Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Act of Being Visible

"Being seen": passive. "Appearing": active.

Dove Promises chocolate wrapper reading, "You're gorgeous. Love, Dove."

Dove Promises chocolate wrapper reading, "Don't think about it so much."

What does it mean to do something? Does it involve action? Choice? Behavior? Some passage of time? Responsibility? Culpability? Achievement?

What does it mean to be something? Does it imply inaction? Gestalt? For better or worse? A timeless state? Identity? Does defining one's state of being imply impartial pragmatism?

In terms of our bodies and appearances, we are what we are. We didn't do anything to be what we are. Sure, we performed actions that resulted in the current arrangement of our bodies, whether we ran three miles each morning, passed out and woke up with our faces splotchy and still covered in glitter, wore a bow-tie, whatever. But our appearance, existing in a state of being visible? That is not an action.

Why am I writing this? Because I've noticed lately the way that appearance, particularly women's appearance, is characterized as an action, or as active. Notice the phrasing in these examples of common headlines and advertising language:

"Khloe Kardashian Flaunts Slim Hourglass Figure in Sexy Strapless Dress" -US Magazine headline above a picture of Kardashian walking calmly down the street.

Also from US Magazine: "Hot! Kelly Osbourne Shows Off Slim Bikini Bod in Hawaii Before Brother Jack's Wedding" -headline above a paparazzi shot of Osbourne caught unawares getting into a swimming pool.

"Get the look!" -Pretty much every magazine.

"How To Achieve The 'Natural Look'" -headline, Beautylish.com

"Back to black: Rihanna reinvents herself with dark locks... just in time to promote Battleship in Tokyo" -headline in Daily Mail (UK). From the article: "[...] she is now flaunting tresses with one section of her bonnet getting the chop.
The 24-year-old is showing off a closely trimmed area around her left temple, a trend which has been seen on many celebrities before, including the singer herself." 

In particular the use of "achieve" and "flaunt" set off alarm bells because they are so incredibly loaded with consumer culture and slut-shaming messages. 

We are meant to believe that people (particularly women), unlike animals, are responsible for how they look. It is portrayed alluringly as being in control of one's appearance. But in a culture in which even the most beautiful fall short of the standard of perfection at the same time that attractiveness is punishable, it really means we are culpable.

It's not a new idea. In the Middle Ages in Europe many believed that disfigurement and ugliness was a punishment from God and a reflection of an ugly soul. In Victorian times some doctors actually believed that when a woman attained an education too advanced it caused her womb to shrivel-- resulting in unattractiveness, among other horrors. Looks were often invoked in 19th century racism and slavery; while dark skin and African features supposedly explained why enslaved African Americans were inferior, the narrative always implied culpability, that African Americans should be punished for their looks with oppression. Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird sums up this attitude perfectly when she says, "that's what they get for bein' the Children of Ham."

With these ideas already kicking around I read this piece by eeshap at Crunk Feminist Collective (feminism from the POV of women of color) about Lady Gaga calling for
a “body revolution” in which we flaunt and expose our “perceived flaws” and  “make our flaws famous, and thus redefine the heinous” in order reclaim our sense of self from the media machine is a good thing.  But there’s something else going on here.
In this charged context, what does it mean to be beautiful? And what does it mean to be ugly? And another question, to complicate the binary between beauty and ugliness, because binaries never serve us well: what does it mean to be invisible entirely? Or hyper-visible?


In these contexts, what is the upside of ugly? Or as Lady Gaga beseeches us to, how do we “redefine heinous?” When “ugliness” carries the threat of violence and disenfranchisement, what does it mean to embrace “ugly?” [*] For a person whose body is dehumanized and positioned as the very definition of undesirable, is it possible to “redefine heinous?” Perhaps, but its not neat. To do so we have a lot to dismantle. To do so we have to dwell in the intersections. Beauty and ugliness are not two sides of a coin, they are the same side of the same coin.
To dismantle them involves thinking through what the other side of that coin is. What does is mean for us to see each other as fully human? And as singularly and collectively valuable?
This project is different than the project of asserting that we are all beautiful in our own way (like those Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” campaigns implore of us). It is different than embracing the character building elements of being seen as “ugly.” It involves conversation about what makes us human and valuable. And it must also include a re-definition of both “beauty” and “ugliness” alike.

I generally like to be behind the camera rather than in front of it. I'm generally pretty careless with my appearance too. I fundamentally think of myself as someone who sees rather than who is seen-- who is invisible rather than hyper-visible. But the constant social reminders of culpability and the tantalizing promises of "reinventing" and "expressing" oneself do make defining myself through my appearance into an increasingly seductive illusion. The more interested I am in my appearance the less interested I am in making art. Unlike other creative endeavors, which tend to spark exponentially more creative endeavors, expressing myself through my appearance funnels my mind into thinking about being seen rather than seeing. They are really different modes of thought.

For example, when I show people their finished portraits they often remark about how unusual it is to see themselves the way someone else sees them. And when I stop and think about all the minutes of all our days that we spend arranging ourselves to be seen by others, it seems incredible how little direct or comprehensive feedback we actually get from the people in our lives on our successes and failures, particularly once we reach adulthood. If this is the case, we aren't actually preparing to be seen by others, we're preparing ourselves to be seen how we imagine others should see us. The invitation to take control of our appearances is really an invitation to physically build an imaginary world on your face. The only way to ensure that everyone else is on the same page as you about the messages you send is to stick to a common social script. And if you are culpable for the unpredictable ways in which you might be seen, that is some pretty heavy pressure to speak the same visual language everyone else does. Even if you want to send the message, "I'm different!" you still need to learn how to say that in the common parlance of visual language. The commonly shared social language of appearance is vital, though, because the entire endeavor of being visible as an intentional act rather than a state of being is imaginary.

Paradoxically, in order to achieve any depth of understanding how the common visual language works and why it works that way, one must observe society and the messages it sends about appearance. And in order to do that one must take oneself out of the self-referential frame of mind of being seen and begin to look outward. For example the writers at Crunk Feminist Collective have been writing for years about the racism inherent in Western beauty standards and how that relates to economics, society and history. And it is that practice and those understandings which led to the quote above, questioning what "embracing ugliness" means for women of color. Tellingly eeshap ultimately explores looking outward rather than the inward practice of being seen: "What does is mean for us to see each other as fully human? [...] It involves conversation about what makes us human and valuable. And it must also include a re-definition of both “beauty” and “ugliness” alike."

*This question immediately caused me to counter, "when 'ugliness' carries the threat of violence and disenfranchisement, what does it mean to embrace 'pretty'?"

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