Sitting in a Space of Discomfort: Challenging Society’s Beauty Standards

I’ve been confronted with this concept for quite some time now, but especially since I’ve been publicly claiming a feminist identity. The common tropes and misconceptions of feminists are connected with this idea of everyone being “bra burners,” which if you’re familiar with the women’s liberation movement, bra burning actually didn’t happen on the day of the Miss American pageant back in 1968. However, the moniker for feminists remains, that being a bra burner is one that connotes an aesthetic that is displeasurable to the eye.

Photo from Miss America pageant protest in 1968. Women holding up bras.
Photo from Miss America pageant protest in 1968. Source: redstockings.org

Sadly, I’ve been asked a few times if I like to wear bras or not, based on the fact that I do call myself a feminist. Or I’ve been asked whether I’ve burned a bra ever in my life. Though I am a feminist that gets angry about injustice, I don’t believe that I stay within the angry feminist caricature for too long because I ultimately channel that anger into action soon afterwards.

But it’s interesting to me to see the reactions people have when seeing women go bra-less or challenge society’s beauty standards. Just the other day, the Huffington Post posted an article of photos showing women and their hairy armpits. Someone asked me after seeing the article if I thought all of the models were feminists. I replied with genuine curiosity and said, “No I don’t think they’re all feminists, there isn’t such a thing as a ‘feminist’ look because anyone of any gender, race, age, sexuality and class background can be a feminist.” The person responded with, “But you know, the whole hairy armpits thing…”

Black and white photo of actress Emiia Bostdt, showing her hairy armpits
Actress Emilia Bostdt. Photo by Ben Hopper, via The Huffington Post

My faculty adviser sometimes wears a bra and sometimes doesn’t. I admit when I first noticed this it threw me off for a second. Though I have strong relationships with a lot of faculty in my program and even some in other departments, I still regard them with the utmost respect and authority from a distance, despite the fact that I may have a friendship with them (my adviser often calls me a friend). So when I noticed that she did not have a bra on, I immediately considered her professorial status and the prestige that goes with that title. Then I felt guilty for even questioning her status as an intelligent, articulate, accomplished professor, because of my discomfort in seeing her appearance. I realized that we’re all guilty, at some point in our lives, of judging others by how they look and making those connections to stereotypes that we’ve seen in society and the media. It doesn’t make us terrible people to have these thoughts — but it does require that we take the time to make ourselves aware of why we have these thoughts, and what we can do to dispel them.

What’s important to note is that regardless if women in particular don’t wear bras, grow out the hair on their armpits, or *gasp* don’t wear makeup, this is a choice a woman has made to not conform to society’s beauty standards, and ultimately this is a political choice. What I usually tell people when they ask me why I don’t wear makeup all the time (as if I’m supposed to?) is that it’s a personal preference. That’s all it is. That women choose to not wear bras, have hairy armpits, not wear makeup, and the list goes on — is that it is their choice to do so. It’s a difficult choice as I’m sure a lot of women can identify with, that are based on the pressures we receive from society and even among other women, but it’s a choice that fuels our empowerment. We’re not at a point yet where women can choose to not wear a bra and it be socially accepted as just a preference, but we are at a point where we can work to educate each other on challenging these impossible notions of beauty and body image, so that one day we won’t have to sit in a space of discomfort.

 

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Luann

Feminist, Pinay, coffee lover, boba aficionado and pop culture enthusiast. Current graduate student in Peace and Conflict Studies. Dwelling in the rainy city of Portland, Oregon but always California dreaming. You can also read more of her articles at browngirldecolonized.com

4 thoughts on “Sitting in a Space of Discomfort: Challenging Society’s Beauty Standards”

    1. I knew I should’ve further elaborated on that sentence haha. I get where you’re coming from! I guess what I meant by that sentence is not that it is an inherently political choice, but rather the choice itself, can be political, when we are aware that it is a choice. When I choose to not wear makeup, I’m not always doing so because I’m trying to make a political statement – but I know that when I am questioned about it, my response of “Because I can” or “It’s my choice” becomes political. Because I feel comfortable in the fact that I don’t always have to wear makeup when I walk out the door, I am making a statement, regardless if on purpose or not, that I don’t need to conform to standards of beauty.

      Also, I think makeup is one thing, but when some women grow facial hair, for instance, that might place some folks beyond the space of discomfort, and cause them to constantly question the facial-haired woman’s choice. In that context, the woman with the facial hair might say “because it’s preference” which is entirely true, but they could also be maintaining that appearance despite others discomfort, for the face that it challenges notions of beauty.

      1. I appreciate that you’re talking about your experience. I still feel in a general sense however that being without makeup isn’t necessarily about making a statement. The choice doesn’t have to be conscious to the extent of being political, either. Again a generalisation, but I don’t feel that reaffirming when questioned that being makeup free is a choice, renders that choice political. Otherwise it would seem that every choice becomes political, taking power away from those choices which have a greater consequence when exercised.

        1. Juniper – Agree to disagree :) Context is key, and we’re both obviously speaking from our experiences, backgrounds and making generalizations. For me, I believe that every choice we make is political, and every political choice we make is personal – which to me is what makes it empowering.

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