Beauty and Desire: The Missing Piece
In light of my personal essay on beauty history and self-expression being published here. I’ve been thinking about the very structure of beauty and how it interacts with our lived experience.
In a supposedly post-feminist period, conversations on beauty and capital fail to talk about the material consequences of being ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’ for marginalised women. Shirley Anne Tate says that beauty and ugliness are socially constructed. They are gendered, sexualized and classed terms. Because of this, we have to take a cross cultural approach when looking at beauty and what it signifies for women. Beauty, when thought of within the spectrum of public and private needs to be rethought as mainstream feminists equate public with freedom and private with oppression. Through modern articulations of women and their bodies, we know that femininity is a metaphorical location which reveals that being cast outside of it is specific to marginalised women’s experiences. To understand beauty and desire, it must be made clear that western beauty standards is the focus for mainstream feminism. Because of this, Western feminism has positioned itself as the normative state of existence – disempowered women are rendered invisible. If we do not see desirability politics beyond an individualistic and self-actualising concept, we forgo it’s sinister welding to exclusion – that is to exclude everyone who is not thin. Disempowered women are dispossessed and desire seems to be impossible when placed on this sexed, gendered and classed femme body.
Western feminist theory remains central in the academy as universal in its very invisible classification as normal. We know that the ultimate function of beauty is to exclude the masses and platform the few. The sociopolitical context of beauty means it can always adjust to fit white middle class women throughout space and time, but will always violently condition these women and pointedly exclude gender non-conforming people. Tressie Cottom says that beauty only holds as a meaningful cultural artifact if we all share that beauty is precisely because it excludes other women. Mckittrick asks us to reclaim the body through self-knowledge, by recategorizing the geography of self. Perhaps she says this because the existence on the margin, as the peripheral space of marginalised gendered bodies, is troubled. Collins tells us the margin is inaccurate and too “flat” to encompass the experiences of women globally. The beauty shared by disempowered women does not have the power and capital needed to create an iconic figure as mainstream feminism has done. However, by creating cultural products, the objectified and desired femme being finds a way (if ever) to be “beautiful”. Beauty capital and cultural products have become ever-present in these contemporary subcultures online. However, beauty is bad capital. Simply because it is gender exclusive, requires subjugation and patriarchal frameworks to justify and most importantly, obfuscates the material consequences of navigating the constraints of beauty.
The geopolitics of desire, the exclusive nature of beauty and its function on the capitalist marketplace aptly explain the rapid growth of influencers and social media celebrities. The dark nature of beauty politics does more harm than giving young women insecurities. Beauty politics and desire are rooted in an inescapably capitalist arena. The influencer arena is obvious in its falseness as liberating, especially so when we see a very specific type of body dictating the trends on beauty and online life itself. How can femmes attempt to navigate and capitalise on beauty when beauty politics are inescapably violent. The marketplace demands that beauty be coercive, all-consuming and expensive. A project that leaves little room for freedom or self-esteem.
“When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing the dominant culture’s assessment of me. I am naming what has been done to me. And signalling who did it” Tressie M Cottom