On Feminism and Beauty: Issues in liberation theories

Drawing from Beth’s post, I want to talk a little about some of the issues she addressed in her post about reconciling feminist thought with being attracted to beauty and beautification . Now, as a person born male, and as someone who admittedly has not studied feminism in much detail, let me put it out there that there is a big chance I’m overlooking some big stuff particular to feminism. But, as feminism is something of a liberation theory, most theories on such basis tend to operate in similar ways. So i’m coming from that perspective, of looking at a liberation theory developed earlier in the 20th century, and what I do know about motives in the theory, and goals. And to a certain exent, some of what I say at certain points can address issues that haunt all liberation theories that exist over a span of time.

Feminist thought seems to have two points of conflict with beauty. One: The idea that beautification is required to be feminine. Two: That beautification is part of a the objectification of women.

I believe both of these points are valid, though this validity is not a hard truth, so much as a theory that becomes a truth in certain circumstances.

For the theory to be true in case one, there are two points of reference, the person beautifying themselves, and the viewer. And this is extremely tricky, because in some cases, the intention of the actor (the person beautifying themselves) doesn’t seem to matter. Meaning, to the viewer, it can effect them as being a thing, regardless of intent in application. So to the male viewer, they may view all women whom wear makeup as more feminine. And as a percentage of women wear makeup, that percentage may feed this perception. However, if we live our lives letting others meaning about our actions actually determine the meaning of our actions, we find ourselves of almost no individual agency. And for others to do this to us, assumes that the person applying a thing to themselves is devoid of intent, and devoid of their own politics, and rather, nothing more than an object.

I recently watched a documentary about consumerism that said it’s greatest feat was in turning people from political beings, into passive consumers. In thinking about it, I realized there was some truth to this. And it wasn’t that people stopped being political, but the idea of their actions being viewed as political, was released by society, and replaced with something else. Simple case in point: The kid in the Che Guevara shirt in 1962 was viewed as a communist. The kid in the same shirt in 2014 is viewed as a cheesy hipster; a consumer. But at no point is the kid asked for his political belief. Assuming same political intent, society changed the meaning from political intent to individual intent. Perhaps because society’s conscience was politically divisive in 1969, and more selfishly introspective in 2014. Or perhaps because shirts bearing Che Guevarra images are a commodity now, and we assign less value to things that are more plentiful, much like markets do. Or perhaps the idea of being political in a consumer society is an act of selfish introspection in 2014. There are many things at work here.

But this brings us to point two: For beautification to truly be an objectification, the beautification would actually have to make us into a non-person, into an object. What is the difference between an object and a person. An object doesn’t move. It doesn’t think. Its doesnt love. It doesn’t choose. So it would either stop motion, de-animate us, bring living death, stop thought, stop passion, or remove free will. I would argue that, aside from girdles and some of the contraptions women were expected to wear in the middle ages, modern beautification does little of this to the women herself.

But it can very much do it in the eyes of the viewer. Because the viewer, much like in the example of the Che shirt, operates on assumption. The viewer making a judgement on meaning, sees the action, and then decodes it with current knowledge, and makes a judgement. So if society’s assumption is the wearing X makes you Y, then assumptions will decode with viewers concluding accordingly. And like point one, we see that letting the viewer’s conclusion override our own intention would destroy our own agency, our own political ability.

In both points, there is a recurring scenario that actually does objectify us: letting our own agency become subserviant, or lower in the equation of value, to the value of a viewer’s decoding, and assumption. And from a point of calculating truth and value, it’s a horrendous calculation. Our intent to wear something is made up of our own reality, and value assigned to it. This really means something to us. Wheras, the viewer, is operating on their own reality as judge for decoding, and lumping in assumptions (assumed norms and past experiences of decoding) in the mix. While both may seem real to the viewer, to the person viewing, the value judgement is not at the same level of truth as the one applying. The viewer is basically guestimating based on a mean of past experience. To make personal agency and truth subservient to guestimation is death to value and politics. Especially, if the viewer is of a different sex or gender-based culture than us, (such as man viewing woman) and even more so in a mass media society where the viewer may be removed from even more cultural similarities. At such points the error of assumption goes from dangerous error to deadly.

When feminism rose, it was in response to a hegmenonic, male dominated culture. Some points were aimed at radicalizing the women, through encoding. And some were aimed at radicalizing the viewer, decoding, assumptions, and judgement. And it defined itself in relation to that. And for the life of feminism, it will adjust itself to what the culture is that it seeks to radicalize. But as with many movements, there comes a time when the theory of radicalization itself, the words of old, become, with time a dogma, that to those whom identify with it’s better parts, actually become oppressed by these old stale words. And at some points, hurt more than they help. It is precisely these times that this process of radicalization must redefine itself in the dichotomy it exists in. To check itself. To see if it’s words and radicalization bring freedom or dogma, and if the latter, to rewrite itself to be in line with the movement’s inherent spirit. The failure to do so is when see liberation theory become the dogma of the oppressed. The Fidel Castro of 2012 versus the Fidel Castro of 1959. The Communist Theory of 1912, versus the reality of 1980s eastern Berlin. It’s the common fate of revolutions whom, for reasons perhaps of the actors and their egos, fail to rerewrite their position in accordance with a changing world, and accordingly find themselves perpstuating poverty, both in economy and in the sould. Because while liberation theory can give us a set of guidlines to resist those whom are harming us, it can also create a prison to resist the desires and defnition of freedom for ourselves.

As such it becomes the new oppressor.


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