Beauty Quests: A Double Disservice Beguiled, Beseeched And Bombarded – Challenging The Concept Of Beauty
A piece about the disservice of beauty standards.
When I was sixteen I paid my last visit to an orthopaedic surgeon. He wanted to carve me up, perform a miracle on my body and transform me into a normal person. Except this time I intended to say no. I thought of how I should tell him this. After six years I was tired of the miracle cures that never worked. My body was doing the things that I wanted it to. It was functioning as it did when I was nine years old, before they started working on me. I did not want to lose what it had taken so long to regain.
I went into the doctor’s office hoping that I would have the guts to reject this operation. It was a carrot that the medical profession kept dangling before my eyes. I did not have to make the decision. The operation was not appropriate for my disability. The surgeon was not going to perform it. He was apologetic. My disability would worsen and he was sorry because he knew it was ugly.
His accusation confronted me. He had called me ugly. There was more to beauty than wearing makeup and stockings, or the right clothes. I was ugly and not because my legs were too skinny, my bust undeveloped, or my face too plain. I was ugly because I was a disabled person. I was ugly and I would get uglier as my disability progressed.
Until then beauty was a quality I had aspired to. Along with other females of my age I pored over the magazines. I was fashion conscious although the clothes I chose often made me look more hideous. I did these things not because I enjoyed doing them, mostly I did not, but because I wanted to prove something to the world. I was a woman. My lipsticks and stockings and psychedelic dresses would prove it. Being a woman I would be entitled to the privileges and successes that came with womanhood. That success would come my way with marriage and children and job I never doubted. I knew I had to compete with other women. But I thought I could do it I had been well conditioned as a girl. It was a conditioning that had been the same as other females.
Everyday of our lives women are beseeched with the concept of beauty. Baby girls are called pretty and dressed in frills. As we grow older we are told to stay cleaner than our brothers, we learn what is lady-like behaviour. Puberty continues this process with new aromas being neutralised, and modesty encouraged. The dreaded blood spot becomes an obsession as we learn to hate our bodies. The blooming of womanhood reveals a flower that is plucked and then repainted, deodorised and then perfumed, padded and constricted and pulled into and out of every shape in order to approximate the mythical concept of beauty. This bombardment continues until our day of death.
Women are told that beauty is equivalent to success. Success in marriage, career, family, and relationships depends on using the right lipstick, wearing the right clothes, using deodorants and tampons. We have an image to conform to. Aspiring to this image necessitates competing with other women. Both the image and the competition is reinforced by advertisements and by beauty quests. Beauty quests are the epitome of competition.
There are many beauty quests held each year throughout Australia. They include baby shows, junior competitions, competitions for married women, country show girls and teenage queens, brides of the year, queens of festivals and miss suburbans. There is a ‘miss’ whatever to respond to most stages of a female’s development. These quests ensure that females will be judged against a concept of beauty, against the other contestants and against all other women. Whilst there are particular qualities in which each quest may differ in respect to the differing age groups that they cater for, they all have the same role of judging contestants against the prevailing norm of what a female of that age, background, and marital status should conform to.
Some of the quests attempt to play down this setting of standards. This has come about because of the criticisms that feminists and disability rights activists have levelled against them in recent years. In particular the Miss Australia Quest denies that it is a beauty quest. Yet fat women never win it – one of the criteria for judging is beauty of figure. Women with disfigured faces do not win – another criteria is beauty of face.
One recent winner in Victoria has a birth mark on her nose. But you cannot see it because she disguises it with make up. After she won the contest she decided to come out with her secret. She thought that winning, despite her defect, would be an inspiration to disabled women and that it would prove you do not need to be perfect to enter and win a beauty quest.
Yet her actions prove the opposite. She has known the stigma attached to having a defective body and she has learnt that to be successful she must hide her blemish. She is telling disabled women that we will succeed too if we hide our defects. But I cannot camouflage the hump on my back by using makeup. Disabled women cannot remove the stigma of their disabilities by simply using cosmetics.
To assist women who are disabled this women should not cover up her birth mark. She should challenge the concepts of beauty and success that make her hide her defect and she should insist the world accept her as she is. By wearing makeup to hide this .mark she is reinforcing the stereotype of beauty and telling us that success for a woman only comes by hiding your real self. She is saying to be disfigured is to be second rate. This is an attitude that disabled women reject.
For the last six years disabled women in Melbourne have opposed beauty quests. Many of these quests raise money for charities associated with disabled people. Our opposition to the quests springs from the realisation that both the concept of beauty and the charity ethic hinder our integration into society.. We are challenging the notion of beauty and we reject the charity ethic.
In challenging what is beautiful we have recognised that all women suffer. The looks, figures, deportment, and posture of every woman is scrutinised daily. We are measured against an ideal. Is our hair blonde, are we too fat, too thin, too old, do we walk with the right gait, are our clothes fashionable? A quick glance adds these things up and an assessment is made. We are rated as ‘a good sort’, ‘an old bag’, ‘a bit of alright’. We are defined and categorised according to our looks.
Most women know the frustration of not shaping up, of dieting, shaving legs, wearing makeup, of accentuating good points, of hiding and camouflaging bad ones. For women who are disabled this problem becomes insurmountable. We cannot diet away our disabilities or cover a disfigured face with make up, or disguise an epileptic seizure. We cannot wear our ill fitting clothes with panache when our disability gives us a drunken appearance. We are not contenders in the beauty stakes. Our disabilities have made us outcasts from womanhood. And because we do not line up in this quest for beauty we are discriminated against even further.
“But beauty is in the eye of the beholder” we are told. “It is beauty underneath that counts” we are told. These are lies that we are told.
The beholder of the eye is most often the man who decides if we get a job, a house, a bank loan, the contraceptive pill. Where does he get his opinion from? How does he know that my degree of thinness isn’t fashionable? He knows because he is told constantly by advertisements and by beauty Quests. Beauty quests teach people to judge appearances. They not only set the standards of the day but they also enforce them. Women are encouraged to pit their beauty against other women to find out who is the fairest. Being a beautiful woman will often bring many rewards.
Those of us who are not beautiful, who have seen through the mask of beauty and have cast it aside by opposing beauty quests are called envious, sour grapes, a range of names which not only underlines the importance of beauty but also highlights the true nature of beauty quests. When men look at disabled women they judge us on our sexual attractiveness. Being disabled we do not rate highly When women judge us their attitudes are formed by their conditioning as nurturers.
Women are the offenders in the sympathy trade. It is women who run the auxiliaries, raise the money, organise the charity events. It is women who are the do-gooders, who patronise and feel sorry for the poor unfortunate … It is women who have swallowed the message of charity. A message which is aimed straight at the duality of women’s conditioned qualities – to care about and do unto others. These qualities are seen plainly in the young country women who enter the various beauty quests. Their sense of doing good is sharply contrasted to the attitudes of the city models and public relations women. The committment of the country women is real, their desire to improve people’s lives is genuine but their actions are misguided.
They are misguided actions because they do nothing to help the people in their own communities. The money that they raise goes to large institutionalised organisations that are city based. Many disabled people who wish to use these services must leave their local communities. The raising of the money does nothing to maintain or return disabled people to their own homes. The fund raising does not help disabled people get work, or use the local swimming pool or recreational facility. In order to raise the money for these institutionalised services, disabled people are presented as childlike and in need of the public’s pity. This creates negative impressions in people’s minds. Disabled people become the poor unfortunates.
Being disabled is being different. To be disabled is to face experiences which are different to those of non-disabled people. For many people it involves institutionalisation and segregation from the mainstream of the community in education, work, housing and leisure activities. It means being on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice and discrimination are based on appearances. People are judged not on their-ability but on the way they look. Disabled people look different from other people. The difference is caused by disability. Discrimination results when this difference triggers off the negative attitudes towards disability that are held by the other person.
Attitudes towards disability are not formed accidentally. They are the obvious outcome of a society that values competition between people. People are judged according to their success in education, work, marriage, the ability to produce (healthy) offspring, creativity and beauty. As a result of our segregation, disabled people have fewer opportunities to acquire the skills necessary for a good job, our education is substandard, we have less access to housing and other services.
Because of our segregation most people form their attitudes towards us by internalising the message of charity. People who are not disabled will only form positive attitudes to disabled people when they meet us in everyday life. For this to occur, integrated services must be established to enable disabled people to participate in all of the community’s activities.
In addition we must cease to be judged on our appearances. Competitions which set and enforce standards of beauty must be abolished. It is for these reasons that women who are disabled oppose beauty quests.
Beauty quests force on us a standard of appearance. Because of our disabilities this standard is impossible to attain. Everytime we are judged against it we inevitably fail. We become second class women.
Beauty quests that raise money in the name of disabled people do us a double disservice. Through patronising fund raising activities, the community is shown again and again that we are ‘inferior’ people. Disabled people will only gain an equal place within society when our services are fully integrated. People in the community must be allowed to develop positive attitudes towards us. The abolition of beauty quests will be a significant step towards this end.
This story first appeared in Women and Disability – An Issue. A Collection of writings by women with disabilities. The booklet was produced by the Melbourne based Women with Disabilities Feminist Collective in the late 1980’s. The exact publishing date is unknown.