The eye of the beholder

17 May

by Laura

This woman is not beautiful. I mean, obviously.

Clearly a loser in the game of beauty

That’s what Fox News says! Rima Fakih (aka Miss USA 2010) is the beneficiary of “the whole PC society” that has promoted a Muslim American in a bikini at the expense of nice white ladies in bikinis. Apparently the crowning of a Muslim Miss USA is a sign of the end times to some conservatives; our all-American beauty pageants are promoting a pernicious form of affirmative action that says that women of color can be just as pretty as white women. What nonsense, am I right?

Even queer women who vote in polls on the internet know that very thin white women with long hair and slightly open mouths are the sine qua non of beauty. Especially if they are wearing no pants.

Obviously, this post has so far been a petty exercise in sarcasm. There’s something profoundly absurd in complaining that your meaningless contest to rank women according to extremely strict patriarchal beauty standards failed because it didn’t pick your idea of the prettiest woman. Clearly. But the idea that a woman who looks like Rima Fakih needs any extra help winning a beauty contest is even more astonishing. It reveals, to quote the brilliant Silvana, that

we were all the victims of a sick joke. A despicable charade where so much is demanded of women, so much compliance and poking and prodding, so much effort to make ourselves beautiful and radiant and perfect, so much forcing of square pegs into round holes, just so we could meet it all, do it all, get close to the apex of perfection and still be worth nothing.

Apparently Rima Fakih is also suspect because she once won a faux stripping contest in which she wore substantially more clothing than she does in the above photo, which is officially commissioned by the pageant. In other words, here is a woman who has devoted herself to the male gaze so effectively that she is both a prize fake stripper and Miss USA — but in so doing, she has revealed too much of her own effort, since the only way you win at the beauty game is to hide all the effort you put into it. As a woman of color, Fakih’s effort is always visible, because current beauty ideals are racialized. Thus we get notable minds such as Fox’s Gretchen Carlson (herself a former beauty queen) complaining that the Miss USA contest is rigged. Rigged, I tell you!

Look: there are no contests that are not rigged for somebody or other. And most of them are rigged in favor of people who are already winning. The world of official beauty is so damnably narrow that Rima Fakih is seen as an obvious outlier by some people, who either don’t realize or don’t care that they are revealing themselves as stone cold racists. And it’s so damnably narrow that I’m tempted to celebrate Fakih’s win as a thumb in the eye of the beauty standards, even though she looks like she stepped right out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog.

You might have heard of the current MoMA exhibit of performance artist Marina Abramovic — and if you haven’t, bear with me for a sec. I haven’t seen this exhibit in person (though Jess has!), but it has resulted in a photo gallery of many, many people gazing enraptured at Abramovic’s face. When I first saw some of these photos online, I was mesmerized, too, because I had forgotten that faces could be so different. Of course I see people in my everyday life who look very different from movie stars and models, but I’ve been trained — and you have too — not to look at them too long, not to spend time gazing at their not so beautiful faces. Abramovic’s work, by contrast, features a concentrated gaze that is available to anyone who wants it (and for some, that is apparently an intensely emotional experience). And it turns out that people are really wonderfully diverse in their beauty, not because of some affirmative action of sentiment but because that’s what people look like.

Holding contests to rank women on an absolute scale of beauty is an absurd exercise, the sole purpose of which is to enforce a certain ideology of beauty. Of course, for the Rima Fakih haters, that’s not a surprise, but rather the acknowledged goal, and that’s why to them crowning a Muslim woman as Miss USA, no matter how nubile and light-skinned she may be, is an outrageous and obvious offense. If white people can’t even win beauty pageants hands down, then how can they keep convincing themselves of their natural superiority to all people of color?

Right.

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3 Responses to “The eye of the beholder”

  1. Jess May 21, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    I’m really struck by how human everyone looks in the Abramovic pictures, even people who are famously beautiful. I don’t know if it’s the harsh lighting or the fact that they’re having an emotional experience, but when I look through the photos I always feel as though people’s physical idiosyncrasies are highlighted, not in a grotesque way or anything but in a way that sort of erases the whole concept of “beauty.” I feel like you see people’s true selves without the mesh we usually impose on them that compares their features to an imaginary ideal.

    But then, the whole Abramovic exhibit makes me miles more sappy and woo-woo than pretty much anything else I normally encounter.

  2. Brian May 23, 2010 at 11:14 am #

    When did the Right actually start passing up on chances to exoticize and Orientialize a woman of “Middle Eastern” descent? And when did they start questioning anything about a well-publiciized beauty contest that didn’t have anything to do with Perez Hilton? I’m starting to think they have turned over a new leaf 🙂

    • Laura May 23, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

      Well, she is so exotic that she clearly can’t be Miss USA! What are you, a terrorist?

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