Book recs/opinions: society telling women that the way they look should relate to them being believed?

(92 Posts)
LRDMaguliYaPomochTebeSRaboti Wed 11-Sep-13 11:18:17

I'm just trying to work through this idea I have. At a conference a couple of years ago, Gail Dines did a talk about how all sorts of media send messages to women (and men) telling us that the way a woman looks is a good indicator of whether or not we should trust her.

Obviously we all know the rape-myth stuff: oh, that woman is wearing a short skirt, she must be up for it, etc. But there are also stereotypes like that blonde women are less credible as serious people, and so on.

Do you think these stereotypes still have a big effect on how people see women? And how do you think these stereotypes get communicated to us?

The reason I'm interested is that I was thinking about films like 'Legally Blonde', which seem to me to be pretending they're undermining the whole 'blonde and ditzy woman' stereotype - but they actually annoy the fuck out of me because they push a whole load of antifeminist stereotypes at the same time.

I don't know what feminist scholarship I could read on this issue (I've read Beauty and Misogyny but it doesn't quite cover it). You see, I was trying to think about how we all learn to interpret these cultural messages and how it affects our attitudes to our own looks, when often those looks are going to be used to measure how credible we are in different ways.

What do you think?

NiceTabard Thu 12-Sep-13 23:34:48

Sorry am on stream of consciousness here!

I too am blonde, not particularly tall and fairly curvey. In a bravissimo way. I've reconciled myself to the fact that people will underestimate me. In some ways I prefer it, it takes the pressure off me and wrong foots the more confrontational sort of person. It's better in academia strangely. I did a talk at a business event recent,y about a study I did. I may as well not have been there, I could barely get a word in edge ways in the ensuing discussion about, uh, my research! Much prefer academia.

If I had to guess through, I'd say my experience was less about me and more about the besuited audience's fondness for their own voices grin

LRDMaguliYaPomochTebeSRaboti Thu 12-Sep-13 23:44:02

Hi, sorry, I am just back home after being out all evening and saw this had lots of posts. Thank you so much.

I will catch up slowly but didn't want to come across as if I'd just wandered out and ignored it all.

MiniTheMinx Fri 13-Sep-13 09:31:11

I find Freya's comments interesting because it is a familiar theme to me. I have very dark hair and I'm quite certain that I have received not just less unsolicited attention but different attention. I have never heard the line "I'm more sophisticated for choosing you" but I have been told by men and women "nah, I wouldn't mess" which probably stems from the this bias where darker women are seen as being stronger. In reality I'm no more assertive or confident than any of my fairer friends.

I spoke to DP about this, in terms of the characteristic of hair colour and cultural representations, he said that the Catholic church had always portrayed Jesus as being fair and Mary Magdalene as being dark.

LRDMaguliYaPomochTebeSRaboti Fri 13-Sep-13 10:11:58

That's odd - there is certainly a van der Weyden Magdalene who is fair, and I think she is usually fair in medieval images. I wonder when they shift to dark happens.

It is so strange that hair colour seems so important. The daily mail thing about trust is fascinating (and I agree, disturbing research to have carried out). I've also heard non-blondes talking about 'blonde moments'. hmm I reckon red hair is tricky too - I remember as 14/15 year olds being on a school trip, and there was a girl with long red hair who got huge amounts of really dubious attention from random blokes (we were in Italy, where I guess it's less common). I don't know what the connotations of it all were, though.

Btw, sal, thanks very much, I will look, that sounds really useful.

I was thinking how rarely women discuss this stuff (or women I know in RL, anyway) - I might be being cynical, but I think if we were in a pub or something and talking about the different kinds of response we each get for being dark or blonde or whatever, someone would say it's trivial. I would really like to get past that.

LRDMaguliYaPomochTebeSRaboti Fri 13-Sep-13 10:13:07

FWIW, I think short hair gets an odd reaction too. Definitely an 'I wouldn't mess' one.

FreyaSnow Fri 13-Sep-13 11:49:12

I've never actually had the line that they are more sophisticated. It is more a set of comments alluding to this, which I'm finding hard to explain or summarise.

An example would be that I walked into a taxi office after a night out and a man was going on to two blonde women (dyed blonde) about their general appearance including asking why they were blonde and saying how they would not get a serious relationship unless they looked more 'classy.' One of the women then asked what he meant by classy and he turned around, pointed at me, and said like this woman. There was not a great deal of difference between their clothes and mine, but I have dark hair.

My best friend at college was blonde but is extremely similar in appearance to me - same height, build, hair style and so on. She was consistently taken less seriously, approached more but often approached inappropriately, expected to be more involved in the 'jokes' of strangers both as the point of the joke and as the assumed audience to comical anecdotes, accused of being a threat to other people's relationships (even though she was engaged and I was not) and used as an example by other students in seminars when they discussed women and sexuality. She eventually left to go to Liverpool university. She told me that whenever she met people in Liverpool and said she was a student, the frequent response was, oh at John Moore (the former poly), the assumption presumably being that she was not intelligent enough to be at Liverpool university.

Now, some of that is also about class (we both had Northern regional accents) and blondeness together. But I also shared a house with a blonde student from an upper middle class background, and she was frequently approached (things like older men 'helping' her get stuff from supermarket shelves; that has never happened to me). There were also incidents like an electrician explaining a problem in the house to me rather than her, even though she called him in and spoke to him (although that could be an assumption that as the less middle class person I ws more practical), workmen expecting me not her to lift heavy things, her being blamed as the 'party girl' when we made too much noise and so on. I felt in that house I was the stand in for the man in other people's eyes.

I know all this is highly anecdotal, but I experienced it so many times that I do have to wonder if it is part of a wider trend.

FreyaSnow Fri 13-Sep-13 12:10:37

I may also be rather overstating my case about blondeness. I think it is more of a number of factors that come together - accent, clothes, hair colour, build, height and assumed class background, and these are used as a reason to view some women as less credible, serious or whatever.

I think this is why it is sometimes women can fall into the trap of claiming to not get on with women, not identifying with women, claiming some women bring sexism upon themselves, because they think when negative comments are made about women collectively, it doesn't apply to them because they are somehow the exception - the token woman who is kind of a man, but of course you never really will be.

kim147 Fri 13-Sep-13 12:59:28

"I think it is more of a number of factors that come together - accent, clothes, hair colour, build, height and assumed class background, and these are used as a reason to view some women as less credible, serious or whatever."

True - but don't you think that is applicable to both genders? Maybe not as much but many people are judged and seen as less serious / credible because of some of those things.

FreyaSnow Fri 13-Sep-13 13:15:53

Yes, I think it applies to men as well. I'm sure there have been studies done on things like length of sentence in court cases and physical appearance. I was talking about issues of women's appearance because LRD is interested in the historical roots of that, which I think would be interesting to know.

It would be interesting to know where this comes from as a lot of instances of appearance and prejudice are about people who are perceived as other ethnic or class groups. Even within white groups there was a historical attitude that white people with a darker appearance were somehow 'other' and less because it was a consequence of outdoor labour. The blonde thing is different from that in that blondeness is from within the Northern European ethnic group and it has no historical association with out groups, so where and when did the perception come from? Associations between blondeness and femininity and submissiveness also exist in other cultures, Japan for example. Where has that come from and when, given that blondeness isn't a trait native to Japan? I know this has got a bit away from LRD's question, but I do find the whole thing strange.

LRDMaguliYaPomochTebeSRaboti Fri 13-Sep-13 13:16:22

I totally agree, freya. I think that's why it's so fascinating, because it is all these things interacting, and I don't think we have the tools - in terms of a feminist theory - to completely unpick how they interact with each other and how they're knitted into our expectations.

kim - I think it is a spectrum, but that's true of so many things, isn't it?

I think the height thing is extremely cruel to men. And feminine/effeminate-looking men (however you define that) get stigmatized, too.

MiniTheMinx Fri 13-Sep-13 13:28:39

I have just done a search around the net, Mary Magdalene is often blonde, so you are right LRD, I will take this up with DP later! its interesting because she was very likely Jewish and Middle Eastern. Apparently during the renaissance it was popular to dye your hair, how they did this I don't know. Apparently one of MMs sins was bleaching her hair in sun light at a time when women should have kept their hair covered. If this is true she may well have had sun lightened hair confused or maybe not.

MiniTheMinx Fri 13-Sep-13 13:40:35

Sorry, that sounds as though MM was around during the renaissance, I'll trust you to realise I don't think she was.

I wonder how the reactions and statements of adults effect how children construct their social identity. The blonde girl in primary is the "love interest" of all the boys, she is the angel in the play, she is the princess in the ballet, she is the cute one who probably hears more often than not "oh what pretty hair" and so on. How you construct your social identity must effect the value you place on certain characteristics. This of course doesn't always hold true for blonde. As a child I had very long, very thick wavy near black hair. This became a talking point. I was mini with the big hair, mini with the black hair. People, mainly adults would touch my hair and comment, as a result its the one thing that I worry about and try to look after. I don't wear make up all the time but I do faff with my hair. So if so much of my identity is tied up with my hair, if how I feel good about myself hinges upon this one characteristic of my appearance, might it also effect others.

I only wish that girls could be subject to statements about talents, intellect, personality that positively helped to build resilient self esteem, rather than focus on characteristics that as we age become not a crowning glory but a bloody nightmare of insecurity.

FreyaSnow Fri 13-Sep-13 13:52:38

mini, I think people in the past bleached their hair with urine.

FreyaSnow Fri 13-Sep-13 13:53:51

Sorry, that was in answer to your how did they dye their hair. I wasn't contradicting the bit about MM's sins.

LRDMaguliYaPomochTebeSRaboti Fri 13-Sep-13 14:27:20

Oh, wow. I did not know that about MM and lightening her hair as a sin. That's fascinating, and presumably it's connected into the blonde hair=sexually available, I guess?

The stuff about children's roles is exactly the sort of thing I really want to get my mind around. Because it's giving you a role in a narrative that you know, even as a child, is based on how you look.

I am thinking about it, and something I think sometimes happens is that people noticed more when angelic-looking children were naughty, because it didn't fit with how they looked. Granted I had a couple of monumentally old-school teachers, but I do remember conversations along those lines.

The racial implications are really unpleasant, too.

Re. dying hair with urine, check this out. willscommonplacebook.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/breast-sacks-and-medieval-ideals-of.html

Isn't it amazing that he is referring to breast 'surgery' in this context, so long ago? It is quite possible it doesn't literally mean knives, but still, scary. And urine can't have been exactly healthy, just as modern hair dyes can be toxic.

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