You probably know that what we, as a culture, consider “beautiful” is arbitrary.
We know this is true because beauty is different all around the world right now. And it has been different throughout history.
You can tell from a prehistoric pocket goddess that plenty of people thought round bodies were amazing, because somebody took the time to carve them out of stone. Stone. Time they could have been hunting, gathering, cooking, reproducing, keeping the kids away from the fire, somebody spent making a tool that could carve stone in fine detail, and then spent even more time carving stone into the shape of a voluptuous woman.
Why would they do this?
Because the desire to capture beauty is innate to humanity.
Thousands of years later, the sculptures didn’t need to be portable anymore, so they became life size. Then preserved in egg and oil, then film. But they still had the same message: this is what beautiful looks like.
It’s all arbitrary. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We know this.
If this is so obvious that it’s a cliche, then why are we still okay with telling women what they should look like — and it’s so overwhelmingly young, thin, and white? Why do we still tell women that their clothes might put them at risk of being perceived as too sexy or not sexy enough? Further, how good they look suggests to us the quality of their character and even how well they do their jobs. Too sexy is unprofessional. Too frumpy is unprofessional. Attractiveness is still subconsciously (mostly) associated with qualifications.
And women who stand out as either too attractive or not attractive enough are assumed to be calling attention to themselves on purpose.
“I notice you!” their observers object. “You’re making me notice you!” It’s an accusation that a woman is expressing herself without having been invited to do so. And that gives the observer implicit permission to comment. Maybe they feel entitled, and maybe they even feel like it’s their obligation.
There was a post on ChoralNet, the interactive portion of the American Choral Directors Association’s internet presence, from a young white man telling women conductors, among other things, that they should not call attention to themselves and their bodies by wearing anything too tight. Because it’s their responsibility to hide from the audience, not the audience’s responsibility to be grown-ups and not stare at the conductor’s ass, I guess. They removed the post shortly afterward, happily, because these days, we feminist social justice warriors are comfortable strapping on our armor, pulling out our weapons, and writing polite e-mails to editors letting them know that this kind of shit is not okay. And then the poster followed up by interviewing an actual woman who spoke intelligently but gently to describe how policing women’s attire is a HUGE DEAL AND WE SHOULD STOP because, when it comes down to the root of the matter, such things contribute to rape culture.
What is considered appropriate attire is determined moment by moment by a culture. Fifty years ago, a woman in pants would have been scandalous and barely acceptable. A hundred years ago, a woman without a corset might have been shunned. Make-up, bright colors, heeled shoes, jewelry, etc. have all been vilified at some point in history as demonstrating a woman’s wantonness, stupidity, or unprofessionalism. Because they all make her look too attractive or not attractive enough.
Because it comes down to this: what we wear is always judged by how beautiful it makes us look. And before we tell women what they should or should not wear, we need to take into account the larger history of the oppression of women through the clothes they have been required to wear or forbidden from wearing, how their hair should look, how much make-up they should be wearing and even for what reasons they should be making these choices!
Before you make suggestions to a woman about what she should or should so about her appearance, consider:
Might you be perpetuating an unfair double standard? Probably.
Might your judgments be based on fleeting, temporary, arbitrary measurements of appropriateness that are culturally determined based on nothing other than momentary preference? Almost certainly.
Might your perception that your preference is gospel truth come from permission the culture has granted you to criticize women’s appearances based on their status as second class citizens whose value is based on how their bodies appeal to people in positions of authority rather than on how much their actions contribute to the greater good? Could well be.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… To be specific, it’s in the culturally indoctrinated, subjective eye that is not entitled to comment or instruct without considering the big picture.
In the eye that will should poked if you assume authority over what does not belong to you and is none of your business.