“Is that a new dress? It really suits you! Have you lost weight? Your hair looks great!”
This is what it often sounds like when women meet: We comment on each other’s looks.
And unfortunately, this also applies when we meet little girls:
“Well look at this, don’t you look gorgeous today! Look how long your hair is!”
When we do this, we are often unconsciously socializing girls into the idea that their physical appearance is very important. Yes, perhaps their foremost value.
When it comes to girls’ bodies and their self-image, it’s a continual stream of depressing news. According to research, most teenage girls in Norway are unhappy with their bodies. Many of them develop eating disorders or so-called orthorexia, which is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating and exercise.
A few years ago, Swedish television conducted a survey in the children’s department of their largest clothing chains, which showed that almost all girls’ pants are far narrower around the waist and the thighs than boys’ pants – despite the fact that there are no significant differences in the bodies of boys and girls before the age of twelve. Little girls’ bodies are being forced into clothes that often are too tight to play, climb, and run in. This is one of many ways that girls are indirectly told that their bodies are too big.
It can often be quite difficult to talk about these issues in public. For example, if you’re critical of the fashion industry or the beauty industry, you risk being accused of jealousy: “Feminists are just miserable because they’re not as pretty!” It sounds exceptionally childish, but arguments like this are actually pretty common. I constantly experience it on my own blog: Many of the men who contact me on social media are extremely hung up about the way feminists look. Often, these correspondents can be divided into three categories: The first consists of men who want to tell you that they’d like to fuck you. (Many will also point out exactly how hard this is going to be.) The second group consists of those who want to tell you that they do not want to fuck you, and are happy to provide additional information about the reason for this. (Often something to do with being “fat,” “nasty,” or having “stupid opinions.”) And finally, there’s the group that wants to convey their surprise at how someone else can stand fucking you. (“Unbelievable that you’ve managed to get a man!”, “Poor guy!” and so on.)
In the summer of 2019, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro drew international attention when he made a sexist comment about the appearance of France’s first lady, Brigitte Macron, on Facebook. A few years earlier, the same man told a female parliamentary colleague that she was “too ugly to be raped.” Former US President Donald Trump is also well known for commenting on the appearance of women he dislikes.
These two sexist presidents are certainly not alone in using this unpleasant strategy. Research shows that public women receive far more comments about their appearance than their male colleagues. Men are primarily criticized for their opinions – women for their gender and body. When a woman is harassed like this, it’s usually because the person wanting to attack the other is trying to hit a sensitive spot. A woman’s appearance can be just that. After all, we’re socialized to believe that our value lies in our ability to attract men.
For centuries, a woman’s safest path to prosperity and social standing was to be chosen by a man who possessed these things. Women who were not seen as attractive by men, and were therefore rejected, were often condemned to a life of exclusion. Unmarried women automatically had a lower position in society and a poorer standard of living. A “spinster” was considered a burden and an expense to her own family. And since a woman’s looks and her social status were so closely linked, appearance criticism has always been used to hurt certain women.
One claim often heard in debates about pretty pressure is that we women are the lucky bearers of so-called “erotic capital.” Meaning that women have a whole range of advantages in society as a result of being desirable.
There’s no doubt that people of both sexes find some advantage in being beautiful. Personally, I’ve always found these assertions a little grating. I would prefer to say that this “capital” is something few women get a real return on; and I’m sure there are many beautiful yet underpaid preschool teachers, cleaners, and nurses who can attest to that. On the contrary, I think most women lose out enormously from the strain of living up to the beauty ideal, considering what’s required in terms of personal maintenance, expensive products, and faltering self-image.
In her book The Beauty Myth, the American feminist and author Naomi Wolf claimed that appearance pressure was the new method of control now that women had marched out of the kitchen. Wolf argued that today’s women are worse off in relation to their bodies and looks than their non-liberated grandmothers: Because even the most successful, attractive, and seemingly confident women often live a “hidden existence” that blights their freedom. They are consumed by body-hatred and the fear of getting old and are ashamed of having these feelings.
I’ve sometimes overheard people complaining that Norwegian women “don’t dress up enough.” That we dress too practically, in fleece jackets, backpacks and comfortable footwear. “Why can’t you be more like Southern European women?” they’ll ask, referring to women who go to work in nice suits, lipstick and high-heeled shoes.
“Because we don’t have to!!!”
In fact, we have a work environment law stating that employees must not be treated differently based on gender or be subjected to unnecessary discomfort. It is tempting to ask these folks if they have ever seen the feet of a woman who has tottered around on high heels her entire working life?
In many countries, you don’t have this choice. In Japan, for example, it is considered totally inappropriate for a woman to go to work in flat shoes. In January 2019, Yumi Ishikawa started a Japanese campaign against the requirement for high-heeled shoes be worn in the workplace. She used the hashtag KuToo, which hints at the words kutsu (shoes) and kutsuu (pain) – and #MeToo. Ishikawa received masses of support for the initiative and the tweet was shared 30,000 times.
A similar campaign emerged in the UK in 2014 when receptionist Nicola Thorp was fired from the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers for refusing to wear high heels.
In Russia too, powerful forces are working hard to maintain gender role patterns in respect to women´s appearance. When I visited the country in June 2019, I met an art curator who told me that she had faced a great deal of harassment after cutting her hair short. It was seen as provocation. One month earlier, the Russian aluminium producer Tatprof made international news when it gives its female employees a one hundred ruble bonus for each day they wear make-up and a skirt or dress. The company’s CEO was concerned about “the genders becoming too similar.”
The last couple of years, more and more women seem to have begun protesting against the so-called “male gaze.” This term, originally coined by British film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975, was primarily intended to describe how women are portrayed in film. Here, a woman’s role is often just to be eye-catching, an accessory or a passive object there to satisfy the man’s needs. Today, the expression is also used in a broader sense to describe similar trends in everything from literature and fashion to TV shows, computer games, the media, and the world in general. We’re now seeing a revolt against how male perspectives still have the greatest influence over how the world is defined. Men still have more space, more air, and more freedom of movement than women. How else can we explain the fact that it is only the female body that has to be covered up and hidden, according to strict rules – or undressed and displayed on every street corner – depending on where in the world you are? Because the male gaze is still the norm.
This pattern repeats itself on social media: Why is it that men’s armpit hair is seen as innocent, yet women’s armpit hair is considered almost disgusting? As a woman, you actually risk being sent death-threats if you show body-hair on the internet. Men’s nipples are neutral, yet women’s nipples are sexual and censored on social media. So, a male musician can run around on stage bare-chested during an entire concert, but if a woman shows half a nipple in public, it becomes a worldwide “scandal.”
Fortunately, a more female-friendly and body-positive trend has emerged in the fashion industry in recent years. We’re starting to see a wider variety of models in terms of body shape, age, and skin-color. Many women have also started showing off their normal bodies on Instagram and Facebook; they might drop the filter or post photos of themselves without makeup. “Be proud of your body!” is often the message here. And it’s catching on: We are starved of normality and real people, and totally done with perfection and retouching.
But instead of asking people to “be proud of your body,” we should perhaps encourage each other to stop attaching our self-worth to our bodies and appearance. Look up and focus on your other values, other qualities, and other talents. Laugh a little more, read a book, have a slice of cake. Fuck how your body looks! I think more women need to hear that.
We have to remind each other that being looked at is not the same as being understood.
And we must never forget how many people actually gain financially from our poor self-image. If all the women in the world woke up one morning and suddenly loved what they saw in the mirror, this multi-billion-dollar industry would collapse. It would be Armageddon in the beauty industry!
The article is an edited excerpt of the book by Marta Breen: “Hvordan bli (en skandinavisk) feminist” (Cappelen Damm, 2020). Translated into English by Marta Breen for Shuddhashar.
Marta Breen is a Norwegian journalist and author of non-fiction with a particular focus on women, including female artists, music groups, and women in media and in history. She is a freelance journalist for NRK and other Norwegian journals, and a regular columnist in Dagsavisen, where she regularly writes about feminism.