Why I Don’t Want to be Pretty

I’m tired of trying to be pretty. Not so much physically tired (although that’s certainly part of it), but mentally tired. The culture of beauty is exhausting.

To be fair, beauty has never really been my burden. I am attractive to some, but I’ve never possessed the type of beauty that stops men and women in their tracks.

I challenge the notion that women have to be pretty.

We are assigned this task from birth against our will: prettiness is a requirement for femininity. If you are not blessed with inherent conventional beauty, you must acquire it through adornment. You must put on that show.

And do not misunderstand me: I appreciate beauty. I love art and music and many beautiful things. But I do not contend that all art and music must be beautiful — so why must all women be?

Even the label “attractive” makes me cringe: is a woman’s only purpose to attract others? Does she not have value beyond her physical appearance?

Beauty as a feminine attribute has a long history of being a social (and racist) divider and a way of separating those who have and have not. It has been ascribed a sense of feminine virtuosity, along with sweetness, grace and agreeableness.

That beauty applied to some things and not to others, that it was a principle of discrimination, was once its strength and appeal. Beauty belonged to the family of notions that establish rank, and accorded well with social order unapologetic about station, class, hierarchy, and the right to exclude. — Susan Sontag, “An Argument Against Beauty” (2007)

peoplemostbeautifulIf young girls have not already been blessed with this attribute at birth, society tells them that they will ‘blossom’ in puberty, and holds beauty as some sort of carrot to keep them moving forward into womanhood. When this doesn’t miraculously occur naturally, we are flooded by advertisements showing us not just how to modify ourselves to achieve this goal, but also by conflicting messages as to the standards of beauty themselves.

What if I don’t want to be beautiful? Does that make me a pariah?

Is the desire not to be pretty subversive?

I am not against caring about your appearance. Clothing, hair and makeup are all forms of self-expression and I think they are absolutely an outward representation of personality. I just don’t think conformity should be the ultimate goal. And I would prefer that these outward expressions be self-guided rather than wholly influenced by societal pressure.

It is obviously not just cis-gendered women who are hurt by these expectations: gender-fluid and transwomen are harmed as well. The pressure of prettiness (being a perceived equivalent to femininity) to ‘pass’ as a validation of one’s ‘realness’ hurts all women.

A woman’s identity (and value) should be defined by so much more than whether she is (subjectively) aesthetically pleasing. I could trot out some over-worn platitudes about inner beauty, but I hesitate to create a list of what makes a person ‘valuable’, because there is no one answer. Some women are intelligent or clever. Some are kind. There are a million attributes that make for interesting women. And yes, some are beautiful, but that shouldn’t be the only thing that makes a woman. And not being beautiful, or not even caring about being beautiful, shouldn’t need to be an act of rebellion.

Chopping your hair off should not be ‘brave’, any more than wearing it long is. Going without makeup should not be brave, any more than wearing dramatic lipstick and eye shadow is. Wanting to focus on other things than one’s physical appearance shouldn’t be a subversive or radical concept.

It shouldn’t be. But I think it is.

/rk

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Why Aren’t You a #Feminist?

y-u-no-guyI tend to make judgements about people who refuse to identify themselves as feminists. Because as a feminist, it’s hard not to take offense to that, right? I mean, how dare you not believe in equal rights for women?

But that’s where things get tricky.

“I do believe in equal rights for men and women. I’m a Humanist.”

What? No! What you’re describing is feminism. You’re a feminist. This quickly turns into a pretty circular argument, with each of us feeling pretty sure that if we say it enough times, the other person will come around to our respective points of view.

But is this the battle I really want to waste all my energy on? Part of me says ‘yes, absolutely’, because resistance to the use of the words feminist and feminism tend to stem from a misunderstanding of the movement, and to deny the word is tantamount to erasure. At the same time though, this person agrees in principle to the same things that I do: That women deserve the same treatment, respect and rights as men have.

Now if it turns out upon further discussion that they think that we’re already there and that there is no need for the feminist movement because

“…women have jobs and money and there are women politicians for Christ’s sake and oh my God would you let it go, already…”

then we’ve got a problem.

But this is more a question of semantics. And yes, when it comes to semantics I lean towards pedantry, because I think words do matter. Feminism is calledfeminism for a reason: Not to exclude men or to place women on a pedestal above them; but it is to place the needs of women at the forefront of the discussion. Because the only way to change the status quo is to acknowledge where it is failing.

So, getting back to the source of our disagreement: Does it matter what you label yourself? I think it does. But focusing on that fact ignores another salient point:

Do I have the right to tell you how to label yourself?

Saying yes to this is going to be pretty hard for me to do with any conviction. I spend a lot of time fighting on other fronts for the individual’s right to self-identify. I respect people’s choice of personal pronouns and self-identification of gender, for instance. So much of our identity is thrust upon us by labels: They can be damaging when imposed by others, yet liberating when we choose them for ourselves. So I acknowledge that there is a certain hypocrisy in trying to bend you to my will for the sake of a word.

You do, at a fundamental level, have the right to self-identify however you choose.

That doesn’t mean I can’t delve into your motivations, or wonder if perhaps you’ve come to your decision to reject the word feminist based on some stigma you associate with it.

I also want to know if you’re afraid — afraid of what people will think of you if you call yourself a feminist. That’s important to me too; because if you are a feminist and you are afraid of people knowing, that reinforces to me why the label is so important. Because it’s not a dirty word, and women (and men) speaking up for the rights of women shouldn’t be a source of shame. If you fear repercussions for that holding those beliefs, I really want you to consider how important it is to fight that fear.

But if you can’t, I can’t make you. And I won’t make you, because you get to define your identity and how the world perceives you.

Instead I will wear that label for you, for myself, and for all of us.

/rk

(originally posted at http://medium.com/why-arent-you-a-feminist/67d620304204)