#distractinglysexy and Drawing the Line

Last week, Tim Hunt surely earned himself a lot of love letters by claiming that women in the lab are distracting—you know, always falling in love with him (I’M SO SURE, TIM HUNT), crying, and other female shit.

(Incidentally, this sparked one of my favorite twitter hashtags of all time, #distractinglysexy, in which women in STEM documented how hard it is to hold tissues and test tubes at the same time! How conveniently a hazmat suit hides tear tracks! Etc. )distractinglysexy1

Tim Hunt’s sexist remarks were infuriating not only on their own merit (or lack thereof), but also because they make me fear that for every lumberingly blatant misogynist speech, there are a hundred Tim Hunts not voicing their misogyny—only thinking it. It was striking in the way he kept claiming he was just “being honest,” and shouldn’t have said those things in a room full of journalists, as if his real mistake was revealing the depths of misogyny in the sciences, not the misogyny itself.

This incident, and the responses to it, are yet another reminder of the way in which women who work in fields dominated by cis-hetero men (ie. most professional fields) must grapple with the policing (and self-policing) of their beauty. It’s no secret that women, whether walking into a grocery store, a first internship interview, or into their own corner office, deal with an overload of information on how to self-present—as competent, as low-key, as anything but #distractinglysexy. How much makeup can one wear in a lab? A boardroom? When does that extra swipe of eyeliner push you from “intriguing” to “overdone”? Like women’s bodies, women’s faces are a battleground where the war over modesty and “appropriateness” is waged.

Thinking about makeup and the performance of appropriate womanhood brings to mind Caitlyn Jenner looking into the mirror at her Vanity Fair cover shoot. Caitlyn Jenner marks a watershed moment in American thinking about gender presentation—as she went from Bruce Jenner, an emblem of masculinity in the Cold War Olympics, to channeling the immediately “legible” femininity of Marilyn Monroe and other screen sirens.

Photo @VanityFair / Twitter
Photo @VanityFair / Twitter

Her revelation to the American public was, of course, not going to be complete without a ‘glam squad’ supplied by a magazine in the business of selling femininity. In the write-up above, Vanity Fair lovingly details the individual products used on Jenner, and quotes makeup artist Mark Carrasquillo in saying,  “‘I didn’t want her to look like a man in a dress. I wanted her to look like a beautiful 65-year-old woman,’ said Carrasquillo—and that is exactly what he achieved.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with Caitlyn Jenner wanting to look like what she considers her most beautiful self. But the discourse surrounding Jenner focused on a very particular image of womanhood, which uses makeup to emphasize the person’s traditional and hetero-acceptable femininity. It thus erased trans-women (and cis-women) who either can’t or don’t want to conform to this image.

From high-school hallways to corporate offices, women walk a thin line between “successfully” inhabiting a beauty standard and stepping outside of it. The margin can be as thin as the missing half-inch of fabric on shorts that get high-school girls sent home. It’s not just about wearing makeup versus going bare-faced, but the ways in which powders, creams, and pigments play back into age-old virgin/whore dichotomies. In these cases, the onus is on women to use their purchasing power to present themselves as willing and able to adapt themselves to “appropriateness.” Sometimes they lack that purchasing power. Let’s not forget that looking “right” for the context is a class-based and racial issue as well, more often than not. To take a prominent example opposed to the more demure examples of Taylor Swift and even Beyonce, Nicki Minaj’s alter ego Roman and her “Barbie” phase were both memorable for their very intentional use of makeup as message. By wielding strikingly artificial pink hair, green eyeshadow, and lacquered lipgloss, Minaj reminded us of the extent to which femininity (especially femininity that dared to be loud, deep-voiced, and not particularly “feminine”) is a performance that others will try to police. This makeup made some people uncomfortable. That, like Nicki’s monster-rap voice, was part of the point. There was nothing “natural” about it.

Photo from Mypinkfriday.com | Official Site of Nicki Minaj
Photo from Mypinkfriday.com | Official Site of Nicki Minaj

This is not to erase the agency of women who use makeup or choose not to, but to prompt a more thoughtful consideration of the ways in which women are pressured toward the “right kind” of beauty construction. Makeup and the performance of beauty are complicated issues. No amount of misogyny and policing can fully erase the pleasure, for those who love it, of tracing one’s lips with a beautiful, velvety lipstick. These instances remind us that makeup and self-presentation serve purposes beyond “prettiness” as it’s traditionally defined.

And makeup can be a weapon. I wear thick black eyeliner all the way around my eyes these days. This veers just beyond the kind of eyeliner that is conventionally considered “attractive” or appropriate for daytime—except for those who see my eyeliner as an invitation to comment on my “exotic” looks. As a young Chinese-American woman alone in a new city, with a soft-spoken voice and a manner that can come across as naïve and trusting, this eyeliner is my daily ritual of preparation. At least, while others might see me as a quiet, malleable person tapping away silently at a laptop all day, I can look back at them with assassin eyes.

The author in disguise as a lemur
The author in disguise as a lemur

The Politics of Style: A Primer

Our mothers told us it’s what’s on the inside that counts. You do you, girl — all the bullies are just jealous of how smart, talented, funny and with-it you are. And then middle school proved our mothers wrong. Your hair is bad, those shoes are cheap and ugly, and nobody much cares about what’s happening inside your head, anyway. The cruel lesson of puberty for many of us is that your value must be legible on your body because, to quote our mothers again, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

Our mothers told us it’s what’s on the inside that counts. You do you, girl — all the bullies are just jealous of how smart, talented, funny and with-it you are. And then middle school proved our mothers wrong. Your hair is bad, those shoes are cheap and ugly, and nobody much cares about what’s happening inside your head, anyway. The cruel lesson of puberty for many of us is that your value must be legible on your body because, to quote our mothers again, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

This framing makes it seem as if our choices about the way we look are a problem of social coercion — that our personal choices are imposed more or less from the outside by the protean and mysterious pressures of Society. This isn’t totally wrong, but it doesn’t fully account for the complex tension between style as political resistance and style as social domination. Nobody wants to wear stilettos…except when they do. Heels may be torture devices designed specifically by the patriarchy to keep women slow and hobbled — a claim that the history of the high heel doesn’t quite support — but they are accessories that many women (and men) willingly, even joyfully, adopt for reasons that cannot be explained away as a mere capitulation to social pressure.

I refuse to let this discussion devolve into an easy pitting of social pressure against personal choice — victimhood vs. agency — because, of course, personal desires are always already conditioned by social context, and social attitudes are produced and changed by individual choices. As the great pubic hair debate has depressingly exposed, there is no winning when our only options are capitulating to the patriarchy or radical autonomous choice. My point instead is that the spectrum between choice and non-choice always contains the possibility of playful self-determination as well as the promise that self-determination is limited by the options available in one’s social milieu.

Feminists have spilled a lot of tears and ink attempting to dismantle this deterministic correlation between personal style and social and political definition. That people, especially women, are not reducible to the way they look amounts to something of a truism. Throughout the 60s and 70s, our mothers in the Second Wave fought against the coercive sexualization of women’s bodies on one hand, and for the possibility of women’s body autonomy and self-determination on the other. Fashion was, and continues to be, a staging-ground for these battles precisely because it inhabits a space in which bodies, personal agency and social determination meet.

Women protest 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, NJ c/o San Francisco’s digital archive (foundsf.org)

Women’s libbers were (mis)named “bra-burners” precisely because of the way clothing can be used to represent and enact political projects. And despite the persistent rumor that feminists are ugly and fashion-backward, they have produced some prime style icons. Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress defined the style of a generation of liberated women. Gloria Steinem, erstwhile Playboy bunny, vocal pro-choice activist and founder of the Ms. Foundation for Women, became the face of feminism not least because of her beauty and trendsetting style. And the mini skirt, the pantsuit and the bikini became emblems of political self-possession for women whose fashion choices were determined by middle class standards of modesty and respectability.

Gloria Steinem with her cat in 1970 | from The Guardian
Gloria Steinem with her cat in 1970 | from The Guardian

What these kinds of struggles have managed to prove is that style is political. Regardless of your personal attention to clothing, your fashion choices have political content. The Afro and the Black is Beautiful movement reveal the politics of style in a particularly poignant way. When your body represents the very opposite of the reigning aesthetic model, the act of embracing and celebrating your own image is a radical political statement. Refusing the hold of “good hair” (hair that most closely approximates the texture of European hair without ever actually recreating it), the afro offered a way for black men and women to inhabit their bodies not as a negative project — removing as many markers of African heritage as possible — but as an affirmation of identity.

The afro came to be associated not only with black self-love, but also with the political organizing of the Black Power movement. The signature look of the Black Panther party included militaristic gear, a beret and an afro, and functioned not simply as a means of self-expression, but also as a political performance of provocation and solidarity. It represented the enactment of politics on the body and the use of aesthetic markers as political signifiers.

Angela Davis on cover of Newsweek, October 26, 1970

Similarly, body positivity and fatshion (fat fashion) activities turn fashion into a political project. Like Black is Beautiful, fatshion is interested in reclaiming the fat body as an aesthetic object in a culture that insistently desexualizes, humiliates, and vilifies it. When the pressures on fat people include government programs that target children, medical institutions that consistently discriminate against and humiliate fat people, and a culture of fat hate that straw-mans fat people for problems as diverse as environmental destruction and airline greed, choosing to inhabit your own skin unapologetically takes on a political dimension. This is similar to the arguments made by feminist, queer and anti-racism activists: simply owning a maligned and violently oppressed identity has political stakes.

Fatshion intersects with body positivity, disability and queer activism, but its main focus is accessibility. One of the recurrent calls in the fatshion community is for clothing that is affordable and stylish. Plus size clothing manufacturers have a habit of producing tent-like contraptions in bad prints on the assumption that fat women aren’t very interested in style and would rather hide their bodies than celebrate them. What’s more, plus size clothes tend to be sold at a significant markup compared to the same garment in a straight size.

Fatshion proves that dressing how you want is a political act, especially when simply finding clothes to fit your body is a major challenge to time and resources. Choosing self-love in the face of a stacked cultural deck is hard enough, but it’s even harder when the price of entry is so steep.

Of course, the political potential of style has its limits, and those limits are usually drawn and redrawn by the machinations of capitalism. Standards of beauty are capitalist productions in multiple ways. On one level, companies manufacture a need for their products by convincing consumers that their bodies are unacceptable without things to camouflage, contort, trim and otherwise discipline them. On another level, those who inhabit the most debased position in the market, whose labour powers the system, tend not to be the ones who determine aesthetic standards. If you choose to go far enough back, the Africans who were used as slave labor in the pre-capitalist and then fully capitalist slave system also represented the ugly and the grotesque for their European masters. In this context, the afro feels revolutionary for African Americans after centuries of oppression built at least in part on the disavowal of kinky hair by European and American whites.

Yet, choosing style as a political field of battle has the potential to reproduce the same oppressive mechanisms it seeks to challenge. How can you, for example, use fashion to express self-determination and personal autonomy when your clothing is produced by an oppressed labor force in the global south? How can you challenge aesthetic standards set by capitalism by contributing to the very system that produced them? How can you, in other words, style yourself responsibly? These are not insoluble problems, nor do they prove that style cannot be an empowering and pleasurable experiment in self-creation. Rather, they point to the fissures in a political project that relies on image (and self-image) to function.

This series will attempt to grapple with these problems in a way that does not rest exclusively on the personal choice/social determination dichotomy, and that keeps an eye always to the ways in which individual self-fashioning cooperates with and resists the mandates of collective political practice.

Stay tuned!

 By E.L.
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