Looking in the Mirror in Want for Freedom

In Molly Bawn (1878), Author Margaret Hungerford reiterates that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Beauty is subjective? Does beauty truly depend on perception? If so, why are there beauty standards all over the world? The absurd notion that every woman needs to fit into culturally idealized/idolized looks as championed by society to be considered beautiful. In some parts of the world where women’s rights are abused,  the most important possession a woman can have is her body. Young women suffer from body shaming, body image disorders among others because they feel they are not good enough, pretty enough. We are constantly stuck in a limbo of either looking in the mirror in search of confirmations or looking in the mirror in search of freedom. Indeed, if beauty is what I make of it and what I project to the world. I hope the looking glass can confirm this.

On May 15, 2011, Satoshi Kanazawa published a controversial article on physical attractiveness in relation to race. The article titled ” A Look At the Hard Truths about Human Nature” sought to explain why black women are considered to be ugly compared to other women. The Scientific Fundamentalist shamelessly carried the article under the headline “Why Black Women Are Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women”. I read this article and was appalled by the blatant racism. Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics says that “the only thing [he] can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone” In other words, the higher levels of testosterone in black women made them appear to be more masculine and therefore less physically attractive. Unbelievable. This piece of pseudoscience empowers ignorance and can be used to reduce the self-esteem of millions of black girls all over the world.  Whereas, it exists only as another fictional narrative like the concept of race.

This is the premise on which slavery was born, a person could not be worthy if they were not born right. In 19th century, a person born right would be considered as born legitimately to married parents, white, free and attractive.  A person born wrong would be the child of a slave, black, ugly and inferior. Sarah Baartman (1789- 1815) was used and abused in England as a living exhibition. Against her will, she performed and became a freak show because of her big derriere.This was after she had been sold to an animal trainer. Finally at the time of her death, Georges Cuvier, founder and professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History,  dissected her body. His mission was to find the missing link between animals and human beings. After her death, her skeleton and remains in a plaster cast was displayed at the museum. Just like in Fortune’s bones, Fortune and Sarah were slaves during life and cadavers after death. Through the eyes of her awed and manic viewers, I wondered if she felt beautiful in the midst of all the attention she received. Their eyes must have been mirrors through which she saw madness and felt pain. Armed with ridiculous beauty ideals,  society is able to poke and thrust its expectations and fantasies on to women. In chains, women are reduced to exhibitions dancing to the tune of superficiality with no end.

In Zulus, Percival Everett’s literature provides us a lens from which we can determine physicality. Why are physical appearances so important? Alice Achitophel is known as the fat woman. A man known only as the tall man rapes Alice. Theodore Theodore, the short man becomes Alice’s friend. Kevin Peters is the black man. Through out the novel, physical appearances are the inanimate labels through which we identified the characters and perceived them even before we get to know them. Why? Because physical appearances are important. They are so important that in South Korea, one of the countries with the highest rate of plastic surgeries; a woman can’t find a job if she’s unattractive. Most job applicants turn in a cover sheet and resume with their pictures on it and are assessed based on their portfolio. They are rejected if they are not considered attractive. A Korean show called the “Birth of a Beauty” revolves around an “overweight” woman who undergoes plastic surgery to become a thin woman out to take revenge on her cheating husband. Just like Alice who gives birth into a thin, lithe beautiful woman, Sa Ra becomes a stunning thin woman after suffering persecution at the hands of her in-laws for so long. She is almost killed by her husband, left for dead, survives, then adopts a new identity after resurrecting as a thin attractive woman. The cycle of violence meted out against her is based on her physical appearance alone. Despite the fact that she was rich, educated, sweet and hardworking; Sa Ra was despised because she was fat.

The world is changing and curvy women are now embraced on social media. Stores are employing plus size women and high fashion designers are banning size zero models from walking the runway. (The Guardian, 2016 ).  However, skinny women are experiencing a reversal bullying syndrome. Skinny women are now considered unattractive and termed as “bag of bones” when in 2001, they were considered the most glamorous of all women. This shows that beauty perceptions are as fickle as they come. Ironically, after she escapes from captivity, Alice asks for a mirror to confirm if she indeed was pretty. In the same way, women hold up mirrors worried and eager to confirm, correct, adjust, fix, prove that they are beautiful. We are constantly looking to partners, friends for confirmations , finding refuge in make-up,  fishing for compliments in unusual places, remaining in abusive relationships for fear of rejection. Let it end because if beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,then we are the first and only beholders when we look in the mirror at the start of day. If the looking glass never lies, then you are beautiful because you are.

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