One often hears the expression “feminine wiles”, a tangential reference to an alleged mystical power that women exert over men. It began with Eve and an apple and then the Ancient Greeks introduced sirens. In all examples where women use their apparent attractiveness to exert influence over the opposite sex, the overarching narrative is regarded as scheming. As if the odds are somehow stacked against the other side and hapless generations of men are merely “seduced” beyond their control into attending to every female whim. In the battle of hormones versus hegemony, the former wins… or so we are told. But what of battles where the bets are stacked from the get-go? Why is it that appearances still play such a front-running role in sexual power plays? Men and women planning their wardrobes meticulously to cultivate a personality before they leave their rooms: smart, casual, smart-casual / bohemian, chic, boho-chic / grunge, geek, grunge-geek. Glasses to look smart, purple hair to look edgy, tattoos to look unique and so on. If appearances are nine-tenths of personality then how is it possible to actually deduce personalities in today’s interactions? And when one does come across a rare person who cares about their appearance in “proportionate” proportions… how do you set yourself up in comparison? Sexual power politics rests on partners being able to read each other, but if we are merely reading the front the other has cultivated rather than the personality they are concealing, how effective is the exercise?
Body image is key not so much in how much value it is given by those around us, but also in how it debilitates us in valuing ourselves. There are some who manage to use it to their advantage, a shield of sorts that allows their real selves to shine through because they no longer feel the pressure to look perfect all the time. There are others who cripple their selves trying to look perfect and thereby minimize any tangible sense of self. We are always setting standards and simultaneously setting stumbling blocks for ourselves and others each time we weigh in on the “right” kind of pretty.
Tina Fey pegs such beauty myths rather beautifully in her autobiography ‘Bossypants’ (Little, Brown and Company, 2011) when she says “But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then – what felt like moments later, boom – Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular thighs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful… Aahahahahah. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyoncé and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes that women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have: Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama and doll tits.”
Truth be told, it’s a hard barometer to escape, surpass or circumvent — the idea that we pre-date before our form, that we are all people before we are physical, that we need not wait for perfection before we can expect romantic fulfillment. That unlike Hollywood, real life need not always show the pretty people ending up with other pretty people, while the rest scramble with the leftovers. How does one begin to believe that love, sex, relationships and all the variants in between are founded on interaction and that this interaction is not entirely rooted in appearances? Appearances can be affected, improved, effaced and even discarded when interactions deepen. Psychoanalyst Paul Schilder, first coined the term “body image”[i] in 1935. Schilder acknowledged that society had always placed great value on beauty but also that society’s definitions of what that meant often changed. Moreover, Schilder put forth the idea that a person’s own perception of their body and how they “owned” their appearance held great weight in whether they were considered attractive.
We see it everyday, hounding us on television. “Perfect” faces. “Perfect” bodies. “Perfect” personalities. The Clark Kents and Chris Hemsworths, the Kim Kardashians and Lana Langs. It is those of us who fall for perfection that need fixing, not those who posit it. The idea of perfection is unattainable and, generally, that is its appeal but for those of us who can appreciate a challenge and a challenger, let us have the courage to choose the game less played, with players flawed, passionate, eccentric and exciting.
There is, after all, both attraction and power in imperfection over pretty, petty, pretention. But modern culture, media and mannerisms are doing a great job of diminishing this by positing what is acceptable in appearance in such absolute terms that individuality is generally second-place. Individuality is often considered our generation’s most blatant apologism, reserved for those who cannot compete in the “looks race” rather than those who refuse to. How is it that, when it comes to relationships, the most obvious sexual plays are also the most powerful ones and they are always all about judgment?
Why is it that we always wish to be loved for our flaws while still retaining the right to judge others for theirs?
Maria Amir is Features Editor for the magazine.
[i] Schilder, P. ‘The Image and Appearance of the Human Body’, International Library of Human Psychology, Routeledge , July 30, 1999
[ii] Martin, C.E. ‘Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body’, Free Press, April 17, 2007