Content Warning: body image, beauty standards, white supremacy, male gaze, misogyny, sexualisation, desirability.
The other day I saw a post online which articulated something to me that I have never properly addressed. It wasn’t complex, it was very
straightforward, and that’s why it hit me so hard. It said, ‘I’m realising that all the girls I was jealous of n thought were super beautiful n gorgeous n way prettier than me in middle school n high school weren’t actually prettier than me they were just white.’
They were just white.
Somehow this articulation of such a simple truth gave me a dizzying feeling of realisation and a new lens to review my entire life through. Of course, the equation of whiteness with beauty is not a surprise, it is an ongoing conversation and one I engage in frequently; but this particular post went beyond the abstract and the theoretical, hitting me right where it hurts: in the memories of myself. In memories of growing up, of trying to understand where I fit in, of expectations and of desirability.
Talking about beauty and desirability is always problematic. What is beauty and why do we equate it with ‘womanhood’? The stereotypical images of beauty we see are white, cis, thin, able-bodied, young women presenting in a very specific way that we equate with ‘femininity’. These images hurt all of us on multiple axes, they present painful standard-bearers to all children who are told they will be women or must be attracted to women. And crucially, the pain occurs not only because the sought after standard is unattainable, but because it is deemed desirable.
Whiteness is desirable. We know that, it’s everywhere. To be white is to be beautiful. Womanhood and whiteness are intertwined in such a way that to be a woman who is not white is to be innately barred from true beauty. To be a woman who is not white is to be constantly at fault, constantly undesirable. We see it in the way that women of colour are consistently encouraged to violently change their bodies – bleach their skin, straighten their hair, remove ‘excess’ body hair etc. To be white is to be beautiful and to be beautiful is to be desirable; and to be desirable is the ultimate aim of a woman’s life – as she is told from childhood.
Desirability is something difficult to talk about. It’s difficult to talk about, I think, because it is uncomfortable to confront how important it is. It’s difficult, even when you try to reject any notion of ‘being desirable’ to truly and fully not harbour those long engrained ideas. If we consider even the recent visibility and vocalisation of women ‘reclaiming’ body hair – there is still a level of acceptability to it, a boundary within which it is maintained so it is not fully undesirable. For instance it is mainly white
bodies upon which body hair is deemed acceptable – thin bodies, cis bodies, young bodies – bodies deemed ‘beautiful’ in every other way. Thus growing out body hair doesn’t quite undermine or deconstruct notions of desirability, instead, it realigns the boundaries. It seems that this realignment of boundaries is a constant problem when it comes to desirability. Rather than ridding the notion itself – the idea of beauty for the beholder – we simply find it manifesting itself in new ways. We cannot seem to escape the male gaze.
Growing up in a world where every image, every film, every song, story, magazine and shop portray to you that being desired by men is essential to your existence, even when you choose to reject the sentiment it still haunts you. It haunts you in explicit ways, but more often it haunts you in the form of your own insecurities born of a lifetime of the imposition of warped values.
I was talking to a friend recently about the subtle ways in which we are consistently told to change ourselves so that we can be desirable. From feeling too loud ‘for a girl’, to the bizarre considerations that go into choosing an outfit, or the anxious feeling that follows ‘talking too much about feminism’; it was clear that the need to be ‘desirable’ had venomously infiltrated our everyday. Whilst we were both in agreement, of course, that we must never change for anyone – we also felt the overwhelming struggle that even with that confidence there was the knowledge that to reject desirability was to reject being desired.
To reject being desired is to reject the very foundations upon which we are taught to base our lives. Whilst I fully support and attempt to reject notions of desirability and beauty therefore, it still hurts. Whilst I accept that in being brown – and more visually, in wearing a hijab – I fall out of all images of mainstream ‘beauty’, it affects me in contradictory ways. On the one hand it is freeing, I sometimes feel that having fallen off the radar of ‘desirability’ I am more able to dodge the toxic societal connections between ‘beauty’ and ‘sexualisation’, or ‘femininity’ and ‘object’ – I am able to become almost invisible in some ways, unaccounted for on some measures. But on the other hand it is painful. It is painful even whilst it is ironic. Painful to know that what society deems as beautiful is not what I see in the mirror. Uncomfortable to watch the way interactions unfold with other women – who look more like the archetypical woman – and the way they unfold with me. It’s petty and it’s problematic for sure, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t felt.
And that’s why then, when I saw this post reminding me that other people ‘weren’t actually prettier than me they were just white’, I was hit hard. It was a reminder that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, it is constructed, it is warped. ‘Classically beautiful’ is just a synonym for thin and white, it’s not meant to be attainable, it’s meant to sell products. In recalling the pain that haunted me as a teenage girl who could never suitably fit what the internalised male-gaze asked of me, I realised that the pain was not just in the past. It remained.
It’s a pain that no one talks about because it is uncomfortable to admit that despite your feminism, despite your radicalism and anti-capitalism, societal expectations and pressures remain. Despite rejecting and condemning the male gaze, it manages to infiltrate the rejection itself, it manages to persuade you that even in falling off the radar you should want to be noted by it. As Margaret Atwood well encapsulated it, ‘You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.’ And when you live with that contradiction – that you have created your existence through the lens of a heterosexual white man but are in fact a brown Muslim woman, it feels enormously difficult to ever escape. When on your own in your own head it is sometimes possible to see things for what they are; but the moment you exist in a social space the expectation of desirability descends and imposes itself despite your best wishes. It asks of you to seek for it, it whispers to you that with a few more spends, a bit more time, a lot more make-up, a different dress, a change of diet – you too could be desired.
But it lies. It is in its nature to be simultaneously all-pervasive and unattainable. It is in its nature to be white but impose itself on the entire world. We must go beyond rejecting desirability, we must derail it and dismantle the imperialist white supremacist, heterosexual, capitalist patriarchal values that sustain it. I’m not asking to be able to ‘feel pretty’, I’m not asking be told I’m pretty; I don’t need validation, I need freedom.