“Patriarchal over-emphasis on ‘women’s beauty’ is partly about getting women’s complicity with our own control. It means that we will do some of the patriarchal work on ourselves, sell ourselves and other women to patriarchal surveillance,” Pumla Dineo Gqola on Twitter, 13 January.
The University of Witswatersrand professor’s tweets strike a chord with me. Beauty is mostly controlled by men. We women put pressure on ourselves but we don’t realise that it’s because of what men expect of us, to be attractive creatures, only good for that. But their definition of beauty is so narrow, something for us to eternally chase, but never achieve. While I read Gqola’s tweets, I had a conversation with my own “beauty”.
Growing up, I had very low self-esteem. For the longest time I didn’t think I was good looking. When all the “pretty” girls started having boyfriends in senior primary school, it just confirmed what I already knew, that I wasn’t beautiful enough. Even though I did not dwell on it much, it still remained a fact at the back of my head.
“So, if being ‘beautiful’ is one of the most important attributes a woman can have, then she invests more energy into it. Sometimes more energy than what she finds joy in, sometimes THE most energy but patriarchal beauty is always very, very narrow, so most women would have to work very hard to attain that beauty.”
There were so many things I did not like about myself: from my not-so-small nose, to the far from perfect smile (BTW, am I too old for braces? Yes? No? Okay…). From my very nappy, ungovernable hair that would only look nice for less than a week after relaxing (frying my scalp and possibly my brain in the process), to the scar on my leg from an egg-frying gone wrong adventure (side note: maybe this is why I hate cooking, or rather cooking hates me. I mean, who gets an injury from frying an egg?). Then there’s all the other scars I got while playing soccer, running on top of the walls of unfinished houses, riding bicycles and climbing trees . Okay, maybe I was too naughty – in my defense, this was all before I realised I was actually a girl.
“And so they’re too exhausted grasping at patriarchal beauty to contest power and be really seen and live as fully human so the reason beauty, like reproduction and sexual availability, are so key to patriarchy’s (de)valuation of women is because they really are about not dealing with who she really is in all the great, awful and complicated ways that all humans are.”
It was only until I was in Grade 10 when I started making small adjustments in my appearance and subsequently my self-esteem grew. That year, I decided to stop using relaxer and let my hair grow the way it was meant to. My afro grew long and beautiful and a lot of people at school started noticing me. This contributed a great deal to my confidence. It felt so great getting compliments from girls I considered beautiful. But I still had my doubts.
“You notice that when women are very good at what they do and accomplished, in very inappropriate settings, their looks crop up. Patriarchal beauty is part of how you exhaust, monitor, weaken women so that they don’t rise up against patriarchy.”
When I got to varsity, one of my biggest challenges was the scars on my legs. I started noticing that so many girls had perfect, scarless legs that looked good in short shorts and miniskirts. Lord knows how much I wanted to wear short shorts and miniskirts like the other kids on hot summer days but each time I did, I could feel all the eyes staring at my… at my scars. So I would cover up with jeans and leggings. For a long time, my friends tried to convince me that I had beautiful legs, that they didn’t notice my scars. Naturally, I thought they were just saying that because they are my friends.
“Patriarchal beauty is fundamentally about the body and about control and regulation. All oppressive systems control bodies. If we look at what global patriarchal beauty’s current standards are, this is clearly a woman who is hard at work on herself.”
Gradually, I got over most of my insecurities thanks to my friends and family. In the last year or two I have grown so much. It’s almost shocking. I wear super short shorts when I feel like it, and when people stare at me with those “how dare you wear shorts when you have scars” look, I stare back at them with a “get over it” look. I used to be scared of wearing my hair short because I look exactly like my dad. I was scared I would look like a boy. That I’d look ugly. I decided to chop off my locks at the beginning of 2013, thanks to my newfound confidence.
“Being out of place in your own body, individually + collectively, is a foolproof way to build self loathing… oppression. Saying how you look defines you conclusively + there’s something that needs fixing isn’t just patriarchal. All supremacism.”
I went from thinking I was not pretty to knowing that I am beautiful enough. But I also learned something better, that being beautiful is not why I am here on this earth, it is not my responsibility. My worth should not be measured by how physically attractive the opposite sex (or the world in general) finds me. As much as it is important to know that you are beautiful (Because let’s face it, vanity rules the world we live in) it is even more crucial to know that there is more to life than your looks. There is so much freedom that comes with being self-assured.
Professor Gqola finished her series of tweets: “Oppressive systems say we are only/firstly/mostly our bodies. That there’s something inherently wrong with how oppressed look. We are rarely completely defined by what oppresses us. Most people anyway, so it becomes a mix of resistance + complicity.”
It’s not my duty to be beautiful, but that’s what society tells us.
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