Monthly Archives: March 2014

Guest Post at The Beheld

guest-blogging-relationships

(www.searchdecoder.com)

Having followed Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s blog The Beheld for a long time – and having been inspired by her writing in starting this blog – I’m very excited that she is hosting a guest post from me today. Here’s a taster:

Recently I got into an argument with a male friend who couldn’t see the difference between makeup, clothes, and jewelery when it came to beauty work and feminism. I thought the difference was obvious, but being forced to explain it properly I settled on the argument that it came down to adornment vs alteration. Makeup sits right on your skin and changes the way you look, and it isn’t always easy to see that it’s there. Clothes can alter your shape and general appearance, but they are more separate from you than makeup; jewelery is more separate still, not actually changing the way you look but merely adorning you with sparkles.
At the time I was quite pleased with this argument, but now I wonder. When does adornment become alteration? I’m not sure that the boundary is as clear as I had assumed—after all, do we then have to draw a distinction between BB creams and bright red lipstick, on the grounds that lipstick is obvious and artificial, and therefore falls more into the adornment camp, whereas BB cream is a deceptive alteration of your skin (or at least its appearance)?
I’ve certainly never heard anyone argue that wearing jewelery is part of the patriarchal oppression of women by pressuring them to be beautiful. But it is something that women do, with the purpose of enhancing their beauty. Does that mean a feminist should rethink her earrings, giving them the same weight of consideration many might give makeup?

Read the rest here… and read everything else on The Beheld too!

 

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Can You Fake Beauty – just with Body Language?

amy cuddy

(www.blog.ted.com)

An intriguing proposition, no? I have just watched this TED talk by Amy Cuddy, called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”, after my excellent friend Elli Harris sent me a link to the Top Ten TED Talks Women Should See (they should). Cuddy isn’t actually talking about beauty but power, and how your body language can make you not just look more powerful, but actually feel more powerful – and as a result, be more powerful. But I kept wondering about the body language of beauty, and whether the same principle might apply.

Cuddy, who is a social scientist, says that humans and animals the world over express power and dominance in the same way: by making themselves big. When we feel powerful we stretch out, take up more space. And when we feel powerless, lacking in confidence, we close up, wrap our arms around our bodies and make ourselves small. Even blind people, who have never learned this by seeing others do it, use the same body language.

I think there is a body language of beauty, and it’s related to that of power. Think of a peacock strutting, and compare with a Victoria’s Secret model. In fact, think of modelling generally: surely the poses and style of walking that models learn are the non-verbal display of beauty? All the people taking duckface selfies are using this language too.

That suggests that you can learn this body language. Cuddy shows that you can learn the body language of power, and by holding a “power pose” for just two minutes (e.g. Wonder Woman hands on hips), your power hormone testosterone levels rise, and stress hormone cortisol levels drop. This means that you actually feel more confident, and are likely to perform better in whatever you are doing. Pretty cool, right?

So maybe we can all learn some non-verbal signs of beauty and, as Cuddy says, “Fake it till you make it” or better still, “Fake it till you become it”. Have you ever known someone who was not, in your eyes, particularly good-looking but carried themselves as if they were, and had admirers all over them? I’ve sought out a few famous examples of this, although I recognise that it’s a subjective view. I certainly don’t mean to be passing judgement on people’s looks here, just observing the body language of famous people who are widely considered to be ‘not conventionally good-looking’.

SARAH-JESSICA-PARKER-VOGUE1

The inimitable SJP (www.theimproper.com)

Jagger

Jagger (www.timesunion.com)

david-bowie-1972-wearing-the-so-called-rabbit-costume

Bowie, of course (www.metro.co.uk)

miss-piggy

Point made. (www.landlordrocknyc.wordpress.com)

I also think that the body language of beauty is one of the ways we learn how to be feminine, but this is where my theory encounters a problem: Cuddy says that women in general use less powerful body language than men, tending to make themselves smaller. If you think about how little girls are taught to keep themselves neat and tidy, legs crossed and arms in, this makes sense. When Cuddy showed images of powerless poses in her talk, I recognised all my usual positions.

So is the body language of beauty one of power or feminine submission? I think it’s both, coexisting in a delicate balance. For instance:

scarlett1

Scarlett doing powerful (www.newsbiscuit.com)

scarlett-johansson

And the opposite – but still beautiful (www.hdwallpaperscool.com)

In the second image, Ms Johansson is clearly making herself smaller, but her facial expression is pretty confident. And that’s just it: beauty’s body language is about the performance of desirability, which for feminine beauty often means a position of weakness performed with confidence. Because submission is feminine, and confidence is sexy, right?

I suspect that it would be an entire social sciences research project to get to the bottom of this (anyone fancy a collaboration?), but I’m convinced that beauty is in body language as well as body shape. What do you think – does that mean we can learn to feel (and be seen as) beautiful, and is that a good thing?


The Beautiful Author over at FWSA

Zadie Smith

(www.inspirational-black-literature.com)

The kind folk over at the FWSA blog (Feminist and Women’s Studies Association) have published my piece on The Beautiful Author here. Whatever would the publishing industry have done without Zadie Smith?


No Boobs in Scandi Noir

jakob_saga

(www.svtplay.se)

Firstly, if you haven’t watched Swedish/Danish crime drama The Bridge, do it now.

There are many reasons why the trendy Scandi noir genre, and this show in particular, completely justify the hype, but here is one reason I haven’t heard talked about.

No boobs!

This is so subtle that I didn’t properly notice it until series two, and I like to think I have an eagle eye for these things. What it comes down to is the simple but innovative way in which The Bridge has approached its sex scenes. As I said, no boobs!

Saga Noren, a character who makes feminists happy in so many ways, likes to have sex. She says so, very bluntly (her bluntness is a thing). And we see her having sex several times: but, each time, she is wearing a vest or t-shirt. Her partner may be naked, but she isn’t. And it’s not as if the Scandinavians are particularly bothered about nudity – in fact, perhaps it’s their lack of juvenile excitement at the prospect of naked boobs that means they don’t bother with them.

The importance of this lack of boobs really comes into focus when you think about pretty much all other TV: in, say, British and US shows a sex scene is always – always – an opportunity for boobs.

mad men

Mad Men (www.laweekly.com)

dexter

Dexter (www.fanforum.com)

ripper-street-s01e01-hdtv_-x264-river-mp4_001636760

Ripper Street (www.horrorpedia.com)

Game-Thrones

Game of Thrones. So many to choose from… (www.organiconcrete.com)

The only exception I can easily think of is Breaking Bad, and I reckon that’s because Skyler is pregnant for much of it, so her boobs would make people feel uncomfortable.

The images above are the kind of TV we are used to, in which sex scenes are often gratuitous and always an excuse show some boobs: whether the sex is significant to plot or character development tends to be a minor concern. This is not the case in The Bridge, which deliberately avoids the boobs to make sure that Saga’s character development really is what’s important.

And this is the way forward. The Bridge proves that you don’t need sex or boobs to make people tune in: people are raving about the plot, the dialogue, the atmosphere and the amazingness of Saga’s character. The fact that she is actually really hot doesn’t get much attention, because that’s the least interesting aspect of the show. And that’s just it – as soon as women/female characters are given a chance to show how interesting they can be, they step up. Of course they do. It shouldn’t seem so revolutionary to say that boobs are one of the least interesting aspects of women.

Go and watch The Bridge now. If you’ve seen it, then have a go at Googling TV sex scenes and tell me which ones I’ve missed, either with boob or no boob…


The Queen of Sheba’s Hairy Legs

There is a consensus that the Queen of Sheba did exist, but it is some of the myths surrounding her that have really endured. The tale goes that she was a powerful Queen ruling one of the only lands not yet conquered by the great King Solomon. In some versions she hears of his unsurpassed wisdom and goes with gifts and riddles to test him; in others, he hears of her wisdom and demands that she submit to his rule and religion. Either way, in her visit to the King she demonstrates wit and intellect but is bested by Solomon, who easily answers all her riddles, and she submits to him.

The story of the Queen of Sheba has diverged into three primary strands: the Ethiopian, the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Islamic tradition. There is historical evidence to suggest that the Queen of Sheba came from what is now Ethiopia, and her legend has long been a central part of the national identity. The Jewish and Christian tradition arises from the fairly brief account of the meeting of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon in the Bible (1 Kings 10:1-2), and scholars in this tradition hold that the land of Sheba was nation enriched by the incense trade (the Queen gives frankincense and myrrh to Solomon) located in present-day Yemen. However, the Jewish story of the Queen later enriched iteself by adopting parts from the racier Islamic tradition.

It is the Islamic tradition that developed the endlessly intriguing myth of the Queen of Sheba’s hairy legs.

1921-betty-blythe-as-the-queen-of-sheba-in-the-retronaut-1363306888_b

Betty Blythe as the Queen of Sheba, 1921
(http://www.pictify.com)

In 1993 this image was reworked in a short story by Marina Warner (in The Mermaids in the Basement), and it continues to be a provocative metaphor for the deceptive and dangerous nature of beauty (and often by extension women).

In the Qur’an the Queen’s legs do appear, but we only hear that on entering Solomon’s palace she sees that the floor appears to be a a long glistening pool of water. She hitches up her skirts to wade through, finding to her surprise that it is merely polished glass. As Barbara Freyer Stowasser points out, merely having shown her legs is enough for the Queen to exclaim, “I have committed an outrage against myself. Now I submit [in Islam] together with Solomon to God” (64, passage from the Qur’an, Sura 27:43).

In later Islamic versions of the story the glass floor is specifically intended to trick the Queen into showing her legs, so that Solomon can ascertain the truth of the rumours that the beautiful Queen of Sheba hides the hairy legs of a devil under her sumptuous skirts. In the Targum Sheni Solomon exclaims on seeing the Queen’s legs:

“You are a beautiful woman but hairiness is for men”
(in Lassner 16-17).

In Jacob Lassner’s analysis it is the Queen of Sheba’s political power that makes her dangerous enough to Solomon for him to find it necessary to subdue her. However, it is significant that the perversity of this power – wielded by a woman – is symbolised by the Queen’s hairy legs, by a blot on her beauty. Clearly, if she is so powerful than she cannot really be a woman.

Beauty, therefore, is a manifestation of weakness and of femininity, two attributes which are irrevocably connected; in the Jewish Stories of Ben Sira, Solomon is able to sexually possess the Queen once her hairy legs have been made smooth, in an echo of Samson and Delilah – a story which offers a clear example of hair as a signifier for masculine strength, inappropriate for a woman. However, beauty tends to be described as a power, and the Queen’s seductive power is one of the factors that make her so dangerous. But it is perhaps a secondary power, ineffable in contrast to the actual physical strength of men, and once a woman’s beauty is sexually possessed it loses its influence and its threat.

The revealing of the Queen’s hairy legs at the moment when she is fooled by the glass floor also connects her hairiness – the imperfection of her beauty – to the fallibility of her wisdom. Both her vaunted beauty and intellect are undermined in a single motion, suggesting a link between the two which is not often proposed. In this case Lassner’s emphasis on power as the Queen’s central attribute enables the interpretation that:

the Queen’s beauty and wisdom are, in this story, ciphers for her political power, which is really the only thing under discussion.

She presents a threat to the all-powerful Solomon, by ruling the last kingdom not under his dominion – that she is a woman adds to the insult. Her unrivalled beauty and intelligence express the superlative power which is so alarming to Solomon, but the metaphorical conflation of these three, beauty/wisdom/power, means that if one of these is undermined then the whole edifice will collapse. All of the riddles she poses to Solomon, which test his ability to see through disguised appearances, are analogies of the larger deception which she embodies. The sight of her hairy legs destroys the illusion of her perfect beauty, which has been metaphorically bound up with her unsurpassed wisdom – also compromised by her own deception by the glass floor – and her daunting political power which is predicated on these attributes falls in tatters at Solomon’s feet.

The implication of this argument is that beauty is only powerful in a metaphorical sense.

So it has no direct influence of its own but represents, and functions in collusion with, financial, social or political power. This may offer an explanation to the question agonised over by philosophers of aesthetics, as to the ineffability and mystery of beauty – provoking such powerful feeling and yet so impossible to comprehend as an actual thing, so difficult to categorise or explain. If beauty is encountered in connection to various forms of power, as a visual manifestation of them and a way of aestheticising their workings – in the process assimilating the trappings of power to itself – does that mean that our analysis of beauty must always study it in context, taking into account the various factors that give it its power, and in relation to which beauty finds temporary form and significance? I think the idea that beauty is always affixed to other attributes is both enticing (as a way to study beauty beyond the philosophical abstract) and requiring further interrogation, but to always analyse beauty in its specific context seems like a very sensible thing to do. After all, it is clear that the Queen of Sheba’s hairy legs are more than just an advertisement for Venus razors.

Sources:
Lassner, Jacob. Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretation. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.