Wednesday, 8 June 2016

On Women and Beauty

People, men and women, are so confused by the feminism debate that, in practice most live their lives entertaining two mutually exclusive ideas on the issue at the same time. This means that most people live in an uncomfortable state of cognitive dissonance on the subject.

At this point some women will ask what right I have to give my opinions on the matter having noticed from my name that I am, in fact, not a woman. My answer would be, neither am I an alien from a different planet nor a member of a different genus to homo sapiens. I am, in fact, a member of the same species as the female homo sapiens in whose company I spend much of my life (sister, mother, wife, daughters). In my book that gives me every right to comment whilst, nevertheless, loading me with the grave duty to be as dispassionate as I can.

I once wrote an article on the objectification of women in which I cited the following figures:

Amount spent in the world by women on cosmetics - $170 billion per annum

Amount spent by men on cosmetics - $30 billion per annum

How should we interpret these figures? Do they mean that women are forced into the stereotype of being beautiful? Does it mean that the ‘patriarchy’ is the agent that does this ‘forcing’ and that, therefore, all men should adopt an apologetic demeanour when confronted by figures like these? For, presumably, all of us are, in some way contributing to these heinous impositions. Or should we view these figures in a different way?

Recently there was an outcry, rightly, at a company that was insisting that its female employees should wear high heels at work. The obligation was properly removed but, in spite of this, there has been no notable decline in the sales of high heels. High heels are usually worn by women to emphasise their sexual attractiveness along with stockings, nice dresses and beautiful hair and, the problem here was that it was completely improper for an employer to demand of a woman that, in work time, the employer should expect on demand the perceived commercial benefit of a woman displaying her attractiveness in a way which is normally a woman’s choice. That’s one expectation that her wages didn’t cover!

Let’s return to my figures. If you don’t assume that women have been bullied into spending this kind of money on cosmetics how do you explain it? This is where I enter onto dangerous ground. My view is that it is quite simple. In birds, for example, on the whole, the male is the display gender. Evolution carries out its work of ensuring that only the very best genes get taken forward by winnowing out the mating rights of the male birds who have the least finely coloured feathers and the least shiny eyes. Then take a look at the Oscars, the Baftas ceremony or the catwalk at Cannes and you will notice an uncanny parallel between the humans and the birds – with the single proviso that the pattern is reversed in the human so that the female is the display gender. The women at the Oscars will be gorgeously arrayed to emphasise their sexual allure with their curves on display (a recent such event showed the women in dresses which evoked nothing less than lingerie), their hair at its shiniest, their teeth at their whitest and their Jimmy Choo high heels worn at their most alluring - all highly distinguished from each other (to look the same as another is a disaster) in what looks like an invitation to natural selection. Hours will have been taken to ensure that they are turned out like male goldfinches or lyrebirds. The men at the identical events will have arrived in uniform black suits and ties and white shirts, all merging with each other like so many dowdy brown female blackbirds or chaffinches.

Have these women been forced to behave like this? Can we derive from this spectacle a reservoir of resentment, which we can use at some point in the future? Or are we simply present at something, which speaks to the delight women (and, of course, vicariously, men) take in such display? Is there evidence here of some kind of patriarchal conspiracy or is it simply an example of women expressing what they are? It seems that they take on the role they do at such events with no explicit enjoinder to do so. As feminism wins greater and greater victories there is no sign of such behaviour diminishing. As women are more and more able to be whatever they like it appears that they like this very much.

At this point some feminists will evoke the idea of societal ‘conditioning’. They will suggest that sinister forces, by fashioning young girls’ consciousnesses according to the desired image, have imposed something false on them. Now the word ‘condition’ used in this way is derived from a verb ‘to condition’ and a verb needs a subject. So, who, now, is doing this sinister conditioning? Who is the Conditioner General? To all appearances it sees to be the female editors of women’s magazines. At this point one has to go a long way out of one’s way to continue to insist that is because those magazines are owned by men who force the female editors in question to behave in this way. And when one goes so far one begins to look like a person with a peculiar obsession.

Of course, all of this assumes that women, and men, actually have a nature as opposed to being tabulae rasae on which anything can be written like some kind of Etch a Sketch. This sounds fine but seems to conflict with the experience of the vast majority of the human race in practice and with virtually all of the humans I know or come into contact with (there are, certainly, exceptions). At this point, of course, I am obliged to signal that I am fully aware of the current debates on gender. I make no judgments on them apart from saying that these debates tend to concern a tiny proportion of the generality. My concern here is with the vast generality.

To sum up how is it that a woman will go out in her finery with her female mates on a Friday evening and rejoice in her appearance and their power over men and then, on Monday, deplore what she sees as the sexual stereotyping occasioned by seeing her little niece in a lovely dress? It is as if we are now compelled to subscribe to two utterly conflicting and mutually exclusive ideologies. Between the two of them a Gordian knot of Doublethink has been created which no one seems to be able to cut through with the result that we (men and women on these matters) live in the perpetual state of cognitive dissonance I mentioned at the beginning. Such dissonance, for me, seems painful and unnecessary. Why not simply say, along with me – Men and women are different and Vive la difference! - rather than looking behind the curtains for conspirators and oppressors?

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