You should smile more.
You’d be prettier if you smiled.
Have you thought about losing weight?
You should wear make-up more often!
You aren’t married yet? You should get on that!
My hair is kept short. I’m plump, to say. I’m short, quite petite at maybe 5’2’’ on a good day. I’m a nerd, an otaku. I love uniforms. I sew, I cosplay. I write, oh stars, I write. And I list these things for one simple reason: for all of my quirks and interests, there are aspects of me and so many others that are acceptable to some and deplorable to others.
There’s a certain beauty to being raised Southern. Things that are simply aspects of life for many Southern women that were once points of ire from our Yankee friends are now oh so en vogue. The fact that I sew, I clean, I can bake: thanks to Pinterest are now seasonably fashionable. Cooking, sewing, baking were for many Southern women just tools for survival. We had to learn to do those things, even now in the age of take out and misandry we maintain the old traditions that many saw as little more than patriarchal suffering as an art. I never saw cooking, baking or any household art as punishment: the beauty of feminism is that as long as I want to do it, it’s more than allowed and I love a world where I can bake a cake from scratch and still maintain my degree.
The dark skin that I have such a complex relationship with happens to be either fetishized or just seen as a marked departure from the common hegemony of classical depiction. When I traveled overseas, I remember being the center of catcalling and comments because of my looks. Not just that I was an American but an African-American with a “full” frame. I didn’t mind them: even in the US I’m seen as “exotic”: I scarcely like admitting how many times I’ve heard “I’ve never dated a black girl before.” as if somehow outside of more melanin that I was somehow different from another girl.
I started cutting my hair short when I was 12. In a Mulan-esque rebellion against a father who kept my hair long, I started cutting my hair shorter and shorter. At its shortest, I could have passed for male but I keep it now just past my ears and I start to get anxious when my hair begins to touch my neck. In the past, short hair was needed: it kept lice away and that’s what wigs are for if you wish to continue to luxuriate in the lushes of long hair. I resist make up for the most part and you can read more about that here but I tend not to wear a lot of make up. In any other era, such a move would be the hallmark of feminine modesty and chastity.
Being petite for many cultures has been the standard of feminine beauty. Being heavy was once a sign of wealth. One could afford enough food to put on weight. Beauty standards for years emphasized and put praise to women who were full in figure. We did not start to savor a thin waist until fairly recently in the history of humanity.
I could list sources forever but I rather tell you a personal story about a chance meeting a very beautiful lady. I was in the Vienna Museum of Natural History. Among the dodos, Tasmanian tigers and the jaw of a very impressive prehistoric creature there was a cloak and dagger-like room. In it was a tiny figurine. She is old but doesn’t look a day over 1000 and she is lovely: the Venus of Willendorf. She’s a small, plump figure dating back centuries. She’s said to be a fertility goddess to a long-gone culture and I got to see her and in her I got to see a body that, well, looked more like mine. Her size was meant to show abundance. She was meant to be carried around and despite her small stature, she’s a real looker if you ever happen to be in Vienna, Austria. But if you were to see a woman now that looked like her, that looked like me, how many people would turn their noses up to her looks?
So let’s tie all of this together, but to do that, I’ll have to tell you all another story. When I was in high school and in all of my Japanese culture-loving wisdom, a few friends of mine and I decided to fill out omiai. These marriage applications were very common in Japan and forced people to, with the help of a matchmaker, list out all of their possible traits and flaws. I “updated” mine again in college and here are selections from my personal application.
Petite, very intelligent. University educated. Comes from a good family. Speaks multiple languages. Has debt, but good debt. At risk for some health issues but overall sturdy American girl.
In the right eyes, my somewhat stoic nature when presented with something interesting in a book or in an audio format. The fact that I can sew. The fact that I can cook. To the right person, are marked signs of favor or tacky throwbacks to a bygone era. Even by old Southern standards: I’d be quite the novelty. A small woman who is a domestic goddess but also of immense intellect that could be the pride of any household of the treasured pearl to any husband’s crown.
Now, by now, you may be asking:
Now, that was lovely, Amanda. What in the hell do you mean to gain by saying all of this?
What I hope to gain in this exploration of the fragile standards of beauty is simply this: understanding.
Think of how many times just in American history that standards of beauty changed from loving pale skin to adoring a beach tan. From staunch and strict segregation to the romantization of interracial relationships. And think of how culture’s influences changed how we see ambitious women as either harlots or literally demonic in the case of the story of Lilith (which if you’ve never read, seriously do that. I’ll wait.) The woman who would be pharaoh was so hated in her death that her successor defaced her monuments to deny her an afterlife. And literature and other pop culture revels in the mythical fall from grace for female characters. Think of the women whose ambition simultaneously is attractive and lethal. And even me as a woman who has been called “passionate” and “knowledgeable” by some can also be “intimidating” and “loud” to others that rather judge me on the first glance.
Women, men, people: we’re all lovely in our own special ways and we’re all still human in the most mortal ways. Our traits, habits, likes and dislikes can in one culture be understood and respected and in another exotic and wild.
So own your looks and know that despite your culture and the ire of others: you’re spectacular in your own special way. Standards of beauty change but individualism still matters most of all.
Notes for further consideration on the topic: