I have been giving this a lot of thought recently, and I think I’ve finally made up my mind.
“Feeling pretty” should not be the end goal of a political movement.
I am pretty much over the brand of “activism” whose primary concern is convincing people that [x] type of body is attractive. I am tired of being told that “fat girls are sexy,” or “hairy legs are beautiful,” or “butch is hot,” or (ugh) “real women have curves,” or what-the-fuck-ever, as though being attracted to someone is a radical stance.
The point of body activism SHOULD NOT BE to give people boners. It should not be to demand and defend our own membership in the Pretty Girls Club. As queer-liberation-adjacent, feminist, anti-racist body activists, the message should not be “Look how sexy and non-threatening we are! Please accept us!” It should be, “Fuck you if you think that not being attracted to me is a reason to oppress me and treat me badly.”
One of the problems I see with these type of messages is that they tend to advocate nonconformity as it pertains to exactly one facet of the Conventional Beauty Ideal, while scrupulously adhering to all the rest. Fat is sexy as long as the fat girl in question is femme, hourglass-shaped, and clear-skinned. Butch is beautiful, if the butch in question is thin, white, and able-bodied. Trans women are hot as long as they look as much as possible like cis women. Images like these don’t break down traditional beauty standards so much as they expand them a tiny bit in one very specific direction. It’s not just insufficient; it’s galloping in the wrong direction. Advocating for the inclusion of one slightly-deviant group ultimately reifies the idea that some people should be included, and some should be excluded.
These messages implicitly concede what I think is the most important, and most frequently elided, ground in this issue: the idea that whether you are attractive should determine how people treat you. Not just whether or not they want to fuck you, but whether you have access to things like clothes that fit, decent employment, decent medical care, friends, education, self-worth, etc. When someone says “Everyone deserves to feel beautiful,” what they’re really saying is “Everyone deserves to feel empowered and respected and appreciated and loved.” Those two sentences shouldn’t mean the same thing.
And look, I agree with the people who put forth these arguments on a lot of important points. I agree that sex and attraction are crucial parts of human experience, and that a political stance that erases or trivializes those things is overly simplistic and not all that useful. I agree that self-esteem and confidence and a positive body image are crucial, and, in our current media climate, available to far too small a subset of the population. I even agree that our cultural beauty standards are far too narrow, homogenous, and exclusive, and that “beauty” is so much more diverse and multifaceted and exciting than you’d ever know by looking at a fashion magazine.
But I don’t think the answer is to say “[x] people are beautiful too!” I think what we need to do – or at least try to do – is uncouple our concept of “beauty” from our concept of how people deserve to be treated. We need to explode the assumption that “feeling beautiful” equals “feeling confident, strong, capable, independent, and generally like a badass bitch,” and “feeling ugly” equals “feeling unlovable, incompetent, and worthless.” I can be ugly and still get shit done. Whether I’m attractive is between me and the person I’m sleeping with, thanks very much. It has no bearing on what I, as a human being in the world, need and deserve.
I’m tired of being told that feeling pretty is the same as liberation. I’m ready to be liberated from the necessity of feeling pretty. We don’t need to be making our beauty standards roomier; we need to be making them fucking extinct.