Opting Out of the Beauty Myth

At the Independent, Charlotte Raven wonders whether the choices available to western (in this case British) women have gotten narrower in spite of feminism.

The following quote struck me in particular:

The pervasive fashion for porn-star depilation (and vaginal cosmetic surgery) is not the same as a fashion for floral prints or gladiator sandals. It is not that they are merely inconvenient or costly; they are symptoms of a deep social and political malaise. The rampant commodification of the female body and interpersonal relationships has become the defining feature of modern British popular culture. You can’t just opt out of it, unfortunately.

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, very few young women shaved their legs (and anybody who shaved down there likely was a model or stripper) or wore bras. Visiting a more conservative part of the US in the late 1980s, I was stunned that girls my age and younger wore bras – even if they didn’t have breasts yet – and that women shaved their legs and with the sort of Gillette razors usually reserved for men, too. The Americans in turn were stunned that I didn’t shave or wear a bra and saw no need to do so.

The fashion for shaving gradually started up in Germany after that and by the time I finished school, I few girls in my class had started shaving their legs. I shook my head and thought that it was just some stupid American fashion that would pass. Only that it became more and more pervasive in the following years. Women started shaving parts of their body that they would never have thought of a few years earlier and male chests started resembling the frozen whole chickens from the supermarket. The social pressure to conform became greater and greater as well and it became increasingly difficult even for normal, not famous women to opt out of high heels, bras, shaving and other excessive grooming habits.

Fast forward another couple of years: All of my female students wear bras these days – and we’re talking of seventh and eighth graders here. There are more high heels than you would have seen twenty years ago. I got in trouble for wearing heels that were two or three centimeters high to school – girls nowadays wear heel twice as high. I strongly suspect most of them shave off whatever body hair they have, too. The idea of a woman not wearing a bra is mindboggling to them.

Now I have never liked the sort of feminists who used to call any woman who wore skirts and dresses and make-up and long hair gender traitors. Feminism is about choice and that includes the choice to wear whatever we want and style our body in whatever way we like.

I’ve had more than my share of run-ins with that sort of feminist in the past such as the teacher (and it wasn’t even a female teacher) who called me to the front of the classroom to present my new white sandals with thin straps and two centimeter heels as a bad examples for shoes one should not wear*. I was proud of those shoes and even if they may not have been the most practical shoes in the world, that’s no reason to publicly humiliate an eleven year old. I never want to be that teacher and I don’t criticize or censor my students’ wardrobe choices, unless it gets into the realm of shirts with swastikas or Nazi slogans (never had that problem, thank heavens). Teenagers have the right to wear awful clothes and make unfortunate fashion choices. Besides, they usually learn from them. The girl who showed up for class in a transparent shirt (luckily she was wearing a bra underneath or I would have had to intervene) never wore that shirt again. And the girl who showed up in a tunic top that looked like she’d snurched it from her mother’s closet and wore it as a minidress (it barely covered her backside) never wore that particular outfit again either.

However, not criticizing the fashion choices of teens doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t criticize the beauty myth itself. Because it is very difficult to make it clear to those kids that there is no law that says “Thou shalt wear a bra and shave off thine body hair” and that they don’t have to do those things, if they don’t want to. It’s also difficult to make them understand that the beauty myths they have been fed all their lives are just that – myths.

What would help? For starters, if female celebrities were to opt out of excessive depilation and the like. Because while young girls probably won’t listen to a teacher (who are by definition old and dowdy to teenagers, even if they are not) who tells them that they don’t have to shave off their bodyhair if they don’t want to, they’d probably listen to the likes of Lady Gaga.

So unlike what Ms. Raven I wouldn’t say that it is impossible to opt out of current beauty myths. It is just very difficult and you have to weather a lot of social pressure.

*For some reason, teachers in the 1980s were excessively concerned with shoes. I even got shit for wearing Converse trainers – the only trainers I ever felt comfortable in – to sports class in that age of Nikes and Addidas (they don’t give enough support to the foot apparently). And heaven help you if you wanted to wear girly shoes with heels and thin straps.

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5 Responses to Opting Out of the Beauty Myth

  1. Pingback: Opting Out of the Beauty Myth | Cora Buhlert | Top Sports Bra

  2. Laran says:

    Very true, very true. My thoughts exactly.

    My strategy to defeat the beauty myth of shaving has mostly been to ask the “Why?” question. Next to nobody has an answer to it and it seems to get people reflecting about their choices. But I have to admit since a couple of years young people conter with “Shaving is hygienic, body hair is not.” I am sure this can’t be true, but some tiny nagging doubts remain. Cleanliness has been ingrained in people of our culture for so long, that it’s status comes ear to last absolute principle. To defeat such a rationalisation you need much more than some reflections on the cultural concept of beauty, you need to ask where the association between hairless and clean comes from and how certain catch phrases out of the medical sphere can have such an influence on what we think right and wrong, like “healthy”, “clean” and so on (that’s my topic, I#m afraid, I’m a medical historian).

    My teens were in the 90s, and by then, the field was divided. My friends and myself went with the older approach you describe for the 80s. But when I got older I soon discovered that most of these friends had defected, leaving me behind in their attitudes. After one not very successful and somewhat unpleasant shaving attempt, I took a solemn oath (like you do when you are 18, geeky, somewhat quaint, and feel the world is not for you) never to try it again. And I have kept it ever since.
    But – there is lots of social pressure. Nowadays, in my age group and the students you stand out. Or it feels as if you do, as if everyone’s gaze is glued to your legs. Wearing skirts without tights is something for strong days. The weaker days – covering legs up. That feels meek and spineless. The good days – discussing with students in my gender history seminar 19th century social constructions of beauty, gender, noting the implications of equalising women with children (mind, morals, body hair).

    • Cora says:

      I’ve heard the cleanliness and hygiene remarks, too. I’m pretty sure it’s all bunk, at least with healthy, uninjured bodies. Hygiene may be an issue during operations, that’s supposedly why they shave off hair on the affected bodypart before an operation and shave pubic hair before childbirth.

      But hygiene is the one argument that always works, whether it’s true or not. And Americans, who started this whole shaving business, are extremely hygiene and cleanliness conscious. Try discussing circumcision of baby boys for non-religious reasons with Americans sometime and you’ll get hit by the hygiene argument very quickly. Never mind that the US, where circumcision is common, actually has higher rates of most of the diseases circumcision is supposed to prevent.

      I have never opted into the whole shave your body hair and wear a bra all the time myths, but it takes courage to stick to your guns, when even relatives you know never wore bras or shaved when they were young try to pressure you. And I have given in in some respects. I used to wear mini-skirts all the time up to the mid 1990s or so. Now I mainly wear ankle length skirts and trousers and it’s not because my legs look so much worse than when I was twenty-three – it’s simply less hassle.

      As for students, at least yours, being adults, will only stare. Mine tend to make rude remarks about clothing and grooming choices. It’s even worse for younger teachers, the older colleagues are basically considered mummies. That’s one of the reasons I want to get back to university teaching – less drama.

      Just lately, a teen girl asked me whether I used to be a man, because I had hair on my lower arm. You can’t even blame the kids, they have been exposed to the beauty myth all their lives and there isn’t a whole lot to counter it, so they never question it. If you tell them that the bra and the fashion for shaving bodyhair in the West are barely a hundred years old and not some god-given edict, they don’t necessarily believe you.

      • Laran says:

        The last anecdote you told actually is quite funny because it is so very absurd in our view – before thinking it over shows how sad it is. Of course it’s not their fault, I agree. Weird how we all live in the same overall culture and still such fundamental things like how we perceive our body and those of others differ.

        • Cora says:

          Well, it’s not so funny if you’re on the receiving end of it, never mind that this particular student has been troublesome all year long. But it is sad, because it shows that teens have only been exposed to messages that only certain body types and traits are acceptable all their lives. It reminds me of the philosopher who allegedly was utterly disgusted upon finding out on his wedding night that real life women had pubic hair unlike the marble statues he had been exposed to thus far.

          I have no idea why your comments keep ending up in the spam folder BTW.

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