I Don’t Need to Be “Beautiful”

This random guy tried to call my attention to him as I walked down a busy street the other day. He said, “Hey, beautiful,” as I passed by. My first response was to feel harassed, but I tried to talk myself down from it: “Feel good – he thinks you’re beautiful!” “Maybe he wasn’t even talking to you. He was probably calling someone else beautiful.”

The thing is, I don’t want or need to care what a random stranger thinks of my appearance. I just want to go where I’m going in peace. That’s what it all comes down to: people just want to go about their lives without being subjected to everyone else’s (observable) appraisal of them. Half the population is (generally) able to do this. But the half with boobs (or the ability to grow them) are subjected to it so frequently it’s considered “normal.”

Even just having one’s attention drawn to one’s appearance is invasive: it distracts from more important thoughts such as where one is going, what’s going on in one’s surroundings, whatever else is on one’s mind – such as thoughts related to one’s job or family life or important social / political / economic issues, etc. In my case, I went from feeling confident and happy about the task I’d just completed to questioning whether anyone could possibly consider me “beautiful.”

Why should I care? That’s his opinion; they’re his thoughts. They have nothing to do with me, my strengths and weaknesses, what I’m doing with the rest of my day, my interpersonal relationships, my career, etc. Let his thoughts stay with him. I have enough thoughts of my own, thank-you-very-much! And, frankly, I have enough mental health issues to work through, without being plunged back into the insecurity about my appearance that plagued me in high school.

Why do men do this? The only answer I can think of is that they want that “beautiful” woman to pay attention to them, even if only by making eye contact for a moment. Why? To inflate their ego? To feel powerful?

But it’s not really fair to blame the man who does this on the street. Yes, he should choose not to do it, but he’s just repeating what society tells him is appropriate. He might not know about the potentially harmful aspects of what he’s doing. He probably thinks he’s paying me – or the woman behind me – a compliment.

The real problem is much bigger than he – or his ego! –  will ever be. Why is this man’s self-esteem dependent on a “beautiful” woman paying attention to him? Is his social, political, and/or economic power so limited that the only way he can feel powerful is by expressing his opinion of and demanding attention from women? Why does he feel entitled to solicit attention from a random stranger by breaking the usual unspoken rule: let people go about their day in peace!? Okay maybe he wanted to be friendly – there is certainly a place for that. But it’s better accomplished by saying “hello” or “good day” – some greeting that is appropriate between beings who regard each other as equals. There is no need for one such being to give hir opinion of the other, especially not regarding something as shallow as physical appearance.

And then we come to the other side: Why are those of us who have boobs programmed to feel flattered by the word, “beautiful,” to seek it out, to respond automatically when someone applies it to us? I know I am smart, creative, resilient, determined, compassionate, etc. Why should I need or want to be “beautiful,” too? All “beauty” does is make me – or a moment of my attention – desirable to someone who knows nothing about me. I don’t need that! Why would anyone want to draw that kind of selfish attention to zirself?

If I care that you think I’m “beautiful,” then I am acting as a mirror for you! I’m reflecting that your opinion of my appearance matters more (at least in that moment) than everything else that’s going on in my life. No! I’m not a mirror, I’m a person! I have places to be, people to interact with, things to do, thoughts to think, masterpieces to create, a royally fucked-up world to change. If you need a mirror, go buy one at the dollar store.

I don’t want to be “beautiful” and I don’t need it, because I’m already powerful. That is, I have a lot of personal power – my social and political power are limited by the structures of inequality that privilege the few at the expense of the many. But I can use my personal power to work through my difficulties, to weaken the foundation of those structures (e.g. cultural values such as “beauty” which limit one’s ability to tap into personal power), to empower myself and others, and to live a life that I find meaningful.

Guest Post by Fox: Masculinity, Tools of Violence, and Embracing Femininity

Ziya touched on gun violence briefly, and in the weeks since Sandy Hook a whole lot has been said about it and the issue of gun control itself. I’m sure most people have heard enough speculation about Sandy Hook, so I’m going to stick to a matter that perhaps has not been touched on enough – one of the key reasons why the gun control fight has been so hard.

There seems to be, in the American psyche at least, an inherent bond between traditional masculinity and the desire to own/use at least one gun. And for many of these men, the more guns they own (and the more powerful they are), the more manly they feel. I have to imagine this is part of the appeal of hunting, and one of the reasons shooting ranges exist in the first place. And this is a lesson that men learn from an early age – from the moment they are exposed to the flashy duels of westerns or the massive fire fights of many action films and shows, as well as the ads for kid safe guns (like Nerf products).

Certainly, I recognize the other reasons for wanting to own a gun. The ability to defend one’s self and one’s family, especially from a distance, has to be a powerful incentive (particularly since we, as men, are taught that we need to protect our families). But I believe that the gun ownership drive is merely one example of the greater lesson society teaches to men.

That lesson is this: Men are socialized to be comfortable with, and even like, violence and aggression. This includes socialization toward the tools that get used in violent and aggressive acts: fists, bats, hammers, knives, guns, etc. Sure, bats are a critical tool for baseball; just like knives and hammers have their own, non-violent uses. But we don’t often glorify these uses for boys and men. Instead, we show just how much damage these items can do to someone who threatens us. And for the male who has been fed this version of masculinity, any attempt at controlling these urges very much feels like an attack. The perceived aggression begets more aggression, and the cycle promises to never stop.

I myself am no stranger to this sort of socialization. I own a few Nerf guns, and will admit to some curiosity towards learning to shoot a pistol. But unlike many American men, I’ve always seemed to favor the melee items – knives, swords, axes, and other medieval weapons. Even my choice of ranged weaponry (the one I’d love to learn the most), is the long bow. When I was younger, I used to design cool looking swords and axes, with all sorts of interesting blade and hilt shapes. I still have the pictures somewhere of those designs too; one of those designs I was even able to have made in wood to complete a Halloween costume.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve played a number of LARPs (Live Action Role Plays – one of which I helped write), sparred with friends and Ziya (using bokken, foam weapons, and even high-quality light sabers), and I’ve even built up a small knife and sword collection (some meant solely for costuming, and others that can actually be used). So I can understand the weapon collecting many men do. Aside from the actual metal blades, I have a small personal armory of foam and training pieces, too.

But I consider myself different from many men, even though I very much identify as one.

Why? Partially, it’s because I know the difference between fantasy and reality, and so as much as I might fantasize about life in the (albeit romanticized) medieval era, I know that attempting to live that way in the main of life is foolish. Partially, it’s because I was taught how to solve problems through discussion and compromise.

But mostly, it’s because I was never fully socialized into traditional masculine culture. I’ve been surrounded by strong feminine influences; my mother, sister, aunts, and grandmothers are all strong women. So the interdependent, in control, proud woman model that scares so many men today is the norm for me.

I was never taught by my parents that boys couldn’t cry, and I was never talked out of interests that society deems feminine. Nor was my sister ever forced to conform to traditional gender norms. So, I suppose one could say that I am not a man in the traditional American sense of the word.

That’s okay with me though. I wouldn’t want to conform to those norms anyway – from where I’m “standing” they seem like a rather restrictive cage. I rather enjoy the freedom to be who I am, not who society thinks I should be. I thoroughly believe that the more “masculine” aspects of my personality are tempered by the “feminine” ones – allowing me to be a more balanced individual; not another man whose hyper-concentrated masculinity is butting heads with a world that cannot support it anymore.

I sincerely believe that men everywhere would be better off living in a world where there is not just one way to be a man, and where both the “masculine” and “feminine” can happily live at peace in one person.

First Feminine Friday … erm, Saturday: What is Femininity?

On Friday I thought I was going to my mom’s to confirm the pattern I wanted the contractor to make with the tiles and accent pieces in the kitchen, then maybe having lunch, and heading home “not too late.” Instead I stayed until it was almost midnight! So, my apologies for this late post.

We ended up moving stuff (including heavy furniture!) all over the house, revising my plan for how to arrange a couple of rooms, creating our own pattern with the tiles and accent pieces, leaving a note to explain that pattern is what we want in a specific area, talking, laughing, and being quite silly. We agreed while talking about politics (that’s at best a very rare occurrence). I even dusted! (something I usually hate and almost never do). There were a few times when she seemed stressed or uncertain about a decision when I found myself going into “problem solver and supporter mode” and feeling masculine. But, otherwise, I felt very feminine.

It’s hard to get more girly than making patterns with tiles, getting rid of things you think are ugly because you don’t trust the contractor not to put them on your wall, and giggling with your mom. But I’ll be the first to admit I’m not really an expert on femininity; to be honest most of the time when I’m around feminine women I just feel very out-of-place and confused. So, I thought it might be better to look at what different people around the Internet have to say about femininity …

The first definition of “feminine” in the Urban Dictionary is basically “whatever a woman does.” I like that definition, and I’ll explain why. It follows logically that a possible definition of “masculine” is “whatever a man does.” Since most behaviors are shared by humans regardless of gender (e.g. eating, sleeping, fornicating, answering the call of nature, using a phone, blogging, playing video games, watching TV, shopping, care giving, arguing, compromising, exercising, listening to music, cooking, reading, etc.), then most behaviors are both masculine and feminine. We just decide that behaviors we see women doing are feminine; we’d call the same behaviors masculine if we saw men doing them. If I do these behaviors, does that make them queer?

Other definitions on the same page (link above) include the terms: understanding, empathetic, sensitive, submissive, gentle, modest, willowy, pretty, nurturing, demure, playing with Barbies, watching romantic movies, swaying hips while walking, sweet, inoffensive, passive, and (I’m paraphrasing here) intellectually challenged. One definition points out that women can be strong, direct, and independent.

Erm, okay, so how do I pull all that off? Well, wikiHow has advice for How to Be Feminine. The article is worth a read; for the most part it gives a positive view of femininity and some suggestions that could be fun to try. Some of them include: recreating the conditions of times when you felt feminine, loving your body (including curves), being graceful, dancing, being playful, making yourself look good by wearing certain types of clothes and (optionally) makeup, and being confident. I like the focus on enacting positivity toward yourself, no need for perfectionism, and finding what fits you (literally). I’m not crazy about the images in the article because all of the women in them are young, light-skinned, and relatively thin. I’d be happier if more diverse ages, skin tones, and body shapes & sizes were represented.

Caroline Turner describes leadership styles that can be described as feminine in her article, Can ‘Feminine’ Women Make It To the Top? They include a focus on relationships and community in the workplace, egalitarianism, collaboration, focus on process and synthesizing input from different people to make decisions, persuading instead of commanding, and sharing. These strategies are used effectively by both women and men. In feminine leadership styles, there seems to be more of a focus on collective effort and success, rather than on individual competition to rise to the top and lead through force or dominance.

Finally, the TV Tropes Gender Dynamics Index provides an overview of how gender is portrayed in fiction. Such portrayal not only reveals cultural perceptions of femininity (and masculinity), but also shapes them.

Female characters are objectified, reactive, relational, and motivational. Their value is based on passive attributes such as physical sex, appearance, vulnerability, and chastity. What they are is more important than what they do. Their reactions to other characters, locations, events, etc. are used to engage the audience emotionally and indicate how the audience should feel about these things. They gain significance based on their relationships to others (especially men and family), rather than their own actions & merit. Family is the most important thing for women and they’ll sacrifice pretty much everything for it. Female characters exist to motivate other (male) characters.

According to this portrayal, femininity is about being passive support for men. Support for their actions, their ego, their sexual fantasies, their success. Not one’s own. This is the message people are internalizing every day.

I’d much rather join in World Femininity Day and be fabulous.

And visit Miss Representation.org to learn about how misrepresentation of women in the media hurts us all (yes, including men) – as well as what people can do about it!

How would you define “feminine” and “femininity”?

When do you feel the most feminine? Is there anything you do intentionally to feel or be more feminine?

What are your thoughts regarding portrayal of women and femininity in the media?

Do you have any questions about this post? Ask away! Anything you disagree with? I’d love to hear from you!