Redefining Beauty

I’ve been seeing a lot of great articles and videos redefining beauty – the means by which we measure a woman’s worth. The new definitions make it more inclusive: you don’t have to be extremely thin, you don’t have to have perfect skin, you don’t have to be white, you don’t have to be able-bodied. You don’t have to measure your worth based purely on physical appearance. You can include attributes such as compassion, intelligence, determination, physical & emotional strength, etc. – basically, any characteristic one may find desirable in a human being can be included in the definition of beauty. They’re all valid ways to measure a woman’s worth.

One thing I find especially beautiful – or, to be more specific, inspiring – about women is their ability to redefine ideas in their culture that, to an outsider, appear to be oppressive (and may be, at least the way they are defined by the mainstream of the culture). It is an indispensable means of self empowerment in a world where a select minority are far too keen on keeping all the power for themselves. I want to applaud the people (men included) who are working so hard to redefine beauty to the point where they’re essentially telling all of us: You have worth. Whatever characteristics you have, something in there is of value to society. Be proud of who you are. Nurture and love yourself. I hope people will continue to do this because it’s a message we all need to hear, as frequently as possible. You don’t have to conform to the standards of beauty you see in the mainstream media. You have worth.

I can think of 2 lines to complete that message. The more commonly accepted one is probably: You’re already beautiful. The one I resonate with, though, is: You don’t have to be beautiful.

In other words, you don’t have to measure your worth, and you don’t have to prove it to others. You can just be yourself. You may have characteristics that are undervalued by our society, or things you’re not so good at, or even things you want to change about yourself… and that’s okay. You can still be fully who and what you are in this moment – and hold yourself in high esteem. No one has the right to treat you as anything less than their equal. (You don’t have the right to look down on anyone else, either.)

Using the words “beauty” and “beautiful” oversimplifies the way we talk to and about women. It limits our ability to acknowledge the impact women have on ourselves and on society. If I call Lupita Nyong’o’s speech “beautiful,” all I’m saying is that there was something I liked about it – for all you know, it could be the sound and rhythm of her voice or even just her physical appearance. But what if I said she made me more aware of a privilege I have as someone with light skin, because that aspect of my appearance is held as a standard she – an Academy Award-winning actress! – could never hope to attain? What if I said she is encouraging girls of color to focus more on being compassionate than on their physical appearance, particularly the darkness of their skin? What if I called her someone to look up to? An inspiration.

We don’t have a nice convenient word like “beauty” to use when talking about men. We have to be more specific. He is very charismatic. He knows everything there is to know about computers. He’s a firm but compassionate leader. He knows a lot of good jokes and is great at delivering them. He is very dedicated to his family and takes excellent care of his children. He’s the best composer/musician/writer/artist/etc. that ever lived. He’s an openly gay professional football player.

By describing specific characteristics of a person, we acknowledge their ability to influence us, and by extension to shape social ideals. We make them the acting subject who can change the world.

In contrast, all calling someone “beautiful” does is let others know we have a generally positive attitude toward them. It objectifies the person; this vibrant, complex, active human being becomes the object of our evaluation… and all we have to say is that they do indeed have worth.

So I’m going to ask people to take the redefining of beauty a step further, to make the most of an awesome thing women around the world have been doing to empower themselves for centuries. Let’s define beauty as a means of evaluating objects – art, music, architecture, machines, etc. – and not people. Let’s make a commitment to describing specific characteristics of and actions by women whom we admire. And more importantly, let’s collectively decide that everyone has inherent worth and treat each other with compassion.

Preventing Violence through Courage and Compassion

I was so inspired to read about Antoinette Tuff, who prevented a mass shooting at her school by talking to the gunman – both trying to understand him, and trying to help him relate to her. She was terrified, but she did it anyway, and saved over 870 lives. Meet Antoinette Tuff.

copyright Every Joe / Antoinette Tuff

copyright Every Joe / Antoinette Tuff

The Complexities of Language, Gender, and Identity

gender

I’ve been finding that the diverse language already available to describe one’s gender identity still doesn’t quite fit with how I perceive and wish to express myself. Even the very concept of gender identity is a bit uncomfortable for me because gender is a power hierarchy. It places men above women, and people who successfully conform to the gender binary above those who cannot or will not do so. I can acknowledge where I fall in the hierarchy – I believe doing so is a first step toward changing the system to be more egalitarian – but I feel disinclined to identify with “my place” in it. How can I do that, when I believe it shouldn’t even exist? (I suppose the same differentiation can be applied to other social/power hierarchies such as class and race.)

The term “gender identity” also assumes that it is possible for one to have an innate sense of oneself that is not shaped by outside forces (i.e. culture). We identify with what we know, and what we know is our culture. Ozy Frantz argues that many people simply identify the way they are raised, allowing their self-perception to be shaped by culture and never questioning it.

girl-or-boy-predictions

The child hasn’t even been born yet and is already being put in a box!

I would argue that even someone who does not identify the way hir culture dictates ze should builds some part of hir identity upon not conforming. If I say I am queer or gender-fluid, I am saying that I do not fit into the gender binary – a concept of myself I would not even need to have if it were not for the influence of culture: people treating and expecting me to behave a certain way based on their perception of my biological sex. Someone who is transgendered and/or transsexual might not identify as trans (e.g. trans-woman), but hir self-perception is shaped by cultural norms for the gender/sex ze identifies as (e.g. woman).

300px-Woman_Montage_(1)

multicultural images of women

Speaking of the term, “woman,” what does it refer to, anyway? Is a woman:

  • a person who was born with ovaries, fallopian tubes, a uterus, a vagina, labia, a clitoris, and mammary glands capable of developing and lactating if/when she becomes pregnant?
  • a person who menstruates?
  • a person who perceives her body as female and believes it should have some or all of the above parts, whether she was born with them or not?
  • a person who values and actively conforms to the norms associated with females in her culture?
  • a person whom others perceive as female, treat accordingly, and expect to behave a certain way?
  • a person who is or wants to become a mother?
  • a person who falls lower on the gender hierarchy (than a man)?

Of course, I’ve had to rely on other culturally-laden terms in order to compose the above definitions. The term “female” is part of another cultural binary – sex – which assumes human bodies generally take one of two forms, complete with specific anatomical features, hormones, chromosomes, etc. The term “mother” is also complex and becomes even more so when one considers reproductive technologies. picasso_mother_and_child_1905_Is a mother:

  • the person whose egg is fertilized to create a new human?
  • the person who becomes pregnant with and gives birth to this new human?
  • the person who provides and cares for this new human?

Of course, for both “woman” and “mother,” the answer can be any or all of the above (or something else); these definitions need not be exclusive. We don’t even need to agree on which definitions to include! That’s actually the point I’m trying to make here: these terms are so complex, they can be applied to a wide range of individuals who are more different from each other than they are similar. For many if not most cases, only some of the definitions will be accurate.

A similar analysis can be applied to the terms “man” and “father” as well. Conflicting concepts of masculinity add to the complexity of such an analysis.

Creating A New Vocabulary

I have come to the conclusion that the best way for me to be able to explain my understanding of myself (as an embodied individual whose body has cultural meaning and socioeconomic repercussions) is to make up new words and define them precisely the way I want to.

Noun or Adjective?

One thing I find interesting about the terms above – “woman,” “mother,” “man,” and “father” – is that they are all nouns. Terms used to classify people along other aspects of identity such as race, class, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability/disability, education level, etc. are often adjectives – or, one has the option of using either an adjective or a noun. When it comes to gender, the terms are nouns – except that “woman” is sometimes used as an adjective, e.g. “woman president;” you would never hear of someone being called a “man president.”

Using a noun to classify someone seems to imply that that dimension of hir self is more important, innate, or central than the other dimensions. Your race, age, etc. might describe you, but your gender defines you. Frankly, I see no reason why gender should be any more important than any other aspect of someone’s identity, or where ze falls in various socioeconomic/power hierarchies. For many people, it’s not.

My New Adjectives

  • mamutva reproductive system

    mamuva reproductive system

    mamuva – naturally possessing functional mammary glands, a uterus, a vagina, ovaries, etc.; may or may not menstruate (depending on age, weight, etc.)

  • mamuva’ididentifies as mamuva, whether hir body conforms to the definition or not
  • mamvanormal – values and actively conforms to the norms associated with being mamuva and/or mamuva’id in hir culture, including dress, mannerisms, etc.
  • mamvaseen – perceived by others as mamuva; treated, addressed, described, and expected to behave according to the relevant cultural norms
  • pentestum reproductive system

    pentestum reproductive system

    pentestum – naturally possessing a penis, testes, scrotum, etc.

  • pentestum’ididentifies as pentestum, whether hir body conforms to the definition or not
  • pentumnormal – values and actively conforms to the norms associated with being pentestum and/or pentestum’id in hir culture, including dress, mannerisms, etc.
  • pentumseen – perceived by others as pentestum; treated, addressed, described, and expected to behave according to the relevant cultural norms

Describing Myself

Now that I have some new adjectives to use, I can better describe myself. I am a person who happens to be mamuva and is usually mamuva’id; I am happy with my body the way it is and take pleasure in it – both through currently-available experiences and when thinking about its potential to grow and nurture another human being. Sometimes I feel pentestum’id and wish I could (temporarily) morph my body to match. I do not consider myself to be particularly mamvanormal or pentumnormal. Perhaps I am somewhere in between, choosing which norms I’m comfortable with at a given moment and attempting to ignore the rest.

If I experience gender-related dysphoria, it is not because of my body. It is my response to being mamvaseen and particularly to the expectation that I am or should be mamvanormal. I actively reject many if not most of the norms associated with being mamuva in my culture because they would limit me to a decorative, nurturing, and supportive role in society Рwhile also making it easier for me to fall victim to predators and to believe I deserved to be victimized. No thank you!

sexism-picture

legs on display, unprotected, in high heels that make it difficult to run away – all part of the daily grind

I would much rather be seen as a person, an equal, someone who can do whatever ze wishes with hir life. I refuse to be placed in a subordinate position in a hierarchy that should not even exist in the first place.

Which brings us to the term “woman” one last time. I do not identify with that term as a means of describing a person physically, psychologically, or hierarchically. But I can identify with women as a political group – a group of people who have been systematically oppressed, devalued, etc. in diverse cultures for millenia. They have not been passive victims by any means – they have always worked to live the most personally-fulfilling, meaningful, and at times world-shaping lives possible within the constraints placed on them by society. And we continue to do so, building on the progress toward equality made by our mothers (and fathers), grandmothers (and grandfathers), great-grandmothers (and great-grandfathers), etc.

A1SGQ7DCEAAy-Mq.jpg large

sometimes we have to make the same progress over and over and over again

Moving Forward

The adjectives I created are intended to be mutually-inclusive; you can combine them with each other and with other adjectives (e.g. intersex, queer, etc.) however you see fit. That said, the list is nowhere near exhaustive. If you think of an adjective that should be on the list but isn’t, please let me know in comments!

How would you use these terms and others to describe yourself? I’d love to read about it in comments. Or, if you’re inspired to write your own post about it, please link back to this one. The pingback will allow me and other readers to go read and comment on your post. I hope we can spark a conversation about this topic that can go far beyond my blog.

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!