We live in a patriarchal society which prioritises our desirability above anything and everything else. Which means that…
Life is easier when we dress up.
Life is easier when we shave.
Life is easier when we wear make-up to work.
Life is easier when we have made a visible "effort" with our appearance.
Life is easier when we reflect society's idea of beauty. Full stop.
We are expected to show up and perform to expectations in order to be seen, and we know how to make our life easier if we apply the rules the patriarchy has set out for us. Look at where marginalised identities intersect with being a woman - trans women are still expected by society at large to perform this type of femininity to pass as a "real woman" (there's no such thing), and women of colour are expected by society to perform "prettiness" to a further degree, in a world where whiteness has been positioned as the epitome of beauty and "femininity".
Historically there has been little representation of marginalised identities in the media and even when there is, it's often a stereotypical, harmful portrayal, constructing these identities as inferior to the default of whiteness, thinness and heterosexuality.
DESIRABILITY POLITICS - AKA "PRETTY PRIVILEGE"
Shaming other women for caring about their appearance is just another form of internalised misogyny, and an inability to see how race, class, sexuality and desirability all affect the way you're perceived in the world. In a world that prioritises looks over everything else in women, and affords you undeserved privileges once you reflect its ideal standards of beauty, who are we to judge people who pay for aesthetic procedures to look this way? When, at the end of it, they are promised a better life and better treatment from other people the higher up they sit on the scale of desirability.
It would be wonderful if women didn't feel the need to go to extreme measures just to posture their bodies in a "desirable enough" light, and could show up to work wearing no make-up without being told they're "looking a bit rough". But people still expect different levels of prettiness and desirability from women, depending on where they already sit in society's desirability hierarchy. We cannot shame people for using the tools around them to make their life easier and receive basic human respect. Whether that's a make-up brush or a razor, why would you want someone to suffer even more under the guise of having "superior feminist morals", when they're just trying to survive? We can't shame people for taking the steps and precautions that are expected of them just to be seen and heard in this messed-up world.
Different women experience different levels of expectation from society to perform femininity. Marginalised women such as trans women, fat women and women of colour don't always have the privilege of "rejecting beauty standards" such as growing out their armpit hair, or even wearing their natural hair that grows on their head. Because of our racist and fatphobic beauty standards - which subconsciously enforce our "preferences" when dating, hiring people, choosing friends - the way they are perceived just by existing in this world in their natural state is seen as "undesirable" and they are treated as "less than" already, without actively rebelling against gender norms.
Performing femininity and desirability isn't always a choice for marginalised women, it's often an act of survival.
Have you ever thought about how differently you would experience the world if your appearance changed? If you cut off all your hair, if you stopped wearing make-up - would it make you feel invisible? Or maybe you have already experienced this! Think about your own privileges within these preset standards of desirability, and consider how they might have afforded you unearned benefits ahead of other people. For example, one of my desirability privileges is that my whiteness is already perceived as "friendly" and "approachable" before I've even had a chance to speak or show people who I am. This subconsciously encourages people to open up to me and talk to me, enabling me more opportunities than women of colour, and black women in particular, who are so often perceived initially as "intimidating" and "unapproachable" before people get to know them.
I stopped shaving my body the second I realised the reason I did it wasn't anything to do with my own discomfort, but was in fact entirely due to patriarchal brainwashing leading me to believe that my body hair was unattractive. I was fed up of being told that I should be repulsed by something that was part of my own body. I wanted to love my body, not hate her. As a survivor of sexual assault, I hate being told what to do with my body, and growing out my hair was a subtle and personal act of resistance and self-care that was instrumental to my healing process.
It restored some of my autonomy, knowing that men and capitalism had no control over my body hair. Forget your overpriced pink razors, I'm gonna be a hairy bitch now!
Growing out my armpit hair was a very intentional and conscious decision, but being able to grow out my body hair is in fact, a privilege. Sure, it's not viewed as desirable by the standards of the male gaze - most people still think it's repulsive and you will be shamed for it regardless of your race. But being able to grow out your body hair without facing additional discrimination is a privilege afforded only to thin, cisgender, white women like me. Because even with my armpit hair (which I can shave off any time I want) I will still be viewed as "desirable". And in a sexist, racist, capitalist society which places its value of women on their appearance and whether or not they're visually pleasing, having "natural" desirability is a privilege because you're more likely to be afforded opportunities, just for existing in the body that you do. I will still be viewed as "feminine" whether I shave or not, a privilege that not all trans women, fat women and women of colour have.
I don't know many trans women who grow out their leg or armpit hair, because they are held by society to much higher standards of "proving" their gender than cisgender women like myself are.
People compliment the hairs on my legs all the time, but complimenting people's body hair for being "blonde" and "fair" is a compliment at the expense of women of colour, whose body hair grows naturally much thicker and darker, often across their arms, upper lip, legs and brows.
A lot of women of colour and trans women don't have the privilege of "forgetting" to shave or just letting it grow out, because they're constantly expected to show up in ways that people like me aren't to "prove" and perform femininity, in order to be met with the same respect I'm afforded as a woman, even when I don't do these things.
The ability to defiantly resist is only afforded to those who are already privileged enough not to be ostracised if they do so.
I don't know many trans women who grow out their leg or armpit hair, because they are held by society to much higher standards of "proving" their gender than cisgender women like myself are. Trans women don't owe it to anyone to perform their gender in a way that is hyper-feminine - but we must acknowledge that we live in a society that expects them to nonetheless, just as we expect women of colour to. There are double standards associated with our acceptance of body hair that cannot be ignored, and conversations around hair positivity need to centre around the voices of those whose bodies are most marginalised by society's expectations in the first place. It does not make you morally superior to grow out your body hair, and you're not any less of a feminist for shaving.
Because let's face it, life is easier when we shave. Do what you want with your body hair! But remember that real change doesn't start until the people in the margins of our society are liberated and able to make the same decisions (without discrimination) that thin, non-disabled, cisgender, white people can already make.
One of Florence’s slogan designs, many of which tackle social and feminist issues head-on
To begin unpacking your own desirability bias and "preferences", you can start by listening to, learning from and respecting people you're not attracted to. If the content you consume is exclusively delivered to you by people you find palatable enough, thin enough, white enough, "nice" enough to listen to (aka - me) - then I'm going ask you to level up and challenge your bland taste buds. If you're only willing to hear one side of any argument, then you are fundamentally limiting your scope and ability to see beyond and above your own viewpoint.
Work on diversifying the content you consume. If you're constantly consuming and accessing the same media and content delivered by the same people - how are you ever going to open your mind to other people's perspectives, if it's always filtered through a privileged gaze?
Unfortunately, straight white men dominate our media, and the media is our cultural storyteller.
The media is what shapes our culture, so we have to make a conscious effort to break out of this cycle - it doesn't just happen. Take action now. Read books by black folks. Follow fat, disabled and trans people on Instagram. We spend our whole lives being bombarded with hetrifying love stories, so follow queer couples on social media! Listen to podcasts created by people of colour on your way to work or, if you work from home, listen while you're working.
Up until now we have been bombarded with the same stories that either make us subconsciously hate ourselves or hate others. It's time to change the narrative, and the power lies in your hands. Consume diverse content. Reinvigorate those tired taste buds.
This is an extract from 'Women Don't Owe You Pretty' by Florence Given, out now, published by Cassell, £12.99, hardback.