Tom Matlack asked 12 women about their understanding of women’s relationship with beauty. Why did he hear almost nothing in response?
I like to believe I am a student of popular culture. Unlike most of my straight guy friends, I watch pretty much all the award shows (Amy Poehler stole the Emmys Sunday night, as far as I am concerned, with that spontaneous pageant routine during the best actress in a comedy award). I also have grudgingly become knowledgeable about beauty and fashion. As a columnist focused on manhood, I have certainly written and thought a lot about how men mistreat women and the ways in which we all need to rethink what it means to be good.
But my thinking has hit a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to women and beauty. My observation from talking to women of a wide variety of backgrounds and interests is that much of what happens in the general category of women and beauty is completely divorced from men. Sure there are bathing suits that require women to shave parts of their body not meant to be shaved and shoes with heels that only a member of Cirque du Soleil could handle without breaking an ankle. No doubt there are still magazines filled with women in compromising positions pushing beauty product.
My question, though, is who is the real audience here? Most guys I know would prefer to see their wife or girlfriend in jeans and a t-shirt. Red carpet dresses, the ones on which many women are fixated, look like space suits to the male eye. We are trained to say the right thing about all kinds of things that are “girl cute” but really have no bearing on whether or not, from a male perspective, a woman is attractive.
Don’t get me wrong. I am perfectly willing to accept that male oppression is alive and well when it comes to pornography, sex trafficking, and all kinds of bad shit that I and others at GMP have written about extensively. But when it comes down to female beauty itself and the massive fashion industry from magazines, to television shows, to store after store after store, I just don’t see it. Men don’t care about the stuff over which women obsess. There’s a disconnect. And while the connection between sexual exploitation and obsession with beauty is obvious, I can’t really raise a hand on behalf of men for all that has become a female addiction to beauty. I think there is certainly some part that women are doing to themselves in which we really have no involvement.
At least, I think it is worth asking whether or not that is true.
Rather than speculate in my own little brain about this issue, I figured I would ask a dozen women who work in fashion or are media people related to the fashion industry in some way. They are all folks who comment frequently on GMP and with whom I generally have an open dialogue about pretty much anything. So I sent them this summary of my question:
I have written a lot about the acceleration of pornography and the sex trade in our country and its impact on both boys and girls. I am currently researching and just trying to get my arms around a related but different question: what is the relationship between the fashion industry and our concepts of gender? Specifically, how does fashion relate to the more obvious ways in which female sexuality is objectified?
The thing I am beginning to try to unpack is just how much of fashion occurs in an orbit that is unrelated to men. I am thinking of things like handbags, shoes, and the red carpet. Men truly don’t care or see it as a form of female sexuality. Many women care a lot.
I asked some specific questions about Alexander McQueen, handbags, the red carpet, fashion magazines, the potential innate differences between men and women, and the demise of female models as superstars.
What did I heard back? Crickets. No one wanted to take me on. Perhaps it was summer. Perhaps my outgoing email is overwhelming. Perhaps my supposed friends are sick of me. Or perhaps I hit a chord. Not sure.
The only response I got right away read:
As I’m sure you know, there are plenty of women who couldn’t care less about any of this shit.
The women you describe are alien creatures to me. Perhaps you’re not looking at “women” but at a particular demographic that involves a certain age and a certain level of money and leisure that does not include most of us?
A week later I got an answer that really puzzled me, given my preamble about having written about sexual exploitation and pornography a lot (which I have):
I would love to have you talk about the fact that in many cities in this country there is a massive sex slavery trade of immigrant women. The FBI estimates that thousands of women every year are smuggled into the US and held in sex slave operations. Only men, good men can change this. Does a guy really know, when he gets super horny or wants to do something that his wife won’t do (that he probably saw on a porn video) that the woman he is paying, really chose this for herself?
Wow, so the answer to a question about the fashion industry is sex trafficking even when I explicitly point out I am asking about something different? “Only men, good men can change this.” That line leaves me speechless. It implies that all men are guilty by association and women are completely powerless.
I have met a lot of women working damn hard to end sex trafficking who are very effective. I believe sex trafficking is despicable. That’s why I have written about it as often as I have. (Here, here, and here.) But to lay the whole issue at men’s feet is gender war talk, and it is disturbing when I am trying to understand what, if any, role women themselves play in the beauty obsession and trap. Maybe I don’t know, but talking more about sex slaves doesn’t illuminate much.
I did finally get one response that made some sense to me (I have yet to hear from the other nine women):
It’s a way for a woman to feel both sexy AND protected. Women are in this peculiar “dance” with their sexuality. High-end fashion says, “Hey, you can look but you can’t touch.” It is telling people (mostly men, but sometimes other women) she’s a member of a club they can only get into with exclusive permission.
This writer went on:
For women, beauty (and fashion) have their own “tipping point.” A certain amount of things have to be taken care of for a woman to look “beautiful.” That’s why when someone says “she let herself go” — it means she hasn’t “tipped” into the beauty category. Or stopped tipping. So a handbag may not seem important AT ALL. But to a women who is obsessed with beauty, she can’t take the risk that it’s not right.
I have been drop-dead gorgeous twice in my life. Once from 17-24, once from 42-44. And it was all the same cycle. Beauty is an addiction. That’s why I’m not anymore.
I am not a women. I can’t really say if beauty is an addiction. Where I come from, addiction is a self-diagnosed disease. But from the outside it makes a certain amount of sense. I see women spending endless time on things that to most men seem insane (another trademark of addiction).
I do think it perfectly appropriate to ask what originally caused this potential addiction. Is it male objectification of the female form that forces women to contort themselves in ways that even men see as odd at best and annoying at worst?
I don’t know the answer, but I think it is worth asking the question, even if no one seems to want to respond to it.
—Photo Art Comments/Flickr
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