Feminism, femininity, objectification and sexism - and women self-defining by others' opinions of their appearance?

(20 Posts)
kiritekanawa Sun 17-Aug-14 14:05:23

I'm interested in your thoughts on how these fit together. Particularly whether you worry about others' opinions, follow trends that look good (however you define good), like compliments, hate compliments, etc.

I currently live in a country where I flinch pretty much every time I see a billboard or a TV ad, because they're all so gut-wrenchingly sexist and objectifying of the women. Basically any notionally "feminine" product (e.g. washing up liquid) will get the pretty girl a husband, any notionally "masculine" product (e.g. house masonry) will make the fit bloke be surrounded by sexy adoring girls, and any product that just can't really be male or female has an anorexic model draped over it in a suggestive pose anyway.

This country is also astonishingly sexist just in everyday dealings. They like to think of themselves as having traditional manners and being romantics, but to me a lot of it comes across as inappropriate boundary-setting and unthinking sexism of the sort that I found annoying in my grandparents' friends when I was about 8. This is a first-world country remarkably close to the UK but with remarkably different attitudes.

I have had a lot of flak from the locals because I don't wear makeup, don't shave my forearms, don't have plucked eyebrows, and don't dress like a woman "should". I fit in totally fine and look normal in the UK by the way! I get comments on my appearance probably about once a week on average.

The only positive comments I've had have been two occasions where I've got sunburnt and men have approvingly said "oh, you've tanned yourself, you look a bit healthier, less pasty, did you go to a salon?". To me that feels creepily intrusive, and my impulse was to say "I'm not asking for your opinion on my appearance thanks". I didn't say anything as I suspect they were trying to be nice to what they regard as a lost cause.

Mumsnetters, please lend me your thoughts and theoretical frameworks to help me put up with these people! grin (I do also realise I could be coming across as a bit unreconstructedly Germaine Greer. I recognise the theoretical value of third-wave feminism. I honestly just don't get fourth-wave feminism, though I do try hard not to squint disapprovingly at it from beneath my monobrow...)

I really dislike compliments from men. I don't mind so much from women because I don't assume creepiness.

My theoretical framework is more or less straight from Beauty and Misogyny by Sheila Jeffreys. Gender and femininity specifically exist so that women complement and compliment men, and are different than and deferent to them.

I think it's easier to notice how it works when you're in a different country. The rules for femininity in your own country are like background noise so you don't notice them as much.

Scarletohello Sun 17-Aug-14 20:20:47

Hmm really curious to know which country this is..?

kiritekanawa Sun 17-Aug-14 20:46:48

Scarletohello, it's, um, quite close to the UK. City of romance, galanterie, etc?

SuperLoud - I find comments generally confusing and intrusive. I grew up in a house where noone did them (though eventually found out that lack of compliments had been eating away at my (totally defined by others' opinions of her appearance) mother's self esteem for decades), and now always wonder if i've stuffed up and am meant to have already complimented the other person or something.

Scarletohello Sun 17-Aug-14 23:58:06

Oh God that makes sense now! I get the sense the French have quite rigid and conservative ideas about men and women and how they 'should' dress. Well, good luck with that!

Sorry can't be more helpful. smile

Scarletohello Sun 17-Aug-14 23:59:55

Oh and I've been to Paris 6 times, from ages of 13 to 45. I've been sexually harassed there every single time...

HoVis2001 Tue 19-Aug-14 09:43:48

Pre-9am, first-coffee-not-yet-finished thoughts, so bear with me.

I sometimes find myself thinking about the world in terms of invisible mental structures -things that are so much a part of our lives that it's hard to step outside of them or to avoid acting in accordance with them. I think of both the patriarchy, and capitalism, as structures in this sense. To some extent these structures (particularly capitalism) are consciously supported by the people whom they advantage, but for the most part they are unconsciously recreated. I tend to prefer this explanation for patriarchy as a lot of people get very angry at the thought that men as individuals are being accused of consciously and deliberately "keeping women down".

Ok, so, next step. I would argue that the twenty-first century Western world is an inheritor of a certain strand of male-female relations in which a woman's main role was to beautify themselves in order to attract and then keep a spouse. Obviously, this by no means applies across all social strata throughout history (if you were a farmers' daughter in early modern Europe, for example, beauty would probably count for little if you didn't have the capacity and willingness to do a hard day's labour!). However, with industrialisation, you got an increasing movement of economically productive work to outside of the home, and it came to be a marker of solid middle class status for the husband to go out and do the work, and for the woman to stay at home and not have to do ("economically productive") work. So, I think a combination of technological development, and aspiration to higher social status, led to an increasing favouring of a gender division which cast men as "breadwinners" and women as "home-makers", the legacy of which we still aren't entirely free of.

So, when you got to the point when it stopped mattering that women distinguish themselves in terms of their skills or productive capabilities (like that early modern farmer's daughter), women needed to start "proving" themselves in other ways, and I think appearance increasingly became one of them. Industrialisation and the movement of productive labour outside of the household also changed the power dynamic in marriages (between non-aristocratic people) from a position of interdependence within a couple to one of a woman being entirely economically dependent on her husband. So in essence it stops being important if you can bring skills and productive labour to your marriage, and more important to bring pleasure to the husband who is supporting you. So that's the patriarchal structure and (a very rough sketch of) how I think it developed to put a real emphasis on women's appearance.

And then on the other side there's capitalism. As far as I understand it, capitalism is a structure which endeavours to encourage people to part with their money in order that they then need more and are willing to labour for it. The cosmetics and clothing industries are a bit like the diamond ring industry, in that they both create a demand, and then satisfy it (for a hefty price!) Women are encouraged, through advertising etc, to think that their value as people is firmly attached to the clothes they wear and the made-up appearance of their faces. And so, they part with their money. Capitalist and patriarchal forces are working hand-in-hand because the advertisements are just building upon wider expectations of women to beautify themselves for the sake of men.

When talking about women experiencing pressure to police their appearance you often get people pointing out that men are also pressured by advertising to buy the new Gilette Manliness Boosting Super Bristle Blaster razor and to wear fashionable / smart clothing etc. But it's a slightly different set of pressures - with different underlying meanings - from those that women experience. Of course the cosmetics and clothing industries don't want to limit themselves to just the female half of the population, so they target men. But, whilst men might experience corroborating pressure to smarten up (e.g. social expectations that if you work in a certain job you should wear certain things -- expectations women also have to live up to!), they don't have that added message from patriarchal structures that they must look attractive in order to gain a husband, and thus economic stability.

Obviously, we are now past the era when women had to marry in order to have economic stability (and thus making themselves attractive to men was literally a life-making task), but because we are not that long past it, ingrained attitudes which associate women's personal value with appearance haven't yet caught up. The (unsurprising) desire of fashion and cosmetics industries to make money means that this "out of date" message is constantly re-affirmed by advertising, advertising which is increasingly far-reaching and insidious in the midst of a digital age. But it's all a tissue of illusions, really.

Does that make any sense or was that a hugely unhelpful early-morning ramble? Your asking about theoretical frameworks perhaps got me thinking a bit too deeply. grin But I find it helps me to think in terms of the long-term historical factors and "invisible structures" that shape the way people have certain expectations of women vs men and so on.

Also, I freely admit that the above is a very very rough overview and probably contains parts that is a load of balls, but it's my best take at this exact moment. blush

Shaving forearms? Good lord above.

The simple answer from me is that I could not put up with that. I find it hard enough dealing with the many vestiges of sexism we still have in the UK without living in a country several steps backwards.

So while I have nothing helpful to contribute on the subject of frameworks, I thought that HoVis2001's extended ramble was very well-though-out and eloquent, so, erm, what she said.

BranchingOut Tue 19-Aug-14 10:14:13

This reminds me of a visit to another land of romance - think sleigh rides, glittering palaces, aristocracy and sudden death under steam trains...

At the time I was in my late twenties/early thirties and wearing quite a flowy, romantic kind of style with long floral skirts, kaftan-esque tops and little bits of embroidery. Not to mention my shoulder length, wild, curly hair. This was not mainstream style at home, but would not attract any negative attention.

I was quite surprised to find that every female under 40 appeared to be dressed in spray-on trousers, mini-skirts, tight tops and skyscraper stillettos. Whereas I was also conscious that I was dressed in a similar way to a particular ethnic group of women who might be found selling bits and bobs on the street. I felt totally out of step with the social norms and noticed that I was getting the occasional odd look or possibly even a sneer, which as I have always felt myself to be moderately attractive, was a bit of a shock. I was with my husband all the time, but if I hadn't been, I think that I might have been vulnerable to abuse.

But, what was stranger was that I felt the urge to comply and on the last day of the trip put on my only pair of slim fit trousers and my least 'flowy' top - and felt much more comfortable.

What I am coming to is that these norms are very powerful and it is not surprising that you are feeling the pressure.

PetulaGordino Tue 19-Aug-14 14:57:36

I lived and worked in France for a while. The sexism I encountered has put me off returning beyond as a tourist

PetulaGordino Tue 19-Aug-14 15:02:34

Hovis' description makes a lot of sense to me

kiritekanawa Fri 22-Aug-14 22:16:49

oh wow - was busy with work during the week and didn't come back to this. Time to have a look at the responses. Thankyou :-)

kiritekanawa Fri 22-Aug-14 22:28:46

HoVis, that's great. It makes a lot of sense.

and BranchingOut - yes, i can definitely see why I'm under pressure.

However, having been a reasonably successful person at my job in an elite instution in the UK where I had a great deal of fun, mixed with all sorts of awesome people, and only once ever had a sexist comment about my appearance (from a dinosaur who had several reasons to try to put me down); and being older than most of the jumped-up sexist little twerps commenting on the unshavenness of my forearms or the lack of effort I put into buying shoes, I now find the sexism and timewasting just tiresome, here, in a self-important second-rate institution where half the people realise they're crap but have given up, and the other half are so insular they'll never notice.

(Which does raise the question of what I'm doing here and whether it would be more mature on my part to just give up and integrate and learn more about the culture. To which my answer is, I'm no good at makeup, I don't want to shave my arms or wax my eyelids, and the trains are so filthy i see no point in wearing clothes that can't go in a washing machine at 95 degrees... so stuff it, a merino zip top and jeans and muddy sandshoes is what they're getting... if they're too shallow to hold a conversation with me because of that, then it's their loss)

INteresting thread. I was actually discussing this, briefly, with my DS' dad quite recently. He's a reasonable chap in lots of ways, but has a lot of unconscious white-boy privilege. I was trying to explain to him that there's no real 'neutral' way of presenting yourself, for a woman. You can look sexy, or you can look covered-up - either way, you'#re making a statement. You can look fashionable, or anti-fashion, but you're still going to be labelled. Even if you don't need to dress up for work and so live in things like cheap leggings and jumpers, you're still percieved as 'making a statement.'
Women's appearance is still other people's business in a way that men's is not.

And I have spent most of my life wearing clothes that get on other people's nerves in some way or another. I'm old enough now just to laugh at anyone who criticises me, unless it's some sort of important occasion where I will take advice because the consequences of disobedience would be a problem.

BlameItOnTheBogey Sat 23-Aug-14 02:43:43

This reminds me of the film Miss Representation. It looks into a lot of these issues and sort of relentlessly slaps you with how utterly screwed up the portrayal of women is by the media. Worth watching if you haven't already seen it.

kiritekanawa Mon 25-Aug-14 19:43:07

BlameIt - good name :-) - the role model issue covered by Miss Representation is interesting. The effect of role models on dress patterns seems to be quite strong (or maybe I and my colleagues are just unoriginal!)

Most women who I know in science, of about my age, had no shortage of similar role models to mine, i.e. second-wave feminists (teachers at school; our fathers' single, childless, female colleagues) exchanging disparagement with our 1950s-perfect trophy-wife mothers.

I do now know a few women of that (my parents') generation who were in the middle of this bimodal distribution of female role models, and who contributed hugely to 3rd-wave feminism - but I didn't meet them until relatively recently.

In my generation, except in the most confident and rock-solid personalities, this tended to produce slightly screwed-up second-wave feminists who feel let down by eventually having to compromise on the career. And none of us get on with our mothers, who resent the fact we got to do what they perhaps wanted to but couldn't. And our mothers abhor the way we dress and run our lives (though I doubt that's specific to us).

The dress implications of the role models are as one might predict. Many women of my generation in science dress like me, like scruffs, in an overtly utilitarian way, having some problems with self-image as anything other than competent and useful. The ones of my generation who don't dress as scruffs, tend to dress up a lot, and be the kind of women who do not befriend other women in the workplace (which may be a different manifestation of the same lack of confidence).

What I find discombobulating now in science (internationally) is just how prettified and well-dressed - and censorious of ugly old bags like me - are the female PhD students 10-15 years younger than I am. I went to a conference recently - one I've been going to for years but not in the last 5 years - where I remember feeling overdressed in a clean shirt and trousers, at the conference dinner in 2005. This time round, all the really young women were dressed like they were going out to dinner - for the 9am talks - and then at the conference dinner they all got amazingly dressed up. The women my age were all wearing hiking boots and muddy nylon trousers that we'd all had on for the day-off hike the day before. Comments were passed. It was like being 15 again and watching my mother exchange dislike with a colleague of my father's. confused

BranchingOut Mon 25-Aug-14 23:20:04

So, just to put this into context, which decade were you born in and which decade was your mother born in?

I wrote a thread a while back about the era of grunge fashion. I think that had a lot more influence than some of us in our late 30s - 40s might realise.
Certainly when I was at university, mid 90s, female student fashion was largely utilitarian and any overly 'done' look would have been entirely out of place.

iamEarthymama Mon 25-Aug-14 23:43:23

I have been thinking about this over the weekend though not as eloquently as OP and PP!
I was a true lover of fashion in my youth, as an act of rebellion and self expression. To have looked the same as someone else in the 70s was anathema, we wanted to follow trends but be different.
I still love clothes and was pleased to be told I expressed myself creatively through my attire last week.
I dress totally differently from any one else I know except for women into a particular lifestyle and spiritual path. In my adult interactions I am seen as a hippy though I place myself in a more steam punk mode.
I also wear gardening clothes, fleeces, cord trousers a la Edwardian males, big boots as aporopriate!
I will get to the point. At no time do I dress for the male gaze or to compete for male attention. I dress to please myself and hopefully to look attractive to my wife.
No-one in my daily life ever comments on my clothes yet when I wore skinny jeans and a close fitting low necked top last week I was told I looked great.
It makes me smile as I feel very happy in my skin and in my layers of petticoats. It also makes me sad to see people conforming to the imposition of such controlling rules of beauty and style.
I have drunk Jsck Daniels tonight so apologies for the ramble.
Can I ask, should we dress solely to be practical, or to send out messages? Who should we please? Does anyone else enjoy the 'dressing up', the expression of ones viewpoint?

kiritekanawa Tue 26-Aug-14 19:48:32

Branching - i was born in the 70s, my mother in the 40s.

So yes, grunge was in when i was at uni, too, though TBH having worn school uniform of the most strangling kind until the mid-90s, I was just amazed that I could actually wear trousers, and talk to boys, and not get on detention... the extreme nature of school uniforms in the antipodes would also have had a big effect on people's self-image with respect to clothes. You'd have to be fairly motivated to have a self outside school, to end up having any sense of your own appearance, until you leave school. After 12 or 13 years of militaristic enforcement of the most amazingly hideous blazers and ties and ankle-length kilts or Enid Blyton tunics, it's no wonder people like me, whose identity was totally within school, ended up with no concept of how to dress well... grin

iamearthymama - it sounds like you're happy in your skin, and that is great smile. I don't think it really matters how people dress, or whether they dress for utility, for themselves, for others, for the male gaze - but it is worth acknowledging that - as said upthread - how women dress is kind of regarded as sending a message to other people. To me, this feels awfully intrusive - and quite obviously I am a fish out of water, living and working in Paris and wearing old scruffy hiking clothes, jeans, sandshoes etc. Thank goodness i'm going home to the other end of the world soon smile

kiritekanawa Tue 26-Aug-14 19:53:09

Oh and the "dressing up" aspect - I think many people do enjoy it, even though I most emphatically don't (it makes me miserable because I'm just so utterly terrible at it and it generates such negativity).

For those for whom it is "dressing up", that's great. For those for whom it's some version of "I dress to make myself feel better because of the approval from others", that's not so great. Obviously I've just expressed the inverse of that in the paragraph above - thus my assertion that I, and many other women I know, am a very screwed-up second-wave feminist! smile

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