Female beauty is a celebrated thing, a pursued thing, a commodified thing. Beauty standards exist to be aspired to – even if you come up short you should give those shallow heights a shot. Eleanor Roosevelt when asked if she had any regrets gave a solemn reply “I only wish that I had been prettier”. Pursuing beauty comes at a cost but women have been taught to budget for it since childhood.
We’re taught to conform to beauty standards by our mothers. They teach us how to move, how to sit, how to eat, how to be in a way that is socially acceptable. Saheeh tarha baitho, ache kapray pehna karo, teeq se khao. Any rejection of this means not only alienation from society but our mothers. So we comply, even if it leads to our exile from ourselves, even if it means the abortion of our freedom.
Eleanor Roosevelt when asked if she had any regrets gave a solemn reply “I only wish that I had been prettier…”
My mother says that when she judges me she looks at me with the eyes of a third person rather than as a mother. She would be as critical as she knew they would be. I assumed ‘they’ was our culture, our neighbours, our family. I used to always wonder: would it be so bad to be looked at so forgivingly? Would she realise that the price of conformity would at some point feel too high?
Did she realise I would inherit this third person gaze, that I would constantly look at myself with the eyes of the ‘other’, that it would make me a stranger to myself? The primping, preening, posing all for that ‘other’ wouldn’t make being rejected any easier, that actually it would make it harder, I did what I was supposed to do didn’t I?
Our mothers, in acting as a conduit for society’s gaze, make a self-sacrifice. They forfeit their own inclination to look at us as their progeny, they consciously ignore their biological predisposition to think of us as perfect, they choose for us to be agreeable, acceptable, palatable. Otherwise, who will befriend us? Who will hire us? Who will love us?
As a result, we go into the world with a desperate urge to comply but an equally desperate urge to rebel against the stereotype of the garden-variety beauty. It gives rise to a cognitive dissonance within us – not wanting to want to be pretty but desiring it nonetheless. It’s a shit ride, trying to aspire to beauty and dissent from it, like being duck-taped to the wing of an aeroplane.
The tug-o’-war affects all our relationships, primarily the one with ourselves. Beauty has become democratised, we’re all supposed to pursue it now that it’s buyable, you’re a product away from being pretty, don’t give up when you’re so close! So we learn to war paint ourselves better through Instagram, use SnapChat so those looking at our photos can see our filtered prettiness, and watch YouTube videos on how to shed the pounds. The nod we get for the Faustian bargain we’ve struck for beauty leaves us empty – that’s not really me, we think, but the likes soften the void.
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at – John Berger
The dissonance continues in our relationships with other women – we objectify women who are beautiful, especially if they’re intelligent too, as if that makes them the full package. She splits atoms and looks like a model while she’s doing it! We praise each other as a white flag, I come in peace, don’t shoot. Compliments are a deposit redeemable against future insecurity. Instead of demanding to be seen for our accomplishments alone we submit to the beauty myth and then some, let the future be female but a hot one.
Our relationships with men are the most affected; you don’t choose your female friends because they’re beautiful but men are supposed to want beautiful women just like women are supposed to want accomplished men. Men are prose, women are poetry. So we perform our Sisyphean beauty routine in the hope it’ll bring us closer in the search for a cellmate.
But you realise then that the beauty myth is just that, a myth. I’ve been told by men that they like me without being hugely attracted to me. I’ve always felt a bit winded after these disclosures, surely that’s the point? You’re supposed to like me because you’re attracted to me? They’d be perplexed by it themselves as if they’re disputing charges on their bank statement – I don’t know how that emotional investment got there, honestly, I don’t even remember making it!
Women like Eleanor Roosevelt and my mother believed the beauty myth was one we had to succumb to, one where our only hope was for reprieve. In a world where we look at ourselves with a depersonalised view, where we are told to aspire to a conventional picture of femininity, where we are objects living in a world of objects, the way ahead is clear. We must object.