Friday, November 13, 2015

The Beauty Myth and Ugly Truth

Something happened over the Halloween weekend that shook me up. This is going to be a long and unapologetic one, buckle up.

I was on my way home on the 3 train.
There are a series of heinous ads on the subway that showed up sometime just before the summer, as I remember anyway, for a plastic surgery place on the upper east side. These ads are not subtle, they are not clever. My least favourite one features a young woman holding two clementines in front of her chest and making a sad face. Next to that image is another image of her, this time holding two grapefruit in front of her chest and beaming with joy. Subliminal, right?
No. Absolutely disgusting. It's hard for me to explain what is wrong with that because I become frustrated at how glaringly obvious it is and yet there are those who just don't get it.
Summary: implying that women - and it is exclusively women, there are no men in any of these ads and they all refer to female not male anatomy - will be happier when they have permanently altered their bodies through surgery is fundamentally wrong.  It preys on women's insecurities, insecurities that were created in the first place by the 'beauty' industry, and attacks women on a basic psychological level, telling them 'you are not good enough as you are' and 'you don't deserve to be happy with the way you were born'.
I believe in maintaining a healthy BMI, I believe that if you are unhappy with something about your body and it's within the power of diet and exercise to change it then by all means you should make it happen. I also believe that there are things about human bodies that cannot be altered through diet and exercise. Aesthetic perfection is a man-made ideal and the culture surrounding it exists for precisely one reason: so a few people can make big money.  They promote dissatisfaction with self, then tell you they have the magic fix for that dissatisfaction, so they must be good guys right? We are being held hostage.

There is a feminist collective who have been putting stickers over these ads and other obvious violations of women's equal right to healthy self-esteem that read simply 'This insults women'.
I firmly advocate for this - it's a very not aggressive way of keeping the conversation open and also reminding people not to BELIEVE what the advertisers want you to, because you do not have to. Anything that provokes discussion in a harmless way is good.

And discussion it provoked. Some stupid teenager stood up, took a pen from his pocket and doctored the sticker to read 'this helps women's confidence'.

He sat down again and I looked at him. He smirked at me and asked what, so I nodded to the sticker.
He proceeded to tell me that 'yo guys want women to look good if it makes a woman feel good to get a bigger booty she should be allowed to'
Let's break down some of what's wrong with that quickly:
- So? Womens choices are not to be dictated by what men want
- The only reason many women feel the need to change their appearance drastically through surgery is because they have been unfairly duped into thinking it will improve everything in their life
- The stickers do NOT deny a woman's right to choose surgery or not they merely state the accurate fact that to suggest women should have 'mommy makovers' et al is insulting

He also told me that it was whoevers right to put the sticker there just as it was his right to deface it.  Which...well they're both technically not allowed but let's assume they are for a minute - yeah its your right, I suppose. You're not actually hurting anyone directly...but by so openly admitting to being part of the problem you're hurting a lot of people indirectly whereas the stickers are there to defend not hurt. So yes technically speaking you can do it but it is not your ethical right to deface a piece of media that is part of a wider campaign to protect.

Mommy makeovers is the one that really killed me. This is an industry that wants women to inject toxins into their bodies and also apparently negate the pride they should feel in their bodies' ability to create life by reversing the physical effects of pregnancy as fast as possible after giving birth or something.  It's hard to believe that there are human beings behind these campaigns, who must have their own mothers daughters and sisters. Or their own female bodies.

So I had a brief and pointless exchange with this kid where I was mostly too gobsmacked to say anything useful but I just wanted to know if he really thought those ads helped women's confidence. He really did. Then he got off just as I was about to start seeing red so it was good timing. The other passengers were looking at me - a couple with some trepidation and a couple with support. A middle aged couple got up and came down the train car to look at the sticker and ask me what he'd been saying so I told them. The woman was great and also likes the stickers, and another girl from down the train called out her agreements.

I was still feeling pretty enraged so I said most of what I've written here during our discourse...and then the little fucker GOT BACK ON THE TRAIN and walked right into the conversation. So this time the woman spoke to him asking him why he did that. A favourite answer of his was 'that's how the world is' and 'welcome to America'...so it's not like we were dealing with a seasoned debator or something and yet the part of my brain that says 'there is no point having this argument this guy is a moron' was having a snooze (it's usually having a snooze to be honest) so I saw red and went back in feet first. I asked him if he has a mother or sisters and he said yes he has 3 sisters. And I suggested that he imagine someone telling his sisters that they are valued purely on their appearance which must adhere to a strict formula at any cost. And he charmingly said that he was honest with his sisters and he'd 'tell them that they are pieces of meat' because, all together now, that's how the world is.
By this point I'm almost spitting fury and raising my voice and really getting ready to throw down (the other woman was still valiantly defending reason too) and around about that point he
a) devolved into shouting about being a troll and how fun it was for him to witness our anger
b)mocking feminism in general using a whiny voice
c) began the sentence 'it's like with race...' at which point I shouted him down
d) got off the train but not before threatening to fuck up the woman's husband.

So a real class act and beacon of logic.
I KNOW you can't argue with people who are willfully ignorant, I KNOW you shouldn't 'feed the trolls'. I know. I know getting in a loud fight on the train with a complete lunatic isn't the answer. But dear god...you also can't just let them go about their day doing and saying whatever they like with the pure intention to upset. You just can't. If EVERYONE in that train car had stood up, come over and said to him 'you are wrong, you are ignorant and you will be despised your whole life for your nasty hurtful attitude' - I don't think he would have changed at all but at least he would not have been able to continue with his pathetic agenda in the face of a united front. But there is never a united front. He represents a much bigger problem. What if every time that kind of behaviour was witnessed, everyone stood up to it? It might be a hundred train car graffiti idiots not listening and not caring BUT what if the 101st one was contested by a train full of people and actually learned something from it? That's one less agent of the bigger problem.

I will also point out that the images in these ads are nothing to do with any notion of beauty beyond a very narrow western ideal. The images promote being thin, cellulite and stretch mark free, having big boobs and a golden brown tan. So really not reflective of what a variety of people actually consider beautiful. I have a favourite book set in a Jamaican village which describes women who are considered beautiful as being 'nice an' fat with a bumpa botty' - use your imagination. I'm not going down that rabbit hole now but that's another big problem staring us right in the face - 'ladies if you want to feel better about your lives and your looks you should get this popular look that some guys made up a while ago and advertised it until it came true! Don't worry if you're not a thin white girl with a tan because SURGERY' god.

After he and the couple had got off I looked around and apologised to the train in general. The girl sitting further down was very kind and agreed with me while reminding me that he was an idiot and not worth it.
The two guys sitting opposite me looked kind of terrified which is funnyish now...but they both had a comment along the lines of 'I don't get why its a big deal if women want surgery why shouldn't they have it'

Even just writing that makes me want to flop to the ground in sheer despair.
Let's reiterate:

The ads for plastic surgery on the subway are NOT championing a woman's right to choose the fate of her own body. They are not denying it either. They are subliminally undermining her satisfaction with her body by presenting a tummy tuck, mommy makeover or facelift as something that will improve her life, something that she really ought to invest in - the very existence of these ads does that BECAUSE Like the vast majority of advertising, they are trying to convince you that you NEED something - because if you don't think you need it why would you buy it? They falsify a need to sell a product it's as simple as that, there is no deeper message here and imagining that there is an agenda beyond financial gain is naïve.

So these two poor scared blokes, who probably should've just kept quiet honestly, chimed in. They did try to mitigate slightly - they were genuinely confused it seems. I gave them some suggested reading and encouraged them simply to put themselves in the place of those who are targeted by these subway ads. Empathy could go a long way and I find it strange that so many people don't think of doing that first then speaking.

After I'd given a milder rapid fire diatribe attempting to debunk the myth that ads for plastic surgery on women are anything more than propaganda meant to perpetuate a cycle of unhappiness and therefore big money spent on a 'fix', everything was quiet. I cooled down from borderline combustion to smouldering embers. I got to my stop, left the train, walked home, sat on my bed and burst into tears. The whole hideous incident made me feel utterly helpless and like there is just no hope for humanity or the planet.
Luckily my ace roommate and his ace girlfriend arrived home shortly after and I recounted the tale. They immediately understood everything wrong with what had happened, David offered up a number of both brilliant and hilarious suggestions for dealing with those kind of people and Christina shared some of her own experiences of disgusting ignorance and sexism - I am not alone and there must be some hope after all because the people understanding my frustration are so much cooler and cleverer than most people who don't.
I also posted on social media about the incident which I don't do a lot but enough people responded with support that I didn't feel like a lone crusader against complete imbecility.

The one final thing that upset me a little was that the response from a couple of people was 'he sounds like a stupid guy don't worry about him' which is well meaning but completely misses the point. It's not the individual, it's the pervasive attitude held by too many individuals. I'm not ranting and crying because a boy was mean to me on the train. I'm shouting because an entire sector of the population is willing to accept that psychologically manipulating women to aspire to unrealistic beauty standards is an ok thing to do and I will not stop shouting about it any time soon.

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