Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fashion and Beauty

What isn't evil about it:

-Presenting the best of yourself; using creativity, craftsmanship, color, texture, line, drape, and function; self expression through physical appearance; fashion as one of the ultimate forms of art which is for people in an incredibly tangible and concrete way.

What is:

-Excessive valuation of physical beauty; beauty as an essential component, or even the most essential component, of identity--particularly for women

-Defining beauty as being some incredibly unhealthy and incredibly unobtainable standard

-Thereby a) generally screwing people over psychologically and b) making sexuality competitive, which diminishes the quality of sexual relationships


One obvious thing is an attempt at reclaiming; to use creativity, self expression, and craftsmanship to reject unobtainable standards of beauty. I see three problems with this.

First and most obviously, it doesn't address the incredibly excessive emphasis placed on appearance. This is a huge problem, and I'm unaware of any easy solutions to it. I can only suggest we try and remember that it's always more important to be amazing than to look amazing--always.

Secondly, reclaiming is not going to win the war. This kind of action alone, contrary to liberal mores, is never going to create a world where people have a healthy attitude towards their bodies, their appearance and their sexuality. The best you can hope for is to create a liberating subculture, a chance for a few people to practice democracy in discourse, a chance for a few people to have freeing experiences. If reclaiming does not win the war, and something else--say, lobbying for restrictions in advertising--possibly could, should we be spending our resources on this?

Thirdly, lots of things about aesthetics are not universal. Current aesthetic standards will influence what we find to be appealing; this is inevitable. I haven't studied aesthetics a lot, either practically or philosophically. However, it seems that to an extent, you would have to play into the current consumption-oriented aesthetic standards to successfully create something beautiful. I need to read and think more about this.

The other obvious thing is to simply disengage--to act in a way that doesn't accept making yourself an object for the aesthetic consumption of others as a value. It seems like an ineffective and unsatisfying option; it's not going to win large scale against corporate hijacking of aesthetic values, it has lots of practical disadvantages in day to day life, and it looses all of the potentially healthy things the art of personal appearance has to offer.

I have some sort of idea about the balance on this that I personally want to strike, but I'm interested in other people's thoughts. :)


___________________________ said...

I like disengaging, but then again, I like being aesthetically lazy and want others to follow in my footsteps.

I dunno, the ultimate problem I see in this is the problem of competition, and I don't see how this can really be stopped. I think the only way to remove aesthetic competition is to devalue aesthetic competition for another form of competition. As I do think that human beings value relative position to a high extent as a matter of their nature. Absolutes don't seem to exist so much as relative things.

Now, the problem is that competition over something reduces the intrinsic value aspects of it. So, let's say that we instead make knowledge/intelligence more valued. Well, what we'll see then is a bunch of iconoclasts who are trying to seem smart by rejecting the status quo(whatever it may be), suck ups who try to seem smart by association, critics who try to keep their position by shutting out other voices, wannabes who overstate their smarts, etc, y'know everything bad that can be seen today will be worsened. Basically, everything wrong with aesthetics will be pushed towards seeming smart. And I use that because knowledge is considered intrinsically good, but if we did anything, even charity as the real measure, then we are going to have the same kinds of bad behaviors.

Perhaps I am too cynical, but I really think the problem is one of those insoluble game theory problems. A continual war for relative position, and I think some of these continual wars can be seen in evolution, as I think one example is famine babies as the mother and the child in the womb both compete to be the one to survive. I think another example could be duck genitals, as ducks have complex penises in order to help them impregnate unwilling females better, and the females have complex oviducts to help them stop these males from doing this so that only the males they want can impregnate them.

I dunno, perhaps evolution only can do so much and thus shouldn't be learned from too much(it is also true that a seeming stand off that is averted might be less notable). I also could be too cynical. It seems, at the very least difficult to properly specify a good trait that couldn't be perverted and make that a central basis of competition, and to enforce that. (I wouldn't be surprised if some elements of the competition go back to instincts that might be hard to suppress, but I could be wrong)

J Rock said...

In an ironic twist, I think that perhaps the best way to change society's perceptions of what is aesthetically pleasing is to start an advertising campaign to that effect.

This is one of my favorite stories ever. In the 1980s, this guy had a great idea: designated drivers. In order to spread his idea, he got all three of the network television stations to start doing public service commercials telling people about designed drivers (this was a really big deal because it was the first time that all three stations agreed on something). Now, as a direct result of this advertising campaign, designed drivers are now part of our culture.

SAC said...

Ironically (fortuitously?), I have just this very moment packed up my sewing machine after finally getting back to a sewing-clothing project I am undertaking on behalf of Ivy (/Patent Office Babe). My learning-to-sew project is, of course, part of my way of beginning to contribute to the conversation.

And that's the thing, I think: to me, art is a LOT about conversation. It's obvious when you're making art that is words written on a page, but perhaps slightly less so when it's what you put on in the morning. When we choose to reflect a style, either written or visual, we are sending a signal that there are at least parts of the values which are associated with that style, which we are OK with. (That last bit, about values being associated with style, is definitely from _some_ philosopher, but the lecture I'm remembering this from was four years and most of my philosophical education ago-- so sorry I can't be more detailed.)

At any rate, this posting and these comments are really meta-discourse about the kinds of discourse which are going on in the wider world as we (along with everyone else) decide on our clothing and therefore decide, for the duration of our wearing of that clothing, the balance of form and function, attention versus inattention, identity-with-a-group(s) versus individuality or (a different opposite) dis-identity, all of which will be associated with that outfit. (Of course, there is always the wildcard that we don't always guess correctly how others will perceive the messages we try to send, but that's a danger with any kind of discourse.)

So. The question you ACTUALLY asked was about how we should/can change the discourse. I think that attempting to become aware of what clothing means, both to us (in the individual sense-- each of us) and to society in general, is an extremely important first step. The classic case is that of the clothing (or anything) manufacturer which tries to market its products to everyone with the slogan "people who own this are very individualistic". Which is kind of hilarious in its way, but then you just want to sit down and cry because so many people actually believe it.

The second issue (and disentangling fashion-lies isn't an uncomplicated issue, certainly) is discussing and possibly trying to change peoples' minds about what they want to say with their clothes. For instance, people may give lip service to not believing that appearance is the most important thing about themselves, but their actions may prove that very thing, and what do you SAY to them when they can't even be honest with themselves?

I do think that it's OK to pay a certain amount of attention to what we wear, just as it's important to pay attention to our words; in both instances, it would say more to _not_ engage in these forms of conversation than to do so; in short, we're going to communicate in these ways even if we do "pull out". But too much significance placed on any one channel isn't healthy; only on rare occasions do I or should I remember exactly what the people around me have said the day before, and I think that maybe the same should go for fashion. It's a thought.

One way to change a conversation, or the way we have conversations, would be to have one very powerful personality come in and influence everyone; I guess that you could argue that that's what the influence of pop stars and commercials does, but I am also thinking about things on a smaller scale.

On the competition issue: I remember when I took a Canadian American Heritage class. One of the students was complaining about compulsory bilingual education; he said, speaking of his Canadian public school education, "they made me learn French!" And then, from the back of the room, another voice: "Oh, they could make me take it, but they can't make me learn it." And jumping to Thoreau/sixties people inspired by him: if they called a war and nobody came, what would they do then?

SAC said...

And yes, I have more to say. In my defense, I do think that this may be the first time I have ever double-posted in order to get everything up.

Some things (not a comprehensive list) which I would like my clothing to say about me: I am kind, and deserve to have kindness given me; I am respectful, and deserve to have respect given me; I have a sense of humor, and a sense of wonder, both for humans and for the natural world, and for beautiful craftsmanship. Oh, yes, and also: aren't I beautiful? Isn't that amazing? Don't you feel beautiful, too?

Because, while it is probably true that you will have to engage with fashion as it stands in order to make sense to anyone else who is hyper-aware of fashion, it is also true that fashion as it stands is sometimes not terribly concerned with beauty-- it can be more about control and consumerism, which if we buy in to it will indubitably distort our natural senses. My personal feeling, off the top of my head, is that just as in order to eat healthily we need to regain our sense of taste from the mass-marketing of salty-sugary-fatty fare, we will have to regain our inner aesthetic sense about beauty in clothing in order to have a healthy relationship with our external appearances.

Jamie Zvirzdin said...

Fascinating topic, Day. I feel like my view of myself was able to escape the machinations of the harmful portion of the fashion world by doing this: recognizing that the position that clothes/fashion/body image had in my world did not link up directly with lasting happiness or peace. Sure, it's nice to look nice and know that you do, but what, 10 minutes later you've spilled something or your hair got caught in the umbrella spokes or you put on a couple pounds at Christmas (or because of a baby). Focusing solely on personal appearance, like you say, definitely brings more problems than it does lasting joy.

I heard a follower of Ghandi speak on the radio yesterday about how he has no stress in his life because he pictures his whole life as a work of art--and you can't rush art. Putting fashion in its place as a piece of that art is just fine, but fashion as the centerpiece of one's masterpiece of life will be hollow because it is transitory.

**The Ralph Lauren photo you posted reminded me of Colbert's clip of "weightism"--he says some funny things about that particular [Photoshopped] picture and in general about weight and body image.

Jamie Zvirzdin said...

As for a solution (which I didn't really address), I think Colbert has the right idea of comedifying (new word) extremes in the fashion world, like that Photoshopped Ralph Lauren picture. And when people get the hint that it's not cool to be obsessed with your appearance, the media might back off a little because the people know that it's an unbalanced way to live.

Rebecca said...

It has always bothered me that so-called beauty is often, almost always, represented by body types that for most would be unhealthy to achieve.