Source: Huffington Post and the Nu Project

Source: Huffington Post and the Nu Project

In the past weeks, I’ve focused on the normative beauty expectations that govern women’s bodies and bodily habits. I was excited to see a recent article at the Huffington Post on one Minneapolis photographer’s attempt to challenge those norms. Matthew Blum, assisted by his wife/partner, has begun the Nu Project (warning: website NSFW), a multipart photography project in North and South America, in which he attempts to document real women’s nude bodies. All volunteers, the “models” represent a spectrum of bodies—different ages, shapes, weights, heights, skin colors, breast sizes and so on. Although Blum admits that he hasn’t fully achieved the diversity he envisions—relying on volunteers means he can’t seek out the “type” of women missing from the project—the photos do present a variety of bodies. As he explains the project, “The things that I had seen either used models with typical model bodies or average people who were made to look extremely unimpressive. I figured there was a way to treat women (of any size/shape) like models and photograph them beautifully, respectfully without a lot of sexual under or overtones” (quoted from HuffPost). Projects like this may encourage more women to appreciate their bodies, and because Blum refrains from sexualizing the women, the presentation resists objectification. Blum reports that many of the volunteers say participation has helped them see themselves as beautiful.

But do projects like this produce social change? That is, do they actually challenge our deeply held beliefs about beauty? And what happens when we consider representations of stigmatized male bodies? more...

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In the two weeks since I wrote about Secret’s “stress sweat” ad campaign, I’ve been thinking a lot about American society’s beauty standards for women. The prevailing model of female beauty (especially for young women, say 16-35 y/o) is best described by a term coined at Duke University: “effortless perfection.” As the Duke researchers explained, their interviewees felt they “had to be not only academically successful, but also successful by all the traditionally female markers — thin, pretty, well-dressed, nice hair, nice nails. And, the real rub is you had to do it with no visible effort” (see the Steering Committee’s report here).  Secret reinforces this unrealistic standard through their new line of products. Take, for example, their clinical strength sport stick (which I mentioned briefly in the last post). Thanks to the efforts of feminist activists around the nation, the otherwise all-male realm of sport has opened up, ever so slightly, to women athletes. But this has not altered the heterosexist structures that govern women’s lives. Women are expected to balance it all—work, family, school, love, and now sports—and be at our best, without ever breaking a (literal or figurative) sweat.

The pressure for “effortless perfection” envelops women daily. When it comes to beauty, “effortless perfection” is about looking as lovely as every retouched fashion model, but making it seem as though it comes naturally to you. Like women roll out of bed with “soap opera” curls in their hair, are born with pink blush splotches on their cheeks, and have eyebrows that sculpt themselves.  Take this ad for Clairol’s Nice n Easy hair dye. In it, the husband marvels at his wife’s nearly magical ability to maintain her youthful beauty even as life’s ups and downs have left him with grey hair. “I don’t know all her secrets” he tells us, “but I do know that Kate’s more beautiful now than the day I married her.” Kate’s dirty little secret is that she isn’t perfect—that 15 years of marriage, new jobs and homes, and carrying and delivering 2 babies weren’t effortless endeavors for her. And yet she hides her greys to maintain the allure that captivates her husband.

Its directive is simple, but impossible to achieve. “Effortless perfection” is artificiality masquerading as nature. It is the female athlete who glows (not sweats) on the field and the wife whose flaxen hair grows more golden with age. It is, perhaps, best exemplified by the “au natural” makeup trend, easily found in any fashion magazine. Just for fun, I found this guide online. Getting the “natural beauty” look that “guys love” requires 5 multipart steps and more than 10 beauty products/tools: face wash, makeup remover, moisturizer, tinted moisturizer or foundation, concealer, liquid shimmer luminizer (which sounds more like a sci-fi weapon than makeup to me), eyelash curler, mascara, blush, and loose powder. And since all of this is set in a hypercapitalist context, you can’t just buy any old makeup; you’ve got to buy the right stuff or risk exposing the artificiality of one’s perfection—mascara flakes tell the truth about your insufficient lashes and the wrong shade of foundation reveals that your skin is not actually made of porcelain or milk chocolate or caramel.

And this is where things get more complicated. While all women living in our society are subjected to some version of heterosexist beauty standards, only some are able to live up to them. That is, the pressures of “effortless perfection,” problematic though they may be, are themselves a privilege restricted to women of certain class positions. As one reader commented on my Secret post, these products are costly—Secret’s clinical line costs up to 3 times more than a regular stick of deodorant. Natural looking cosmetic products are pricey. Women who are economically disadvantaged cannot afford this beauty ideal and are often stigmatized. Moreover, this ideal is racialized. While product lines are increasingly including more cosmetics for women with darker skin tones, these options are still limited compared to those for lighter skinned women. Additionally, deodorants which claim to be invisible on skin are often only invisible on light skin; when dark skinned women wear it, we see the “effort” in their “perfection.” The ideal of “effortless perfection” emerges from society’s center: white, middle class, heterosexuals. Marginal women are always already excluded, as their bodies have historically been the foil for white, middle class women, the proof of white women’s superiority.

Ultimately, the ideal of “effortless perfection” is bad for all women—it says to us, “As you are, you will never be good enough.” And then it whispers, “But some of you can try.”


Further reading

Anderson, Tammy L., Catherine Grunert, Arielle Katz, and Samantha Lovascio. 2010. Aesthetic Capital: A Research Review on Beauty Perks and Penalties. Sociology Compass 4(8): 564-575.

Johnston, Josee and Judith Taylor. 2008. Feminist Consumerism and Fat Activists: A Comparative Study of Grassroots Activism and the Dove Real Beauty Campaign. Signs 33(4): 941-966.

Millard, Jennifer. 2009. Performing Beauty: Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign. Symbolic Interaction 32(2): 146-168.

800px-ape_skeletons_bgby theoryforthemasses

A recent book written by philosopher Dennis Dutton draws from the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology to explain the biological foundations of creativity.  Dutton attempts to synthesize Darwin’s theory of evolution with culture, suggesting that creative capacities have been passed on from one generation to the next as a mode of survival.  Storytellers, for example, would have been able to work out “what if” scenarios through making up stories, a practice that would keep them from risking their lives by attempting dangerous activities.  According to Dutton, these individuals, along with their attentive listeners, may have had better of odds of survival.

What Dutton and other evolutionary psychologists seem to ignore, however, is the issue of power.  They seem to suggest that “survival of the fittest” implies that some people or groups naturally have more power than others.  This could be the case if all humans were able to reach a state of natural, uninhibited production.  Mechanisms and conduits of power, however, are unequally and often arbitrarily distributed (on the basis of such characteristics as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ablebodiness, geographic location, etc.).   An “evolutionary” explanation of creativity may therefore be nothing more than a sociological one.

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square-eye3 E. Burnstein and C. Branigan on evolutionary analyses