Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When "beauty" is a scam

Thanks to "Victoria's Secret Models, Runway Walking and Booty Paint," an article by Erika Nicole Kendall, I got the opportunity to discover a December 2009 article by Leah Chernikoff that touches on some of the behind-the-scenes goings-on in the fashion industry.

Apparently, "countless hours" go "into making the most beautiful women in the world look so ethereally sexy." Pay close attention to the words of Selita Ebanks in "Victoria's Secret Angels strut runway in $3 million bras, 100 pounds of glitter," the second article. Ebanks, one of the models in the Victoria Secret Angels show, shared an open fashion secret: "People don't realize that there are about 20 layers of makeup on my butt alone."

The article goes on to describe the labor intensive processes that go into making that perfect shot:

In addition to body makeup, which Ebanks estimates takes well over an hour to apply, the Angels prep in hair and makeup for three to five hours before hitting the runway, with an average of five people - hair stylists, makeup artists and manicurists, working on each of the 38 models.

That's three to five hours, people. With five professionals working on one woman's skin and hair. And please don't forget the chuckleworthy 20 layers of booty makeup. Does any ordinary woman honestly think she can reproduce those conditions during her morning makeup routine? Does anybody actually want to reproduce those conditions?

I cannot lie. The article in its entirety cracked me up. I just find the lengths to which the media and the fasion industry will go to preserve the illusion of perfect bodies ridiculous. When you really think about it, it is nutty. None of us would hesitate to label a woman neurotic if she applied 20 layers of makeup to her lower body before stepping out in her swimsuit. But, somehow, it is okay when the fashion industry does it. Maybe we have managed to convince ourselves that the fashion industry is doing it to achieve artistic ends. However, we should be honest with ourselves. This "art" is being created for a receptive audience: us.

So what is this madness? Why do we allow the media to sell us such unrealistic images of female beauty? And why do we subsequently give ourselves the impossible task of living up to the associated standards? The answer is not that we are too naive to realize that the images are unrealistic. Every single woman looking at those images recognizes, at some level, that "alterations" have been made. The photos may have been edited, or makeup may have been lavishly smothered on the women's skin. Whatever the case, we know that those women do not actually look like that.

I'm one of those people who happens to think that audiences are not passive bystanders. We actually make choices about what forms of media to be exposed to. So we consciously choose to buy the fashion and style magazines, and we choose to watch those runway shows. I think that it is too easy to speak of the nuttiness of the fashion industry when we know only too well that their actions meet a neurotic need on our part.

What is to stop us from being more judicious in our choice of reading materials? What is to stop us from being more selective about the TV channels we watch? The answer is simple, but sad: Many women do not want to see images of "flawed" bodies on their TVs or in their magazines. They want to see "perfect" bodies. Any female celebrity who makes the "abominable" mistake of being caught on camera after venturing out without makeup or putting on a few pounds learns this very quickly.

It is apt that one of the commenters on Erika Nicole Kendall's article makes this  precise observation (in comment number 1.1). The commenter, Mac, points out that "when someone actually posts a picture of a woman with flaws, the other women in the crowd usually pick her apart every way possible. Someone posts a lady in a swimsuit and all you hear is, 'what’s that on her forehead,' 'her stomach doesn’t look right,' 'her arms need a little bit more work, she needs to go back to the gym,' and it goes on and on no matter how beautiful the woman is or what the commenters look like."

Mac hits the nail on the head. But it wouldn't be honest to claim that all women were guilty of responding negatively to portrayals of "real" bodies. Plenty of women see beauty and character in idiosyncracies. Freckles, moles, and birthmarks are among the so-called imperfections that make faces more interesting, and people more memorable. Excessive makeup and airbrushing tend to have the effect of making all models look alike. They all have the same look, the same bodily proportions, the same hair textures and styles. Frankly speaking, they become boring to look at, part of the monotonous background that we peer at as we flip through magazines, suppressing the urge to yawn.

Personally, I prefer to see images of "real" women because they are more interesting. I think that there is beauty in our idiosyncracies (which photo editors and makeup artists would likely call flaws) and in our diversity. It is truly sad that we allow people with limited imaginations to set the limits for the images we are allowed to see on screen and in print.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

On "Schrodinger's rapist" and the construction of healthy boundaries

An online search for the term "Schrodinger's rapist" led me to some very interesting articles, including the two listed below:

1. Schrodinger's rapist: or a guy's guide to approaching women without being maced
2. Schrodinger's rapist and Schrodinger's racist

I strongly recommend that you read these articles, because they bring into focus the all-important issue of setting boundaries and respecting them. Both articles address, to some extent, interactions between a man and a woman who are relative strangers to each other. They point out the degree to which the average woman has to be extra cautious when interacting with a man, because she has no way of knowing whether or not he poses a threat to her. He might turn out to be a rapist; he might turn out not to be one. But because rapists don't wear neon signs on their foreheads declaring that they are rapists, and because they do not have horns growing out of their heads or visibly forked tongues, she simply has to be cautious.

Now the thing is that there are many well-intentioned men in the world. They bear no ill-will towards women. When they set out to interact with a woman, perhaps they are just being friendly: Maybe they're trying to help a woman in a bad situation. But then the woman responds to their friendliness with coldness, suspicion or fear. The immediate response of many of these men is to take offense at the very idea that they could be thought of as potential rapists or thugs. It is a perfectly natural response and one that I understand. I imagine that I might be similarly miffed if, in a parallel situation, somebody misunderstood my intentions.

It is what happens next that is particularly interesting to me: The man could realize that, for whatever reason, the woman feels threatened by his attention. He could then adopt a less threatening stance and step back, ultimately leaving her alone. Alternatively, he could choose to give her a piece of his mind and express his displeasure or anger at her assumptions. Now I suspect that some may think that the latter approach is the way to go. But the two articles are adamant that it is not, and I am bound to agree with them. It is better to recognize that the other person has set boundaries and that, whether or not one likes them, one must respect them. When a man is unwilling to recognize that a woman's previous experiences are shaping her perceptions of his actions, and when he refuses to acknowledge that he might, in fact, be intruding in her space, and that she has the right to determine for herself what situation she is uncomfortable with, he is trying to intimidate her into 'trusting' or 'liking' him. That is bullying, plain and simple.

Now, I recognize that the situation described thus far is gender-specific, but this analysis could be more broadly applied to other contexts. I'm sure we can all think of gender-neutral instances where relatives, friends, coreligionists, workmates, etc. have taken offense when an individual has expressed discomfort with a situation, subsequently claimed that this person's assertion has offended them and tried to intimidate the individual into going along with their agenda

I am familiar with one particular situation because of my interest in HIV/AIDS awareness efforts. One of the things that has long been evident to me is that many people in sexual relationships have a hard time discussing sexual health and protection frankly with their partners. Ideally, this is something that needs to be discussed before they became sexually intimate and then revisited afterwards. But their partners often shut down the discussion by invoking "trust." Any inquiry about the partner's history of STD infection or any request that they should use condoms is almost invariably met with the response, "Don't you trust me?" even when the offended party knows that he or she is being unfaithful or has previously been infected. Thus, the individual's attempts to take reasonable precautions and to draw boundaries within which he or she will feel comfortable are turned into a personal attack on his or her partner's trustworthiness. Not surprisingly, many are essentially bullied into having unprotected sex, into infection with HIV/AIDS or other STDs and, in the case of some women, into unwanted pregnancies.

Yet another situation involves the man or woman who decides to leave the religion within which he or she was raised. Perhaps something about the religion violates his or her conscience. Perhaps he or she has never really believed and is tired of keeping up the facade. Thus, he or she decides to set up new boundaries by no longer worshiping, attending services, or reading the scriptures of that religion. Perhaps he or she chooses an alternative religion, one that sits better with his or her personal moral code. The coreligionists who respond to such a decision by framing it as a rejection of them and fight against it on that basis are essentially refusing to recognize his or her individuality and freedom of conscience.

The above situations illustrate the problems that can follow when people are unable to appreciate and respect the fact that an individual holds a different viewpoint. When the appearance of consensus is prioritized above all else, the truth ends up being sacrificed. People feel pressured to suffer their discomfort, or fear in silence, because they have been led to believe that expressing what they actually feel will hurt others' feelings. The process by which the other person's feelings end up being prioritized over their own emotional well-being is hardly examined. It just proceeds smoothly, taken for granted as the normal course of events.

This subject is one that I have thought long and hard about because I have come to recognize that this kind of coerced consensus is maintained, not just in interpersonal relationships, but also at the communal level. The community can bully an individual into agreeing with the status quo, or it could stand by in silent approval while an individual does the bullying. This is an ethical problem of immense proportions. It whittles away at one's individuality and crushes his or her will. Furthermore, it creates an environment where abuse can thrive unchallenged for years. Ironically, this is the status quo in many communities that claim to hold free will, honesty, and integrity as ideals, most notably, intensely devout religious communities.

The question is, "What is the best way to address this problem?" Returning to the original example, is it incumbent on the man who is perceived as "Schrodinger's rapist" to respect the boundaries set by the woman, or is it incumbent on the woman to hold on to continue to assert herself, even in the face of resistance or intimidation by the man? The obvious solution is that both approaches are necessary. But I have a special interest in asserting the importance of the would-be victim's actions in this situation. I think it is especially empowering for individuals to gain the tools that allow them to set up and maintain their boundaries even when being pressured to give in by others.

The beginnings of victory lie in recognizing the moment when one's self-assertion is made to seem like an attack on the other person's feelings and resisting that interpretation of events.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.