“I sit down at the fire and I become aware of my uniform.
I had not seen it. It is indeed ugly.
I stop there, for who can tell me what beauty is?”
-Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
When I first read Hanne Blanke‘s quirky yet captivating poem, “real women,” it was when I first began to really embrace the need for body-positivity in all forms. The first time I saw it, it was posted on Feministing.com, one of the many influential websites in the feminist blogosphere. Soon after, it quickly became one of my favorite poems, so much that a printed copy still lays nestled between my cherished copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.
Although Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and the work of countless other thinkers, writers, and feminists have told us the high price of beauty for women long before Hanne Blanke, there is a continuous need for refreshing body-positive views in a world saturated with unrealistic and oft-unattainable images of beauty. These ideas of beauty set standards that many of us cannot attain but we will nevertheless worry about and with time go at great lengths to try and change ourselves to fit the fold. I was coming to understand that not all bodies are valued equally in this world, having experienced it without being cognizant of it, which I had difficulty articulating.
Even though I benefit from the privileges of whiteness and thinness, as well as the fruits of my Icelandic genes, my own hyperthyroidism makes it difficult for me to assimilate into any culture that conflates muscularity with masculinity. I’m thin, but I’ll never be hunky or beefy. I’ll probably never have guns like Marlon Brando or get phes to swoon when I walk by the way like he did. But that’s the case for the vast majority of real people.
Sure, some people like thin guys, but it becomes hard for be to be read as anything but a “twink” in queer communities and spaces, albeit I’d be a 6’5” one. As evidenced by this dismal Gawker article, a purported “Handy Guide to All Gay Men,” being viewed as a “twink” means that I’ll “tend” to be “on the queeny side” and likely be “bait to older men.” Surely my body in and of itself can’t tell you that much, can it? Thin male bodies in male queer communities tend to be read a certain femme-expressing way. Having grown up in Iceland, furthermore, my thinness was somehow often viewed by others to be tied to my own expressions of femininity and timidity. To many, I’ll never be “man” enough. Whatever that means. And for me, this no longer matters.
Lookism is perhaps the most insidious and intersectional form of discrimination because it impacts each and every individual in one way or another. It intertwines itself with different ideal types of bodies, genders, races, attires, roles and rules, which means that people can discriminate against other people’s looks in a myriad of equally fleeting manners. While thin women and muscular men tend to dominate such ideals in the U.S. and most of the Western world, depending on who you’re asking and who’s desiring whom, such ideals have drastically changed over time and differ between various bodies with varying characteristics. The only thing that stays constant are the desires of those in power, which tend then to be the desires that matter, and the desires that many companies with beauty products are attuned to and seek to satisfy; and as a result of some bodies being deemed desirable, others must navigate a world that maybe will never view their bodies as ideal, beautiful, or desirable. Some see their bodies represented on-screen while watching TV or the latest Hollywood flick; but most don’t. Despite all of this, every individual has set preferences in their own desires and we tend to immediately discern between sexual and platonic relationships, though this division is not of course the case for everybody. We often reduce people to the bodies they inhabit – and it goes both ways for “beautiful” and “ugly” people, whatever those terms mean in their situated cultural and corporeal contexts. In reality, it is not bodies in and of themselves that are “beautiful” or “ugly” or somewhere there in between, but instead it is our intersubjective and mediated culture that aestheticizes, sexualizes and desexualizes different bodies at different times and for different reasons.
What does it mean to inhabit or occupy a body that the world has difficulty embracing? Or to defy or even alter the expectations that our bodies elicit? Which bodies do we valorize and which do we displace? Should we change ourselves, if we can? Or should we simply vacate the premises? And why, still, do we as a nation spend tens of billions of dollars in the beauty industry every year?
Indeed, once we begin to examine the varying types of discrimination based on looks, we realize that one of the most important yet still neglected realms of disparity and discrepancy is that of beauty, aesthetics, and appearances. White or light-skinned and “able” bodies tend to dominate images of beauty displayed in today’s media rather than bodies of color and “disabled” bodies. Cis-gendered bodies are the mainstay while transgender bodies are often only desirous once fetishized. In order to be intersectional, our feminisms must be rooted in anti-lookist politics. We must welcome the beauty in all bodies with open arms. Because, as Glenn Marla writes, “there is no wrong way to have a body.”
all Images found via Google Image Search