in certain situations, that women wear high heels. These are shoes that are hard to walk in if you’re not used to it, and that can cause damage to your feet, legs, and back. But in some situations, it’s practically mandatory that women wear them—while men are always allowed to wear comfortable, flat shoes.

I’m not trying to say that high heels are evil or that no woman should ever look typically feminine (the I Blame the Patriarchy article I linked to does explicitly say that, but I don’t agree and you can read why in the footnote)—just that the expectations and requirements our society places on women, saying that there’s only one right way to be a woman, which requires doing things to your body that range from annoying to downright harmful, is a problem, and that men don’t have to deal with this in the same way. Society is obsessed with women’s appearances, and policing them; it seems like the most important thing about a woman in our culture is her looks, while with men, we focus on personality and achievements. How often have you heard a woman introduced as “my beautiful wife” or “the lovely so-and-so”? Now imagine a man being introduced as “the handsome Mr. whoever”—it does happen occasionally, but it sounds like you’re talking about a little boy, because it’s kind of diminutive to call attention to someone’s appearance like that, especially in a professional context. And how often have you seen women and girls greeted, or been greeted yourself if you’re a woman, with, “You look so nice!”—whether it’s on a date, at work, or in the hall at school. In contrast, men aren’t expected to be noticed for their appearances, so if you greeted a guy with “You look so good today!” he’d probably be flattered but a little surprised and confused, maybe even self-conscious, because he wouldn’t be expecting it.

Women do expect it, though, because to be a woman is to be subject to an intense appraisal of your appearance, all the time. No woman is exempt—when a president’s wife appears in public, the talk is all about what she’s wearing, even though unlike with an actress or model, there’s no reason her appearance should matter. People dissect Hillary Clinton’s appearance, when it has nothing to do with her as a politician. Men just aren’t picked apart like this. Compare this article, in which a female comedian details being cruelly criticized for how she looked at an awards ceremony, particularly her choice of dress, to this one, about a male television presenter wearing the same suit to work nearly every day for a year and never once getting noticed for it. The double standard is painfully obvious, and has painful results when women are pressured, ridiculed, shamed, and condemned, all because of how they look.

*The link included above is the author’s most in-depth post on this subject, but here’s the one Ily linked to, and this is another one where the author, Twisty, lays out her opinions of femininity very clearly. In these posts, Twisty asserts that femininity is “for smushing women”, saying that all typical expressions of femininity degrade women and play into the interests of the patriarchy, and that to be a feminist you have to liberate yourself from feminine-gendered things. I read that post and was inspired by it, as I said above, initially feeling inclined to agree, since I’m not typically feminine and don’t understand the appeal of dresses and makeup—saying, “Yeah, these things are bad, and getting rid of them is one way to fight the patriarchy!” sounded good to me. But after thinking and writing more about feminism and gender, I can’t agree that a woman who enjoys wearing skirts is harming other women. My problem with skirts isn’t that they exist, but that it’s only socially acceptable for one sex to wear them.

There was also one major thing in Twisty’s article (the one I linked to in the body of the post) that didn’t sit well with me from the beginning. She says that if a man would look ridiculous doing something, that proves “how f—ing stupid” it is, and that femininity as typically expressed makes women sub-human. But… doesn’t that just contribute to the setting up of men as the norm? She is explicitly saying that we should judge everything by a standard of maleness, which means that men are right, and women are wrong, and that women should be like men. That sounds pretty anti-feminist to me.