Tuesday, May 15, 2012

More Stuff on Body Image and Beauty and... Stuff

Sorry for the ridiculously vague title. But it's been over a week without working on a post here and I'm feeling guilty. Though I did just have finals. And a 21st birthday bash to attend, in which I finally found a drink I dislike, which pleases me as I was starting to worry that I could drink just about anything (it's the J├Ągerbomb, if you're curious, and it is the most foul concoction I have ever let myself drink). And now that I've been busy, my ideas of gotten kind of stale, and I can't remember exactly the direction I was heading for some of these posts. So this one is going to be... well, pretty garbled.

Two weekends ago, my roommate and I went out for a few drinks after seeing The Avengers. While sipping Guinnesses at a table in a very empty pub, a couple of men walked up and asked if they could sit with us. After my roommate politely declined their addition, they decided to sit at a table where they ogled us until we finished our beers and left. I was certainly booking it out of the pub a lot faster than necessary and my roommate inquired about my uncomfortableness, to which I responded rather curtly about not enjoying being objectified. Which spurred yet another interesting conversation about body image. So, with your indulgence, here's another post on just that.

I'm not used to people staring at me. I've always been rather invisible, unnoticed, obscured. But in the past few years, that's changed. Comments are made (some of them rather lecherous), looks are given, and more often than not, I am made incredibly uncomfortable by them. There are varied reasons for the uncomfortableness, depending on the situation - the comments are actually sexist and rude, I'm slightly socially awkward, or men coming on to me sometimes flat about makes me uncomfortable because I am totally not used to it. But an overall theme is this, as I realized while talking to my roommate: I am not used to thinking of myself as physically attractive. And any attention payed by men, I honestly revert to this rational of thinking: it doesn't matter what I look like, all he sees is an object of pleasure.

My roommate pointed out, however, is that there is a different way of approaching this: yes, the guy may be ogling you. But you are attractive, irregardless of what is going through his mind. You have the choice to let it bother you or to turn it around and take it as a compliment. Perhaps it is better to be seen than ignored, for at least when you are seen there is a struggle for power taking place. And as my roommate said, the power is in your hands - you have the upper hand. Let him look; he's not going to have you, is her rationale. Better to take it as a compliment and sashay away than feel used. If we're going to have to play the game, we might as well bend the rules in our favor.

But sometimes "the male gaze" as it's known in cinema leaves no ability for the rules to be bent. Sometimes it leaves the individuals it's looking at in a position that has no upper hand. Take for instance the idea of beauty. I full well know that how I see beauty is not how the general public does - or at least how the general public is perceived to. I don't care much for lots of make-up; it makes me feel like I'm wearing a mask (and it takes sooooooo long to put it on if you're going with the whole concealer-blush-mascara-smoky eyes routine or whatever it is they outline in magazines). I never used to wear any make-up at all in high school. I try not to correlate that with the number of boys who talked to me, versus now when I wear a little eyeliner and sometimes concealer. Despite my whole "I am beautiful no matter what" assertion, I still wear make-up. I want to wear make-up; I like how I look with a little eye pencil and lip stick. What then? Am I doing this because I really want to, or am I just fulfilling what society expects? Would I ever, ever consider going on a date or to a show without any make-up at all? What's so attractive about wearing make-up, anyway?

And now I have no idea if I really have the upper hand or not.

Because we're going down this road, check out this post I saw reblogged on Tumblr by my roommate's sister. This goes back to the idea of being able to see beauty in others - in this case, people who are considered to be "beautiful" as deemed by society's current landmarks - but not seeing it in oneself because one doesn't look like them. And so it seems really fabulous and ridiculously easy for them to say that everyone's beautiful when it seems they themselves don't have to worry about their looks. But I'd disagree. I'd say people who are considered beautiful worry about their looks as much as anyone else - perhaps out of fear of losing them. I've honestly never met anyone who doesn't show some sense of dislike or worry about how they look. While we argue in psychology that too much self-esteem and self-confidence can hurt you, I honestly think this is a non-issue; I've never met someone with too much self-esteem or too much self-confidence. Not to say it doesn't exist. But it seems like a terrible distractor when trying to discuss why so many people can look in the mirror and be utterly unsatisfied.

Then maybe there's another devil's advocate edge to this. Maybe being unsatisfied is good; because looks don't really matter in the end anyway. That's not to say you shouldn't care about your health or anything like that; I just mean maybe we should be focusing more on the whole us instead of just the surface. Which is, of course, easier said than done. Because what's the whole us anyway? We're still centered around this Cartesian split between the mind and body and it's hard to combine the two back together. And even then, what does that mean? Would we still continue to see ourselves as just a body and a mind? How do we perceive a whole "us?" Who bloody knows?

Before I spend anymore time fathoming these impossible questions, I'm going to switch gears to another instance of body image discussion. Mainly, this quote from Benedict Cumberbatch which comes from this interview:
I mean, in Hollywood as well, the sanest, smartest people I know are beholden to the body image, to the f—ing aging shit. Of course we’re visual vessels to portray characters and tell stories, so of course people are going to want to see their better reflection or someone who’s dazzling or stunning or attractive. But it’s great when people like Charlize Theron can have “an ugly moment.” Then when people say, “it was just ‘unbeautifying’ her — that’s why she got the Oscar,” I just want to get up and punch them. Not only was it an incredible performance in “Monster” and a really unattractive character in “Young Adult,” where she was extraordinary, but she’s proven that actresses can have more than a shelf life, that they can have careers dependent on where they are and who they are at any given time in their life, not trying to maintain the idealized youth thing.
Three cheers for brilliant people being brilliant. Really nothing to add to that; I'll let his words speak for themselves.

And speaking of Monsieur Cumberbatch, Tumblr is packed to the gills today of photos of said actor on the beach, shirtless and in board shorts. And while I scan the bloggers gushing over his body (gushing in all honesty I am not exempt from; guilty as charged) I find myself going back to where I started this wayward post - staring at people. Something Tumblr users are very good at. There are obviously huge differences between a man staring at a woman and a woman staring at a man. And there are differences between staring at an image and staring at an actual person (something Baudrillard would strongly emphasize, I'm sure). And, as my roommate, some degree of ogling is necessary because... well, because we're human beings that feel sexual attraction and that's how it goes. But I feel vastly uncomfortable when I realize I am ogling photos online. Not so much with photo shoots, those are created in the interest of the ogler (epic win, ogler is actually a word). But more so with candid photos, paparazzi shots, images taken by fans. Along with the general issues of the paparazzi, these sort of photos just seem too invasive and sort of... well, real. Yes, yes, Baudrillard, you would condemn me for further blurring the line between representation and reality; I know. But Baudrillard needs to step out of the equation for a moment if I want to figure out any way to deal with this:

Oy. Puns.

If I wasn't already under the presumptions that Tumblr has provided regarding the fact that Cumberbatch doesn't understand why people see him as so attractive or that he doesn't sound like the flaunting sort, I'd still doubt the accuracy of this showbiz tidbit. For one, from the photos I've seen, I don't really perceive any flaunting. He's just chilling out on the beach; it's not like he's become "The Situation" or something (okay, that's the second time I have mentioned "The Situation" and Cumberbatch in the same post. Weird). And secondly, have you ever been to the beach and been like, "You know, it's so warm and sunny, I think I'm just going to curl up under this parka and roast like a marshmallow instead of wearing a swimsuit"? I was in Florida for spring break; it was 80 degrees in March and wearing anything heavier than shorts and a tank top was unbearable. Of course he's topless - it's the beach (and why the word choice of topless instead of shirtless? It's socially acceptable for men to not wear shirts last time I checked). I mean, really, tabloid writers?

And then I was reminded of this post I saw the other day, in which a very clever fan comments on Cumberbatch's disregard for a tabloid poll that voted him the sexiest man alive, a disregard that the fan presumes stems from his focus on work, not fame. Because, at the end of the day, acting is a job - a marvelous and brilliant one, but a job none the less. And the fan asserts that Cumberbatch is not interested in the parties or the glamour or the fame, it's about the work of acting, the passion and skills it takes to become another person on stage or on screen.

After reading this, I had a sort of epiphany - how often do I hear about an actor's appearance or how they regard their appearance, rather than their actual careers or skills or what makes their performance styles different from other actors? The Oscars are more focused on what the stars are wearing then what their performances in the nominated films comprises. Shows like Entertainment Tonight are nothing but the fame and glamour of celebrity life. Some magazines do a really good job of showing actors as more than just pretty faces with awesome lives but when it comes down to the  base impression of the average actor that exists in society, I think it's a rather shallow, image-based one rather than one that fails to take into account the immense amount of training and skill necessary get where they are.

And when it comes down to it, while some might take Mr. Cumberbatch's comments about his own appearance as cruelly self-depreciating or signs of low self-esteem, maybe it's really something more akin to a dismissal of something that doesn't bear worrying about. There was a post I came across the other day but has since disappeared into the maelstrom that is the constant flux of Tumblr, seemingly a quote from Cumberbatch himself. (Yes, yes, I have no actual source for this. I'm taking all of this form the word of a blogger on Tumblr about someone I've never met and know very little about. This is all kinds of weird and has many opportunities to be misconstrued. But I'm going to take the blogger's word for it). Roughly, it was something along the lines of Cumberbatch stating that looks aren't something to worry about, as they can't be changed and, as an actor, they're often manipulated for the sake of a role. Mentioned was the fact that he has actual scars from the make-up and prosthetics worn as the Creature in the stage version of Frankenstein. Let me repeat that just in case it isn't clear: HE HAS ACTUAL SCARS FROM UNDERTAKING THE ROLE OF THE CREATURE.
Now that is devotion.

And now I'm back to where I was in a previous post, trying to figure out how to define beauty (how do I always get myself into these impossible discussions?) while juggling the idea that everyone is beautiful, looks aren't the most important thing in the world, and yet the aesthetic appearance of people is how we generally perceive beauty. Thus I am reminded of this charming tidbit from Roald Dahl's The Twits:

Dear God, I loved this book when I was younger (why past tense? I still love it). I happen to think this is rather true. But I also find truth in the following:

Can both of these things be true? Why not? Beauty, like anything subjective, can be anything you want it to be. There is no one definition for it - in fact, there shouldn't be. At least it is certainly more than make-up ads and rejuvenating skin creams. Perhaps, most of all, I hope it includes something like this:

So I'm going to leave this discussion of beauty here, because I could carry this on until the end of time. For sticking it out through this long, winding post (that not so subtly expresses my fanaticism for Senore Cumberbatch), I reward you with this little Easter egg I came across the other day:

THERE IS A WORD THAT SPECIFICALLY DESCRIBES HEDGEHOGS. I love the English language. (But be careful, Martin Freeman. I have a feeling you are going to be seeing much more of this word.)


  1. I'm sorry but I've got to ask... why is a "man's gaze different from a woman's"?

    Surely this is a bit on the sexist side.

    If a man stares at a woman, it does *not* mean he's imagining having sex with her. Its a lie plain and simple! I'm not sure where society gets this idea that all men that look at women are creepy rape-y types, but that then the reverse is completely untrue (especially when, it seems to me at least, that women spend a lot more of their time than the average man 'staring' at images of a man that they're, to put it in your words, 'gushing' about... Note that this is opinion and probably wrong :P)

    Anyway, rant over.

    In an attempt to answer your question about the make up "Am I doing this because I really want to, or am I just fulfilling what society expects?"

    Perhaps its a combination of both? We are constructs of the environment we inhabit, and with advertising, parents, siblings and friends constantly reinforcing each other, its impossible not to notice the subliminal message that 'only with make up can you look like Perfection' (with a capital P). Much as you may not *want* to believe that the super skinny, uber retouched models in the adverts are your standard... its more than likely as not that, subliminally at least, they are...

    Hope I haven't offended! Interesting blog :)

    1. You have not offended at all! In fact, you ask a totally fantastic question, one I've been pondering myself. I'll do my best to reply to it but I'm certainly no expert on male gaze theory.

      The basics with the male gaze is less that it refers to a man looking at a woman but more of "the man" (something akin to the patriarchy, Ideology, the powers that be) looking at women. There's this whole binary system then that society is said to have conceived that men are active and looking while women are passive and looked at. This is of course more relevant to some (not all) films. It's the idea of how the camera works in film in viewing women, that it's meant to place the spectator in line with the "male gaze" that yearns for the female protagonist. It's not any one male in particular; it's just what society has assumed the male to be. Which, as you point out, totally sucks for men, as we now relay it into our own way of viewing the world rather just how a movie camera might scope it. So now when men look at women, perhaps just as a harmless passing gaze, it can be taking as a negative, creepy look. Sexist? Yes, I think so.

      As for women, I agree that they can perform the "male gaze" on men. There's actually this whole line of theory about women looking through the male gaze at film, but I can't really correlate it to actual everyday life every well. (Well, I could, but I don't want to get into the argument of whether films construct how we see the world or whether those constructs already exist and film just captures it; maybe it's both but this is sort of just an aside.) It gets really complicated because while ideas like this really help explain how certain film works and why a woman gets really uncomfortable when a guy in a bar won't stop looking at her, it also assumes that men all look at women the same way and that women all look at men the same way. And totally doesn't account for men looking at men or women looking at women. And it also tends to be skeptical that people have any agency or free-will at all, which I'm none to fond of. So, in short, this theory has some strengths and some pretty strong weaknesses.

      Also I very much like your answer to whether or not we do things because we want to or because of society. Thanks for reading; I'm glad you like the blog and I hope I've helped explain this a bit more!