Issue 01: Body
The 2005 entries were originally written for the journal I kept in WST 3015/Intro to Women's Studies. They have been modified slightly since then.

2005 August 31, 9:13 am

This happened in my Nonfiction Workshop class. I didn't really understand it at the time, so I wrote about it some days later after I'd been thinking over it.

My professor was wearing a cute shirt and jacket with a red print skirt. While she made notes on the board, my attention was drawn to her skirt. After looking at it for a bit, I thought that she was too old to be wearing that outfit.

Why did I think that? For one thing, I don't even know how old she is-- I assume she's my mother's age or younger, so she's not my generation but hardly an elderly woman. Why did I associate that outfit with my own generation, and why did I think someone outside my generation shouldn't be dressing like that?

I think that clothes have been marketed to us as such signifiers (of tastes, age, social status, and sexual availability) that we forget what they basically are-- bits of fabric or synthetic material that really just exist to cover our naughty bits. The only reason we think of clothes as having some other meaning is because society gives them that meaning, and we subscribe to it. I feel bad that I jumped to that thought about her clothes. There really was nothing "my generation" about it besides it being something that would be marketed to my age-mates instead of hers.

Maybe I have more work to do with getting past clothing signifiers. No matter what a woman wears, some people will assume things about her based on them (that she's promiscuous, that she's a slob, etc.) I could think about my own clothes and what people might think they say about me, and compare that to how I think of myself. Do my clothes really reflect that about me? Why do people associate certain things with them? I definitely should be more careful about my knee-jerk thoughts when I see someone in "hoochie mama" type of clothes. Maybe I need to consider how women now have the freedom to make more clothing choices and wear something like that if they choose to. We aren't corseted, bustled, hat-topped, and covered from neck to toe any more unless we really want to be, or maybe if we're Victorian tour guides. Skimpier clothing might just be an attempt to stay cool in the summer, or it might be that those were what the clothing manufacturers produced in that woman's price range so there was little other choice unless she wanted to wear something she didn't like. Sometimes it probably does advertise sexual availability, but not necessarily. I'm certainly not the only one who needs to work on making assumptions about people's clothing, but I can choose to work on me.

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2005 September 13, 10:11 pm

Mom and I went to Borders so I could pick up some books. One of the girls who works there also goes to my university, and I chat with her when she rings my stuff up; we've got one of those customer-worker relationships where you know someone from being your server or customer service rep but not outside of the business. Of course, we did have Intro to Anthropology together a couple years ago, but we know each other better from Borders.

I hadn't really thought about it before that particular trip to Borders, but I noticed that she "doesn't do anything with her hair" (as people sometimes say,) wear make-up, fuss with upper lip hair, or have evidence of orthodontics. The teeth aren't surprising since she's from England and we have a stereotype here of all English people having bad teeth, but I caught myself thinking about how she doesn't bother with conventional beauty standards like I'm used to seeing people do in positions like this. I'm so used to seeing women at the cash register wearing cosmetics and having their hair done. She's just there looking comfortable and not all done up.

It seems "unprofessional" just because I'm used to the way society has linked these appearance standards to job presentation. But really, what's the big deal? It has no effect on how she does her job, and it's so unimportant that it's taken me years to actually be aware of it. I didn't really put my finger on it this summer when she was dressed up and wearing make-up for the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince release party (she was required to be in costume while on staff that night.) It was the only time I'd ever seen her in cosmetics, and my only thought then had been that she had a lot of make-up on. I didn't even think that it was the only time I'd ever seen her with it.

I think I want to be proud of her for coming to work as she is. I don't know if the management is totally fine with that or if she ever gets pressured for it, but hey— you go, girl.

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"Address the implications of narrowly defined beauty ideals"

In many cases, I think I've tried to conform to beauty ideals for the sake of avoiding teasing or other negative reactions, especially in middle school. I used to wear comfortably baggy clothing and big glasses, and had braces, messy oily hair, and a load of pimples. People harassed me for my looks and made me feel very uncomfortable with myself.

So, with Mom's help, I went to a dermatologist to get prescriptions for my skin, started highlighting my hair to make it less of a dark blonde, wore a little makeup, and replaced glasses with contacts and baggy clothes for trendier fitted ones. I looked "pretty" for society and got positive reinforcement for it— the teasing was at least not focused on my looks any more.

Not conforming to society's beauty standards definitely brought a lot of abuse on me, and yet I found that conforming to that just meant people found other reasons to pick on me. It shifted from my pimples and clothes to making fun of how my allergies made me sniffle and blow my nose a lot. Some people are going to be bullies no matter what.

I didn't get targeted for racial remarks like some authors [of texts in my Women's Studies class], but I related to the author who wrote about being a "you're so short!" five feet tall and curvy, as well as turning to comic books for escapism, which unfortunately often promote impossible standards as well. If you know the "bad girl" books of the early '90s, the look was HUGE breasts, tiny waists, large hips and thighs, and skimpy clothing. Gee, what role models! Has anyone else followed comic books for awhile and noted the portrayal of women in some of them? This isn't the case for all comics, but it's definitely still a troubling trend to have unrealistic proportions and physics-defying costuming.

I've given up on contacts because they were so inconvenient, as well as the makeup and the worries about being trendy enough. However, I still wear nicer clothes and make-up for gatherings like weddings. Society and the media have constructed the well-dressed, made-up woman as the appropriate look for these events, so I feel like I have to do it to avoid standing out. I pluck and trim my long, thick eyebrows, use a trimmer on my upper lip hair, and I shave my legs and underarms so I won't look "hairy." At least smooth underarms made it easier to put on antiperspirant (though now I just use a deodorant,) but what's the point of removing all this other hair? It serves no purpose besides conforming to beauty standards, and I'm a conformist in those cases so I won't be marked as "ugly."

I actually had a disturbing book in elementary school that I bought at my school book fair. Keep that event in mind... The book had little pictures and biographies of all sorts of supermodels— Kate Moss, Iman, Cindy Crawford, Milla Jovovich, etc. All sorts of women who were part of the modeling industry and represented looks and body types that most of these little elementary school girls would never achieve, and yet it was produced and sold for them at a Scholastic Book Fair! Why in the world was a book like that allowed in? To indoctrinate us young to look up to these gorgeous models who are nothing like the average woman? I'm sure part of why I bought it was that I wanted to look at beautiful women because I liked them, but it horrifies me that girls under twelve were already getting these messages about who the "beautiful" women are. It's no wonder we see so many women like Abra Chernik who turn anorexic; in her words, "People told me I resembled a concentration camp prisoner, a chemotherapy patient, a famine victim or a fashion model." And remember heroin chic? I'm glad that my perceptions of a beautiful woman have more to do with her intelligence, empathy, independence, and humor than her body shape or features.

For the assignment, I also had to consider beauty in other cultures, so I looked at Japan. In present times, many women now get their hair dyed lighter shades of brown or even bleached blond, and it is now sexy to have larger breasts and to show more cleavage. In some Asian countries, women and men are getting surgery to lengthen their legs so that they appear to be taller. Japanese beauty ideals have definitely been affected by Westernization, especially after World War II, but this extends to how clothing styles started changing over a century ago with the influence of the ideal Victorian figure.

I've been interested in geisha for several years, so I've done a lot of reading about how a geisha creates her look and its traditional influences, and would like to do a more in-depth discussion of that. Although geisha do not have the exact same style as other women in traditional Japanese culture, they are based in that and exemplify a beauty ideal that contrasts with that of America.

The kimono worn by geisha (as well as other Japanese women) are designed to minimize the shape of the female body. The line through the torso and legs is much straighter, not showing the curve of the hip or of the breasts. So, a geisha's body becomes more of a cylinder instead of the "hourglass" Western ideal, or even the skinny boyish "Twiggy" figure. Geisha also wear their kimono differently from other Japanese women by pulling the neckline down in back to show the nape of the neck, which is considered a more subtly erotic part of the body in the traditional culture than the overt Western display of legs and chest. How different that is from America, which calls for showing skin and wearing fitted clothing to be sexy! The introduction of the extreme hourglass of Victorian fashion, however, influenced Japanese fashion towards clothing that emphasized the chest and hips more, such as bustle-inspired padding and less flattening of the chest. Nowadays, many Japanese women don't even know how to wear kimono, or only wear them for special occasions.

Our fixation with straight, white teeth is also not a part of the geisha look. While they do paint their faces with white, red, and black cosmetics (which doesn't look at all like our makeup!,) they do not get their teeth straightened or whitened— which often means showing crooked yellow teeth against their white faces and red lips when they smile. That smile would definitely not be beautiful in American culture, but it seems that teeth don't detract from the beauty of a geisha. At some point in geisha fashion, they even purposefully blackened their teeth (temporarily). They also paint their lips inside their natural lip lines rather than fully painting their lips or trying to create a false fullness. Geisha do tend to paint the lower lip fuller than the upper lip, and they create a Cupid's bow with the makeup, but the look is really not like that of Western cosmetics.

I don't know exactly what the criteria is for a geisha to be considered beautiful, besides her kimono selection, wit, and conversational skills— which means that a geisha is still valued company even when she is old and wrinkled because she now knows even more than in her youth. By their elder years, they no longer wear the full makeup of the younger geisha, so their natural faces show. I get the impression that it is the mental, rather than physical, characteristics that make a Japanese woman "beautiful" when Western influences aren't brought into it. While Western influences have certainly changed perceptions, this has apparently not changed how the geisha present themselves, except geisha are now a symbol of tradition instead of modern fashion as they used to be.

Other cultures may value personality traits over physical ones, but even the valued physical traits are different for other cultures. Some of these might include curviness instead of skinniness, long necks, large earlobes (even dropping to the shoulders,) shaven heads, fewer teeth, tiny feet, large frames... Perhaps the only nearly-universal standard is symmetry. Most people find equal proportions on either side of the body to be more pleasing, even though no person is perfectly symmetrical; the closer one is to it, however, the more attractive that tends to be.

One last thought is about my late great-grandmother, who I knew as "Mimi." Even into her 90s (she was about 95 when she died,) she still dressed in beautiful clothing and costume jewelry, and went to the beauty salon to get her hair "rinsed." Her "rinsing" actually meant getting her hair colored to a light brown rather than letting her grey show. I still think it's funny when Mom or anyone else on that side of the family talks about Mimi's rinse, but I wonder what kind of society would encourage my great-grandmother to leave the house to get her hair dyed instead of to stay active and enrich her life? Thankfully she was in decent health, kept up her humor, and lived in her own home until the end, but it's very strange how beauty ideals were still strong in her last years. Have you noticed unusual beauty regimes in your grandparents, great-grandparents, or other relatives of older generations?

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This e-zine copyright © 2006 Immora. All other properties are copyright to their respective holders. E-zine originally created as a service learning project for WST 3930/Third Wave Feminisms. Project started on March 18 2006.