Thursday, 4 February 2010

The wrong solution to the wrong problem

Over at the online magazine Agendered, there's an article by Samir Deger-Sen entitled Social Conformity as a Collective Action Problem (Or Why do Most Feminists Wear Make-Up?). In it, he puts forward an argument that women wearing make-up is a bad thing because it reinforces social norms (such as "women should wear make-up") that harm women, and wonders how this could be stopped. I think both the basic premise of the argument and the reasoning used are flawed and themselves based on harmful assumptions.

Firstly, this argument puts the responsibility of ending the problem of social conformity pressures entirely onto the women who are being subjected to it, rather than blaming the mostly-male group of people at the top of the kyriarchy who introduced it in the first place, and encourages blaming women who do conform for the existence of oppression, with sentences such as "Yet every time a woman conforms she re-enforces the social norm. She makes it stronger and harder for other women to resist.".

The article tries to counter that by also pointing out that it's rational for women to wear make-up (or essential in practice, never mind merely 'rational'), and that "collective action problems" are well known, but it doesn't get far enough away from the blame for comfort.

Secondly, the argument ignores that any individual woman might have numerous reasons for using or not using make-up. Lesbian and asexual women, for instance, are unlikely to find "makes one more attractive to stereotypical men" a compelling argument for wearing make-up (and neither, of course, would many women who are sexually interested in men). Some trans women will need to wear make-up for their own safety and health, others to convince their medical gatekeepers that they are sufficiently female. Many women, regardless of cis/trans status or sexuality, and indeed along with some men, wear make-up because they find changing their appearance to be fun. Not every use of make-up is conforming to society.

In the same vein, the author's opinion is that there should be "a ban on beauty product advertising and plastic surgery". An outright ban on plastic surgery is obviously a problem - reconstructive surgeries or gender reassignment surgeries are essential for many people - but there's no clear dividing line between some "reconstructive" surgery operations and some "cosmetic" plastic surgery operations. As with make-up, and beauty products more generally, the situation is far more complicated than "A good, not-A bad".

The article asks "Is freedom too important a value to curb [...]?" when talking about the possibility of government intervention to oppose a particular beauty standard - but forcing people not to have a particular appearance is just as problematic as forcing them to have a particular appearance. Of course freedom is too important a value to curb when your goal is to increase freedom.

Thirdly, the argument ends up reinforcing the basic value judgement at the heart of sexism. 'Using make-up', in this argument, could be substituted for just about any activity considered generally feminine without affecting the argument. The argument goes that 'Women shouldn't do these activities because they're conforming with the inferior female social role, and that makes it harder for women to break out of that social role. Instead, women should do things (either through individual action or government encouragement) that are not traditionally feminine.'

Rather than opposing the value judgement that says "men/masculine good; women/feminine bad", it accepts this and adds a corollary "and therefore women should act as much like men currently do as possible".

A reversed social pressure is the result of this approach - as well as the general social pressure for women to wear make-up, feminist women are subjected to a secondary social pressure not to do so. As above, other aspects of women's appearance can go into this secondary social pressure - if make-up is discouraged, what about wearing a skirt, or pink, or having long hair, or blonde hair, or doing anything at all that a hypothetical stereotypical man might find attractive. There is too much moral value placed upon appearance - especially women's appearance - today already, and this intersects with racism, ageism, ableism, fat-phobia, and more, in a variety of well-documented unpleasant ways. The way out is not, however, to simply place a negative moral value on a particular appearance instead, which simply adds to the problem.

Ending sexism requires opposing, not accepting, the notion of masculine as superior to feminine (and also the notion that the two are a simple binary, of course).

This is why the false dichotomy - doomed individual actions or a government-enforced alternative appearance standard - in the article's final paragraph appears. Neither option is good, because the question being asked starts from the wrong assumptions. Rather than joining in the policing of women's appearance from a different direction and suggesting that the wearing of make-up might be "immoral", instead be accepting of any choice about appearance and encourage others to do likewise.

People as individuals can be accepting of other individuals' appearance (whether or not it includes make-up) and not pass judgement either on others or themselves for their appearance. They can also encourage this behaviour in others. The government could pass stronger legislation against unfair appearance requirements at work. Men could make a conscious effort not to either judge women on their appearance or assume that women's appearance is for their benefit anyway. These collective actions have two advantages: - firstly, they work in support of diverse freedoms, without continuing to criticise women for the way they look; secondly, the effect is purely additive: there is no requirement for some unattainable critical proportion of people to start doing them before they start being useful, and nor is there necessarily any negative individual consequence.