Thursday, April 30, 2009

Oh, Jezebel...

From a post re: new plus-size lines for teens: "So is accommodating plus-sized customers actually reaching out to overlooked teens? Or just a savvy business decision?" (Emphasis theirs.)

I'm confused. How is this even a question? Are stores that only stock smaller sizes "reaching out to" smaller women and girls? Does a woman buying a 4 at a store that only goes up to a 10 think to herself, 'Gosh, this store must think I look fabulous, which was why it went to the trouble to make me this new outfit'? Such a woman might understand that society thinks along these lines, but the store itself? Does one ever expect good will of this sort from clothes shops? Isn't reaching out to "overlooked" markets - teen and otherwise - what "business" is all about?

This question - this post - isn't even about body issues, women, or Young People Today. It's about the uselessness of asking whether companies care about our self-esteem. I mean, they'll pretend to care if that's what they think will sell their products (ahem, Dove).

(A vaguely-substantive, academics-related post, having nothing to do with this one, is next up.)

11 comments:

PG said...

Jezebel does have a bit of that tendency that Lehmann perceptively identified in New York magazine: an obsession with how people feel rather than on any quantifiable effects, which allows one to collapse the material differences between how people are affected by this recession (I can't go to a Mexican resort for Christmas; other people can't give gifts at Christmas) because emotions are the great leveler: we're all disappointed and unhappy.

At least the post was written by one of the Jezebels who looks like she might need a size larger than an 6. I always feel slightly skeptical of bloggers who go on about how awful all this emphasis on appearances is... and whose photos always have her made-up, styled and slim.

Phoebe said...

I agree with the first part of what you wrote, but am not sure it matters what size the blogger is. (Leaving aside, of course, how much you can know about what a blogger of all people looks like from the photos she chooses to present - anyone can be "made-up, styled and slim" on the Internet). But even -perhaps especially- a blogger who genuinely fit the "made-up, styled and slim" description would be within her rights to critique the emphasis on appearances, if she resents the fact that she (feels she) must put heaps of time, money, and effort into her looks in order for her intellectual qualities to even get noticed. The focus on looks hurts both the not-good-looking, who are, of course, judged unfavorably, and the good-looking, who, as I've explained elsewhere, are rarely naturally 'like that', use time/money/effort that could have gone elsewhere to get there.

PG said...

I think it matters because people who opt-in to an oppressive system for whatever marginal benefits it grants them have a responsibility for the fact the system is being perpetuated. A white person who maintains a membership at a country club that doesn't permit blacks to join can protest all he wants that he sure wishes they'd change that policy, but as long as he's a member he's maintaining the system.

Phoebe said...

OK, a white person is not working hard, to the detriment of more meaningful activities, at being white. A white person has the choice to not join the country club, but will remain white, with the many non-country-club related advantages that entails. Whereas a woman who's slim, well-styled, well-made-up, etc., is not born one way or another physically, but, one could argue, submitting to societal oppression, to demands that she prioritize in that way.

Anonymous said...

Some people are born stylish.

Phoebe said...

True. Will one of those people suggest a practical alternative to an Eastern Mountain Sports backback with straps coming out at all sides, and with holes on the bottom part? Anyone?

PG said...

"A white person has the choice to not join the country club, but will remain white, with the many non-country-club related advantages that entails. Whereas a woman who's slim, well-styled, well-made-up, etc., is not born one way or another physically, but, one could argue, submitting to societal oppression, to demands that she prioritize in that way."

But women are born one way or another physically. I will never be tall, I will never have fair skin and long straight blond hair or blue eyes, and some women are born that way and have to make a deliberate effort to be otherwise. Some women are born with symmetrical, proportional faces and bodies. This is the "fitting in beauty norms" privilege some women have at birth, just as whiteness provides some privilege at birth. You can improve upon that inborn privilege -- by dieting, wearing makeup, staying moisturized; by learning golf, joining the right, all-white country club and otherwise ingratiating to the good ol' boys network -- or you can refuse to do so and thus more credibly rail against a society that pressures you to do so and disparages those who lack your white/beauty privilege. I don't mean you have to be pathetic like Bill Ayers or David Horowitz used to be, hanging out with the Black Panthers trying to erase your privilege, but you can say "this privilege is problematic and I will do nothing to enlarge upon it."

Phoebe said...

Can we agree that the white/beautiful analogy, though imperfect, gets you part of the way?

I don't want to rehash the whole 'against natural beauty/naturally thin' argument, but my basic point is, while I agree that some whiteness is chosen and other is there by default, I don't think the ratio of natural versus enhanced is at all the same in the two cases, that of beauty and that of whiteness.

Beauty is in some ways about race, but I don't think it's fair to say that those born with "fair skin and long straight blond hair or blue eyes" - I mean, that's much of the Midwest, and to my knowledge there's no cultural obsession with the physical beauty of the average woman in Nebraska.

For women, in this day and age, beauty is quite a bit about weight, arguably far, far more than it's about hair or eye color. This has in some ways benefited some women, those women for whom being thin comes more easily than would blond hair, blue eyes, and Nordic-looking features. As such a woman, I'm conflicted - I do think it's awful how many not-at-all-obese women (and I would go with 'most') are continually wondering if they've eaten too much. At the same time, if the beauty ideal were to tilt more towards faces and less towards bodies, my not-at-all-'Aryan' self would be screwed.

(Then again, in the early 19th C, when blond-and-blue was ostensibly the ideal, other types of women were considered attractive if 'exotic'. Then again, not sure I want things going in that direction, either...)

PG said...

I think you're underplaying the role that facial features and skin fairness play in beauty. Nordic features are normed as the most beautiful, and until about 15 years ago, even "black" models were relatively fair-skinned; as I recall, Alek Wek was considered a breakthrough model because she looked African, as opposed to merely a darker-skinned version of Caucasian models right down to the straight hair.

"Then again, in the early 19th C, when blond-and-blue was ostensibly the ideal, other types of women were considered attractive if 'exotic'."

Yes, but I'm looking at this in terms of the amount of social privilege that can be gained, not just whether someone is deemed pleasing to the eye. A mistress should be exotic; a wife should adhere to the ideal and be able to pop out nice fair babies.

Phoebe said...

I agree that race is important here, but let's back-track a minute to the original question: is a "made-up, styled and slim" woman (of any race/ethnicity) one who is lucky to have the privileges that being good-looking entails, or one who has submitted to societal pressure to sacrifice time, money, and effort to her looks? I think the answer is, it depends. To the extent that 'natural' qualities - propensity towards conventional good looks, being raised in a family that encouraged salad and jogging - matter, it's about privilege. But why wouldn't a woman who gets her hair done twice a week, goes in for mani-pedi-waxing-eyebrow-whatever's-done-to-eyebrows-ing, etc., who spends two hours a day at the gym, who overanalyzes every calorie she puts into her body, occasionally resent that she 'has' to do all this? Because in a sense, no woman must do all this, but for whatever reason, many feel they must do this or some variant. My point is - was - that such a woman would be as entitled to say she wishes looks didn't matter as much as they do (even if she's arguably overestimating how much looks matter, or how much each hour/dollar of artificial intervention can really change, not to mention ignoring the point at which intervention becomes too much intervention and starts actually subtracting from attractiveness) as would a woman who, whether due to not caring about dieting or to caring but not succeeding, is larger than the size considered conventionally attractive.

PG said...

" My point is - was - that such a woman would be as entitled to say she wishes looks didn't matter as much as they do (even if she's arguably overestimating how much looks matter, or how much each hour/dollar of artificial intervention can really change, not to mention ignoring the point at which intervention becomes too much intervention and starts actually subtracting from attractiveness) as would a woman who, whether due to not caring about dieting or to caring but not succeeding, is larger than the size considered conventionally attractive."

I think we'll just have to agree to disagree on this, because someone who will do all this, and then bemoan the shallowness of a culture in which she "has to" do all this, is incredibly blind to how she's reinforcing and perpetuating the "has to."

I'm guilty of it myself in other areas: for example, by taking exam prep for the LSAT, I'm perpetuating a system that advantages those who can afford to pay for tutors and classes over those who can't. If none of us paid for those and receiving the concommitant score advantage, what's considered a "good" score would fall back down toward a 160.

But I would have felt like an ass complaining, "Oh, I need to go home to meet with my ridiculously expensive tutor so I can get a 90+% score, gosh I hate this test score competition for law school that will end up giving me an edge over people who made better grades in undergrad than I did." Especially if I were complaining in front of people who wouldn't be able to afford to expend the time/money for such a project but would have liked to reap similar benefits.

On the other hand, someone who has refused to take such advantage of their money/leisure privilege and says, "I wish the LSAT weren't so important to law school admission" or "I wish the LSAT weren't so amenable to being prepped for" has more credibility.

And the reinforcement of the system is actually less true in my LSAT example, because there's a real barrier between those who make the decisions about law school admission and the composition of the LSAT, and those who are taking the exam. In contrast, all of us make up this society, and we all can affect what beauty norms are and their importance.