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

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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 2: comfort in public

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

Me

I thought it’d be appropriate to start this blog with something I wrote back in 2011:

I’ve always been insecure/lacked self-confidence/had low self-esteem–however you want to say it. I remember, in junior high especially, worrying so much about what other people thought of me. And even when I went to college, it was still a big problem for me, and still is. But recently, within the past month, I’ve been thinking more about who I am and what I think about myself. And I’ve realized–I like me. I’m happy with who I am, and I wouldn’t want to change, even if I thought people would like me more or judge me less or think better of me if I did, or even if I thought I would be down on myself less if I did. So when I get upset, thinking that other people judge me/think badly of me/don’t like me, I don’t wish I was someone else, I wish I didn’t have to be around other people. Because I don’t have a problem with who I am, but thinking other people do makes me feel bad. Which brings up the question of perceptions and their accuracy, but that’s another topic.

Anyway, I obviously haven’t gotten over my insecurity, but I’m working on it. I’m working on being confident in myself, which doesn’t mean being someone I’m not, as I used to imagine it did, but which means accepting and embracing who I am, and not letting my fears about what other people think bother me. Which is hard. Like I said, I often wish I didn’t have to be around people, except for a few that I know and trust. Not because I dislike people, but because I feel like a lot of them are better (as in friendlier, more interesting, more fun) than me–comparing myself to other people is what makes me feel bad about myself, because I end up concluding that I don’t measure up in some way–and that they’re looking down on me because of that. So I have to keep reminding myself both that other people are likely not constantly looking down on me, and that even if they are, it doesn’t matter, because I’m okay with who I am.

So, who am I? I’m white, American, 24, female but not strongly identified with the feminine gender (trying to figure out what if any gender terms fit me), a feminist, sex-repulsed asexual, ex-Christian, introvert, animal-lover, vegetarian, reader, writer of short stories and novels (none published, but I just finished a draft of a novel featuring an ace protagonist for NaNoWriMo!), and now blogger. Let’s see how this goes. :)