Monday, October 12, 2015

Female Super-Slenderness Beauty Norms: WTF?

I often find myself thinking about the role of super-slenderness in female beauty norms and thinking, WTF?

When I say "female super-slenderness beauty norms," I don't really mean the general thing that women are constantly evaluated on the basis of their appearance, where those evaluations often track sex appeal as the main important thing -- so that a woman's worth is tied up with her looks.

That is interesting and complicated too, but I feel like there are a lot of useful concepts out there already to analyze it -- having to do with the patriarchical roots of our modern social situation and things like that.

What gives me the WTF feeling has to do more with the specific thing, having to do with being really really really slender. There is something mystifying about this particular thing that I think transcends the general analysis about the relation between women's worth and appearance, and definitely transcends the women-valued-for-sex-appeal business.

For starters, as is often noted, what people find sexually attractive in a woman's appearance is very often not super slender. It's not a straightforward thing to measure, and obviously there's no "one thing," but wouldn't you agree that on balance, the shape of a woman in pornography is very different from size zero shape of a woman in fashion? Even in a wide range of pornography types? So I think that while there are obvious relations and overlap areas, the "super-slender" norm is not a sexiness norm.

It'd be one thing if the super-slender norm had to do only with high couture or fashion-fantasy or something -- but that is so completely not the case. The norm of super-slender is associated with high status in such a deep and pervasive way. Women in movies have to be super-slender, almost regardless of role. A person looking for a girlfriend who reads as "high status" has to date a super slender woman. Even in business, the more slender, the more professional.

In many clothing brands, I wear a size ten -- and I'd guess overall I'm near average size for women in North America. And yet if I go into Banana Republic or Ann Taylor -- stores that sell professional clothing for women -- there are literally no clothes there that fit me. They're cut in a way that no matter what the official size, they are seriously too small somewhere. It's crazy.

Somehow, this "status" norm which is not a sexiness norm has become engrained in people's attitudes. What I don't get, though, and what I think needs deeper and further analysis, is why, exactly? Why this?

People talk about the problem being the fashion industry and how they use so many super-slender models. That's certainly a thing -- but do you think that is a sufficient explanation? Like, if tomorrow morning Vogue had people of different sizes and shapes that would change things?

Much as I'd love to see the fashion industry change, I find it hard to believe that they are the main movers behind this status trend. Many of the people most invested in it -- like businessmen with high-status super-slender wives -- don't even seem like they would encounter fashion magazines.

It's often said, and certainly it's true, that beauty norms reflect what-money-can-buy, so for instance when there's not a lot of food around, bigness is more appreciated. In this way of looking at the problem, it's because money can buy you slenderness that slenderness seems attractive.

Again -- does this really seem like a sufficient explanation? For one thing, for many people slenderness -- and especially super-slenderness -- are not things money can buy. They're just things you're born with a tendency to. It's seems more like slenderness is rewarded with money than that money buys slenderness.

It might be that the answer has something to do with imperialism and racism. Like, the body that becomes the status body is the one that is highly correlated with life in western colonizing hegemony: thus white, blond, and thin.

This, I think, is among the most promising explanatory directions, but it leaves a lot still unexplained. Why, for example, do we have the current trend, away from the size six models of the 1980s, and toward the size zero ones of today?  Why are models often so thin they have to be airbrushed to remove signs of ribs and bones? And this while the actual bodies of the western imperialist countries are getting bigger and bigger?

I think there are deep things here about femininity, and differentiation from men, and power, all linked up with the the other matters already mentioned. In my darkest moments, I think it seems like a hatred of femaleness itself. But really, I don't know.

Since I can't shop at Ann Taylor I often go to LOFT which is owned by Ann Taylor but creates clothing with a different cut -- a cut that happens to fit me. More than once I've been told by salespeople that the relationship between the stories is that Ann Taylor is more "upscale," more elegant, dressier, while LOFT is casual. And I'm always like, "How does having a certain body type translate directly into not being "upscale"? 

It's a seriously strange situation.

1 comment:

Sarah Brown said...

This post really resonated for me and had me wondering if maybe instead of slenderness representing money does it instead represent self-control? Since "fat" or "overweight" people are generally thought of as lazy, and unintelligent, slenderness therefore represents the exact opposite.