Sunday, April 24, 2016

Beauty as Power; Femininity Without Beauty; "Radical" Beauty

Beltran's essay embeds discussions of beauty in colorism, colonialism and capitalism, further signaling to me the importance of understanding beauty as a tool of myth-making and hierarchizing. This focus explains everything to me from Jennifer Lopez's cross-over appeal to why every women I know feels awful the moment questions around desirability foreground themselves.

I am starting to understand the extent to which ethnic ambiguity, specifically proximity to whiteness in colored bodies, is currency. At a recent meeting amongst South Asians, a friend of mine was complimented (by an Indian-American man) for being "so pretty you don't look Indian." The follow-up to the statement was "are you half-white?"

A resonant idea across our class discussions and readings that pivot around femininity is the idea of beauty as access, mobility and power. Femininity is measured in gradients of prettiness; non-pretty women are dominated by ideals, that though seemingly unattainable, still manage to converge in certain bodies. The artifice of beauty parallels that of the star system's in that both encourage an accessible exceptionalism -- locking many in this loop of "I can make it but will I?"

I am increasingly interested not in those who, like Lopez and her constant affirmation of her big butt, are able to attain claims to beauty via assimilation but in the anxieties around disposability and ugliness amongst the South Asian women in the room who felt immediately and intrinsically stung when we were, en-masse, felt identified as the "unpretty" and "non-white" ones.

Can we ever "revolutionize" beauty standards when beauty (i.e. lack of) has always been foundational to categorizing some bodies as subhuman? The fault lines of whiteness, able-bodiedness and thinness ensure that in order for someone to be beautiful, someone else has to exist in their negative image. The humanity of "ugly" women is cloaked while their bodies becomes hypervisible -- legible for ownership, mockery, sexualization, fetishization. "PoC" beauty standards and selfies aim to decenter these constructs away from hegemonic standards, but even within this schema of dissent certain formal configurations of contouring, lighting and angles restate white, European ideals. Madonna and Monroe exemplify the ideal while Bette Davis and her "hardness", Lopez and her curvaceousness posit themselves as aspiring to or "greater than" the norm of skinny, blonde, soft beauty. Whichever way you view it, the norm is reified, beauty is made competitive, ugliness is what we are all told to run away from (look: Amy Schumer publicly expressing her anger at being clubbed with plus-sized celebrities.)

A lot of these conversations have been ignited by analyses of my own privileges -- I do not view my embodiment as distinct from the conventionalities imposed on women. Instead, I wonder if a more "radical" project would comprise less of broadening the scope of "prettiness" and more of a celebration of ugliness. I am guided by Mia Mingus' speech at the Femmes of Color Symposium - "Moving Toward the Ugly: Beyond A Politic of Desirability." We are constantly looking at celebrities to redesign the landscape of beauty, whether through their bodies, aesthetics, or affirmations of self. I am not necessarily in disagreement with the potential of this to heal those of us whose primary relation to beauty (and perhaps femininity) is anxiety-ridden, but what I do wonder is whether this form of self-love can allow us to exist outside of this metric.

"I want to say upfront that I don’t identify as femme.  I have struggled with identifying as Femme.  I don’t politically identify as “Femme,” even though I get the lived experience of being a femme of color in so many ways.  And frankly, much of this is because I have had horrible interactions with self-identified femmes of color, much of which has been because of their ableism and ignorance around how ableism, white supremacy and gender oppression get leveraged everyday in service of each other.  Much of it has been because of the palpableculture of ableism within queer people of color community.  And some of it has been because I have spent most of my life as a physically disabled child, youth and adult adoptee of color trying to find my way into “human,” let alone “woman.”"


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