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Feminism Beyond Beauty and The 365 Feminist Selfie Project

selfieI understand that being a white man writing about feminism is complicated and touchy, and I probably shouldn’t do it because I can never really know what it’s like and who the hell do I think I am anyway? And even though I proceed haphazardly, like a drunk failing a field sobriety test, please be aware that I make no claim to having anywhere near a full understanding of what being a woman means. I have listened closely to articulate women explain the day-to-day phenomenology of being women in the world. I’ve used my imagination to the best of my abilities to see and experience from their perspectives. And even though I’ve achieved a small handful of insights, when all is said and done, I know that I don’t know. Nonetheless. It’s my hope to remain rigorously connected to the process of learning and understanding to the extent that my limits permit.

Because I’m a white man with a daughter and a mother and no shortage of rage. So much for caveats.

In case you haven’t yet heard about the 365 feminist selfie project, it’s the collective practice of women taking pictures of themselves every day during 2014 and putting them on display via one or more social media channels. That much is clear. Also clear is the participants’ conviction that doing so is a feminist act, sometimes a radical feminist act. Where it gets muddy, however, is how exactly posting a picture of your face every day for a year on Instagram (or what have you) constitutes feminism. Let’s leap over the lazy critique (deluded daily narcissism) and explore the participants’ empowering perspective.

After reading dozens of explanations for taking a picture of yourself every day and calling it feminism, the inevitable motive for doing so seems to revolve around the issue of empowerment. This daily act will somehow make women more powerful. How so? Here we find no end to all the courage and the conquering and the daring and the constant refrain that everyone is beautiful. Selfies are about the “real” woman conquering the fear of seeing herself and taking the ultimate risk of finding herself attractive. Selfies reject society’s definition of beauty and boldly declare every day: I’m beautiful too. Different weights, shapes, sizes, colors, sexual orientations, and more. This revolution in the paradigm of beauty opens its arms to all women; welcome. Leveling a sincere democratic attack on the media’s impossible ideals, the daily selfie offers each and every woman the choice (indeed, the power) to represent herself on her own terms, lit the way she wants from whatever angle she chooses, looking how she damn well pleases. In this barrage of daily selfies from women in all her forms lies the potential to shift our cultural standard of beauty to something more akin to reality, to women as they are as opposed to how they’re photoshopped.

Bravo, right? Of course. Why shouldn’t all women celebrate their appearance? Why shouldn’t all women strive to overcome the niggling fear that they’re ugly and move toward the light of beauty and acceptance? Maybe they should.

But when I seriously consider my daughter engaging in this struggle, I wonder: Is this a game she should exert a great deal of effort to win or is this perhaps a rigged game that women, as a whole, might be better served by just not playing anymore?

The thrust of the 365 feminist selfie project attempts to destabilize traditionally restrictive notions of beauty to make room for all women in the Palace of Pretty. But imagine the possibilities that might inhere in destabilizing the more subtle and rarely questioned assumption that all women need and should want to be beautiful. Women! To what end beautiful? Granted, beautiful as an adjective can bleed across many categories but, in this case, when we’re talking specifically about selfies, we’re inevitably talking about the desire to be beautiful in terms of the way you appear physically, whether the emphasis is on your face and/or your body. And it’s precisely here where two roads diverge and the matter of direction is vital to the essence of feminism as such. Does your inquiry seek to question the nature of who gets to be beautiful and why as you jockey for position? Or do you question the reasons women are so saddled by the issues of beauty and appearance in the first place?

Why? Why are we (we are ALL guilty) so consumed by the way you appear in relation to beauty? How did your self-concepts become so wholeheartedly bound up with the way you look? Why do women, first and foremost, appear (to you, to me, to all of us) as an object to be assessed in terms of beauty: face, hair, breasts, waist, hips, clothes, shoes. Is this how we immediately apprehend men? Why not? On what scales do we immediately apprehend and judge men? It’s hard to say, isn’t it? Why? Why are white men so immediately and inherently given and received without any consistent form of assessment? Don’t react with a hasty defense. Think about it.

What if the seemingly natural, and cunning, desire of women to be physically beautiful — to either be included in the culture’s definition of beauty OR to alter the culture’s definition of beauty to include them — all stemmed from the basic desire to attract (uh-oh) a man? How would we then interpret the 365 feminist selfie project’s mission to provide greater access to beauty for all women? If these questions evoke irritable defenses in the project’s participants, then I ask again, women, to what end beautiful? For whom? Yourselves? Seriously? Then, if that’s truly the case, I want to again turn to the issue of raising my daughter and challenge her to seek out more sophisticated adjectives to thrive in on a daily basis than being beautiful in terms of her physical appearance via a selfie.

She might write a poem a day or learn about a new woman author every day. Maybe she could do a science experiment a day or plant a tree every day. Run a mile every day? Or maybe she could make it a point to seek out a sad looking girl every day and say something kind to her (NOT about her appearance). THE 365 FEMINIST KINDNESS PROJECT! You know? Am I out of bounds here? Can’t we do more for our girls than assuring them that they’re pretty?

Please don’t misunderstand. The easy go to rebuttal to this essay is “Oh. Look at the white guy shaming feminist selfies!” (One wonders: Are we allowed to disagree at all anymore? Or is ALL disagreement shaming?) Put simply, all I’m saying is this: I see your need to redefine beauty and raise you one need to question the female defined by her appearance. Women can be more than how they look and deserve to be. Step away from the cameras. Seek new ways to appear. As you explore new adjectives through which to be defined, you will emerge as more complicated nouns than pretty ones. This is perhaps the direction toward a feminism beyond beauty.
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