A while back, I saw Chelsea Handler interview Sarah Silverman, and the topic of unwanted sexual advances from men came up.
Naturally they both had a lot to say (this was during the height of the #metoo movement) and Sarah told a story about her first job as a teenager, where her boss called her into his office and then took his penis out to show her.
She observed that one major flaw in the argument men tend to make in these situations– namely that the advance was invited– is demonstrated by the fact that this kind of shit never happens to her now.
Both Sarah and Chelsea observed that while they have tons of stories from back when they were nobody, now that they’re powerful, successful women in their 40s, men have somehow “figured out” when they’re interested in seeing a random penis, and when they’re not.
Put another way, men who claim their unwanted sexual advances are due to just “misreading the situation” only ever seem to misread the situation of very young, vulnerable women.
Which brings me to what I want to talk about today: how modern female standards of beauty and sex appeal are synonymous with vulnerability.
There is a known phenomenon among pedophiles and sexual predators called “grooming.” In short, it means that the sexual predator chooses someone who will be susceptible, and then establishes trust, rapport, and connection with the person in order to lower their inhibitions and resistance to sexual advances.
The process of choosing who is “susceptible” is similar to how a lion chooses which antelope to hunt: the easiest to hunt are the ones who are standing alone, separate from the pack, small, weak, and unprotected.
Our culture is obsessed with the appearance
of nubile female beauty.
The models who set the standard for what is “desirable” are almost exclusively teenagers. We fetishize their pubescent bodies, their disempowered body language, and their big eyes peeking out of gaunt, smooth faces.
Youth is inherently vulnerable and powerless, due to a variety of factors like the lack of life experience, not knowing who you are yet, a lack of self-trust and confidence, fear of conflict, financial struggle, and immature physical size and strength.
And yet “youth” is one of the key components of female sex appeal in our culture. (Note that the same does not apply to men.)
Could it be that what our culture finds sexy about a woman actually is her vulnerability?
After all, you know what else is considered sexy for women? Being thin– very thin– and restricting food intake.
A girl who barely eats is at a disadvantage when it comes to physical strength and endurance. A very thin woman is fragile, child-like, breakable. Even if her thinness comes from an eating disorder, her body is highly coveted, and considered sexually desirable.
Another way in which a woman can “earn” sexual desirability is to be dressed in high heels and impractical clothing. A person cannot run or fight in stilettos and a minidress.
We admire women who manage to look frail and powerless, whether that’s due to youth, weight, or demeanor, because our culture fetishizes vulnerability in women as much as it punishes vulnerability in men.
Put another way, we associate “masculinity” with the ability to control others, and “femininity” with the ability to control nothing at all, or to be controlled.
These gender standards do a disservice to everyone. They create men who become violent in their effort to eradicate all weakness, and women who view themselves as sexual objects and spend their lives chasing approval from others in the form of sexual desirability, attempting to look susceptible and defenseless.
One way of viewing this is that men don’t need to oppress women anymore, because we are now oppressing ourselves. Women, in an effort to earn social power, are endlessly occupied by the task of making themselves look more powerless.
Important Note: The implications of powerlessness being linked to sexuality extend far beyond beauty standards. Marginalized and disenfranchised people are also especially vulnerable, since society doesn’t support or protect them, and they are also at a significantly higher risk for sexual harassment, assault, and rape. This is especially true of women of color, transgender individuals, and sex workers. It is often assumed that these people are sexually promiscuous, immoral, or easy; all three groups experience sexual violence at significantly higher rates than white, cis-women, or non sex-workers.
A person can be beautiful and sexually desirable at any age or weight. But the cultural standard of western beauty and “sex appeal” isn’t based on attraction or beauty. It’s based instead on power and vulnerability; predators and prey.
Are we really comfortable spending our entire lives chasing a beauty standard that makes us look like a more appealing victim?
Can you imagine if all the antelopes developed a beauty standard in which they tried to look like a baby antelope who is all alone? If all their social currency was based on how much they could look like lion-food?
That’s exactly what we’re doing when we buy into the western female beauty standards.
What if we all rejected these beauty standards– not only because they are impossible, unsustainable, terrible for our mental and physical health, and selling ourselves short– but also because they stand for something dark and gross: the supposed desirability of a powerless woman?
What if we instead pursued a different, more empowered kind of beauty and sexual desirability: the kind that comes with age, confidence, experience, independence, knowing yourself, living a fulfilling life, and being highly connected, and regarded?
I can’t think of a better reason to celebrate the things society tells us we should hide, like wrinkles, grey hair, saggy boobs, puffy bellies, strong muscles, stronger opinions, and of course our lovely squishy fat.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts.