The Times They Are A-Changing: Another Moment in the Alt-Beauty / Beauty Narrative

Posted on February 26, 2009

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I stumbled across SuicideGirls.com because one of my female Facebook friends became a fan of its Facebook group. And it got me a-thinking and a-writing and a-questioning. As always. 

In my news feed, the associated image was quite tiny but some of the associated copy is easily read. It is :

” Everywhere you look TV, Movies and Advertising are shoving the same photocopied version of beauty down your throat. SuicideGirls was created to demonstrate ….”

Hmm, this has potential, I thought. So, with my feminist interest piqued — perhaps by a coincidentally relevant conversation I am having with PPBP on her site here — I thought I’d have a look while the (organic and fair trade, day 2) coffee brewed.   

The rest of the copy on the Facebook groups states :

“… that beauty comes in many forms, not a single cookie cutter shape and look. What some people consider fucked up, we think is what makes us beautiful. Since 2001 thousands of SuicideGirls have been posting millions of photographs on SuicideGirls.com.”

Sounds good but I suppose I shouldn’t be tooo surprised that the splash photo and all the other photos featured do not really live up to the copy’s message. True, there are a lot of tattoos, piercings, dark hair, goth-y make-up, and — to their credit — the occasional slightly bigger than model-sized model. But, really, essentially there is nothing different here than what you might find in any fashion magazine — or more accurately any men’s magazine. Lots of make-up, air brushing, sexy clothing, and provocative posing, etc. in other words, Maxim for the tattoo and piercing crowd.

If you are on FB on want to check out the group, click here (probably not appropriate for work — unless you work in a tattoo parlor).

A closer look at the site itself reveals more of the same, the promise of more explicit pics, the occasional genuinely plus-sized model, a much greater emphasis on girl on girl action, and profiles which suggest the girls / women featured on the site are cooler, tougher, curiously more ethical (vegan!?!) and bigger partiers than you or I. 

Based on the imagery, I now have a pretty clear image of the guys to which this site is being marketed. And as a stereotype (so I could be wrong on this), these are not the kind of guys who would give a damn about the quasi-feminist / alt-beauty copy associated with the site. So, I suspect, there must be some genuine female traffic but I may be wrong. Really, I suspect this could just be the latest incarnation of “the girl on girl sleep-over pillow-fight” fantasy that always does so well with men of all ages.

To check out the site (not work appropriate), click here.

Although the feminist / alt -beauty messaging is far less prominent on the main site — other than the caption “Beauty re-defined” associated with their hardcover book — the “about us” page and the “press page” keeps the feminist spirit alive by implying the site and community is a kind of “women first space.”  The PR contact is not surprisingly a plain looking girl with glasses and a piercing.

Now I should be explicit, I actually don’t have any problem with the images. To be honest, some of them are pretty damn hot and fall right into my “flavor profile” (yes, I am intentionally winking to the camera with this choice of words). I’m not a huge fan of tattoos and piercings (and I have a hard time believing there are that many good looking girls with that many huge tattoos — some of them must be fake: the girls and / or the tattoos) but the light vaguely-fetish look is for me always tantalizing — after all, I grew up on French soft porn and the underwear sections of department store catalogues. Although I should say, I haven’t seen all the photos or any of the members-only material, so there may be some demeaning stuff hidden away in there. Don’t read this as a blanket endorsement.

My first reaction was, in fact, the one that motivated the title: wow, things have changed from when I was a kid, teenager, and young adult. I grew up during the emergence of HIV-AIDS, the Christian Right, a certain breed of feminism, and some pretty topsy turvy economic times. I understand now that I came of age during a perfect storm which brought about what I am going to dub New Wave Puritanism. And when I was growing up, the alt-beauty ethic — at its zenith — demanded girls have short hair, baggy clothes, no make-up, and shaving — never mind waxing — was practically a crime against humanity. Boys weren’t meant to consider girls as sexual objects and to do so was almost tantamount to a hate crime. Girls weren’t meant to sexualize themselves because to do so was demeaning and kind of a betrayal to the cause. Although a lot of this messaging came from the Christian Right, a whole lot of it also came  from secular feminists. The sexuality of women  — and indirectly some men — was being meticulously controlled and monitored in the name of female empowerment.  

Then, in the mid-nineties — I actually more or less date it with the arrival of the Spice Girls — it all changed. Suddenly women — and young girls especially — were being told by everyone that being hyper-sexualized was not only OK but downright empowering. I don’t think it is an accident that this moment in the narrative coincided with the dot.com boom and the arrival of a flood of cheap clothing imports from third world sweat-shops — not only were girls encouraged to dress with sexiness in mind, they could also now afford to do so. Although the hyper-sexualization of girls was certainly in part motivated by a new consumerism fueled by the free flowing cash of the time, once again there was a certain breed of feminism which justified and championed the shift in messaging. Now women were being told to be hyper-sexual for their own damn good. The net result is that now even the geeky outsider female identities are hyper-sexualized and encouraged to buy make-up.

My second reaction was to realize that the essential disjunct between the copy and the images is not that unique either. Remember those “real beauty ads” by Dove? They included images of “real women” (i.e. just not model thin and perfectly made up) with their kit off and adopting some pretty downright provocative poses — one bent over ass shot that I saw on the back of many an Auckland bus comes quickly to mind. In other words, be a real woman but be damned sure to shake your ass to sell some product too. As a side note, I read somewhere that the ads were commercially unsuccessful — apparently “real beauty” doesn’t sell (although, I’m not sure how they could actually measure that — dropping sales could be caused any number of things). At any rate, I am no porn historian but I am also sure the alt-beauty / “different beauty” message has been used to move sexy pictures before.

It occurs to me now there is also another moment in the battle over women’s sexual identity which I am less aware of because so few of my peers are breeders and because I kind of got to relive my twenties in New Zealand (highly recommended by the way — very illuminating second time around. The third time, I think, will be best!). I am referring of course to the mommy wars and the intense pressure put on women not only to procreate but to do so perfectly. It occurs to me this may be a more recent incarnation of the New Wave Puritanism my age cohort has always been dealing with.

Now first things first.

I consider myself a feminist and I think that any feminism which tells a woman who or what she should be is no feminism at all. The point, I think, is to let individual women — and all persons — to live, be, and associate as they please so long as it doesn’t involve physically harming or coercing others. If I remember correctly, this makes me more akin to first-wave feminism and, on my view, I think this is basically what third-wave feminists are saying but in slightly fancier post- (insert intellectual movement here) language. Having said that, I should also say that I don’t think this goal precludes people from questioning and challenging some of the decisions made by men and women. Freedom of thought and expression cuts both ways. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil is not freedom of speech and /or conscience. You’re OK, I’m OK (no matter what!) is also not freedom of speech and /or conscience.

I should also say I think the kind of messaging girls are being bombarded with these days is way better than the messaging they were bombarded with when I was growing up, but I am not convinced it’s totally healthy either. There’s certainly undue pressure on girls to be and look a certain way and, most importantly, it doesn’t seem like they are getting much guidance from parents, teachers, etc. Anytime parenting is left to commercials, the TV, the internet, and peer groups, things aren’t going to turn out so well. So, in sum, I accept that the present state of affairs is far from perfect but, at the end of the day, my view is that a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality and prepared to exploit it to her advantage will be much better off than a de-sexualized woman afraid to put in a tampon.

So, in the end, my only beef with the site is that it is misappropriating a good message. It claims to be challenging the status quo when really it is reinforcing it by incorporating all the key elements of “photocopied beauty” and slapping a few tattoos and piercings on it. Moreover, I can’t quite figure out if the site is crassly and intentionally being misleading or if they are sincere and simply unaware that they are not really challenging conventional beauty standards at all. I kind of lean towards the former analysis because I don’t really see why they need to incorporate the alt-beauty message. It is my guess that their primary target market doesn’t give a damn why the tattooed and pierced girls are getting their kit off and making out — so long as they do it and do it in lightening that obscures all imperfections. Moreover, I can even imagine a scenario whereby the founders started with good intentions and truly challenging images, but, as the site became more popular, eventually shifted their aesthetic to meet the commercial demand and eventually returned into the status quo. I am sure a few Marxist feminists would suggest that is inevitable.

It really does make me wonder if “conventional” beauty standards and its presentation can ever be truly challenged in a commercial environment when the customer is always right. And is that even wrong? Moreover, who really is the customer when it comes to beauty — male or female? Or maybe I really just am an old fuddy-duddy.

Thoughts? Guesses? Replies? 

Btw, my plays Paris is Dead and Sunlight both grapple with these issues. I’ve been chewing on these issues for a while.

 

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