Most of us agree a positive body image is a good thing, but we may not agree on how to cultivate it. That much was evident when Australian website MammaMia launched a well-meaning "Body Positive" campaign on Twitter recently with the #MMbodypositive hashtag, meant to address some troubling statistics they discovered in a body image poll, only to get some mad heckling.
In the site's first ever annual body image survey, they asked women how they feel about themselves, and the answers were more depressing than an episode of Hoarders:
Eighty per cent of us are unhappy with the way we look.
Sixty per cent think negatively about our appearance at least once a day.
And a whopping 90 percent say that the way we feel about our body has stopped us from doing something in the past 12 months; whether that be going to the beach, having sex or getting our picture taken.
I doubt any of us is immune to these stats at one time or another, and we all know the culprit: being force-fed a steady diet of fictional female bodies that are about as authentic as a newly discovered Vermeer painting. But what is to be done?
MammaMia took a swing at it: They issued a six-part online challenge to readers asking them to expose their insecurities, and they promised to promote and publish them as the alternative to the PhotoShop of Horrors out there — i.e., "real" women's faces and bodies. Readers are asked to photograph and publish with the hashtag the following:
- 1: Your face without makeup
- 2: Body part you used to hide
- 3: Something you're proud of your body doing
- 4: "Real" post-baby bodies
- 5: Your face after exercise
- 6: A part of your body once shamed
It all seems harmless enough, but what showed up in my Twitter feed wasn't a slew of makeup-free faces with the equivalent of a fist-pump of support for going bare. It was a round of retweeted criticism about the ideological hypocrisy of the campaign from a very vocal Australian writer.
There were, of course, readers who happily participated:
And some jokes:
And expansions on the notion:
But clearly, leading the pack of oh-please was Helen Razer, agog at the feminist hypocrisy of this charade:
It goes on, and this isn't the first time we've heard these kinds of arguments. The meat of her argument encapsulates a kind of oft-perceived ideological divide between second and third wave feminism, or what you might call hairy-legged feminism versus lipstick feminism. The old guard cared about "real" issues, and all younger feminists can bother to care about is "real" faces. It should be noted that this Helen Razer person doing most of the criticizing of this campaign doesn't "get" what "rape culture" is, but hey, let's just entertain her argument on its own merit: Does posting a makeup-free picture online — that ultimately asks for strangers to validate your body or acceptability "as you are" — aid in "real" empowerment?
Some aspects of Razer's points are not totally outrageous to me: Yes, posting pics without makeup so people will say you are brave and bold is still ultimately asking to be valued for your looks. You're still being beholden to a beauty standard. It's still keeping the conversation on our bodies.
We can always argue that there are far more "important" victories to be fought for on the feminist front — equal pay, for instance, the cost of childcare, equal political participation.
But her fatal flaw is that feminism isn't a zero-sum game, and that how we feel about our bodies is as essential a component of what feminism aims to remedy as the many other issues it zeroes in on. For loads of women, their personal existence and struggle with acceptance about their bodies is as significant as how much they get paid. These are the bodies we inhabit for life, this is the physical framework through which we experience the world. There is a real tyranny of lookism, a kind of hamster wheel of self-improvement pressure that can prevent women from participating in the public world.
That's as utterly fucked as not getting the job, or not even being considered for it. In fact, it's so insidious as to be inextricably wrapped up within the problem itself. How women look and whether or not it's pleasing enough and in the right way or not is often the first round of bullshit we deal with as people in the world — that's before we can even get into the back room to be fucked over on salary.
Working toward an acknowledgement of the ritual of makeup and body alterations as a mask women feel enormous pressure to "put on" for the public is a valid step toward embracing ourselves as we actually are.
And yes, it's certainly cynical, but I don't think that pressure will ever be eradicated. In fact, I think that especially in a capitalist society, the most we can hope for is equal-opportunity exploitation. An example: The new Cheerios ad featuring a biracial child is still designed to make you to buy Cheerios, to see Cheerios as a progressive, caring company. But the profit lining the cereal bowl doesn't change the fact that it's important to see biracial children normalized in commercials and depicted in positive or neutral ways. Normalizing unmade-up faces is as important as normalizing diverse body types.
We may take issue with some semantics in the MammaMia campaign. Unadorned faces are not more "real" than adorned ones. A made-up face is still a face. Just like a shaved man's face is still a "real face." A celebrity's post-baby body is still a post-baby body. It's just one that has the benefit of time, resources, help, money most of us can't possibly get access to. The problem starts when this is the only kind of post-baby body we see or consider acceptable.
Grooming, exercising, moisturizing, avoiding the sun, etc. — it all changes your appearance, male or female, so it's important to note that we are all beholden to some degree of alteration for the sake of "civilization" as we define it in this country. This burden no question falls more heavily on women, thus the reason that a makeup-free face for a woman is a more significant statement than simply growing a beard is for a man (though the difference is merely in degree and not kind, as the rejecting of traditional grooming for men, in a capitalist society, is a powerful statement in itself).
But I beg: If you're going to go makeup-free to make a point, then go makeup-free. I won't link to anyone directly, but it's obvious many of the pictures promoted under #nomakeup are also illusions. Don't be trotting out some tinted moisturizer, eyeliner, lip gloss, powder, and mascara and pretend you're boldly exposing yourself. Now that is some bullshit.
Image by Jim Cooke.