the original kStyle blog.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Beauty Ideals

This post responds to the brilliant discussion unfolding on the More Politcally Incorrect Confessionsthread. Again, the comments are not letting me comment. Please don't think me pompous for posting rather than commenting like you all.

OK, Eric, you want to do historical beauty? Don't mess with a former Classicist.

Women have often gotten the short end of the beauty ideal. Let's look at footbinding in ancient China first, because it's perhaps the clearest, starkest example. (Some of the details—chronology and whatnot—were erased by a couple years of herbal enjoyment after graduation. Maybe Charlie, who actually made it to that particular class session, as I recall, could fill them in.)

Footbinding began in the Chinese court. During infancy/the toddler years, a young girl’s foot was broken in two and bandaged really, really tight, to stop it from growing. It hurt like hell. Soon, the provinces took up this “art”, wanting to appear wealthy. It was a status symbol, see: Look, our women don’t have to work in the fields. And oh yeah, they can’t actually walk more than a few feet and they’re totally dependent on us men.

Wait, it gets better. Girls weren’t so valued in the Chinese culture. Their redeeming quality was to be married off and bear sons. Soon, no woman could find a husband unless her feet were delicate, useless little stubs. Nearly every girl, even girls from poor rural families who could have really used the girl to help in the fields, had her feet bound. The kicker is, their mothers did the actual binding.

Hmmm...Women teetering atop useless little feet to appear helpless and feminine…Made by their mothers to do so…Remind anyone of high heels, which can cause serious back and foot damage? Right.

I don’t know too much about beauty ideals in ancient Greece and Rome (the goddess Hera is often described as having “cow eyes”, whatever that means), but I can tell you a little about the role of women. As in ancient China, women were to be virtuous housewives, uneducated, faithful, and obedient (while their husbands were encouraged to spread their seed to as many women as possible). A virtuous Greek housewife was an excellent weaver and childbearer. There was a role for an educated, clever women with musical talent: a hetaira, or courtesan. In fact, hetairai were expected to be clever and talented and intelligent: It was part of the job description. In other words, an educated woman had to be reduced to the nonthreatening level of an evening’s amusement. She could never take the esteemed role of wife. Look to mythology for a moment. Penelope, wife of the philandering Odysseus, remained ever-faithful to her husband while he was banging every nymph, princess, and sorceress in the Aegean. Hera was painted as a jealous, petty, selfish goddess because was angry with Zeus for his daily affairs (rapes, really). Don't even get me started on Helen of Troy, because that was both a macho power struggle over a woman and a convenient way for the ancients to blame their war on a woman a la the "she asked for it wearing that tight dress" defense. Take a look at the Illiad.

And what’s with all those virgin goddesses? Were they really lesbians? There’s a mystery I’ve yet to crack.

But I digress. Let’s move to corsets. CORSETS! Long worn as necessary, proper underwear. Squish your organs, ladies, and make sure you can’t breathe too well—Passing out is feminine! You have to look super-thin to be in! (Much like modern thinness ideals, bowing to which women forget to nourish and love their bodies, but rather hate them.) Never hurts to look helpless to be beautiful—don’t forget your lead-based face makeup! Got to look pale and weak!!

Listen, I know men have unreasonable beauty ideals placed upon them, too. It’s not fair that men are always supposed to be strong, reliable, competent, rugged, muscular. But I would argue it’s a damn sight better than an expectation to appear powerless and subservient, especially before the opposite gender. Women have long gotten around this by wielding their sex appeal as a weapon; using that helpless appearance to get what they want. But I, for one, am uninterested in playing such games. Good for me. It just makes me ill, though, that many women are still teaching their daughters to bind their feet.

PS And I have nothing against Uma Thurman, beauty, or art. Personally, I think Nicole Kidman is gorgeous.
PPS The solution, I think, is for women (and men!) to throw off the yoke of a beauty norm, and flourish in their own unique beauty, be it thin, muscular, chubby, round, tall or short, dimpled, freckled, straight or curly, white or tan or brown...Anyway, we often don't give enough credit to others for seeing beauty in different forms.
PPPS And, of course, everyone should THINK FOR THEMSELVES. "The unexamined life is not worth living," as Socrates said. Many folks are all too eager to accept a norm and live by it. I sympathize; examining life can be overwhelming. Often easier to pick an accepted compass.


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