Inspired by the title of The Illusionists, a documentary in the works that is going to be a must-see, I’ve decided to start a new series of posts called Magic Tricks. It’s about deconstructing the illusions of beauty and media, so that we can see through the “magic” of beauty standards, advertising and celebrity culture. Once you know how a trick works, it’s not so magical anymore.
In my opinion, one of the most threatening things about how we currently imagine beauty for/as women is that there is no size that is too small. There’s a definite “too big” in society, but girls and women are encouraged to shrink and shrink and shrink… until they disappear. Check out Beauty Redefined for examples of photoshop making women tinier than they are.
[Sidebar: Sure, when extreme eating disorders become visible on a body in an undeniable way, people may finally admit that someone can be too skinny – but those with anorexia will often receive compliments up until weeks before they’re hospitalized. It’s also true that some people with a naturally very thin frame are in fact harassed by others, who label them with eating disorders that they don’t have. However, losing weight is giving an immediate positive connotation in most of Western society. ]
As a woman who wants to take up space, I find the urge to disappear disturbing. I mean, we have a size 00 – size less then nothing. It strikes me as incredibly bizarre. As we try to increase the number of women in professional sports, laboratories, board rooms and legislative assemblies, it seems that Western women are spending even more time trying to decrease the number on their scale and their dress size. We need women to take up space, be present and unapologetic about their bodies, but instead we are constantly told that we are too much.
To be feminine and beautiful, we are told to be “less,” less fat, less masculine, less angry, less emotional, less demanding. Of course, there’s a list of “more” as well, but I want to focus here on the ways that we try to make women small. The “ideal woman” almost always achieves the adjective “petite.” Her feet are small, her hands are small, her waist is small, her nose is small, her mouth is small, her thighs are small, her ears are small, her height is small, and her stomach is non-existent. It’s ridiculous and I think it actually has real consequences for women as they try to take up social space and join fields frequently requiring a person to be big – in personality and in physicality.
Compare this beauty standard to the growing requirement for men to be huge. As women are told to shrink and take up less space, boys and men feel an increasing pressure to work out and measure their masculinity in the amount of weight they can bench press. Men are increasingly expected to have a buff body, but it requires hours at the gym, specific diets, and sometimes even steroid use.
Taylor Lautner (left) is best known as Jacob Black in the Twilight series of movies. He’s said to have put on 30 lb of muscle after the first movie in order to retain his role for the later films. In the year or so between films, he packed on muscles and he’s been rewarded with a lucrative film deal and millions of fan girls drooling over his abs. This transformation into the “ideal man” was not without effort and sacrifices, and has to be constantly maintained. It’s starting to sound a lot like our ideal woman, except that we demand that men become “more.”
Bigger is constantly equated to better for men, putting pressure on shorter and less muscular men to conform to this new he-man stereotype. The toys marketed to young boys are increasingly muscular, with G.I. Joe and Superheros gaining muscle mass with every coming year, and I find it hard to believe that this isn’t having an impact.
I see the shrinking of women and the bulking up of men as a result of trying to police gender roles through our bodies. As men and women blur traditional gender roles in other areas, our bodies – the most biological ties we have to gender performance – remain a battlefield for gender conformity. For me, this is why women are told they that can be judges and politicians and police officers, but simultaneously told that they must still conform to the “ideal beauty” at the same time. Success only counts if you still “look like a woman” doing it. To retain the supposed separate-ness of masculinity and femininity, society encourages extreme differences in the ideal male and female form.
Of course, “ideal” doesn’t really exist. That’s the trick.