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
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).
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.
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.
I recently read Anthony’s Bogaert’s Understanding Asexuality for the first time, and in one chapter he mentioned that asexual women might not feel the need to look sexually attractive (I can’t remember exactly what he said so if anyone else knows, feel free to remind me!). That rang true for me because, taking it a step further, I would specifically like to not appear sexually attractive to other people. When I was younger I did want to look attractive, or at least pretty, and I feel like there might not be a definite line between just plain “attractive” and “sexually attractive”, but for me it meant looking nice while avoiding any clothing that was too tight or showed too much skin.
It really wasn’t (or isn’t, since I still feel this way) such a reasoned-out thing, though; not “If I wear a low-cut shirt, there might be a sexual component to any admiration other people give me”, but something much more instinctual—“I would be really uncomfortable wearing anything that showed cleavage.” I can’t really fathom how people are fine wearing bikinis in public; showing that much skin strikes me as very vulnerable, and I could never do it. And I’m guessing these feelings all come back to that fear of being looked at as a sexual object, or even just a sexual being. I don’t want people to think of me that way, because that’s not how I am.
Teachings about modesty in high school Sunday school classes freaked me out because we was told that men were prowling around ogling women and thinking lecherous thoughts about them—or at least, that was my interpretation. The teachers said, “Dress modestly so you won’t cause your brothers [in Christ] to stumble”, but what I decided was, “I’m going to dress modestly so I won’t be a victim.” Not of any physical harm, but of being thought of sexually. And although I now know that these classes presented an inaccurately homogeneous view of men, I still feel that being seen as sexually appealing would be a form of victimization to me; one I would never know about, true, but still one I want to avoid.
I think this specific idea comes from being a sex-repulsed ace. I would never willingly engage in sex, and so the idea of anyone thinking of me in a sexual way feels like a violation of a boundary I’ve set up, and makes me really uncomfortable. So I try to avoid entertaining that idea, and the way I accomplish this isn’t by actually preventing anyone from thinking of me sexually (because it would be impossible to know if I’m fully succeeding or not), but rather by trying to make myself feel like no one is by looking as un-sexual as possible. Not giving anyone reason to think of me sexually allows me to assume that no one is, which makes me feel safe, even if this feeling is based on an illusion (after all, we were also taught in Sunday school, “Some guys will still lust after you even if you’re wearing a sack!”)
Anyway, I’m guessing that this is at least part of—maybe even the main reason—why looking feminine in public makes me feel vulnerable (I think another part is that I feel more likely to be critiqued and judged by others when appearing feminine), and why I’m most comfortable presenting fairly androgynously. Maybe it also at least partially explains why I don’t prioritize my appearance particularly highly—I know not all aces feel this way, but I do wonder if it’s a factor for me.
Read the rest of the posts in the appearance series here.
This is a self-analytical post that may not be of interest to anyone but me; it mostly discusses how I feel/have felt about my hair at various lengths and what, appearance-wise, makes me feel more and less comfortable when out in public. The rest of the posts in my appearance series are of more general interest and can be read here.
The other day I was walking down the sidewalk by a fairly busy street, and it occurred to me that I felt more comfortable than I normally would with so many other people around. I usually experience at least some degree of anxiety when in public, and some of this is linked to my appearance—I feel that I don’t look good enough in some way, and that all the better-looking people around me must be looking down on me. So when I’m anywhere where there are a lot of people around, I usually feel very self-conscious. Continue reading
This is the first of a series of posts I plan to do on appearance. See the other posts here.
I value convenience and practicality over my appearance. I don’t wear makeup, even though I would look better with it (at the very least it would hide all my acne scars); among other motivations for not wearing it, I don’t want to spend my money or time or effort on it. I rarely buy new clothes, and when I do my focus is on price and comfort and what I like, rather than what I look best in. I’ve never owned a hair straightener or used many hair products, even though the appearance of my hair might have benefited from one or both of them. Taking it even farther, I recently chopped all my hair off and now have a buzz cut. Does it look better? Hell no. But it’s so much easier—my showers are much quicker, I save money by using less shampoo, there’s no wet mass to dry afterward, I don’t have to worry about taming it before I go out, it doesn’t look greasy when I haven’t showered for a day… Basically, it’s awesome, and I value that convenience and ease way more than I value having a better appearance.
I recognize that this is a privileged position—I work from home at the moment, so there are no demands or expectations on me to look professional, as many women (and people in general) face. Even when I did have a full-time job, the expectations/guidelines for employee appearance in that office were very lax, so it was no problem for me to show up every day in a hoodie and jeans with no makeup (although it still wasn’t until I stopped working outside my home that I took the radical step of getting a buzz cut). But again, some employers wouldn’t be okay with that, and in an office setting would want their female employees in makeup and heels; in other settings, there would likewise be rules pertaining to employee appearance, as well as implicit restrictions, and complying with them might be necessary for one to keep the job or be treated decently in that setting.
But in general, even when it isn’t mandated people care about their appearances a lot. At the grocery store, on the street, on college campuses, people are walking around having obviously put effort into how they look. Makeup, styled hair, clothes that look nice but likely aren’t comfortable (heels, supertight jeans)—people are willing to bother with and endure all these things to look good in everyday situations where there aren’t any external requirements for their appearances.
In a way, I’m very insecure about how I look. When I had much more hair than I do now, I would stress about it before going out, needing to make it “look good”, by my own standards, at least, so that I’d feel okay about myself when out in public (which was one reason I chopped it off—now that I have next to no hair, there’s no anxiety about it potentially looking bad). But that insecurity isn’t enough to motivate me to go out and buy makeup, and it wasn’t enough to make me keep my hair long and put more effort into taming it. While I sometimes worry that people will judge me because of my acne scars, and wonder why I don’t cover them with makeup, I don’t let that worry stop me from going out bare-faced.
And that’s because when it comes down to it, I don’t think looks are that important. Why should it matter how you, or anyone else, looks? People judge each other by looks, of course (and even though I don’t think that’s right, I do know it’s not going to change anytime soon), but does it matter if strangers are judging you when you’re at the grocery store? For some people it might; if you’re a non-male, non-white person, looking or not looking a certain way could get you harassed or even assaulted. Even white males will sometimes need to have their looks up to a certain standard to get by, as I mentioned above in the context of jobs, and could also be derided for publicly defying gender norms. But if you know you don’t have to worry about receiving negative attention because of your looks, whether because of your privileged position in society or because the specific environment you’re in is a safe one, why bother trying to make yourself look better than you do naturally? Of course sometimes people are trying to appear attractive to potential (or current) romantic/sexual partners. But besides that reason, personal safety, and external requirements, why is it so important that the people around you look at you and approve of what they see? Why should looks be prioritized above time, money, and convenience?
Maybe it’s just too hard to find yourself in a situation where looks really don’t matter. If you’re hanging out with your friends, you wouldn’t want to receive negative attention or opinions from them based on your appearance. If you’re at school, you don’t want your teachers or professors to think you’re lazy or sloppy. If you’re at the grocery store… well, maybe putting a certain amount of effort into your appearance is just a way of telling the world that you value yourself.
But I value myself in not changing the way I naturally look. I don’t think my acne scars are beautiful, but I don’t think they need to be hidden. I’d rather not have them, but I do. This is me. This is the face I look at in the mirror every day, so this is the face I’m going to show to the world.
The emphasis placed on appearance frustrates me because when placed on women’s appearances in particular it’s sexist, and I’d like to write more about that in the future. It also bothers me because appearance is superficial. It might impact the way some people treat you, but does how your friends and family members and teachers and co-workers and the authors you read and the creators whose inventions you use look matter? No—it’s their personalities, their talents, their ideas, who they are, that’s important. Maybe for some people looks are a core part of their identity, but people are also always changing their looks, and I’d think that in general, people find their identities in areas other than their outward appearance. But if that is the case, then why the obsession?
I’m curious about other people’s thoughts. How highly do you prioritize your looks, and why? Are there certain things (time, money) that do trump looks for you? Are there some situations or circumstances where your looks are more important to you than others? Are there any times when you feel you really don’t care how you look, or does your appearance always matter to you to some extent? Why do you think society in general places such a high importance on looks?