A few weeks ago, Rachel Hills blogged at Musings of an Inappropriate Woman about “beauty positivity” and “erotic capital”. At the end of the post, she asked these questions of the blogosphere:
“Am I on the right track with the idea that it’s not valuing beauty that’s the problem, but the fact that we’re socialised to believe that we’re never beautiful enough? Is this experience of ‘lack’ just a ‘neurotic Rachel’ thing, or an ‘other people’ thing as well?
“Moreover, is it just a female thing, or do men experience it as well?
“Have you managed to develop a positive approach to the way you look? What did it look like and how did you get there?
“How do we stop beauty positivity from turning into beauty privilege?”
So, here I will attempt to give my opinions on “erotic capital.”
Firstly, I have to start by saying that, miraculously, I feel I have come away from my media-influenced adolescence relatively unscathed. I love my body and the way I look, and enjoy dressing to reflect this. Sure, every now and then I have my “fat”, “ugly” and “bad hair” days, but on the whole, I am happy with how I look.
But, I have to agree with Hills’ summation that liking beautiful things and people isn’t the problem, as everyone has their own unique perception of beauty (the way the media tries to influence this to make it a “one-size-fits-all” lens is another problem—and blog post—entirely), but that, as women especially, we’re never good enough.
Again, I have high self-esteem and I will never let anyone or anything make me think I’m not “good enough” or deserving of the things I want. But often I will go out of my way to “prove” these things. When I go out dancing or to parties, I make an effort to wear the tightest, sluttiest thing I own. If I’ve been a bit lax on the work out regimen, I’ll double up on the control underwear, or wear something a bit more flowing.
My most insecure point is probably when I’m seeing someone new. I’ll have thoughts of, “I can’t get naked with this person until I’ve eradicated all my love handles and cellulite,” which is something that I’ve never been able to do nor am interested in doing since they appeared when I was about 13 or 14. I enjoy having a curvier figure, but I guess that’s the influence of “pornification of culture”, and all the pretty young things we see getting their kit off on TV manifesting.
But, in my experience, this isn’t exclusively a “female thing”. Two of the most in-touch men I’ve ever met are two of my closest friends, and the fact that they aren’t afraid to voice their body image concerns or the pressure put on men to look and be a certain way is a refreshing change to the stereotype of either “ripped football bogan” or “beer-bellied goofy bogan”. While it can certainly be an either/or representation of ripped men (NRL players and the True Blood stars come to mind) versus the incompetent, pudgy father seen most commonly in advertisements for nappies and spray and wipe, at the end of the day that’s nothing compared to what women have to deal with in the media. As Mia Freedman put it in her book, Mia Cupla:
“Pretend the world was full of pictures of naked men. On billboards and the sides of buses, in magazines and ads for beer, cars and deodorant. Imagine there were penises everywhere you turned and you couldn’t escape seeing them every day.
“And all the images of nude men were fake. Every male model and celebrity had had penile enlargement surgery, and afterwards, his penis had been extensively photoshopped to make it look even bigger. So now, all the penises you saw in the media every day were knee-length and as thick as an arm.
“One day, next to a magazine article about a celebrity with a foot-long penis, you read the headline: ‘This is what a 43-year-old penis looks like’. The caption underneath read: ‘Asked for the secret to his long schlong, former male model Markus Schenkenberg insists he was just born that way. “I wear cotton boxer shorts and I exfoliate in the shower,” he shrugs. “That’s all I do.”’
“After reading a hundred stories like that and being bombarded by 10,000 images of men with surgically altered and digitally enhanced penises, do you think you might look down at your natural, un-photoshopped trouser snake and feel a little… deflated? Inadequate? Insecure? Angry?”
As I said before, it is amazing that I managed to emerge from adolescence without a lingering negative thought about my body. Sure, I don’t like my legs or my stomach, but I dress to reflect this, and try not to get too paranoid about it. I prefer not to lounge by the pool in a bikini all day, and won’t wear a miniskirt without stockings or pantyhose to hold everything in place, but I won’t let these insecurities stop me from having fun.
My mum was very insecure about the way she looked, and this was projected onto my sister who, I believe, suffered the beginnings of an eating disorder a few years ago. Considering I was the one who was very into movies, TV, magazines and pop culture in general, it would be more likely—at least in the eyes of body image scaremongers—that I would be the one with the eating disorder.
One thing I did inherit from my mum, though, was her bad skin. She’s had skin conditions like dermatitis, allergies and surface veins all her life, and I was (un)lucky enough to get these, too. However, while she’s had relatively clear skin, pimple-wise, I suffered for several years with huge, painful zits which left scars, some of which I still have today. After years of trying to find products to prevent and get rid of these pimples, I finally realised that simple is best when it comes to skincare. I still get a large pimple every now and then (unfortunately, it’s large or it’s not there at all), but I’ve learned how to manage them. But the scars on my face are my biggest insecurity, and the humiliation was exacerbated by both the media, where the aforementioned pretty young things would frolic “make-up free” at the beach or when they woke up, and by people I encountered in my everyday life, who wouldn’t look me in the eye, but rather in the eye of my pimple.
Sometimes I look back on my younger years and I want to kick myself for being so typically self-conscious. I would apply a mask of makeup every day when I didn’t need it at all. I think age and wisdom are the only ways to really appreciate what you’ve currently got.
Finally, I have no idea “how to stop beauty positivity from turning into beauty privilege”. Personally, I don’t think the media plays the most important part in this. I think it starts at home: if parents, teachers and close family and friends can encourage “critical thought” about representations of not just beauty, but stereotypes of women and men, in the media, then young people have a better chance of understanding that what we see on TV, in magazines and advertisements isn’t real. This can be found elsewhere, in books, on blogs and using resources such as the Body Image Advisory Group, chaired by Freedman.
Of course “beauty privilege” is something we see more of in the media than in real life, as beauty campaigns and the lead role in movies like She’s Out of My League depend on the calibre of physical beauty a person woman possesses, whereas friendships, romantic relationships, business partnerships etc. involve other aspects.
So, I will now pass on Hills’ original questions to you, reader: what are your thoughts on “erotic capital” and beauty privilege?