28 Minutes Challenge – Day 1 – Feminine v Feminist Aesthetics.

Historically frustrated with my own blogging procrastination I have become inspired by The Curious Creative’s campaign to get people blogging regularly as a creative and promotional tool as well as one that encourages the blogger overcome the need for perfection. So, I am going to blog everyday for the next 28 days, a post that will take no longer than 28 minutes to write. The subjects will be varied but are usually linked by an interest on gender or sexuality. Let’s see how far I can get and how I will have changed at the end of the month.

Day 1 – Feminine v Feminist Aesthetics.

For those interested in gender and sexuality, we live in an interesting time. Never before (or at least, not since the 70’s) has the gender debate been more regularly fought out between interested parties, right there in the mainstream. Whether it be feminism, men’s rights, pick up artistry, masculinities, transgenderism, everyday sexism, female sexuality or women’s representation, it would seem we are living right in the centre of an eye of a gendered storm which is rewriting the rules of gender engagement everyday, and I for one find it fascinating to see it unfurl.

One focus of the debate regards women’s representation in the media, especially the arguments for and against Photoshop retouching of images of women’s physiques and how such images effect the wider female population. My particular take on this is torn between my acknowledgements that such images really do hurt women and my appreciation of aesthetics born out of my arts education.

I myself have battled with body esteem issues since I was a child, one of my foremost memories being me sitting crossed legged for daily assembly at junior school, probably aged 5 or 6 and looking on in horror that my thighs were fatter than the other girls in my row. I thought that I was the only girl who worried about such things. Growing up, I continued to have a split relationship with my appearance, between shame and occasional pride, (thankfully interspersed with times of neutrality) even though others rarely criticised my looks, indeed they often praised them, this made relatively little difference to me as I could not shake my negative self image. This is still the case – ask my long-suffering husband Tim. You will hear the same sentiments coming from thousands of women, including celebrities, confessing their anxieties throughout the media. One waits for a tipping point…

Even now I know I would pay a decent chunk of money to be able to lose that last stone overnight. Growing up as a feminist in my teenage years onwards, I learned to blame my anxieties on the sexist media industries that produced the images that ‘indoctrinated’ me and wished that women were more open about their anger towards them. So it is with great pleasure that I see we are finally having a discussion around this and can now see instances of women taking the lead and re-writing the rules of aesthetics.

I remember reading Naomi Wolf’s (1989) book The Beauty Myth that argued women undertake a ‘third shift’ – after their daily work and their second shift of taking care of the family – in keeping themselves attractive (something she also correctly predicted would happen to men eventually). Such a shift was rightly blamed for keeping women underdeveloped in other areas of potential in their lives,

For a while Wolf’s argument felt supportive, I could look in the mirror and say to myself “I refuse to do the third shift”, I could try to retrain myself to think of other areas of interest when doubts arose, “I’m an artist…a thinker”. I even recommend the book to female students at university debates, whom also found it useful. But eventually like any argument that requires mirror training the effect waned and I was left with my pre-Wolf self.

One thing that remained was the realisation that it is now more accurate to say that these days women are pulled between two poles, between the continuous beauty industry mantra that tells you how you should look, and a feminist one that says you shouldn’t be worried about such trivial/harmful ideals. It’s like having a bird pecking at each ear, giving you no rest; one undermines your physical reality, the other your intelligence/maturity. I have always felt torn this way, first by an aesthetic argument, a drive to consume images of beauty and then a political one, one that calls for gender equality. A doubling up of guilt. The question then arises that maybe I could rid myself of one of these I might be happier, and it looks like the political one might just be the easier limpet to shift.

Whaaat? Isn’t that self-defacing, aren’t I advocating giving in to the media? Well, yes and no. The trouble is I believe there is one aspect of this argument that is not being had and that is an argument of including female beauty within a broader appreciation of aesthetics. Much as there are clear reasons why women’s beauty has been politicised, there should also be clear reasons why we should retain a sense of our wider aesthetic appreciations too. To keep both in balance as it were.

Those that prioritise aesthetics, for instance those that put fashion first, rarely engage in this political (feminist) sphere, they just get on with making and consuming images, with little political concern it would seem. So their point of view is rarely incorporated, neither are the words of those who study the wider aesthetics like art. My problem is this. If we are happy to accept that there is such a thing as beauty, as a visual entity that although ultimately relative – as in you wont get everyone to agree, and that it necessarily encourages an ‘anti’ or rebellious response too – we can and most often do concur on what it is.

For instance compare an industrial location to one of cascading hills in countryside, or a utilitarian object to one that is made to be visually enjoyed. Do we not say that it is not only morally right to appreciate and support ‘beauty’ (lest we lose the taste) but also that it makes sense? There are parallels between a historic broadening of what is labelled beautiful yes, (Brutalist architecture, for instance) with an argument for a greater inclusion of different bodies in the acceptable range of female forms, but the argument remains, if there isn’t a taste for it, it can’t be politically born. Just like I don’t make porn ‘for’ women, but ‘from’ a (my) female perspective, the risk would be to make something right-on yet unpopular, that rings hollow.

I’m not comparing myself or any other woman to an industrial location, but I am posing the question of whether it is ever going to be possible to rid ourselves of our love of symmetry, colour, light, design etc. and that this might be a reason why women are beating themselves up about their appearance. Women are both objects of, and consumers of female beauty. If we don’t fit the industries’ ideal, we should keep in mind, that ideal is one many women share and I don’t believe it is so easy to say which came first, the chicken or the egg. Women’s magazines don’t have to put images of women on the front – they could use images of men – they do so because we wouldn’t buy them if they did (I tried this once with the front of a porn DVD I made called Uniform Behaviour, it didn’t sell to either sex until I changed it to include a woman prominently on the cover).

In other words, much as I dislike it, I know I would be happier, more confident and as a corollary, probably more successful if I just lost both that stone and the feminist bird on my shoulder. Sorry. Question is, does such a realisation make me weaker (giving into the media) or stronger (knowing more about, and respecting my aesthetic eye). Hmmm…I’m glad the 28 mins ran out.

About annaarrowsmith

I am Britain's first and most acclaimed female adult film director, with lots of scenes written, directed and produced by myself and several awards under my belt. After 2 decades of production and distribution experience, I recently completed a PhD in Gender Studies that focuses on men's experiences of women's power in dating relationships. I know an awful lot about film-making and about gender. You might have seen me in the British media...
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