The caricatured woman

I’m going to start off with some interconnected questions that I want you to think about for a few seconds. What does the term “letting yourself go” mean as it relates to the context of women after marriage and childbirth? What does it mean when men tell women that not because they might have birthed a child or married someone that they should not stop ‘dabbling around in makeup and treating themselves to shopping therapy?’ What constitutes our self and is that self tethered to materialism and aesthetics? Finally, what does it mean to be a woman in Guyanese society and how are we challenging or upholding the caricatures of womanhood set out for us?

As women, it is more than likely that many of us would have at some point in our lives been told that we are letting ourselves go, particularly when we begin tending to more traditional duties that exist within domestic life. The phrase is meant to tell a woman that by society’s dominant definition of how she should look, she is falling significantly far from the bar that was set for her.

We have come a long way in demolishing the set ideals of womanhood and the roles we are expected to play in the home and society but the work is far from done. This was seen when government propagandist and sexist apologizer, Gordon Moseley felt the need to tell women, particularly married women and mothers, that they should stop letting themselves go.

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He claimed that he was “seeing way too many women letting themselves go after marriage or a child,” and urged them to “still dress and look good.” What that post and the comments stemming from it revealed, is a truth that has long been known, both men and women are complicit in the sexism that is perpetuated within society.

When he was called out for this sexist rhetoric, he claimed that the point of the post was being misunderstood and that those who objected were mere attention seekers. No one is saying that you cannot offer advice on things, even if you yourself are in no fit position to offer that advice. When one insinuates however, that a woman cannot truly be considered a woman if she does not fit certain ideals, then whatever good intentions one might have had has now been replaced by the insidious sexism ingrained within your psyche.

It might not have been his intent to belittle women for not conforming to beauty standards, but in a way, that makes it worse for me. It is men like this who feel they are ‘looking out’ for women but are in fact just apologizers for sexism who are a threat. They are so invested in the idea that they are doing good that they refuse to see how problematic their rhetoric and actions are and how it perpetuates harmful notions.

When he realized that persons refused to allow his sexism to pass, his line of defense began to run something like this, ‘Oprah said it, so can I.’ The piece he references does talk about women taking care of themselves yes, but Moseley’s context is entirely different, whether he meant it to be or not. The piece on which he so religiously bases his defense on does not insinuate that a woman’s worth or a woman taking care of herself is tantamount to wearing makeup, getting her hair done or even spending money.

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Oprah’s main contention was that women should stop keeping themselves on the back burner. Firstly, Oprah is a woman using her platform to speak to women. Do not presume that you know enough about the struggles of the marginalized to tell them how they should be without taking in the structural and societal barriers to achieving those things.

Even if your intent is to encourage women to take better care of their selves, there is a way to do that. There is a way to tell women that they deserve to give themselves the same care and respect they might give to their families and loved ones. However, when that unasked for advice treads the ground of telling women to dress, go shopping and keep themselves “nicely groomed,” that is when I begin to question both your motives and intellectualism. When one is asked to ‘stay true to ourselves,’ is the only way to do that through defined gender aesthetics? I am a mother of one. On the surface, I have not entirely let myself go. But, I eat unhealthy, I never exercise and I don’t get enough sleep. These things are all very bad for me but no one tells me that I’m letting myself go because: One, I to some extent conforms to beauty standards. Two, anyone who knows me knows that they cannot tell me what sort of woman I should be and not be shot down for it because we as women are not here to satisfy the male gaze or to conform to ingrained ideas of femininity.

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The good, the outrageous and the subtle perfections

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When it comes to the issue of photoshop, I am a bit torn. On one hand, I love that photographers now have these advanced technologies they could use to better perfect their pictures because lets face it, sometimes we all want that large zit on our foreheads to be removed. Many of us also want to be photoshopped inside the USS Enterprise beside Uhura. (Okay, maybe that’s just me, but moving on)

Photoshop is undeniably, a great tool to have. Look at how flawless my skin looks. Not that it isn’t already flawless, but loook…

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However, like most things, we tend to go overboard with it as is seen in photo below. (My waist has not and will most likely never be that thin and the fact that the designer preferred a grotesque shape to my actual one says a lot about what we promote through photoshop)

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Anyways, no worries, this is not a post meant to further denigrate photoshopping because I think we can all agree that it has to some extent become harmful in the idealistic concepts of the human body it portrays. No, this is a post praising the artistic use of photoshop and to show how sometimes, less can be more.

When I first became aware of Brian Gomes photography, particularly his “Made in Guyana” calendar, I was happy yes, but not particularly bought over. I was interested because anything that helps to destabilize the belief that we should be ashamed of our bodies in its natural form is something I am down with because this belief has caused considerable agony to persons over the centuries, particularly women.

Side note- (I am not sure whether Brian would have been the inspiration, but a flurry of photographers shooting naked women suddenly became the rage and unlike Brian’s work, I found these to be exploitative.)

I saw one of the shots from the calendar online and while I considered it beautiful and expertly shot and lighted, (forgive me, I don’t know the terminology of photographers) dare I say it did not really move me. This was in part due to the fact that I never really take close looks at photographs online, its a quick look and I’m done with it. Regardless, the one photo I saw convinced me to buy it because aside from liking to support the creative arts where I can, I like pretty things and the picture even on one glance was pretty.

Away from the confines of my computer screen, able to see the details, I turned from page to page in joy that at least one photographer is getting it right! Whether the imperfections in the photographs were left to make some grand statement or not, I absolutely loved every red patch, generous waistline and stretchmark showcased.

Behold this glorious shot! (I’m sorry, I’m really excited about all this) there’s not much smoothing of edges and while its hard to see in this shot (maybe my eyes are bad) her stripes are on full display

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There are those who I would have shown the calendar to after I received it and the majority seemed to be of the belief that the photographs should have been more edited or that he should have used thinner models in some cases. No need to say that these people were quickly shut the fuck down because if you think that representing different body types and leaving ones imperfections is a bad thing in high art then it really is unfortunate that society has worked such a number on you.

Photoshop should not necessarily be used to cover, that in my opinion is a lazy photographer’s way of displaying the human form. I love as much accurate representation as I can get and as such, I believe that it should be used to enhance a subject rather than change or thwart it in some way. That’s why I love Brian’s calendar, because the usage of photoshop seemed to be  more about bringing the images more into focus rather than changing them. In an age where men and women are told that our bodies are not good enough because that’s not how the media portrays it, it is refreshing to see real women at least, represented realistically.

Maybe if I get over my camera shyness I’ll pose for one of Brian’s calendar. If you have any difficulties identifying me in the future, just look for that bronze butt with the stretch marks.

The beauty concept

Yesterday at a Café house, I met up with a group of friends whom I had not seen for a while. We caught up on each other’s personal lives and began some harmless bantering and then our conversation inexplicably steered to beauty. Here was a group of intelligent young people but no one could agree on what beauty was.

Eventually, for lack of a compromise, we moved to other topics to entertain ourselves but still, the beauty concept stuck with me. Almost everyone in the world has their own notions about what beauty is and what it is not. Due to this reason, judgements on beauty broadly vary across societies and cultures. In short, most of us can quickly say that X is beautiful but we struggle to say why we believe so in truly acceptable terms.

The belief that beauty is subjective is perhaps best exemplified in the popular phrase, “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” This belief made me wonder as to whether beauty is what convention may have told us from childhood; that beauty is dependent on individual personality or whether there is a universal physical idea which determines beauty.

I would not be hypocritical and say that everyone is physically attractive, as I find some persons more aesthetically pleasing than others. What I can say however is that beauty is not wholly objective, as I have sometimes found persons attractive whom others may have believed to be plain or average; some part of their physicality or personality appealed to me.

According to Aristotle in his book, “Poetics,”, “To be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts must present a certain order in its arrangement of parts.” Here, Aristotle equates beauty with symmetry, further suggesting that true beauty lies in one’s geometric composition. Beauty according to this theory then can be said to be composed of our values, morals and the Golden ratio.

Despite the steady changing of the beauty standard in the world, the one element which has remained intact as suggesting true beauty is the Golden ratio, also known as the “divine proportion” or more commonly, “phi.” It is stated that the more ones face adheres to phi, the more attractive that person is. This can be debated however. Actor, Denzel Washington has a near perfect facial symmetry and was once named sexiest man alive by “People Magazine.” He is without doubt a handsome man. Let us look at rapper, Jay-Z now. The rapper has a perfectly symmetrical face yet he is not considered beautiful by most in today’s society. Even with the “divine propertion” there seems room for debate.

Despite the fact however, that beauty; even objective beauty cannot accurately be defined, due to the mass media and books which sexualize the human face and body, we are in an age where beauty is normally measured solely on ones outward appearance. I suppose we come back to the premise that beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder but we can go further and say that what defines beauty is the multiple lenses through which that eye perceives that beauty- social conditioning, sexuality, cultural practices, other characteristics of the beheld and the direct preconceived prejudices of the beholder