The Politics of Pretty

One of the greatest systemic privileges that exists in society is beauty. I will not say it is a greater or lesser privilege than any other, but it is a substantial one, and one that I’ve not often seemed framed in terms of privilege.

The ‘politics of attractiveness’ I’ve seen thrown around a bit as a phrase. Maybe if I’d clicked on those Jezebel links, I would have found this already said. But this is what I have to say on the subject.

Attractiveness is a system. I mean that in the sense that it is systemic. It is a culturally pervasive way of categorizing identity that exists beyond any individual’s perception. It is repeatedly reinforced through cultural narratives. It is hierarchicalized. It is something we are born into without choosing to be, and it is a system in which we all fit.

As with any privilege, the lines cannot be absolutely drawn. Yes, there are rich and poor, black and white, male- and female-born, cis and trans, but the extent to which any system of hierarchy affects each individual is distinct for that individual’s experience. Attractive-unattractive is a spectrum of hierarchy, one that changes depending on each cultural landscape and changes over time.

I would also say that ugliness or unattractiveness are oppressed identities. The voices of those deemed Ugly by societal beauty standards are so often less heard. Their identities are less seen. Their bodies are less represented, their stories less told, their experiences less validated. Further, there is a pervasive narrative that being unattractive is your fault. That being fat, having pimples, not having big perky tits and a tight ass, not having rippling muscles, not being tall, being too tall, all of these are chosen shortcomings that deem you less worthy of love, sex, attention and empathy.

The system of beauty becomes corrosive on the self, and so often on self-love. I cannot speak for everyone, but my sense of self-worth is intimately tied with my weight. If I’m even just bloated that day, I feel less worthy of love and attention from myself or others. If I haven’t shaved my armpits. If I’m not wearing makeup. If my hair is limp and my bra isn’t tight enough to push my tits up high.

It is everywhere. Fucking everywhere. You don’t need me to tell you that.

I don’t know if I even have anything new or earth-shattering to say on the subject, but I’m gonna keep writing and see where this goes.

Definition of Terms
So far, I’ve used the terms Ugly and Unattractive as interchangeable. They are and they are not, as are all things. Ugly to me means Possessing a negative aesthetic quality. Unattractive means Possessing qualities disliked by others. Ugly relates more to the thing itself and the general world, Unattractive to the relationship between the thing and its beholder.

I suppose that it all exists only in its relationships (Hats off to you and your stick, Alan Watts.) Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To me, the word Unattractive smacks of a particular sexual dynamic that is so pervasive in discussions of beauty, but not the full story here.

As I said before, I don’t know if I have much more new to offer here except my own experiences, so that is what I am offering.

On weight
I have long had what you might call an unhealthy relationship with my body, my weight, and with food.

I was seriously bulimic for about six years, to the point where even after a recent bout of food poisoning I guzzle water with rehydration salts because I am terrified of fucking up my electrolytes to the point where I’ll have a heart attack. Fear for the health of my heart has yet to stop me from smoking cigarettes, and was not the thing that ultimately stopped me taking cocaine. Cocaine keeps me from eating. Cigarettes curb my appetite. It’s a feedback loop.

The heaviest I have ever been was 163 pounds (about 74 kg). I am now about 140 (about 63 kg), maybe less after said recent touch of food poisoning. This is the lightest I’ve been in my adult life. I don’t feel that much sexier for the most part, but I like the way my legs look more in the mirror now. I still feel fat in photographs. I still associate fat with unattractive. I still judge myself. Sometimes, more often than I would like, I still judge others.

I am in much ‘worse’ shape than before. I am skinnier, but I have far weaker and smaller muscles. I eat so much less because I hardly exercise. For the first time in my life, I just forget to eat.

On photographs
When I see photos of myself that don’t look the way I think I look, it’s not only a jarring dislike of not looking the way I think I do. It’s that in those photos, I don’t look attractive the way I want to. I don’t see how someone could look at that face and that body and be attracted to it. I hate myself a little bit in those moments. I hate myself more for hating myself. I hate myself for not accepting that it’s okay to hate myself. I hate and I hate and I hate.

On make-up
I wear makeup to look both more attractive and more like myself. In my image of myself, I have unnaturally dark lines above my eyes that can only be applied by eyeliner. I look washed out when I see myself without eye makeup. I feel less beautiful. I get confused when people flirt with me when I’m not wearing makeup.

Makeup, to me, is a tool. Like all tools, it can be used in ways that are helpful and unhelpful. It can be so powerful for creating the self, for genderfucking, for empowerment, for art. It can be so unhelpful for dependency, for conforming to societal pressures, for self-judgment.

We are obsessed with it though. Look at the number of YouTube tutorial videos there are on ‘How to get Effy’s eye makeup from Skins’ alone. I’ve watched them. My eyes are still brown. I still look nothing like Kaya Scodelario. I’m beginning to think the eye makeup wasn’t ever the issue here.

On femininity
Actually, I’m pinning this for a future post. I have a lot to say about femininity and attractiveness and sexuality and gender identity and particularly, hair (head hair mostly, but also body hair). Tune in next time. I might actually write about Polyamory next. Or something else entirely. Tune in eventually, maybe.

For now, I wonder:
How do we break down the beauty hierarchy when it is literally in our own bodies?
What is the first step?
Is it self-love?
What does that mean?
How do we love ourselves when the world calls us ugly so much that we call ourselves ugly?

Do I have more to say on this subject?
Yes, probably.
But for now, I’m going to eat a piece of cake. It is ice-cream cake. I used to eat ice-cream to help me purge. Sometimes, after all the Pavlovian classical conditioning I inflicted upon myself, eating ice-cream itself makes me throw up. I hope it doesn’t make me throw up this time.


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