Guest Post: The Beheld on Beauty and Visibility

My admiration for Autumn Whitefield-Madrano cannot be overstated. I discovered her blog, The Beheld, a few months ago and have been an avid daily reader ever since. She is a gifted writer, and insightful thinker, an outspoken feminist, and a thoughtful critic of all things fashion and beauty, and every post she writes opens my mind and bends my thought processes in the most pleasing ways.

I asked Autumn to write a guest post for me about the conflict between beauty work and feminism and, unsurprisingly, she delivered a fabulous and thought-provoking piece, which you’ll find below. Read on, and do add The Beheld to your reading lists.

* * * * *

When I was 20 or so, I went out to dinner with my parents at a restaurant they’d been to several times but that was new to me. We walked in the door, and though it was crowded the host spotted us immediately, found us a table, and brought us water right away, all with a friendly smile. I didn’t think twice about this; it was par for the course. After we were settled in, my parents burst out laughing. “We never get that kind of attention,” my mother said. “We need to go out to dinner with 20-year-old women more often.” I certainly hadn’t styled myself in a way that indicated I was hoping for special treatment: I was wearing jeans and a baggy top, with my hair in a ponytail, and though I was pleasant enough to look at, neither were my looks remarkable. So I laughed it off, believing my parents must be exaggerating—surely my presence alone wouldn’t get snappier service.

But that incident has stuck with me over the following 10-plus years. I think of it sometimes when I’m having trouble getting a bartender’s attention, or when I notice that I get it immediately. I wondered if moments like the one we had in that restaurant were the sort of thing people were referring to when talking about women “exploiting their looks”; I wondered if I’d been more of a babe than I’d realized; I wondered what would happen if I ever consciously tried to “get by” on my looks. Recently, though, I’ve realized that the incident wasn’t about how I looked in the least. It was about visibility.

My approach to thinking about beauty with a feminist understanding is based in part on Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. That is: The beauty work women are encouraged to do serves to keep our energies directed toward the mirror, not the world at large—and while it’s not necessarily unfeminist to do things like shave our legs, neither is our beauty labor a decision made in a neutral cultural vacuum. So when I’ve put mental energy into understanding my own relationship to the beauty myth, I’ve usually focused on what signals I’m sending with my appearance choices. And only recently have I begun to question one of the silent assumptions therein: Just as I looked at my parents quizzically in that restaurant 15 years ago, I still take it for granted today that when deciding what image I’d like to project, I will be seen.

The questions I ask myself about my appearance revolve around the assumption of visibility:How do I create personal style without drawing attention I might not want? How much work am I willing to put into attempting to control how others see me? How much do I really want to be looked at in the first place? While there are plenty of worthy questions surrounding the particulars of the beauty myth—the time spent in front of the mirror, the money spent on creams and potions, the too-high heels, the suck-it-in shapewear—those queries dance around the heart of the issue.

And the heart of the issue is this: Every choice we make about beauty is a choice about being seen. And the more time we spend focusing on the minutiae of beauty, the less time we spend focused on one possible outcome of beauty work—heightened cultural visibility. At one point I believed that my own beauty work was a compromise: I wore makeup and high heels in order to “pass” as someone willing to play by the rules, and because it helped me feel more put-together, better allowing me to do my work in the world. But by seeing my own morning routine as a daily compromise, not only was I living a pretty deep conflict, I was also neglecting to see how much privilege I was taking for granted.

I have the luxury of critiquing the beauty standard in a pretty straightforward manner because in certain ways I’m already a part of it. I’m no great beauty, but I check off many of the “right” boxes of the beauty rubric: I’m a white, able-bodied, middle-class woman whose body falls smack-dab in the middle of the “normal” BMI zone. There are plenty of reasons I’m excluded from conventional beauty—yellowed teeth, bumpy skin, wobbly thighs—but by an accident of birth, I’ve managed to clear plenty of hurdles of the appearance standard. Just by being me, I have a good deal of visibility.

So of course my morning routine became a web of conflict: I could rail against the makeup, the hair, the high heels, the effort, because even without those things I have a reasonable amount of privilege in this world. Now, I can’t claim to speak for people whose visibility is minimized. (Check in with me in 20 years when I’m firmly in middle age; I’ll likely have different things to say about women and visibility then.) But I’m pretty sure that by critiquing the particulars of beauty work, we (okay, I) miss the larger point about how society gives and exchanges power. For if it’s subversive for me to refuse to participate in certain beauty rituals, it can be subversive for women with less cultural visibility to embrace them.

I’ve never bought into the idea that beauty is power; that smacks of patriarchal self-serving nonsense. But visibility is power, or at least a route to it. Seen through this lens instead of solely the lens of beauty, the effort we put into our appearance seems both more important and less fraught with conflict. What would happen if we shifted our intent in our beauty work just slightly so that it wasn’t beauty work, but visibility work? What would happen if feminists arguing for a critique of the beauty standard started looking at the ways that very beauty standard can allow more women to participate in the larger conversation? What would happen if our concern was directed less toward fitting the beauty standard and more toward being seen? After all, the next stop after being seen is being heard.

Image via We Heart It.

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21 Responses to “Guest Post: The Beheld on Beauty and Visibility”

  1. Cynthia

    So, first let me say, I’m not a scholar of this stuff and I am not entirely sure I’m getting what you’re saying. But the phrase “visibility work” makes me think of something completely different than the sort of body focused/beauty focused work. I teach and do research in a male dominated field. Visibility for us does not mean making ourselves closer to the beauty ideal so that people will pay attention to us. Visibility work is, things like me fighting my natural tendency to stay quiet in a discussion full of weighty voices. Visibility work is, making sure my gaze is direct and that I don’t modestly look down when I talk to people. Visibility is making sure my voice is well-modulated, well-paced, and carrying so that a room full of people want to listen to it. Visibility is getting papers published and grants funded so people know who you are. Maybe being at least within the outer ring of the dartboard for the beauty standard (white, close to normal weight, able) is what makes me able to think, hey OK, I’ll just put on some neat clothes and a little lipstick and work on this other stuff instead.

    I’ve said this in Sal’s comments before, but most of what I do that is effective self-presentation I’ve learned from years of taking and now teaching dance classes. Costuming. On days when I teach, I pencil in more eyebrow and wear more lipstick — not to meet the beauty standard, but so that my face can be seen from the back row. Posture, face and body angles when standing in front of an audience. Vocal projection. Being willing to be seen in a solo performance. Most of it has absolutely nothing to do with what we normally think of as beauty rituals.

  2. Miss T

    In my experience, it’s not visibility or beauty that has the power, it’s *youth*. My beauty is intact, but my personal power in social situations has diminished considerably since entering my 50s. Sure, I’m more successful at work now than I was when I was 35, but in social situations, in my mid-50s, I’m no longer visible — unless everyone there is in their 70s and I can again be the “younger” woman. When I was 40, I still had the attention of everyone — call it visibility, or attractiveness, whatever you like. I could have been dressed in a burlap sack and still gotten the attention. It lasted until I was around 43 or so, and then, dwindled to nothing. An “older woman” is probably the most denigrated member in our culture, regardless of how attractive she is. In fact, an attractive older woman might be *more* denigrated, or held in more suspicion, than an average-looking or unattractive older woman, which is what people expect you to be. People tell me I’m very attractive, very pretty. But it is the absence of impact of that attractiveness on others as I get older that I notice most. Few women admit this, though I have heard others my age mention it. I think it takes courage to admit to it, as obviously, nothing much can be done about it except to learn to live with a diminished social status. I feel that this is the elephant in the room — I never really suffered from sexism, but I definitely have suffered from sexist ageism.

  3. Julia H. @ The Petite Spiel

    Wow, VERY interesting post. I like that Autumn took such a new/unique perspective. I’ve never thought of it that way before, but now I’m fascinated by what she wrote–a large part of why we work on our appearance IS to be seen, to catch someone’s attention, even if it’s not in an ooh-she’s-so-hot kind of way. And I do agree that once we’re seen we can be heard.

  4. J

    I have to disagree with you Cynthia, and I hope you take it as friendly as it’s intentioned. While in life I’m sure you’re a serious academic, you also run a style blog. Don’t you think that part of that is saying oh, look at my new piece of clothing. Please admire how it fits me. Look at my new haircut. Look how this style accentuates this or disguises that part of my body. Again, I’m not trying to criticize, but if you wanted to focus wholly on your academic abilities, maybe you would have a different kind of blog. (And maybe you do, I don’t know.)

    I think I get what Autumn’s writing, although I come at it from another angle. Being a lifelong fat woman, I’ve tried almost equal amounts of time trying to hide my atypical body and celebrate it with presentation and beauty rituals. I’ve watched thin friends being hit on and get free drinks in bars where I fight to be seated. It’s just how things are, right now. It’s the beauty standard of our times. Being aware of how my body looks in certain things and camoflauging what fat I can is okay in my book. I draw the line at wearing a girdle daily or believing there are things I cannot wear, unlike many of my fat friends in real life. I’m also not willing to live my life on a diet, but that’s another entry. While the term “flattering” is looked down in many size acceptance spaces, I do try for flattering in most of my clothes. I freely admit I rarely leave the house without at least foundation on. I had acne as a teen and continue to have it as an adult. I feel more acceptable, more, dare I say it, beautiful, and visible, sexually, with nice clothes and good makeup and hair. Granted, there’s a time and place for sexual attention. Part of being visible for me as a fat woman is saying that I can be pretty, and wear pretty things, and care about my hair and skin. It’s about showing I can be professional and fat, sexy and fat, visible and fat. I can be a feminist while using part of the beauty standard as I rail to widen it to be more accepting of more people.

    If this is at all interesting to you, Leslie Kinzel’s blog, Two Whole Cakes, writes a lot about fatness and visability. There’s a entry about how she thinks she’s not attractive personally but she still wears dresses to try to be visible to people. The whole Fatshionista livejournal community was started to make images of fat people more visible, but even that has turned into a “pretty” contest. Smaller fat people and people with the desired body types get more responses and positive comments that larger fats or ones with bigger bellies. I think visibility is a valid term for the beauty and fashion industry, and we’re still unpacking what it means.

    • Cynthia

      Being interested in style and being in the “pretty contest” aren’t the same thing though. If I had to list words that wanted to have cross people’s minds when they see me, “beautiful”, “pretty” and “sexy” are not on that list. “Professional”, “creative”, “composed”, “strong” — those are my style mission because they support my more substantive efforts in life. I present on the blog the way I do to the world — minimal effort on hair and makeup, modesty, minimal sexualization.

      I have lived my whole life without being rewarded under the conventional beauty standard. As I’ve written on the blog, I love my own face and wouldn’t change a thing. However, I can count the number of times in my life I’ve been approached (e.g. asked for my number, asked for a date, given other random attention) by a man I don’t already know well, on one hand — and I’m 42. (That’s some kind of mainstream-world way to measure beauty success, isn’t it?) If I chose to pursue beauty, sexiness, and beauty-based rewards, I would have felt like a failure all my life. I decided pretty young though, why put effort where there’s no reward? In response to this article, I’m saying, why try to go through beauty to visibility? As others have pointed out, men don’t.

      • Someone

        “why try to go through beauty to visibility?”

        Exactly. As a feminist I am completely of such a mind. Due to the nature of the “rewards” handed out for beauty, I view them as a decidedly pyrrhic victory. So in general, I have not pursued them.

        But many women who are not completely within the target area of privilege (as defined by Autumn) do seem to conflate, for example, being “hit on” with being truly *valued*. There isn’t really a whole lot of value in being seen as prey or a piece of disposable meat. But that’s what our society still sees women as. It’s really not much of an achievement to get that type of attention.

        I wish women would see past the primitive basics of trying to get sexual attention, but it’s probably a futile wish – just like I wish that emerging societies wouldn’t all have to go through the same 20th century developments, when they *could* have leapfrogged right over the stages of social destruction, exploitation of women and of the environment, etc.

    • Melinda

      You make some very valid points, J…but it seems like you’re implying that a woman who takes her education seriously cannot also pursue fashion/beauty interests.

      Please forgive me if I misunderstood. But I believe that feminism is about a woman’s freedom to be whatever she wishes to be. It is possible to be both smart and pretty. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

      If Cynthia wants to run a style blog while also being intelligent and competent, that is awesome. I consider myself to be smart, talented, and creative. But I love beautiful clothes. I enjoy being a feminine, sensual woman. It isn’t about showing off so other people will look at me.

      I like looking pretty because it’s fun. 😉

  5. Stephani

    Very, very interesting.
    Beauty work can be a fast route toward visibility in our culture, but I also agree with what Cynthia has said: it’s not just physical visibility (or aesthetic visibility) that earns women power, although it can start there. That kind of power is limited and only gets you so much in this world. You must follow up with more substantial visibility work, of the type Cynthia practices, to have a chance at earning real power. That’s the type that won’t fade as the success of the beauty work becomes more fleeting (age, anyone?). And that’s much harder to pull off, especially because, even these days, women are still trained to be seen and not heard. I do believe it’s to a lesser degree than previous generations, but it’s still there.
    It’s nice to be recognized as attractive or pleasing to the eye, of course, but that kind of attention and acceptance is cursory and it’s easily achieved for the majority of women. It’s quite another to put oneself forward for more prolonged attention and scrutiny by the means Cynthia describes. It requires the same level of skill and control a genius of the stage uses to sway and move an audience. It requires manipulating how others perceive you through self presentation, which is exactly what we do with beauty work, but to a more significant degree. It communicates a desire to be the focus of critical intellectual attention, not just a passive willingness to be the focus of everyone’s eyes for a few moments. There’s a passage in one of my favorite short stories by Peter S. Beagle, that comes to mind, and speaks volumes. I can’t remember the precise words, but they’re to the effect of “men think acting is delivering lines and gestures–women know it is life.”
    I find myself shrinking from both or either types of scrutiny, depending on the situation and the variables of my self confidence. Now in my mid-30s I’m only just coming to grips with whatever power I might earn through either route.

  6. LinB

    When I turned 40, I became invisible. At first, I was offended by the sudden non-attention of males of any age — and most younger females. Then, I realized that I had been gifted with super power. I can wander around a convention hall and commit all sorts of industrial espionage, unimpeded. I can march right into any store and do stealth shopping without ever once being greeted by a salesperson. Sadly, though, I don’t get waited on in restaurants when I am alone. They’ll seat me, then ignore me for 30-40 minutes until I just slip away, unserved. Fortunately for society, I am an honest person. Invisibility would be a great boon to a thief or a spy.

  7. Mel

    Makes you think doesn’t it. I don’t know that being beautiful has a lot to do with being visible. I do think that age & size have much more impact on being visible.

    My mom always said that she became more invisible as she got older, becoming completely invisible as her hair turned white. I tried so hard not to let her feel invisible when I was around….but then my wounded little bird developed two kinds of dementia and was invisible even to herself. I still weep over it.

  8. JolaiMua

    There are many fashion and beauty sites that adhere to a specific kind of beauty, but I find beauty to be within, meaning personal. I love this new site that brings personalization to fashion and beauty. Its worth checking out:

  9. poet

    You’re taking the matter into an interesting direction; shifts of perspective of this kind are so important! Thanks for a great post!

  10. Caitlin

    Autumn, thought-provoking post, per usual. It’s an interesting way of approaching the tension between “beauty work” and feminism.

    Miss T, the question of the way youth relates to visibility is something I think about quite a bit. I remember seeing a photograph of an older woman in “New York” and she was dressed quite flamboyantly, with pink hair and pink clothing but styled like a bit of a dandy. She looked great. The cutline featured a quote in which she talked about how, as a woman in her 70s, she’s been rendered essentially invisible in our society, and her appearance is her way of fighting that.

    I think about the role of age in visibility a lot when I consider how now, as a younger woman, I try to play down my visibility. I mean, it’s already pretty considerable, as I am white, blonde, thin, very tall and I have a face that is rather northern European. I’d rather not attract attention everywhere I go, so I wear t-shirts and jeans and limited make-up and ponytails. But I also know there will come a time when that attention will not come to me as automatically as it does now, and I wonder if that will change my perspective on things. I’m sure it will, actually. I’m just not sure how.

    • Frankincensy

      I don’t think about my visibility in real life so much as online (where, after all, I have a lot more control over where and how I represent myself). I started a personal style blog in January, yet one of the things holding me back from posting outfits etc. is the issue of visibility. People have already discussed the over-representation of young, white, thin women in the fashion blogosphere – over-representation to the extent that women who don’t tick those boxes are often overlooked, or have to work much harder to establish themselves. I’m not sure how to be visible in that world without becoming part of the problem.

  11. sarah

    Interesting commentary here. Miss T, I completely agree with you: older women are *the* most invisible section of society. I look forward to exploiting this by dressing more and more eccentrically. 😉

    I think I tend to consider this subject in terms of confidence and magnetism. When you put effort/consideration into the self you are presenting, there is a kind of focus or attention that can attract the interest or curiosity of other human beings. Similarly, if the beauty work gives one confidence, confidence is definitely attractive to humans (and I don’t just mean sexually; it attracts their interest and attention).

    It’s interesting to me that the discussion of size (so far) has only considered girth. What about height? As a tall woman, I’m well-schooled in the power of height – and the way that society polices access to this power. For me, this is one of the strongest proofs of the persistence of the patriarchy. How many 6′ tall women do you know who have been told they “can’t” wear heels because they are “too tall”? How many slouched through high school, trying to prove their social worth by shrinking themselves? And how many petite women have experienced the snub of men literally talking OVER THEIR HEADS in professional situations? (appalling!) It took me a long time to come to terms with my stature, but these days I enjoy it – and my heels. There is definitely visibility and power in being the tallest person in the university classroom.

    But I do agree with Cynthia about certain kinds of body language being unconscious. All of my adult life, people have commented on my strong, confident walk: shoulders back, head up, etc. But I skated and ice danced all through my formative years in late childhood and into my teens. A shy kid, my coach made me wear my hair in a high ponytail, which he would pull to get me to raise my chin. At 30, I walk and stand like a ballet dancer, even though I haven’t danced in 15 years. Some of what we project is not conscious; it’s simply the product of past training or experience.

    • Caitlin

      I hate to be a total self-promoter on other people’s blogs but I wrote about this EXACT THING earlier this week. I consistently received messages that I was somehow freakish and wrong because I am six feet tall, but then as I got older I realized that being tall was actually a source of very real, tangible power.

      I love the way you phrase it – that society has “policed access to this power” by shaming us tall women. Also society depriving shorter women of it as well, by assuming they are inherently weak and child-like. (This is not to say that women of average height are rolling in social power, of course.)

    • Melinda

      What you said about petite women is true.

      At only 5’1″, I often find that I have to be more assertive with people because they don’t respect me or take me seriously.

      Sometimes I’m mistaken for a teenager when I am nearly 30. I remember one incident where this woman told my mother that I was a “cute little thing” and talked about me like I wasn’t there. She asked my mother how old I was. She was quite shocked when I spoke up for myself and said I was 21, which I was at the time.

      Whether you are tall or short, fat or thin…if you are a woman, you have to work at being respected in this world.

      Of course, it can be problematic because my assertiveness is often labeled as “aggression” or “bitchiness”. No, that isn’t my intention. But I feel that people don’t listen to me because I’m petite and they perceive me as a child because I look much younger than my actual age.

      And for what it’s worth, I have always viewed tall women (5’6 and up) as being beautiful and powerful. 😉

  12. Lisa

    This is a tangled set of parameters. The one I’d most like to tease out is the undeniable truth that for women, visible doesn’t easily mean power. For men, the work done to make oneself powerful also makes one attractive to the opposite sex.

    • Rebekah o' Jaunty Dame

      “For men, the work done to make oneself powerful also makes one attractive to the opposite sex.”

      Oooooh. Well said.

      Autumn, you should write a book so your fans could pay you outright for your writing. Carry a tip jar, maybe?

  13. Terri

    I totally agree with Sally’s assessment of Autumn’s blog. I found as I read that the response your presence brought in the restaurant is actually an example of how we never entirely control how we are perceived. It is likely that even with our feminist radar cranked high that we won’t read the world in the same way. Having just gone through a wedding and over-dosing on the beauty routine for the past two weeks, I am glad that I focused as a young woman on my education rather than my appearance.