14 May 2013

Half Victim, Half Accomplice

Found on tumblr

While I was reading about society's beauty standards and the role of women themselves, I stumbled upon a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, who said about women that they are "moitié victimes, moitié complices comme tout le monde" (half victims, half accomplices, like everybody). And this quote made me think a lot.

There is a lot of documentation on the beauty standards promoted by society through media, like this report for example, and how we are victims of this standard because it induces lower self esteem - and much more  dangerous effects for some like eating disorders.

But what about the other side of the coin? The responsibility of women themselves in adhering and perpetuating this standard and its consequences? I briefly raised this question in my post about the Dove Real Beauty campaign, and one commenter related her story about women's pressure on each other about motherhood - how mothers would follow education standards and judge each other if they don't follow these rules.

Peer Pressure in Beauty Standards

To what extent could this apply to beauty standards? Yes, there is a global pressure from society on how we should look - or try to look - and there are unconscious consequences on self esteem and the relation between a woman and her body. But these standards need to be perpetuated by someone, don't they? There is no magical guru who decides what all advertisments, all magazines, all TV shows will look like, there are human beings making these decisions and perpetuating this beauty norm.

And at a personal level, we have people around us who, consciously or not, perpetuate that pressure, just like mothers  judged this commenter about her children's education. These women who say you should skip the cheese, or that you look so slim, are examples of this peer pressure that enforces beauty standards. So yes, this standard, if created by "society" in general, is perpetuated and reinforced by women who choose to go on diets or make that kind of comment to other women.

But, the question is,  how aware are they of this pressure they create? Telling a woman she is fat because you consciously want to hurt her, and complimenting a woman by telling her she looks "slim" are very different situations, because in the second case the woman doesn't even realize she is perpetuating a standard. So in that case, how "accomplice" is she exactly?

The Actress Case

In Mona Chollet's Beauté Fatale, she talks about the actress Portia de Rossi and her experience shooting Ally McBeal (from her biography). In her biography, she explains how the pressure of the acting industry, but also other actresses, drove her into eating disorders - how they are all size 0 and she should be too, how they don't eat lunch...

This is of course, an extreme testimony in a world where looks are particularly important, but I think that kind of behaviour is, to a lesser extent, around us. Of course, there are the unconscious and inconsequent remarks I mentioned earlier, but I do think some women do this consciously, just like the other actresses in Portia de Rossi's testimony. They would let someone know they think she is eating too much, or she is fat, sometimes only by the way they'd look at her, or small comments.

Why we Judge Each Other

I am no psychologist so I don't have definite answers to share, but I do have a theory. I remember watching a show on TV several years back, quite similar to the Jerry Springer show, where ex-obese women who lost over 50kg were invited to share their experience.

I remember having been shocked at how intolerent they were to obese people, telling the worst kind of stereotypes you can have on them (they are lazy, eat all day etc.). Having suffered it themselves in the past, I was quite puzzled they would adopt the exact words other used to make them suffer in the past, becoming the bully in a way.

When I think about women who "bullied" me that way, they always were quite unhappy, on diets, suffering or having suffered eating disorders, having low self esteem (the woman I mention in this post is one of them).

Given this fact, my theory is that maybe, women who perpetuate the standard by judging others seem to be those who actively try to fit in, and in a way, they validate their choice by trying to impose it on other women.  I have received  most remarks on my food habits from people who are on a diet, for example.

Maybe they need to reassure themselves on the fact that they are right to do so, and meeting someone who doesn't act like them challenges their decision. So they need to put pressure on her to make sure they are not the only ones to feel bad about their body. If it makes any sense.

In conclusion...

Back to that quote, "half victims, half accomplices", I think this summarizes pretty well my opinion on the subject. Women are accomplices to perpetuating beauty standards in a way, by imposing in on themselves and judging other women and making them feel bad in turn. But this behavior stems from having been conditioned by society to want to fit in that standard in the first place, so in a way these "perpetrators" are victims of this standard as well.

In the end, what we can do about it is be aware of that, and try to liberate ourselves from this standard and like our body the way it is. But when you have been exposed to this standard for so many years and keep seeing this standardized photoshopped images everywhere, is it even possible?

Sorry this is all a bit blurry as it is just a first theory. What do you think? Did you also meet women who would judge you and make you feel like you should try to be thinner and look taller? If you have any insight, any reads on the topic please share!


  1. I guess this is a more general thing that might be relevant to the specific example you gave, but something that might partly explain why previously obese people were so critical of obese people is the just-world hypothesis. The hypothesis proposes that people want to believe the world is just and fair, and that people get what they deserve. In that context, if obesity is regarded as a bad thing, then people will think that obese people are obese because they deserve it - because they don't try hard enough or don't care enough about health or whatever, so obesity is their just punishment. That might partially explain why people who were previously obese suddenly seemed to lack empathy regarding something they had personally experienced. But I'm sure there is a heap of other influencing factors as well.

    I made a very conscious choice a couple of years ago to not be critical of other women's appearances or bodies or outfits. I guess it was because I had been broadening my reading of contemporary feminist issues, so I had been reading a lot of discussions and articles and essays about lots of different topics, including fashion and appearance and the standards women are expected to adhere to. Anyway, I made that choice and it took me a while to wean myself off just that nagging tendency to be critical (I was never hugely critical, I think, but I still mentally made comments like "Oh god, why is that woman wearing leggings as pants, doesn't she know that they're not proper pants?" or "That woman is wearing way too much eye make-up, it's almost ridiculous!"), but amazingly enough, I think I've actually been successful. I just don't feel the need to be critical of other people's appearances - the things that would have evoked a negative comment in my mind previously just don't even register as something worth noticing, and I've ended up feeling more positive and warm towards others in general these days (which is kind of weird because I'm generally a rather cynical and occasionally slightly misanthropic person!).

    So despite the years of cultural conditioning we go through, I think it's not necessarily ingrained to the extent that it can't be changed. But then again, I've never had any terrible self-esteem issues, and due to the the randomness of genetics I just happen to fit into what society considers an "normal/acceptable" appearance, in terms of height and weight and general appearance (although of course society will still try to make me feel inadequate about other more minor aspects of my appearance e.g. my hair is not glossy enough or my crows-feet are too deep or whatever). So maybe making the choice to not perpetuate this criticism of other women's appearances is easier for me because society hasn't been nagging me about being fundamentally "abnormal" my whole life, so I haven't really built these unrealistic standards into my identity, which is what maybe some women have done.

    1. Ah that's an interesting theory, maybe reinforced by the fact that they actually did lose weight, so they'd think even more that the other obese could do the same but don't. Also, I wondered if it wasn't a way to unleash their frustration. If they have been bullied for years about their weight, once they finally became thin like they always dreamt of, they unleashed all this frustration on the other obese people. You know, like someone poor who just wins the lottery and suddenly despises the poor... Again, that's just an undocumented idea.

      I personally made that choice as well, to do my best not to judge other people, may it be about their looks, or about their opinions or behaviour. It is true that I naturally judged less and less as my self esteem improved, as I grew up too. Judging others is a conscious action so I imagine there is something to be done about it, but what about self esteem and the relationship to your own body?

      Like you, apart from my height that is significantly lower than average, my physical attires are inside the expected average, even if they don't meet the beauty standards. So I have never really had traumatizing experiences related to my physical appearance. Besides, I grew up in a very open minded family that taught me to think for myself, question the standards, grow as a person and self actualize, so my teenage body issues - due to puberty and body changes I guess - have been resolved over my young adult years. But is it really possible for anyone, given the general viewpoint of society? This viewpoint which is we should be young, tall and slim, and that beauty should count for us women. I am wondering...

    2. Yeah, I guess you and I come from a position of privilege in that respect, in terms of fitting within the bounds of what society considers acceptable. It might therefore be difficult for us to understand how it feels for people who have been truly outside those limits, and have spent a lifetime feeling abnormal because they can't find clothes big enough or they've been discriminated against because of their appearance, etc. I have discussions with some of my good friends in which I'm still startled by some of the self-hating things they say so casually regarding their appearance, because it makes me realise their mindset is so different to my own. I have a friend who frequently does triathlons and other such events and is always breaking her own records for long-distance running or whatever, and from my point of view, I think "She's so amazing - she's so committed and motivated and she should be so proud of what she's capable of, both mentally and physically" but from her point of view, she seems to think she's fat and needs to lose weight and needs to always be on a diet and can't even eat a celebratory piece of birthday cake or she'll feel "guilty".

      So yeah, I think the message from the media about standards of appearance (which is then perpetuated by the people around us in everyday life) is so incredibly strong that it would be incredibly difficult for a lot of people to snap out of it and ignore the message and start to truly comprehend their self-worth. I mean, I've seen interviews with models who seem to have poor self-esteem, despite surely ticking every box in terms of meeting even the strictest beauty standards, and I've seen people feel ugly and insecure over almost invisible, indiscernible things (people who seem to have hair out of a shampoo advertisement but who complain about how ragged and frizzy their hair is, people who don't wear sandals because they think their toenails are ugly, etc.) so it really shows how pervasive the message is that each of us is inadequate in multiple ways and needs to try harder to reach the specified standards.

  2. moi non plus, je ne crois pas à un complot industrio-patriarcal. Pour ce qui est de l'industrie, qu'elle vende des produits amincissants ou grossissants, du 36 ou du 46, ça lui est bien égal, pourvu qu'elle vende. Les messages publicitaires disent ce que l'on veut bien entendre et ressassent des clichés. Certes, ressasser des clichés contribue à les perpétuer, c'est une force d'inertie non négligeable, mais je ne pense pas que ce soit la source du problème. Quant aux patriarches, je ne vois pas pourquoi ils nous voudraient grandes et minces, je doute même que le misogyne de base nous souhaite aussi préoccupées de notre apparence, au lieu d'être préoccupées par son bien-être et celui de sa progéniture.
    D'où l'idée que minceur, grande taille...correspondent à un idéal féminin, c'est comme cela que les femmes se rêvent et elles s'encouragent/se jaugent mutuellement dans la course vers cet idéal.
    Georges Vigarello, qui a écrit une « histoire de la beauté », pense qu'être légère et grande correspond à un désir de liberté, de mobilité et aussi à une androgynie synonyme d'efficacité dans le domaine professionnel récemment investi.
    Se fixer un idéal c'est forcément encourir le risque d'échouer et de culpabiliser d'avoir échoué, avoir un idéal collectif c'est fixer une norme, un canon qui ne pourra pas être atteint par tous les individus. Mais il y a toujours eu des canons de beauté, le fait qu'ils ne soient pas gravés dans le marbre prouvent qu'ils correspondent à des aspirations sociales plus qu'à des critères de séduction/reproduction.
    Les hommes aussi, d'ailleurs, doivent de conformer à des normes d'apparence (je ne pense pas qu'être petit et gros soit très prisé, non plus...). Peut-être que les femmes accordent plus d'importance à leur apparence que les hommes parce qu'elles se sentent impuissantes dans d'autres domaines, que leur corps est le seul domaine qu'elles contrôlent (et encore ce contrôle est-il tout récent).

    1. C'est une bonne question, d'où vient ce standard... Après tout, il y a à peine 100 ans, les standards de beautés féminins correspondaient beaucoup plus à ce qui plairait aux hommes "génétiquement" parlant puisqu'il s'agissait de femmes rondes, avec une poitrine généreuse et des hanches larges (signes de fécondité, j'imagine). Effectivement, c'est depuis que les femmes se mettent à travailler, à chercher une égalité avec les hommes dans la société que l'idéal de beauté s'est transformé petit à petit vers une silhouette très androgyne. Ce qui m'étonne le plus à chaque fois que j'entends les complexes d'une femme autour de moi, ce qu'ils concernent les parties du corps qui sont le plus féminines justement (hanches, fesses...)

      Alors peut-être en effet que ce sont les femmes elles-même qui tendent vers cet idéal au fil des années, et la "société" utilise cette image pour vendre plus. Mais je me demande si c'est si simple, et d'où vient ce changement.

      Il y a aussi la question des mannequins, qui défilent pour les grands noms de la haute couture. Certains stylistes revendiquent chercher des mannequins aussi grandes et minces que possible pour mettre en valeur le vêtement. En 30 ans les mannequins sont devenues de plus en plus grandes et de plus en plus maigres. Donc il y aurait peut-être une cause à ce niveau-là aussi?

      Mais c'est vrai que les femmes ont un rapport très particulier à leur corps, peut-être parce que ce sont elles qui portent les enfants, et effectivement avec le développement des méthodes modernes de contraception elles se sentent plus en contrôle. Peut-être également qu'elles accordent plus d'importance à leur corps parce que traditionnellement, les atours physiques sont considérés par la société comme les atouts de la femme (pour se trouver un bon mari etc.) et que, malgré les évolutions récentes, cette idée est encore ancrée en nous.

      Si ces sujets t'intéressent, je te conseille vraiment de lire "Beautés Fatales" de Mona Chollet, comme tu parles Français, elle traite tous ces sujets de façon scientifique avec sources et explications à l'appui, je pense que cela peut apporter une vision intéressante sur le sujet.

  3. I've been trying to articulate a well-thought out comment for a few days now. Quality posts need quality comments, after all! Me, I've seen both sides of the coin. I was the most awkward tweenager imaginable - tall, gangly and chubby at the same time, really unflattering haircut, teeth all over the place. I was often made aware of the fact that I didn't look "right" (okay, let's just say it, I was ruthlessly bullied), but somehow the girls were always very specific. Where the boys would use "fat" and call it a day, the girls would be very aware of what my exact flaws were - boobs to small, too tall to ever get a guy, bad hair, witch nose, hipbones too high up. I have often thought about what kind of environments these girls must have grown up in that taught them again these incredibly specific and narrow standards of beauty. It is very comfortable to blame Barbie and Disney Princesses, but I think the awful truth is that girls are often taught these things by mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents. I knew these children's parents, and I heard the remarks that they would make - probably considered innocent and of no importance in that moment, but over the years they add up and make up a pattern in a child's mind. I really hope that I can manage to avoid that mistake if I do get children of myself one day.

    Like Jess I try very hard not to be critical of other women's appearances. I slip up occasionally, but I try to turn every "oh god, leggings as pants?!" into a "Rock on girl, wear what you want". I truly believe it has made me a happier person, as the side-effect has been that I am able to be less overly I feel like it (and the moment seems appropriate), which is always good fun. If someone is rocking a particularly amazing head of dreadlocks then by golly, they should know it!

    1. Wow, I butchered that last paragraph like a champ. It SHOULD say "I truly believe it has made me a happier person, as the side-effect has been that I am able to be less overly critical of myself as well. I also make sure to compliment strangers (when the moment seems appropriate), which is always good fun. If someone is rocking a particularly amazing head of dreadlocks then by golly, they should know it!"

    2. Ah, It is true that there is an influence of education, and the remarks mothers, aunts and other family members can say to a child when she grows up. I haven't even mentioned it, thanks! I guess school has a big influence as well, teachers and classmates.

      In a way, it sounds like a bit of a vicious circle, "accomplice" women who would tell other women (or girls) how they should look like, making them victims. But then, these girls growing up become the accomplices themselves and perpetuate this with their own children, nieces etc. Even though I suspect it's not as easy as that.

      But it gives a thought regarding education though - the role of mothers in girl's well-being, and the role of school in the middle of all this. I've been thinking about education a lot lately, not only with this matter but the role of parents and school in perpetuating society's standards in general, like the consumerist perspective for example, or the definition of happiness and success. Food for thought...

      Thanks for the comment, great view on the subject!