The Vagenda

On the Counterproductive Nature of #FeministsAreUgly

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You are handsome, no matter what they say.

Words can’t bring you down… oh no.

Kind of jarring, isn’t it? There’s something sort of ridiculous about it… the concept of a man needing to believe that he’s handsome, and society be damned; he is a strong, independent man and he is thoroughly handsome in his own, empowered way. So why, in the name of logic, are we as women applying this kind of narrative to ourselves and others?

As a woman, to be beautiful – through desire or achievement – is to be valid. In a corner of the internet so hideous I thought it was a parody, Anthony Selden (don’t worry – he’s “knowledgeable about pretty much everything within the walls of awesomeness” so you’re in good hands) points out that the rest of the world really shouldn’t bother with Tinder, as all of the beautiful women are in Sweden. Everyone else should pack up and go home. But wait. Why are these beautiful women single? How could they possibly be looking for love? They have the only necessary quality! Some fantastic mansplaining ensues in the comments. Women objecting to its content are told that hey, it’s fine, they don’t need to worry – they’re beautiful too, so actually it’s not offensive now. Right. RIGHT? We didn’t mean YOU, babe…

Then there is the hashtag #FeministsAreUgly. It was started by @LilyBolourian and @cheuya, as a way to reclaim the word ugly (which is used to silence women) and of revising white-centric standards of beauty, but their role was subsequently erased by most of the articles written about the hashtag. In fact, it wasn’t until I got to Buzzfeed that I learned of their involvement. Oh the death of research…

Unsurprisingly, the hashtag which trended last week proved that feminists are smart, funny, can also be men, and are fundamentally sick of this objectification shit. Shocking revelations all. Also unsurprisingly, it got hijacked. Women posting pictures using the hashtag were harassed, called ugly, and threatened with rape. It was a depressingly standard day for feminism on Twitter. It wasn’t even that any significant amount of people actually thought feminists weren’t beautiful – anyone with enough grey matter to give bipedal motion a decent go knows that the ‘feminists’ and ‘women who are conventionally beautiful’ Venn diagram has to, by sheer power of statistical probability, have some overlap. Plus, everyone has heard of Beyoncé. Even my mum, internetless in a small Irish village, has heard of Beyoncé.

But the biggest problem wasn’t that those getting hijacking the hashtag were so blatantly of the variety that live under bridges. It was the power still broadly conferred on the status of beauty that raised red flags both for me, and others across the internet. Bolourian wanted to “reclaim the meaning of ugliness”. This is fair and valid, though not something I’m personally massively comfortable with doing, having studied too many fairytales to be ready to reclaim the word ugly just yet, as it carries a wealth of weirdo moral connotations about expectations of women. Also I think using that word reinforces the false dichotomy of beautiful/ugly and in an odd way supports the categorisation of women as such.

The tidal wave of celebratory pictures (I refute the s-word, I don’t care if it’s in the dictionary) that followed on the hashtag rather ended up reinforcing this power imbalance. Women posted pictures of themselves looking beautiful, men affirmed them or tore them down, more women posted pictures saying they didn’t give a shit, which supported the idea that any external opinions about their appearance had a validity that needed to be refuted in the first place. Without a baseline article/platform piece to refer back to (though can we talk about how only well-known feminists can be properly credited for the online movements they start?), the hashtag was easily misinterpreted and very quickly spiralled far and away from its intent.  Context swerved from “hey this is what I look like, I don’t care what you think”, to “but I AM beautiful AND a feminist, don’t you feel silly now?” and the whole thing descended into a problem area in which nobody really won and a lot of people wrote confused articles mainly consisting of pictures of selectively conventionally beautiful (often white, always thin, because let’s talk about mass media ideas of beauty) women. Everyone fell over themselves to talk about how these women were beautiful and I started to feel rather patronised…

This is possibly about the point where you’re swerving towards nervousness – am I attempting to say that only certain women are beautiful and everyone else needs to lump it? Well, not really… There’s an obvious subjectivity to beauty, which is unfortunately conflated with attraction when it shouldn’t be (as the Swedish Tinder article proves, weirdly ironically). As with individual works of art, there’s an acknowledged value consensus on what beauty is: “we don’t all agree on this as a community, but enough of us to do make it matter”. Therefore its existence has a validity conferred by external observers. How enjoyable to be in the same category as a painting. Fucking why?

Most brutally; we’re doing this to each other. Irish journalist Niamh Horan went to visit the Irish women’s rugby team and could thankfully report back to assuage all of our fears. These were in fact women after all, because they liked to wear make-up and use fake tan. Nothing else about them or what they do or think could possibly have verified that they were, in fact, female. That women explain other women into existence, not just by their ability to be beautiful but their desire to be so… Is. A Problem.

 (There is a known, if brutal, antidote to this piece.)

Personally, I’m living relatively happily working from the following:

  1. Beauty: Someone’s physical appearance is aesthetically pleasing. Like a painting. Or a landscape. Or Michael Fassbender.
  2. Attraction: I have engaged in conversation with you at least once and, for a variety of reasons and on a variety of levels, I would like us to please have mutual orgasms sometime.

Some people find me ‘beautiful’, others don’t. I consider myself the latter category. This has been causing alarm and consternation amongst the people who know me for a little while now – largely out of concern that I’ve descended in to some sort of self-hating negative body spiral. My flatmates spent two years trying to convince me that I was beautiful, and I kept wondering why it wasn’t gelling, until I realised that I was trying to force my scientific brain into believing something that it wasn’t interested in. I LOVE my body; it’s great at cycling, yoga, assembling flat pack furniture, not collapsing when running exhausting live events, catching falling objects before they hit the ground, and running (ok, it’s adequate at running). It’s the most permanent home I’ll ever have, and it takes a lot of nonsense from me and keeps going. It has a supernaturally good internal compass. Every bump, roll and curve of it is a great meal that I’ve had, not a lettuce birthday cake that I’ve endured. I’m rarely too cold and very comfortable to hug, cry or simply lie on.

I just don’t think that it’s beautiful and, actually, I want to have the right to think that (are you wondering what I look like yet?). Beauty is not a goal that’s important to me, any more than becoming a professional dancer. I am so glad that there are professional dancers, but I look at them, think “wow, that’s great” and realise; I’d love to do that. I can’t. I probably don’t have time, let’s be honest, given everything else I’m more focused on doing, and I’d really rather be a writer/scientist type person. Plus I don’t really bend that way. I’m glad that these people do, though; it looks fantastic. And that’s the measure of it really. What I resent is the presumption that being/feeling beautiful is of intrinsic value to me – and to all women. That’s as arbitrary as demanding that we should all wish to be brunettes or eat raw tomatoes (it’s a texture thing, I just can’t…). It’s just not for everyone and, if we want to get down to the core argument, it’s just not held up to men as the same goal. Peak physical standards exist for both genders, but men get by perfectly well in life without being expected to want to be handsome, or to believe that they are their own unique brand of it (“Well, you’re not Brad Pitt; but you’re you and that’s what’s important.” *head pat*).

Most damagingly, the concept of beauty is a really insidious double standard that has hijacked far more important movements – like the need to be happy with your body and to feel attractive – and made us feel like we are constantly being looked at and evaluated; by men and by each other. We should be free to feel happy, and to feel devastatingly hot, without it being assumed that every single one of us wants or needs to feel beautiful. Feminism and the constructs of beauty are for the moment somewhat indivisible – too much of the battleground is media representation, which is currently predicated on appearance whether you’re an actor or a government minister – but why can’t we treat it a little more like Marmite? Optional. Sometimes pleasing. Sometimes vomit inducing.

I actually think we need to reclaim beauty, not ugliness, and I hope we will someday – but for now I’d love to be allowed to choose whether I define as beautiful or not, instead of being expected to gratefully accept a title bestowed in pseudo-empowering tones like some sort of saccharine participation medal for being a woman.

- Mary Halton

11 thoughts on “On the Counterproductive Nature of #FeministsAreUgly

  1. Love this. I find it so frustrating that if a random stranger on the street tells you they think you’re beautiful/hot/sexy that you’re expected to respond with gratitude and feel flattered; I don’t care how you feel about or respond to my appearance, my current goal is to go a meeting/buy milk/catch this bus, not look beautiful for or seek approval from a stranger through my looks. Looking beautiful is not my ultimate life purpose and too many people have an expectation that it is/should be.

  2. I love this. I not only resent the idea that I should want to be beautiful – but also the notion that as soon as I do find something I like about myself, or express self-confidence, I get told I’m tooting my own horn??

  3. True all true so true. What the hell is beauty anyway and why is it even important. I have a sneaking suspicion it may be a bit like “nice” and “good” and all those other things that involve giving a fuck about what other people think.
    I get a similar situation to your “but you ARE beautiful” issue actually when people tell me I don’t look my age. I can see from their faces that I am supposed to be pleased about this but I honestly can’t summon up any emotional reaction to it at all, either positive or negative, because it is so utterly not important to me. So I just stand there awkwardly for a bit and eventually have to make a joke to avoid them thinking I’m really rude when they’ve tried to pay me a compliment.

  4. While I’m sure you’re well-intentioned, you completely missed the point of #feministsareugly. It wasn’t merely to take back the word “ugly”, it was to celebrate the beauty of women who are regularly marginalized by mainstream media and feminism, ie. women of color, fat women, disabled women, trans* women. It’s easy for cis white women to say “I don’t care about beauty, it isn’t my goal to be pretty,” but it is an extraordinarily privileged statement. If you have the ability, imagine living in a world where women who look like you are rarely present in popular media, and when they are, it’s for the purpose of mockery. (“LOL fat women is the subject of a joke!” “LOL you hit on a pretty woman but then she turned out to have a penis!”) Can you possibly imagine what it might be like for these women to be able to say “look at me, I am beautiful”?

    It’s pretty obvious you didn’t ask the two women of color who started the hashtag what they meant by it. Pretty sure they would have been happy to explain it.

  5. I’ve been waiting to read something like this for AGES it seems. Thank you for writing it; I often wondered if I was the only one who felt like this.

  6. I agree with you re: the word ‘ugly’. It carries a connotation of bad character. I have been playing with the word “unbeautiful” lately. Since I had the same experience as you had with your flatmates, I’ve been toying with writing a song that expresses something to the effect of “just let me be unbeautiful”. The things I could have accomplished if I’d moved on from needing to be beautiful years before now…

  7. Loved this article – can I also just say mad props for referencing the ronanfromcork blog! Hugz from Dublin :)

  8. I couldn’t agree more. Being ‘beautiful’ has never been a goal of mine, and finding these very thoughts mirrored here and put so well was enjoyable.
    Somehow I’ve always found that “being beautiful” was a task society gave to woman or girls to keep them busy with something incredibly trivial, as so they might not try to achieve something else. By ditching any kind of ideal I felt like I suddenly had so much free time.. it also helps that I work in academia, and nobody gives a damn about your hair there. Your latest bookcover, on the other hand, is always open for discussion. (“Really? He published there?! But their covers are yellow and teal, eewwww!”)