There is a running joke with my friends that I am a magpie. From the myths of our colonizers, magpies love (and steal) bright shiny objects and hoard them. I have never encountered or heard about these shine-loving thieving birds in the African savannah, so I can only draw references to European folklores.
And so if the magpie’s occupation is anything to go by then we have a similar calling. I frequently like the things so called fashion gurus find shiny, tacky and averse. I love glitter, busy patterns, chunky mismatched jewellery, bold colours, sequins and big patterned prints and all manner of perceived fashion faux pas. I never take too seriously those who are scandalised by how people look and dress.
I pretty much wear what I like and like what I wear and definitely I enjoy people who are as liberated from fashion faux pas.
And so this got me thinking a little bit about our bodies, adornments, appearances, body images and their significance. I also thought about our indicators of beauty by which we implicitly or explicitly place value on others and ourselves. Across a span of time and geographies we see varying norms and value sets around what is considered beautiful and what missed the proverbial mark.
Bodies especially women’s bodies, similar to cultural artefacts have been reified and commodified as extensions of cultural wealth. Additionally women’s bodies also similarly to cultural artefacts, subjected to cultural relativism with limiting views of beauty norms and standards. Women’s bodies are repeatedly used as the physical manifestations that portray and define our ideals, identities, perceptions and attitudes around beauty and physical appearance. And history has shown that these biased opinions have shaped and exerted much influence and impact in the power dynamics of our globalised world.
Back to women’s bodies and beauty standards... and the norms around skin tone, skin flawlessness, weight, shape, clothes…there are powerful social forces that push and pull women to aspire to fit in evolving but shallow standards.
But then how do we perceive and actualize notions of bodily autonomy and choice from a feminist perspective while we in turn turn a blind eye and depoliticise our own ‘personal attitudes’ around who and what is beautiful? Does this then make us complicit to the conspiracy of ranking bodies and appearances in a check list of aggregates to tick or mark X ….to pass or fail…. to be or not to be… B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L
Are we being candid with ourselves if we don’t disrupt a normalised culture that exalts some women’s bodies and cop out and lump it as our “personal preferences.” Have we challenged our ‘personal preferences’ to a values audit on what informs these choices? Do these choices sometimes affirm our biases against certain bodies? So on one hand we are attempting to demolish oppressive systems that shackle us, yet on the other hand we are the tools and instruments of a pecking order that disparages bodies based on appearance. And some of us may say, “But I never put women down based on appearances.” Yet our silence is loud when beauty norms reinforce notions that ‘some women are more beautiful than others.’
Over the years I have battled self-esteem and body image issues, an unsurprising staple with most women today. The world is not only harsh it is down right mean when it comes to judging women’s bodies based on attitudes around beauty. In my journey of feminism and part of it is taking care of the “self”, I peered into the pot of my troubled relationship with my body image and confronted the anxieties one by one. I am still purging those anxieties every day. Daily, and over generations forced subjections to societal (and patriarchal) approval plays a big role in internalized self-hatred and sense of inadequacies in us as women and by extension in others.
Men’s bodies have not escaped the harsh scrutiny of bodies and appearances. Due to heterosexist ideologies men have also fallen pray to the distinctions of aesthetic beauty and standards. Notions of handsome, tall, muscular have distinct advantages over short, fat, bald and other descriptors and words that have a distinguishable varying significance and values placed on them.
The aesthetics of our bodies and appearances have become so pervasive that instead of creating a healthy and enabling environment for us to build and grow, we now find ourselves having to deal with the burdens of social pressure and the drastic physiological and psychological effects of aspiring to achieve and maintain these fickle standards.
I myself have suffered the pressures of needing to conform. Slowly I am working on disassembling the damage it did to me and I could not have come this far alone. It took the power of extraordinary love and compassion to infuse my need and desire to build self-love and self worth outside the gaze of society.
I am continuously reminded that my self-worth and essence is not defined by social constructs. I am an embodiment of enough-ness. I am learning to ignore the confines of beauty standards and instead focus on feeling good about myself.
Yet despite all this, I cannot disregard the small delights I get when complemented by a beloved or another person. And so how do we not compromise our sense of autonomy and self-worth, needing to constantly be defined and validated by others. This is because we all crave for human contact and connections. Perhaps the solution is to politicize our most personal notions, definitions, preferences, desirability of women’s bodies and put them to a test.
If we say the personal is political it means we must also scrutinize our individual biases on who and what we considered beautiful and cross-examine the root of those mindsets.
If we ascribe to strong opinions of aesthetic beauty, then we need to ask ourselves why we feel the need to hold on to those rigid values. And if we still choose to hold on to these values even when it is apparent the harm it does to those who fall through the cracks of whimsical beauty norms, we have to ask ourselves WHY? Why is it so important?
If each of us consciously scrutinize and address our own personal biases who knows, we may be one step closer to more transformative social change that sees and values people beyond narrow lines.
Living under the yoke of beauty standards can really dull and limit our lives and experiences. Question is, is it worth it?