Founded in 1974, the Women’s Center was established to:
Dismantle, from a feminist perspective, all forms of oppression, including but not limited to those based on ability, age, class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Advocate for an equitable environment free from violence and harassment based on gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Create an anti-racist, non-sexist, queer-affirmative space where all people can feel valued and safe.
Facilitate and strengthen connections among people across lines of difference through programming and educational campaigns.
Integrate an appreciation of Women's Gender and Multicultural Studies across the disciplines.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Beauty Ideals Have to Go!

For a long time I used to fantasize about how great the world would be if our beauty ideals were different, for instance, if I lived in one of those countries where being curvy and even fat was valued, instead of being thin. In my mind those countries were so much freer: women were not afraid to eat, to wear clothing that shows off all of their curves, to just be who they were… then I read this article in Marie Claire on a country called Mauritania, where the beauty ideal is, “like America's cult of superthinness in reverse. Mauritanian tradition holds that among women, rolling layers of fat are the height of sexiness.”

As I continued into the article, I began to realize just how skewed my idea of these countries were. Rather than being freeing, the larger beauty ideal present in Mauritania causes women emotional pain and pushes them into unhealthy behaviors – like our opposite ideals do. If their parents are wealthy enough, teenage girls in Mauritania are often sent off for months at a time to “force-feeding camps” where they are forced to eat “eats about 40 [egg sized balls of crushed dates and peanuts with couscous and] per day, along with 12 pints of goat's milk and gruel, making their daily intake 14,000 to 16,000 calories” even though, “the recommended consumption for a healthy 12-year-old girl averages 1500 calories; an adult male bodybuilder eats up to 4000.” If the girls try to fight this feeding they are beaten or tortured by having to squeeze a stick between their toes, all while being told how little value skinny people have in society.

Reading this I was aghast but, upon further reflection, I guess I shouldn’t have been. In American culture we are bombarded every day with images of thin women in magazines, on TV, in the movies, and so on… rarely do we see larger women portrayed as successful or happy with their lives or their bodies. Coupled with all of the diet programs that are advertised constantly, especially to women, the message is sent loud and clear: you’re not good enough unless you’re thin. Is this that much different from the devaluing of thin women in Maritania? Not really.

In America we don’t have force-feeding camps but we do have fat-camps, many of which follow questionable guidelines in terms of health and generally, cause weight-loss than is no maintained because they don’t teach campers how to live healthy lives, rather, they teach them how to drop pounds. Furthermore, we have diet programs that many women buy into – programs that often leave their practitioners malnourished and dissatisfied as the weight rarely stays off. Does this make more sense than the force-feeding camps? I think not.

Really, the message in both cultures is the same – your body is never good enough - the only thing that changes is the ideal body each woman is working towards.

People have tried to claim that our ideal is healthier but, honestly, I call bullshit on that. When you have companies like Ralph Lauren photoshopping model’s waists to actually be smaller than their heads (real life Bratz dolls… really?) and firing tiny models for being ‘too fat' to fit the clothes; when even Barbie’s ankles are criticized as being too fucking fat… you have a culture where many women feel compelled to starve themselves and resort to disordered eating and exercise routines because as a society we promote being thin over being healthy. Maritania may promote being fat over being healthy & fit but, really, we’re no better.

It’ not up for debate at this point: there’s a beauty ideal everywhere, and women everywhere are caught in a constant unhealthy struggle to meet that ideal… but what I really want to know is why? Fat women in Mauritania are valued because, historically, “a fat wife (much like fat livestock) was a symbol of a man's wealth, proof that he had enough riches to feed her generously while others perished in the drought-prone terrain.” Basically, they value fat women because having a fat wife makes the man look more powerful. Similarly, in America, thinness can be an indicator of having enough wealth to afford diet books, diet plans, diet consultants, a gym membership, and so on. Women who don’t uphold the thin ideal often worry that they won’t find love as a result… basically, in both situations; it all comes down to two things: money and men.

You know what is conveniently lacking from both our culture, and in Mauritania? A male beauty ideal. In general, men are given much more leeway in terms of appearance because they are valued and judged first on the basis of appearance, and second on the basis of talent. (Evidence of this: Male “beer bellys” are sexy. At the same time so are men without beer bellies. Basically men can get away with" a lot more appearance-wise.) Rich and powerful men tend to be partnered with conventionally “beautiful” women (the only thing that changes is what is considered beautiful) regardless of their own appearance, because appearance does not matter as much when judging men. Male politicians and other men of influence are rarely, if ever, criticized or lauded based on their appearance, yet women with influence (like Clinton and Palin) are.

This is wrong. Something needs to be done.

I’m not saying we need to start judging men on their appearance first, and accomplishments second; what I am saying is we need to get rid of the double standard and stop judging women, especially those who are powerful/influential on their appearance at the expense of their ideals. Having a beauty standard, regardless of what it is, is wrong and exploitative of women; all it does is cost women undue funds and attention, and hold them back from achieving all that they can achieve while leaving men, more or less, free to prove themselves with their minds and their merits. All bodies are beautiful and capable of great things – its time we start living that belief as a culture!

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