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posted by [personal profile] deathbyshinies at 03:58pm on 05/05/2009
Murr. Having spent most of the morning fighting with Photoshop and the Wellington Square laundry machines, and having just poured boiling water into my shoe (luckily, I wasn't wearing it at the time!), I am going to throw in the towel and write the post that I've been wanting to write for ages, but haven't been sitting still (and not either conference papering or marking!) long enough to do.

This is a follow-on from my Susan Boyle post last month, aided to some extent by commentary at Shapely Prose and Tanya Gold's essay here (even though I generally can't stand Gold at any price, I think she has something here), but hopefully moving into more general territory.

Horrible joke I remember from high school:

Q: Why do women wear perfume and make-up?
A: Because they stink and they're ugly.

Why don't men wear perfume and make-up?
A: Because they stink and they're ugly and they don't care.

I've been noodling around an idea in my head. I think I want to call it 'beauty debt', although I'm open to a better term if anyone can suggest it. Essentially, the idea floating around in modern culture that women owe beauty to those who 'have' to look at them, and that if a woman's 'natural' beauty is not sufficient (and it very rarely is), she must perform a certain amount of 'beauty work'* in order to rectify the problem, to 'pay the debt' as it were. This work might involve shaving, waxing, dyeing, surgery, food restriction, exercise, straightening, lightening, tanning, all according to individual situation, sub/culture, class etc. It almost always involves paying money, and quite often involves physical discomfort or pain. I probably don't need to list here what happens if she fails to perform this work or fails to perform it to a sufficient standard, but what's interesting is that often the undercurrent is we don't want to see that!; she's hurting my eyes! (actual comment about Susan Boyle at Perez Hilton, yes I know it's my own fault for reading that site); how dare she make us HAVE to see that!. Encylopedia Dramatica has quite a few pages that encapsulate this attitude very effectively, and I'm not going to link them here because frankly they're not nice to read, and I don't feel like looking them up again. The idea, in short, seems to be that women who are not 'beautiful' are actively hurting those who 'have' to look at them, and I do think that's a distinction from previous conceptions of beauty as something that a person was simply unlucky or unfortunate if they did not have.

However, thinking about this issue in the Boyle context was somewhat limiting. Although it provides a really nice example - Boyle effectively 'paying her debt' by being ridicuously talented, rather than beautiful, was very telling - I was having trouble thinking through to what extent the beauty debt affects life outside performance. I think being onstage certainly amplifies it, as you are in effect asking an entire audience full of people to look at you and give you their full attention. OTOH, I think this essay (media discussion on whether female candidates for the US High Court are 'too fat'), and the associated comments, indicate that it's very much a part of the cultural feeling surrounding women in any kind of public role (and I'm defining 'public' as broadly as possible here), regardless of performance or not. Also, I'm pretty sure I can't have been the only unpleasant little fourteen-year-old so-and-so who laughed or snarked at teachers and took them less seriously because Miss X had hair on her upper lip, or Ms Y was too tall and too broad-shouldered, or Mrs Z had bad teeth that stuck out at funny angles. You would expect fourteen-year-olds to grow out of this sort of 'If I don't want to have sex with them, they're not worth listening to' attitude, but I have a nasty feeling you might be expecting for some time.

The kind of shift from beauty being a 'nice to have' to a 'have to have' in order to be listened to/taken seriously, and where that might come from and what it means, interests me quite a lot. Thing is, I think that the surprise evoked by Boyle's singing voice was not connected not only to the obvious idea, picked up by everyone from Perez Hilton to Shapely Prose, that the audience 'were judging people by appearance' and that that's a bad and naughty thing to do. The surprise was also connected to her inability or unwillingness to 'pay the debt', the idea that someone whose hair and eyebrows looked like that must have something wrong with her, must be in some way disconnected from consensus reality, not to realise how she looked and do something about it. The audience was not expecting her to fail because she was ugly, but because she was ugly and un-fixed. We do (or at least I, to my equal parts shame and annoyance and utter fascination, do), to some extent, associate 'paying the debt' with being a fully-competent adult female human being who knows how to function in the world, and whose 'normality' can to some extent thus be assumed. Hmm, perhaps 'beauty debt' is not actually the term I'm looking for here, because 'beauty' is not exactly what's being expected - rather, it is a minimum standard of fucking-with-one's-appearance (I could use the word 'grooming', but I think that's problematic, because it's also applied to the much less arduous hair-cutting-and-shaving routine expected of most men, and I don't think it's helpful to conflate the two at this point) below which one is not considered 'normal', and one's thoughts and opinions will not be taken seriously.

Shameful and stupid and ugly example: I can be perfectly clean and freshly-showered with puffy, frizzy unstraightened hair, and I will feel as though everyone is looking at me and thinking 'dirty, scruffy, crazy person'; I can be unshowered and grotty in three-day-old clothes and still feel confident and happy (and, I swear, be stared at less and treated better) provided my hair is holding a straightening. It's idiotic, and it's true all the same.

(And hell yes, this is absolutely linked to race, and class (straight white teeth, anyone?), and I could and would like and will have to do a whole other post going into it, ohyes)

(And as another a side note: if Boyle had presented as deliberately butch with the exact same hair and eyebrows, I would have registered it as a deliberate refusal to 'pay the debt', rather than a failure to do so, and would have processed it differently as a result. I'm not sure what this means in terms of the patriarchy, or how an observer who isn't me parses the difference between 'failure' and 'refusal'.)

What is interesting here is that historically, the advent of 'beauty debt' seems to map alongside both A) the increasing visualisation of Western culture due to both massive increases in print media and the advent of electronic media and B) the post-suffrage increase in participation of women in prestigious elements of public life*. Assuming that A) does indeed play a part in it (it seems to apply to some extent to men in public life too, witness the emphasis on the physical appearances of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama), I'd like to think about the extent to which B) might be tied into both endemic sexism, and the idea of women as weak/inferior/sinful 'going underground' post-suffrage, and again post second-wave feminism. It's difficult in that I don't have as much information about the portrayal of ugliness/unattractiveness in Victorian/Edwardian culture as I'd like, so anyone who can fill me in on any more (aside from Marian in The Woman in White, who I'm aware of) is very welcome to do so!

* I'm putting the caveat about 'prestigious' in there to remind us that some working-class and enslaved women were *always* part of public life/working outside the home, just not in a prestigious/well-rewarded way.

So, my theory: It is a truth reasonably commonly acknowledged that one can no longer credibly restrict women from having power in the public sphere on the grounds that they are intellectually/physically inferior (it's certainly been tried: see hysteria, 'inferior brains', the learning of mathematics causing brain fever/sterility) or on the grounds that their position causes unacceptable sexual temptation to men, both of which theories feminists have fought long and bloody hard to disprove. However, as these concepts lose credibility, the concept of the 'beauty debt' increasingly provides a way of automatically cutting some women out from public life (or seriously impairing their ability to take part in same), and placing a heavy burden of time and expense on those who are able to make themselves 'acceptable' through effort and spending. It's particularly interesting in that it places the debt in the eye of the beholder - it's hard to keep arguing that women are incapable of learning Greek and Latin when one of the damn bitches is translating Aristophanes in front of you, but you can insist that she's fuuuuuuugly and you don't want to seeeeeeee that (or, perhaps better, make gently patronising remarks about the unattractiveness of 'bluestockings') until the cows come home, or until she puts down her copy of The Birds and gets out the eyebrow tweezers just in the interests of shutting you up for five minutes.

This may not be a particularly original line of thought, but I'm especially interested in the extent to which this is now actually perceived as a debt, something which is owed to others before one can prove oneself 'worthy' of fully participating in society, and which provides others with the right to mock/snark/whathaveyou if it is not satisfactoriy fulfilled. Women stink, and we're ugly, and if we don't care we must be made to do so, because otherwise... otherwise who knows what we might think we're allowed to do next?
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