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08 August, 2007

Stripping Down

Daisy has a conversation at her place about people's experience with getting appearance-based comments as differentiated by sex.

And it occurred to me that I really don't have much experience with the sort of appearance policing that a lot of people do. And part of that is a thread of protected status -- specifically, that I am fairly thin, my skeletal asymmetries are not obvious enough to render me obviously body-nonconforming and are rarely disabling, I fall within the societal-standard range for 'passably attractive' without ever approaching 'popular crowd gorgeous'. Part of that is that I'm geek-gendered and hang out with geek-gendered people, who tend to be, for better or for worse, somewhat oblivious to matters of appearance. Part of it is that that same obliviousness almost certainly means that some fraction of such comments either never got noticed or, if they did, didn't register as something worth remembering. Part of it is that, as one of the nerd crowd, most people who wanted to try to cut me down went for that as a vulnerable spot rather than appearance, which was not so much.

I've gotten a few comments that mostly parsed as crudely sexist comments, most of them of the harassing kind, a couple of the 'you don't have adequate attributes and are thus a sub-woman' kind. (The pair of guys who commented on the size of my arse when I was walking to the takeout for a roast beef sandwich inclined me to walk home on the other side of the street. They probably weren't genuinely threatening. Probably. Just, as a pair, three times my mass, nothing better to do than stand around on the sidewalk, and making sure I was aware they filed me as a lesser being.) Aside from the need to do threat-evaluation processes, these don't register much to me, and I actually don't consider them so much 'comment on appearance' as "Inane spoutings because of course that female-appearing person is obligated to give a damn what I think, and I just babble anything that crosses my tiny mind."

(A belated edit: I tend to file that stuff in the same category as the very occasional "I hate you" gotten from a friend in a discussion about weight issues; the frequency difference is balanced out by the fact that I find getting even a claimed-whimsical declaration of hatred from people I care about over my fucked-up metabolism ... a fair bit more traumatic than being wolf-whistled.)

I wrote at Daisy's place (after a less-well-formulated and less complete paragraph that was basically the above):

    The stuff that's actually gotten through my skin has been mostly more abstract discussions. "Women like that are only attractive to closeted homosexuals" was one of the ones that stuck with me. A fair fraction of them have struck me as "Men attempting to support the women they find particularly attractive by expressing contempt for people who have different preferences", which I find disproportionately hurtful, in that whole, "What the hell did I do to you that you need to take a dig at me and those people who have the temerity to be attracted to me at random?" kind of way. The rest have been pretty much equal-gendered interactions, dissecting the unpleasantness of the existence of people like me as if I were some kind of unhuman bug on the medical table.

And it occurred to me that this is one of the reasons I find the politically-based appearance policing that I see kicking around profoundly creepy. It unites the animating spirit of these two wrongnesses so neatly and completely.

There's the thread that suggests that the way to support people whose appearances do not fit a particular model is to run down those people who do -- that strength and worthiness is conserved, and thus someone must be degraded to make anything better. Sometimes it's the appearance itself that's degraded; at other times the intelligence, independence, or competence of someone who would choose such an appearance (as I've frequently seen in anti-femme rhetoric). That dismissal is tied to some level of contempt for those people who enjoy that appearance or demeanor, as well, which is at least something that gets me more defensive than nastiness merely directed at myself. Some appearances are simply Not Permissible and people who like them are Bad People. And it goes around and around about which ones are the unacceptable ones, and maybe sometimes people miss the slams that aren't directed at them, but I'm reminded of my friend who describes herself as having an Austrian peasant build who said once that she's seen me get more and nastier commentary based on my weight than she's gotten. (And I believe she reads this, so she can tell me if I'm remembering wrong.)

And tied into that zero-sum economics of beauty is this impersonality, this cold dismissal. And I see it in the blogs a lot, the whole, "We're not going to take away your lipstick, sweetie" or whatever else. Take apart the whole concept, strip it away and pare it down, flay the flesh off it so we can hold it up to the light and see what sorts of markings are on the underside, but it shouldn't matter, it's not personal. 'We don't mean to direct it at you when we say that women who ...' (Who is it supposed to be directed at, then? Or, to paraphrase a wise woman of my acquaintance, it maybe wasn't aimed, but it got waved around a bit and it went off.) A particular trait is flayed out of the people who have it, treated as if it has independent existence from the people it was stripped from, a political agenda, a deeper revelation about the personalities of the people who engage with it. The trait is reduced to a paperdoll, a strawman, a caricature of beauty: we all know what people with that hair colour are like, that nobody has that figure without engaging in socially deviant eating habits, that that outfit has a party affiliation and votes for those kinds of people, after all.

That abstract, impersonal concept being vivisected on the table was stripped out of the bodies of real live people, whose pound of flesh does nothing to fill the ripped-open wounds of people who have suffered from the same contempt directed at different traits. All those divinatory entrails on the examining room floor just wind up producing a bunch of hamburger and wounded people bleeding out their personhood.

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