Anyone who has had the misfortune of having to sit through to one of my tirades against the rise of the Instagram influencer might come away from the experience convinced that I am a wrinkly, unshaven Second-Wave feminist trapped in a Millennial’s body.

“Wow, did you hear all that bitterness in her voice?” commented one of my male friends following my complaint about the girls in my university who appear to care more about sponsorships from big clothing brands than their coursework.

Though I’d never admit it to him, he’s probably right- Am I jealous that these girls receive tons of free stuff in exchange for posting selfies and looking pretty, and I don’t? It is possible. Deep-seeded insecurities are evident in an essay I wrote in secondary school titled “The Virtuous Cycle of Prettiness”. Way before I’d ever heard of the halo effect, I was already cognisant of the advantages that pretty girls had and that I lacked as a result of being plain. One paragraph states rather matter-of-factly:

Teachers pay more attention to the pretty girls in class, whether or not they realise it. And pretty girls blossom in confidence and character as a result. The rest of us retreat to the desks at the back of the classroom, left to wonder what we’re doing wrong.

Research has shown that there are many undeniable benefits of being physically attractive. Even babies prefer beautiful faces. But at age 16, I wasn’t interested in understanding the psychology behind it. Through expository, I sought to rationalise the loneliness and inferiority that stemmed from the social comparisons I drew with the girls in my class who were more popular and outspoken, but most of all, just seemed… happier. I wanted to give myself some form of consolation, some scapegoat for my failure to establish a higher sociometric status. Instead of having to deal with my inability to make meaningful interpersonal connections, I simply shifted the blame to something that I couldn’t change- my looks. Years later, I wonder if I was on the brink of a feminist revelation, or if I’d just been fuelled by the same teenage angst that propelled my generation into our current state of dissatisfaction and self-loathing.

I’ve never thought of myself as a feminist, mostly because I had the privilege of growing up in Singapore in the 90s and reaped all of the benefits that our meritocratic system provided. But my criticism of commoditising feminine beauty is apparently indicative of a feminist agenda. My earlier observations of discrimination within the classroom also seem to protest some social construct that I could not put my finger on at the time.

If indeed the societal bias towards the beautiful is a hegemonic power that must be dealt with, then is this strictly a female issue or one that has implications that harm society at large, regardless of gender?

Sexual Expression: Liberation through Hypersexuality?

Beauty is an asset. Flaunting it is empowerment. Or at least, Kim Kardashian and Emily Ratajkowski certainly think so. The two famously uploaded a photo of themselves in which they were topless, pointing their middle fingers to the camera. The message behind the selfie, they claimed, is that however provocative or scandalising, women should exercise their freedom to express their sexuality in whatever way they choose.

Increasingly, more and more women have embraced social media platforms as tools for self-marketing. They practice pouts and poses, analyse camera angles, adjust lighting and exposure, all to achieve the perfect picture that they can then attach meticulously selected tags before uploading it on to the Internet. Bolstered by their good looks, many of them accrue hundreds of thousands of followers and consequently profit from endorsement deals with established cosmetics and fashion brands. These ‘influencers’ whom I constantly grumble about are in fact extremely savvy, business-minded individuals who know just how to make the best out of both their localised as well as an international audience to court sponsors.

Kardashian and the social media influencers recognise that there is utility in being beautiful. They trade in the currency of sexuality and youth, and in doing so effectively display their economic power, privilege and choice (for example, of material goods). In her 2006 book Fresh Lipstick, writer Linda Scott applauds this interpretation of female empowerment. Dress and sexuality, she asserts, are not the enslaving forces with which men have oppressed women for years. They are the weapons of feminist warfare that should be used to challenge the objectification of women.

The Economics of “Authentic Beauty”

But what about those who just aren’t beautiful?

The ones of us who are less physically endowed find ourselves in close proximity to the ideal thanks to social media. For the first time in history, ideal beauty is being democratised, removed from that once crucial, now irrelevant element of conventionally understood celebrity. We follow girls who are our age, who live in our country, who attend our schools. These girls represent a version of “authentic” beauty, one that is native to our own culture and social context. Their reality seems so easily accessible, yet so unattainable.

“The rest of us retreat to the desks at the back of the classroom, left to wonder what we’re doing wrong.”

Maybe the problem with the beauty bias is less about inequality between men and women, and more about an uneven distribution of resources within the female population. This isn’t a new idea. Critics of The Feminine Mystique, a landmark book by one of the most prominent Second-Wave feminists Betty Friedan, point to the underlying classism in her writing, which, in expounding on the existential boredom that plagued American suburban housewives of the 60s who were looking for “more” to life, blatantly ignores the struggles of poor, non-white women. Similarly, Naomi Wolf, writer of The Beauty Myth, is adamant that the successful, charismatic mid-career women today need not feel “threatened by” young, attractive twenty-somethings or “compete with” them for attention: forgetting that not all women are in a socioeconomic position that provides the inroads to that type of success.

Be it in the distribution of wealth or good genes, the problem of inequality may have spawned from a narrow authoritative definition of femininity that is self-prescribed rather than one that men have used to ensnarl us, which we often inveigh against. After all, according to Linda Scott, the direction taken by the fashion and cosmetics industry over the past century has been dictated largely by women, not men. In essence, it is women who have constructed this set of beauty standards that are contingent on external validation from men, from other women, and now, from invisible, omnipresent strangers floating in cyberspace with those all-powerful Likes and Thumbs Ups at their disposal.

Just like men, women seek fulfilment in life. We look to different means to quantifiably prove our worth, be it climbing the corporate ladder, or raising capable, good-natured children or… achieving physical attractiveness that is universally admired. Who is to say which is a more meaningful pursuit than the other? But while a successful career and a happy, healthy family may lie in the distant future, to be pretty is a natural occurrence, it already happened.  The “beauty myth” informs a woman that her best bet is to maintain and to perfect what is God given. To lose your beauty is to lose your worth, this is the resounding cultural endemic that is echoed in the advertising campaigns for anti-aging beauty products and fashion magazine articles educating readers about the Top 10 Diets of 2016. Artwork by the post-modernist Barbara Kruger point an accusatory finger at the mass media and all its contributors for perpetuating the false belief that women are fragile objects to be protected and admired. It seems that we as a society (women included) have unwittingly conspired to extend gender disparity.

Private vs. Performative Feminism

Of course, many feminists insist that they are impervious to the poisonous messages about the female body that pervade society and mass media. I, too, sometimes attempt to convince myself that these things don’t matter to me. But really, they do.

Honestly, if Third-Wave feminism were a club, its rules would be very similar to those a very young Brad Pitt came up with for his own:

  1. You  do not talk about feminism.
  2. You do not talk about feminism.
  3. If someone says “I feel fat” or “I wish I was as pretty as her”, SHE’S OUT.

On their highly entertaining podcast the Guilty Feminist, comedians Sofie Hagen and Deborah Frances-White talk about their internal struggles as self-professed feminists, one of which is this constant fear of hypocrisy in their behaviour.

Deborah confesses that she feels flattered when someone comments that she’d lost so much weight she could be a plus-sized model, while Sofie admits to once suffering from eating disorders. They discuss the objectification of their own bodies in print advertisements for their shows, the anxiety they experience when participating in fitness classes and the shame that they associate with publicly consuming dessert. Beneath all of these topics lies the question: Do our insecurities about weight and appearance constitute a betrayal of feminist principles?

At the end of the day, Deborah and Sofie remain unapologetic about their concerns (God bless them). Supporters would argue that their disarmingly honest approach to feminism belies the idea that female insecurity is a handicap to be scorned by men and women alike. To expose and address conflicts between ideology and action does not reinforce women’s vulnerability but rather empowers women to rally together against insidious forces of the patriarchy that demand a stoic acceptance of the status quo.

In other words, we should be allowed to gripe about the relentless pursuit of beauty and femininity and our personal participation in this pursuit- whether we perceive it to be coerced or voluntary- without any penalty on our reputations, career progression or social status.

Why should we try to mask our worries about aging and outward appearance? Why should grooming and personal upkeep be a source of dissonance? Wouldn’t then the edified expression of feminism in itself be oppressive?

Whether you are trying hard to pull off the “no make-up” look to prove to your colleagues at your male-dominated workplace that you aren’t a girly girl and you have every right to be there,  or making others uncomfortable with your impenitent rejection of the bra and the razor, what you are doing is putting on a show. Your feminism is demonstrative and purposeful, signalling the strength of your values to those around you.

This brand of feminism- feminism as performance- requires some form of spectatorship, not so different from the external validation that the Kim Kardashians and Emily Ratajkowskis of the world are looking for when they post nude selfies online.

But then what does it mean to be a feminist in private? I can’t say that I know for sure. Perhaps it means accepting that feminism sets an unrealistically high bar for women and that as human beings we are prone to inconsistency. Like men, we are constrained by our individual flaws and like men, we deserve to award ourselves a degree of leniency when we fall short of our own high expectations.

The private feminist, first and foremost, needs to overcome the standards that she has imposed on herself. We need to acknowledge, even celebrate, the imperfection in ourselves before we tackle the imperfect state of our society.

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