Self

Why 'Ugly Women Don’t Deserve Rights' Is Still Being Regurgitated By Awful Men

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woman in scarf in black and white

Conservative ‘logic’ never ceases to amaze me.

You’d think we’ve heard it all by now, but they still manage to come up with more and more ridiculous takes.

Most recently, Matt Gaetz — a Republican man under investigation by the FBI for sex trafficking minors — has said that pro-choice women have the ‘least likelihood of getting pregnant because ‘nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb.’

Right.

So, according to Gaetz, ugly women don’t deserve fundamental human rights, and attractive women aren’t asking for them. Solid logic.

But we can’t expect much from someone who didn’t have a high school girlfriend until he was 38 and should be an inmate in federal prison, now can we?

However, this kind of misogynistic thinking is sadly not uncommon.

The ‘ugly feminist’ trope has been used against women practically since the beginning of the fight for our rights.

But why is beauty still so political today? Why do so many men continue to denigrate women — particularly those in the spotlight — by criticizing their appearance rather than their ideas?

And why do we still instill so much value in how women visually present themselves?

The origins of the ‘ugly feminist’ trope

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When the suffragette movement started to gain momentum in the nineteenth century, it was almost immediately accompanied by a rise in mocking representations of female reformers in popular culture.

And even though the suffragists were not inherently hideous, masculine women, they were frequently portrayed as such. As ugly, sexless monsters. As man-hating bullies who rejected the bliss of domestic life in favor of wearing pants and smoking cigars.

And as power-thirsty demons threatening the good, old patriarchal values, traditions, and elite white men’s ‘rightful’ place in society.

Well.

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

Although I’m not sure how people back in the day reconciled the cognitive dissonance of believing that women are both inferior to men and that they can successfully threaten the society built by them.

But hey — I’m just a woman at the end of the day.

And luckily, suffragists quickly learned the power of these demeaning cartoons and developed visual campaigns to counter them — often portraying themselves as beautiful mothers and fashionable picketers rather than ‘ugly hags.’

But while the public opinion of the movement slowly started to change back then, the imagery promoted by both suffragists and their opponents still resonates today.

Modern female politicians frequently position themselves as mothers who entered politics to improve their families' lives. The image of the masculine, ‘ugly’ feminist who threatens traditional patriarchal values continues to appear in the media.

And women — especially those who have the ‘audacity’ to speak in a public forum — continue to be shamed, mocked, and ridiculed, often more fiercely for their appearance than the ideas they hold. Even more so if they don’t adhere to a more ‘traditional’ vision of womanhood.

How come?

Beauty is still fundamental to women’s identity

Historically, women were valued more for their appearance and how well they pleased men than for any other qualities. Given that they had virtually no rights and were passed along from father to husband like a prize cow, it made sense.

Sort of.

And it also made sense that we subscribed to the notion that beauty is for women what social status and money are for men. Because ‘men look for beauty and women look for wealth’ — or at least that’s what the myths about the evolutionary origins of human mating choices tell us.

The reality is much more complicated than that, as is often the case in the social sciences, but there’s some truth in it even today. After all, we’ve been taught these social stereotypes for a while now, and they’re bound to impact how we form our relationships.

But for women, beauty isn’t only important when it comes to dating.

Beauty is almost… everything.

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And although we’re no longer that prize cow — or at least, not in most countries in the world — women still tend to put more time, money, and energy into their appearance than men.

Growing up as a woman, we are made aware early on that little feels more important than being beautiful.

And that upholding traditional, thin female beauty standards can work in your favor. Because the ‘ugly’ or bigger girls not only struggle more to grab the opposite gender’s attention, but they are also generally speaking more invisible. It’s harder for them to be popular, noticed, and respected.

And that also applies to the adult world.

Women who spend less time grooming — purchasing the right clothes, makeup, and haircut — earn, on average, lower incomes than women who do all that.

Women who are overweight are less likely to be hired, are lower paid, have fewer opportunities, and are often outright bullied in the workplace — and at significantly higher rates than male peers.

It’s no wonder then that so many of us buy into the lies of the beauty culture that tells us if we want to be happy, loved, successful, fulfilled, and financially stable, we must be beautiful. And to be beautiful, we must first spend inordinate amounts of time, money, and effort to conceal, shrink, and change things we’re told are ‘ugly.’

But then what happens if we don’t do that?

Well, when women indicate that they have priorities other than pleasing men — by not going out of their way to look hot — people who would prefer to maintain traditional gender roles often attack and mock them. Because it’s seen as a way to put them back in their ‘rightful’ place, exactly as the anti-suffrage propagandists once attempted.

Besides, it’s much easier to dismiss female politicians or activists or other women in the spotlight by describing them as fat or ugly rather than, you know, actually engaging with their ideas. In particular, if those ideas are threatening.

But then there’s also an added bonus: you’re creating more pressure for other women to conform to those traditional ideas of femininity.

And that’s just splendid news for the status quo, isn’t it?

Women’s constant preoccupation with beauty is likely intentional

As feminist writer Naomi Wolf argues in her seminal work The Beauty Myth, the pressure for women to adhere to those ‘ideal’ beauty standards is greater when we think women are getting ‘dangerously’ close to having a shot at equality.

And while I 100% agree with that, and that was certainly true when the suffragette movement was gaining momentum, I’d add that this pressure is also greater when our rights are being rolled back. This is happening now, and not only in the US but also across Europe — most recently, the UK removed abortion and sexual health rights from an international pact on gender equality.

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Just think about it.

In the last decade alone, our society’s preoccupation with beauty got ridiculous. Cosmetic injectables and aesthetic body surgeries have grown to record rates over the past years. Even girls as young as 15 have those procedures. And it looks like we’re back to the ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ era this year.

But this obsession with beauty and constantly changing and shrinking ourselves is a perfect way to distract women from what’s happening and to assuage the fears of people who don’t want the old patriarchal system to change.

And I’m guessing that’s why the likes of Matt Graetz, Donald Trump, or Jordan Peterson love to shame and ridicule women who don’t fit their subjective idea of ‘beauty.’

Because how much harder is it to smash the patriarchy that benefits these men on an empty stomach or with a head full of anxieties about our faces and bodies?

But that’s precisely the point.

And we keep falling for this beauty trap.

Now, I know it’s not as simple as saying ‘eff beauty standards, and voilà, the problem is solved. That might be easy for me to say and put into practice since I’m the embodiment of Eurocentric beauty standards. But not everyone is. For many women, not paying attention to their external presentation poses a real risk of being exposed to misogyny, marginalization, or even violence.

If we can, we should avoid bending backward to meet beauty culture standards while simultaneously recognizing that not all women might have that same privilege.

Because if we don’t, and if we instead jump at each other’s throats for either conforming to those standards or for shaming others for conforming to them, we’ll end up fighting the wrong enemy. We’ll end up fighting each other instead of those who put the shackles of oppression on us in the first place.

And that’s a shame.

As long as adhering to standard expectations of beauty provides access to certain privileges in society, traditional gender expression can well be a question of life and death.

And whether we want it or not, beauty is still highly political.

Because some people still use lack thereof to convince people that women don’t need or deserve respect. Or happiness. Or love. Or even human rights.

But it’s not only our appearance that’s political.

Most women’s choices are. Sure, we can call them self-expression, self-care, or empowerment, but if there are negative repercussions if we decide not to do or be something — for ourselves or other women — these choices are not empowering.

They’re more like the old requirements, just rebranded to sound more progressive.

When in reality, they just aren’t, are they?

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Katie Jgln is a writer and activist whose work covers women’s rights issues, pop culture, and news. 

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.