Criticizing beauty standards without criticizing women

Feministe has an article (and comment thread) [since removed] which touches on something that’s been on my mind lately: how do you criticize insane beauty standards without criticizing the women who fit them, or work to? And is it ever appropriate to criticize women who engage in patriarchy-approved beauty rituals?

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years pointing out that the famine-starved look is not sexy to everyone, despite Hollywood’s insistence that it is. It’s important to point out that hypocrisy and question it. But is that what a woman suffering from an under-eating disorder needs to hear? Maybe I’m part of why women who intentionally pursue extreme low weight are trying to shift perception of their eating habits from health issue to alternative lifestyle.

And… I don’t know. Maybe they’re right. We can’t cure the cold. Do we know for certain what’s healthy?

And when we talk about how uncomfortable it is to watch an actress whose 207 bones are all clearly visible, and how our boyfriends or husbands find her gross too, are we just continuing the objectification that led the producers to hire her in the first place? Is it any better to sit there speculating about how creepy her body would feel if you were having sex with her than it is to speculate about whether she gives a good blow job?

I’m looking for a better way to discuss these issues. Sometimes counter-arguments to the status quo have the unfortunate side-effect of affirming the original argument’s right to exist: instead of saying “Who cares how skinny or fat she is?” I’ve been retorting “Skinny sucks” to their claim that “Fat sucks”. What sucks is judging people.


  1. Maartje says

    But isn’t judging what we do here? In finding good female characters, there is a physical aspect of those characters that has to be weighed in. How does their appearance make the character more or less believable?
    Also, it is easier to judge boney people harshly because fat people (supposedly) feel bad enough already. In a way I think judging it is necesary- there are so many health risks involved with being too thin (more than being too fat even). If we don’t tell it like it is, who will?
    I believe people with eating disorders will find excuses to have eating disorders and to make those disorders seem OK, everywhere. That’s just the nature of the beast.
    Of course I’m talking about judging what I see on TV, not real life.

  2. MaggieCat says

    But isn’t judging what we do here? In finding good female characters, there is a physical aspect of those characters that has to be weighed in. How does their appearance make the character more or less believable?

    I think there’s a difference between judging a character on her merits (or lack thereof) and judging the person portraying the character. It’s one thing to critique someone’s appearance when it conflicts with the character for some reason- especially if it’s because the actress fits the current ideal while a more realistic image of the character wouldn’t (I’d certainly be the first in the protest line if they cast some teeny waif as Lillian Russell); it’s another thing entirely to simply say that an actress is too thin or too heavy. It’s a subject where the practicalities are just too hard for me to overlook- at the core, she’s an actress trying to do her job, and that generally means conforming to whatever standards the casting directors have at any given time. So for me at least, it has to do with criticizing the people who refuse to cast actresses who still possess their natural body type and refuse to (or can’t) conform to those very rigid standards, without hitting the woman trying to stay employed by mistake.

    In a way I think judging it is necesary- there are so many health risks involved with being too thin (more than being too fat even). If we don’t tell it like it is, who will?

    This walks a very tricky line in my opinion- having been on both sides of this kind of criticism in the past, I can tell you that telling people they should change because they’re doing something unhealthy is both hurtful and futile considering that there’s a reasonable chance they can’t do much about it. And not too long ago doctors were telling people that being the slightest bit overweight constitutes a major health risk while arguing the dangers of being slightly underweight were marginal comparatively, so hanging criticisms on the basis of science for a subject that is so highly charged and painful for many women is shaky ground at best. Everyone in the world is willing to tell you that you’re too fat or too skinny, and a lot are willing to go on about it at length- until someone actually demonstrates that they have no knowledge of the health benefits or risks of their behavior, assume they’ve heard it and either don’t care or can’t do much about it. Repeating it over and over is probably just going to frustrate them, and quite possibly hurt them. Not worth the risk on a broad scale, in my opinion.

    I don’t necessarily think criticism is the best way to go in this case, at least not when it means singling out an example. I think that it’s safer, and ultimately more productive, to criticize the people responsible for the images rather than the image herself, while providing positive reinforcement to the ones who manage to break the mold, retain their individuality, and present a wider and more inclusive scope of images to the audience. Inclusion is always better.

  3. says

    MaggieCat – Well said.

    Daisy – I wasn’t too keen on the original post or many of the comments that followed, but I’ve enjoyed reading some of the thoughtful responses to it that I’ve bumped into online (Mighty Ponygirl’s at Feminist Gamers sticks out in my mind as particularly memorable). I’m a little confused about your comment. Can you clarify what you mean by “We seem to be further apart on this subject than ever before.”?

  4. says

    Female appearances; making oneself attractive, and whether the high-heeled gals are the root of all evil or not. (intentional sarcasm)

    At some point, we need to be able to criticize the damaging lengths women go to, keeping in mind that we all participate to some degree and not being self righteous about it.

    It’s a fine line.

  5. Jess says

    Daisy, it is a fine line, but I think there’s a difference between criticizing the woman and criticizing “the damaging lengths that women go to” as you so aptly put it. I think it’s counterprouctive to criticize women who make those choices, even if they are influenced by the media’s idea of beauty.

    Additionally, where do you draw the line. For example, women who get implants because their breasts are different sizes. Is that acceptable, or is it pandering to a impossible standard? If correcting something embarrassing like that is ok, why aren’t breast implants?

  6. firebird says

    I think something that can really help with criticizing the standards instead of the (choices of the) women involved is to remove value or moral judgment from the choices and place them where they belong – on standards imposed from outside on those choices or realities.

    It’s important to me that each person be free to choose; I don’t believe that that means I have to find every choice beautiful or compelling. I understand that we need to work to change the state of a society that imposes irrational and dangerous standards of beauty; but I don’t think that makes individual people’s preferences wrong or invalid in and of themselves.

    Insofar as this extends to THL’s focus on media, what I keep looking for and hoping for is a more realistic distribution of sizes and shapes and colors – not that any one woman character can’t measure to the standard, but that it is improbable and reinforces damaging stereotypes when every woman conforms to the standards.

    And the count-the-ribs starlets? I dunno. I mean, I think they should be free to make choices too. And I think it’s sad for those who feel like they must do that to themselves to make the grade. But I still think I have the right to have an opinion about what is pretty or not, and to express it, as long as it is not in a way that is hurtful or insisting my judgment is the only worthwhile opinion.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    In my ideal world, women would have what men have enjoyed for ages:

    –Beauty is an arguable advantage in dating, not a requirement. (I say arguable, because it does actually cause problems.)
    –Beauty is irrelevant in other aspects of life (this is changing for men, but only because the beauty industry is realizing they’re a whole new market to be shamed into paying big bucks).
    –All types of women can be beautiful. No pressure to look like another type entirely.
    –If you’re just not beautiful, so what? You can be smart or funny or kind instead, and that will be appreciated by people.

    Because we don’t have this, it’s hard to guess if a woman is making a beauty choice for herself or because of pressure she’s internalized and now believes to be her own choice. But suggesting a woman might be acting on social programming rather than her own heartfelt desires amounts to an insulting accusation. Maybe the trick is to acknowledge each time that we are ALL programmed. But even that can sound condescending.

    Keep in mind: big breasts were out in the 70’s/80’s, and in the 20’s. Trends keep changing, and I honestly think it’s a power trip to see how many hoops “the dumb broads” will leap through. The beauty industry has perceived men as “too smart” to fall for that stuff and left them mostly alone. It’s not that women need to smarten up – with messages this pervasive, men would buckle quickly too. It’s that women need support in realizing you shouldn’t have to go through anymore hoops than do men to get what you want out of life, whatever that is.

    But how do you offer that support without coming off as smug and perhaps driving a woman further into the camp that believes feminists are jealous harpies?

  8. Jess says

    I think maybe the only way to turn the whole thing around would be to value women on intangible qualities first and make beauty into a non-issue. Considering that we as women seem to use complimenting on appearence as a form of bonding, I think that approach is unlikely to take off.


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