The idea that beauty has any kind of objective meaning is rubbish. The cliché says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s partly right – the eye, mind, culture, taste and social conditioning of the beholder are all at play when it comes to determining whether or not something is beautiful. Even beyond the variations of individual preference, even “mainstream” beauty ideals are culturally and historically specific, and socially constructed.
I know what you’re thinking. But Sarah! What about hip-to-waist ratios and symmetry and the biological imperative to produce healthy babies! To you I say that the visual measures of health and fertility that some scientists claim determine what most people find attractive only go so far in explaining who is attractive to us as individuals and why. Such scientific measures of attractiveness may have some basis in human evolutionary history, but they prop up compulsory heterosexuality and exclude a whole host of people as just “naturally” unattractive including people with disabilities, intersex people, trans* and genderqueer people and people with infertility. They don’t explain same-sex attraction, or how people who don’t want to procreate experience attraction either, nor do they adequately explain why people recognise and praise beauty in others they are not attracted to. To claim that the sole function and meaning of physical attraction and the concept of human beauty is the selection of an appropriate mate for procreation is to ignore thousands of years of human social history in favour of biology. Attraction and beauty are far more complex and culturally mediated than just determining who has whose babies.
It strikes me as somewhat odd that we’re perfectly happy to accept personal taste when it comes to being a dog person or a cat person, or preferring The Rolling Stones over The Beatles, but we’re determined to get physical attraction between people down to a science. The reason, I think, is that if we can point to a scientific study and say “but I can’t help preferring thin people/young people/currently able bodied people/cisgendered people/etc. etc.” then we get a free pass on leaving one area of our internalised biases unexamined. And I think that if you are invested in intersectional social justice, you have a responsibility to examine all your biases as often as you can.
What I’m not saying here is that people are obliged to find everyone attractive, obliged to date everyone or obliged to be sexually intimate with everyone. Nobody is entitled access to anybody else’s body. If I received incontrovertible proof (if there is such a thing) tomorrow that people will die if they do not have a minimum amount of sex with another person, I would still believe this. The right to personal bodily autonomy is at the core of quite a lot of my beliefs!
I think we could all benefit from a self-critical perspective on the issue of attraction and desire. There’s a great post about this topic on gudbuy t’jane from back in 2011 that partly inspired my own post. Here’s a quote:
“Understandably, who we are attracted to is a very sensitive topic for most of us. We want to believe our desires are our own, unshaped by the media, patriarchy, racism, ableism, transmisogyny, or other oppressive systems. This is even more challenging when one’s identity is based in ideas of activism, social justice and equality; We don’t want to feel like we’re upholding oppressive standards, or engaging in systems which sometimes violently desexualize marginalized identities.”
So when I say I think it’s odd that we’re so much more invested in rationalising our biases when it comes to dating and sexual desire, I guess what I really mean is that I think it’s unfortunate, because I can certainly understand why people are quick to defend their desires as something innate and beyond their control. Desire is so intimate and personal, it feels natural to get defensive when your desires are challenged, and may feel comparable to being asked to check your privilege for the first time. People – especially people who identify themselves as activist in some way – don’t like the implication that they are prejudiced. But just as it is worse to experience racism than it is to be called racist, it is worse to be unthinkingly dismissed as a potential lover solely because of your membership of a marginalised social group than it is to be (or feel like you are being) called shallow.
Because it’s not about being shallow, not really. There’s the danger in this discussion to stray into areas of the Nice Guy (TM) and the ridiculous concept of the Friend Zone – I do not wish to associate my argument here with the feeling of entitlement certain men seem to have to sex from their female friends and acquaintances. As I said before, you’re never under obligation to have sex with ANYONE, and as the above article says, we can’t “simply reprogram our desires for the sake of a more egalitarian community”. But this claim that attraction is innate and beyond our control seems pretty empty to me when you consider the changing face of beauty across time and cultures, and even within the same culture. As a frivolous example, let’s compare my lust for Jason Segal (he’s big and huggable and funny, and he can sing) with many of my friends’ fancy for Tom Hiddleston (who’s very cool and a great actor, but doesn’t spark any sexy-type feelings in me at all). If attraction can differentiate that far, why not further?
In fact, I’ve noticed something in the last few years. Ever since I started being involved in Fat Acceptance, reading blogs and looking at pictures of fat people (mostly women), I have started to find more fat people attractive. In a book on self-image in teenage girls I once read about the idea of visual languages, and that the images we are frequently exposed to (as well as their positive or negative context) shape our ability to think in certain ways. In that study the author was exploring how the limited range of female bodies that are visible to young women in media images affects their ability to accept deviation from the media ideal in their own bodies, and promotes bad self esteem. In turn, that theory can be extended to talk about how we think about bodies in general, the ones we find attractive as well as our own. It has certainly been the case for me; expanding my visual vocabulary to include images of fat women – in the context of them being attractive, stylish and sexy – has enabled an expansion of what is desirable to me. Not just fat women but fat people in general, including fat men and genderqueer fat people (both of whom need more visible/visual representation online).
When I was younger – not that much younger, I guess, but we’re talking ten years ago – I was a fashion design student. We did not learn how to design for fat bodies, or how to draw clothes on fat bodies (although weirdly we did have a fat life drawing model who was always nude – when we drew clothed life models they were always thin) and the vast majority of the teachers and other students were thin. We designed for thin models and used designers who exclusively made clothes for thin people as inspiration and research. I sketched people, particularly women, all the time even outside class, and they were always long and thin and catwalk-model-shaped. At the time, I was rather more attracted to women than men, and would you believe it, all the women I found myself attracted to were likewise long and thin and catwalk-model-shaped.
Needless to say that since I was not a long, thin, catwalk-model-shaped woman myself, internalising this idea that only those sorts of women were attractive really hurt my self-image. There is a lot more to self-worth than attractiveness, and more to internalised fat-hatred than feeling unattractive, but that was a big part of it for me at that time, and precipitated my initial descent into an eating disorder. It also led me into some awful abusive situations where I felt like I should be “grateful” for any (sexual) attention I got even when I didn’t want it, because I was so undesirable it wasn’t guaranteed to come around again. I still live with the baggage of that – while I now find other women who resemble me attractive, and even like the way I look a lot of the time, I don’t think of myself as a “desirable” person. I tend to be dismissive of anyone who tells me otherwise, and even got angry at a friend once when he counted me among women he found attractive, because I felt he was just trying to humour me or something. I even feel weird and embarrassed writing that down, because surely people will scoff at the idea anyone would find me desirable!
It’s pernicious stuff. It hurts us to not be self-critical about attraction and desire, because what we find attractive affects how we feel about ourselves, too. Before I thought about desirability as something socially constructed, it was completely impossible for me to try and counteract this learned idea that I was an innately unattractive person, and with that came a deep sense of shame and worthlessness. Of course, someone not finding you attractive is not something you should ever feel ashamed of, and I would like to dismantle the idea that worth is connoted by attractiveness, too, because not everyone is interested in sex and sexual relationships, and there’s more to all of us than sex. But I do think that analysing our own prejudices should include those that are imbedded in the idea of beauty and desire, and that we will be better, happier, more egalitarian communities for it.
When you find yourself wanting to reply to this post with something like “I’m not racist, I just don’t tend to find Asian guys attractive”, pause a moment and ask yourself why you are willing to dismiss an entire (and enormous!) group from ever being potentially desirable. Are you sure internalised racist ideas, assumptions or connotations are not lurking behind that thought? When you think “I just don’t find fat bodies beautiful”, follow that up with a question. Why not? Are you assuming anything about fat people when you think that?
Hell, I even think straight people should critically analyse their straightness instead of assuming humans are heterosexual by default. That may sound radical, but I don’t mean you need to “experiment” with your sexuality or that you’re a bad person if you identify as straight. I mean that compulsory heterosexuality is a received idea that most of us never challenge. It’s perfectly okay to think about it and decide that you are, in fact, straight. But thinking about it is a good thing!
The take home message of this post should not be “if you are marginalised, people owe you sex”. Nobody owes anybody sex. But I do hope that people will consider looking at and thinking about different kinds of bodies and thinking critically about where their own desires – or lack thereof – come from.