Saturday, July 18, 2009


This week, I finally got my eyebrows waxed. I've been toying with the idea for some time, but I hesitated. Like most people, I'm not terribly fond of pain. And I worried that I might not like the results. But mostly, I was ambivalent about waxing for more political reasons.

As a feminist, I'm often critical of the beauty industry. I'm used to telling conventional beauty standards to auto-copulate. So, when I was struck with the desire to have my defenseless little hairs yanked out by the roots, I felt troubled and confused. Because waxing is one of the many cultural practices that I find problematic.

What's Wrong with Waxing?

There's the racial angle, of course. I might not agree that Ashkenazi Jews constitute a "race," but let's face it: we Jews tend to deviate from the reigning beauty ideal. We're short; we have strong features, and thick, dark locks. I know Jewish girls who spend hours straightening their all-but-straight hair, girls who carefully tweeze their brows and upper lips. It's hard not to feel that these arduous grooming measures are an attempt to look whiter, to blend in. There's an undercurrent of ethnic self-hatred in these women that makes me distinctly uncomfortable.

Then, there's my feminist objections to waxing. I hate the age-old idea that women must suffer to be beautiful. For the most part, I agree with the second-wave case against the beauty industry, as stated by the incomparable Naomi Wolf. Our society pressures women--and increasingly, men too--to harm themselves for the sake of beauty. Breast implants, stilettos, bikini waxes--for some, these might be authentic personal choices. But most women engage in physically destructive beauty regimes because of social pressure to do so. Wolf sees painful beauty treatments as a subtle form of violence against women. And personally, I'm inclined to agree.

But You Still Got Your Brows Yanked Off!

Well, parts of them. Yes. Does that make my a hypocrite? I don't think so, for several reasons.

First, I didn't get waxed because I felt that fuzzy brows were some kind of terrible defect. I know lots of women who look gorgeous with thick, natural brows. Nor was waxing an attempt to look "whiter," per se. Hairy brows or no, I look distinctly Jewish, and I'm proud of it.

I didn't get waxed because I felt pressured to do so. Sure, conventional beauty standards had something to do with it. I wasn't born thinking that a wide, smooth glabella was a desirable thing. But I'm also perfectly comfortable rejecting beauty practices that don't feel right to me. (Dieting, for example.) In the end, I made a thoughtful decision to modify my appearance, in a way that seemed reasonable to me.

For me personally, getting a brow wax wasn't much of a sacrifice. The procedure was painful, but it was also brief. There were a few moments of intense pain as the stylist yanked the wax off, plus some mild soreness that lasted for about twenty minutes. And the resulting change in my appearance, while minor, made me genuinely happy. This seems like a pretty good deal.

On the other hand, from my personal standpoint, Brazilian bikini waxes seem downright inhumane. I can tolerate a certain amount of pain in a few tiny spots on my forehead. But would I want to subject my nether regions to the same type of abuse--and risk all sorts of unpleasant health complications? I think not. And frankly, I'm appalled that our culture pressures women to suffer through such a procedure.

So Where Do We Draw the Line?

How much is it reasonable to sacrifice for beauty, financial gain, or social acceptability? When does a bizarre personal choice become an oppressive cultural practice? The short answer is: I don't know. Obviously, it's a subjective decision. I have a vague sense of where the line should be, but that's influenced by my personal experience; by the value I place on beauty, and on bodily integrity; and by my personal tolerance for pain.

Then again, maybe it doesn't matter where one draws that line in the sand. The truth is, people like modifying their bodies, for a variety of reasons. It's an age-old past-time, which can be a lot of fun. I'm inclined to think that procedures which can permanently impair physical functioning (elective labiaplasty comes to mind) are inherently repressive. But, barring permanent physical harm, there's a tremendous range of body modification practices available. And each of them could conceivably represent an empowered, life-enhancing choice for some individuals.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

The things some women do for beauty seem crazy to me. Then again, I have friends who think that my decision to get my brows done is completely insane. It's not my place to question anyone's personal choices. The real issue is making sure that we have a cultural climate in which people really can make those choices freely.

I might enjoy having neatly-shaped brows, but I'm still irritated by all the cultural pressure to be groomed into oblivion. I was still intensely gratified the other day, when I saw a clothing ad the featured a beautiful, and distinctly un-waxed, female model. And if I hate the pressure to be shaved and waxed, I hate the pressure to diet, or get breast implants, or engage in hundreds of other dangerous beauty practices about a thousand times more. But that doesn't mean I can't respect another woman's right to get a boob job, if that's what makes her happy.

And if someone chooses to engage in risky beauty practices as a response to social pressure, that, too, is a legitimate choice. It may not be consistent with my personal value system, but it's still their body, and their decision.

In the end, we need to respect others' choices, even as we fight the social pressures that constrained those choices. It's a delicate balance, one that requires some fairly sophisticated thinking. But it's certainly not impossible.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Whose Fantasy?

So, I understand that pointing up the misogyny in cyber-culture is like shooting fish in a barrel. But lately, I've been seeing some internet ads which I feel deserve comment. Not because they are particularly awful, but because they're an exquisitely good example of a particular brand of sexism, one that permeates our popular culture, on-line and off.

There ads are for a virtual world know as the Utherverse. Unfortunately, I can't post the ads themselves--how exactly does one link to a banner ad? But they're thirty-second videos, which run something like this.

Two male avatars are talking. A beautiful brunette woman walks up to them. As she approaches, one of the men abruptly leaves. A thought bubble appears over the woman's head: "Why won't he talk to me?"

To find out, she reads his Utherverse profile, where he has posted the phrase "blondes rock!" Another thought-bubble epiphany ensues: "He likes blondes." The female-avatar then does a quick transformation, and acquires some extremely blonde hair. She then runs into the man from before. This time, he notices her, and says "I don't remember seeing you here before." Immediately, they start making out. At this point, some text appears on the banner: "Experience the thrill. Live your fantasy."

I may be getting a few of the details wrong, but that's the basic idea.

This Is Why I Shouldn't Surf the Internet

Now, there are some obvious problems with this little scenario. First, there's the affirmation of ethnocentric beauty ideals. Yes, this is only one ad, and they could only show one character's transformation. But somehow, I doubt it's a coincidence that they showed a brunette going blonde, and not the other way around.

Then, there's the way this ad portrays the dating game. Yes, the woman is an agent here. She goes out and wins the object of her desire, rather than passively waiting for a man to choose her. But she still has to rely on appearance alone to attract a mate. And it isn't enough for her to simply be extraordinarily pretty: she must be the exact kind of pretty this particular man prefers.

Not only that, but the man in question is not exactly a beacon of feminist enlightenment. I understand that a thirty-second clip doesn't offer many opportunities for character development, but that's no excuse. The man in question refuses to talk to our heroine, just because she has the wrong hair color. Once she becomes a blonde, he's ready to sex her up, no questions asked. To this fellow, women are interchangeable sex objects, whose desirability is determined by a few physical characteristics.

The message, overall, is that men are shallow cads, who care only about appearance, and that women should expect no better. This, in and of itself, is an excellent example of why women often feel uncomfortable on internet forums. (For an amusing take on this issue, check out this comic.)

Whose Fantasy Are They Selling?

On a deeper level, this ad is a perfect illustration of a troubling cultural phenomenon. We've all heard the expression "sex sells." But, as Lisa at Sociological Images points out, it's almost always women's sexualized bodies, and (straight) men's desires, that are sold. And the sexualization of women is sold to everyone. Even ads which seem to cater to women, or to sell women's sexual empowerment, frequently selling male fantasies, and female objectification.

I think this ad is a great example. On one level, it's targeted at women. The woman is the protagonist of the video. She's the one who gets her sexual desires fulfilled--albeit by conforming to the preferences of the man. But the story is still fundamentally about male power, male sexual subjectivity, and female objectification.

The ad instructs (female) viewers to "live your fantasy." But is this really about a female fantasy of sexual empowerment? Hardly. Instead, the narrative offers women the "freedom" to cater to men's whims. Of course, it would be nice to be able to change ones appearance at will. But it would be nicer to live in a world where women weren't judged solely based on appearance, or where men weren't conditioned to believe that only a narrow spectrum of traits could be attractive.

If I were to design a sexually-charged on-line fantasy world, things would be quite a bit different. I would play as a short, chubby, near-sighted brunette. And I would have an intelligent, devoted young gentleman friend, who loved me exactly as I was.

Actually, I just described the real world.

The Utherverse might be a fun place to hang out. (Then again, it might also fill your computer with Trojans.) But if this ad is in any way representative, the wish-fulfillment fantasy it offers to female users is an extremely limited one. Ultimately, the Utherverse ad is selling a male fantasy: that women are endlessly malleable creatures, eager to transform themselves to suit a man's taste.