I remember looking in the full-length mirror, dressed up for a nightclub and saying to my twin sister, “I’m so beautiful. I’m so hot." I was probably around 16-years-old. My beauty felt like an achievement, like something I was really proud of, like an accomplishment. I still question my fascination with my appearance and don’t find that it’s a topic that is discussed amongst women, even in feminist circles. It’s very common to hear about women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies; women’s positive interest with their appearance is rarely discussed.
It feels like a taboo subject, something I shouldn't be discussing. Ok, I know what you're thinking—most women aren’t happy with the way they look like and I should be celebrating it rather than analyzing it, but I think that what appears on the surface as something really great can also feel rather complicated on the inside.
I recently read the essay, “Narcissism, Feminism and Alienation,” by Sandra Bartky that did a brilliant job explaining women’s preoccupation with their appearance. Bartky compares the way women are objectified and then cut off from their appearance to the way that workers on an assembly line are cut off from their work. She writes, “Women begin to feel a fragmentation and loss of being a woman and there is a cultural domination of women that feels silent." This attitude is a larger alienation of women from their own body. Women learn that their bodies are soft and vulnerable—beautiful objects to be looked at but that they are suppressed in terms of seeing their bodies as strong. While women are alienated from their bodies, they are also identified with them. On every magazine, there is an ad depicting a woman’s appearance. Even if a woman’s appearance isn’t explicitly part of her profession i.e. actor, it is still fodder for discussion, i.e. Hillary Clinton’s hair.
There is a key distinction between the two though; people who work on an assembly do it out of dire need, women women willingly turn themselves into sexual objects. There is no shortage of women who willingly appear on the cover of women’s magazines, including Glamour, Vogue and Maxim. It’s even considered an achievement to be positing half naked on the cover of a magazine. Particularly actresses, who consider acting as their talent, will attest that they felt to get the good roles they had to pose in sexually provocative positions and answer questions about what they enjoy in bed.
So what is <em>narcissism</em>? It is much more complicated than it looks at the surface. The dictionary defines narcissism as an inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love. There are other definitions. Freud’s interpretation states women maintain in the infantile state by sexual objectification and then undergoes a kind of psychological infanilization—our enforced dependency, weakness and helpless and that we not “not only act like children but we look like children too—smooth, soft, round, hairless and above all, young."
Simone Beauvoir has a very different definition—narcissism is “at once a source of profound satisfaction and a temptation to be resisted.” For Beauvoir, the narcissist seeks to escape the burdens of subjectivity by identifying her entire self with her bodily self. In narcissism, the self undergoes doubling: An Other, a “stranger” who is at the same time myself, is subject for whom my bodily being is object.” As much as I am myself, I often feel like I exist just for other people’s viewing pleasure. The moment that I stop thinking about my appearance I’m quickly reminded of it whether it’s my bosses who hit on me, or the guy on the street who interrupts me to hit on me while I’m on the phone.
Bartky summed it up well when she wrote—“The gaze of the other is internalized so that I myself become at once seer and seen, appraiser and the thing appraised.”
We learn as women that our appearance matters, that looks do count and so we judge our appearance before others can. This feeling is extremely alienating and so while this infatuation with my appearance is disguised as confidence, there’s another side that people are not aware of. It’s an extreme alienation from myself. I start to wonder where my appearance ends and where my my spirit/intellect/soul/mind begins. Can anyone relate? Please share if you can.