“Alternative” Visions of Beauty.

I recently read a very thoughtful and insightful personal essay written by an ‘alternative model’ named Carrie Jo. I put that in quotes because  I hate the term alternative modeling. It is almost always applied to women with visible tattoos and other body modifications. I think that women with tattoos are beautiful, period end of sentence. Their beauty isn’t about being different or exotic, or at least it doesn’t have to be.  What the fuck does alternative even mean?

adj.  offering or expressing a choice;

different from the usual or conventional: as

a:  existing or functioning outside the established cultural, social, or economic system

Alright, thanks Merriam Webster. So I guess in this case tattooed models are functioning outside of the established fashion system, where designers don’t want tattoos distracting from their designs. Both systems suck. In one, women are clothes hangers and must be shaped as such. And in the other, women’s bodies are the consumable product, existing only to be visually devoured and objectified. The author, Carrie Jo, comments on the well known Suicide Girls alternative modeling company, saying “While [Suicide Girls] still feature many different kinds of women with many different kinds of “looks”, the personalities of each individual model are lost. They are now just objects for masturbatory release, rather than women making a statement.” Her point is that Suicide Girls, nowadays, are practically interchangeable with traditional lingerie and pin-up models. Except they have tattoos. They are not, in reality, pushing the boundaries of what we consider beautiful. And they are often hypersexualized. In fact, I know a lovely lady who is tatted up and models, and indeed most of the photos she shares are very sexualized, bordering on pornographic. There is nothing wrong with that, and she looks super gorgeous. But why should she be limited to that kind of photo, that kind of look? Why should her tattoos restrict her versatility? Why are our visions of what can be beautiful, traditional, pretty and feminine so limited?

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The thing about feeling beautiful, is that in it’s purest form it is a feeling that is for you and not for others. When we talk about street harassment, one of the reasons some people don’t understand why it’s not a compliment is because they can’t fathom a world where women aren’t in constant pursuit of male approval. The assumption is ubiquitous that women make an effort to look good explicitly for men, and that they should be making this effort all the time. That assumption is sexist and heteronormative, which means that when you don’t conform to beauty standards, you are defying the patriarchy. And that makes you dangerous.

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But what about the things that make us feel beautiful that have nothing to do with an outside gaze? And I don’t even mean things like yoga, or being creative or being kind (which are super important, obviously.) I mean actual work you do on your appearance, that makes you feel pretty without necessarily making you more conventionally attractive. I like to paint my nails lots of different colors using vegan nail polish. And I recently died my hair lavender. And I’ve found that even though my hair is the longest it’s been in almost 10 years, I don’t really feel like myself and I cannot wait to cut it short again. I don’t dispute that it looks cute, but a very short ‘do just makes me feel sassy and real.

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Carrie Jo’s article hit me hard not only because I happen to have tattoos (and I totally agree that it’s still a radical claim to your own body and a very visible challenge to patriarchal aesthetics) but because the comments made on her photos are so vile and cruel. And she makes an extremely interesting point towards the end of her piece: “I’m not a ‘model for a magazine on the internet’, nor is this social media site ‘my employer’ putting me on display to be ‘judged.’ These photos are shared to be ENJOYED.” I thought that assertion was super important, because the commenters on her photos and indeed all over the web feel entitled and justified in their cruelty, because in their minds all images of women exist for them and for their consumption. They exist to be judged and if they are not up to par then they deserve to be called out. But what about the idea that images are for enjoyment, meant to be seen but not judged? Why is it that we can’t consume the images of women without dissecting their value against pre determined standards? Why do we tear them apart?

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I have gotten to a point in my life where I accept that certain parts of me will never change to be more conventional, and I do not (often) mourn that fact. I appreciate my body as it is (usually), and I try to express my true self in how I look and dress. I’ll never have flowing, feminine locks or feel comfortable in girly dresses and bows and heels. I used to wish that I was ‘prettier’, that I felt comfortable looking traditionally feminine (think Blaire Waldorf.) But that’s not me, it doesn’t feel authentic to me, and I am done fighting with myself. Self-love is a journey, and so I must strive everyday towards this end, towards being at peace with my physical self. I wish that the images we are bombarded with were more varied, more inclusive in their standards. It shouldn’t be so hard for girls to feel confident and secure. It shouldn’t have to be a life long struggle. I wish we were all more kind to ourselves, and to each other. I wish the media would push themselves to the point where women could be applauded for celebrating not just what is beautiful about them according to cultural standards, but what is beautiful about them according to themselves.

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Oh Westley, if only it were that easy. For now, we need to do our best to fight back against internet trolls, and that battle starts within ourselves. If you are consuming media, and you find yourself being harsh or judgmental when looking at models or actresses, check yourself. It’s not necessary. Don’t say it out loud, try to stop yourself from even thinking it. Because that’s just not a productive use of any of our collective energy. It’s hard though, I’m not going to lie. I caught myself thinking just yesterday that a girl in running gear didn’t have very well defined calves. I mean, what the actual fuck. Who is that thought helping? Not me. Not her. Not all of us who’ve been taught that women’s bodies are objects that exist for the enjoyment of others, that they ought to be dissected, that they are ours to comment on. And the internet is overrun with folks who are emboldened by anonymity,  drunk with it’s power and spewing their gross and ignorant judgments. Let’s overtake the negative with positive. Let’s make the spaces we inhabit online a force for joy and light. It’s not actually complicated: be kind. To yourself, to those you love, to those you just met, to those you will never meet. Recognize the humanity in the faces and images you come across, empathize with their struggle even if you don’t know the details, and appreciate what is beautiful and unique about people without measuring it against some bullshit pre-determined standard. Beauty is so much more than symmetry or a breast-to-waist ratio or small features or large features or lipstick or bare skin or silence. It can’t be completely described, and it certainly can’t be contained, and we are not bound to it any more than we allow ourselves to be.

So be free.

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And wild out.

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Be kind.

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Most importantly, love yourself.

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