Beauty Norms: Multiplicity and Methodology

Posted on November 29, 2011 by


I’ve already written about my research interests at the intersection of food and pop culture. I’d like to turn to my other interest, clothing, and see the possibilities there. Just as preparing and eating food can be a form of self-expression, we can deliberately use clothing as a form of self-expression too. Before I start any pop culture analysis, though, I have a bone to pick with the internet.


Photo by Juliana Wigmore

Photo by Juliana Wigmore

Earlier this fall I was lazily cruising a Tumblr by a radically fabulous personage who goes by Majestic Legay. Really. The Esteemed Legay and a friend dared to commission some photographs of themselves. You can see them at the top of the post, and Majestic’s most striking (and non-normative qualities) are showcased: they’re fat, they’ve got a retro fifties style, and they don’t exactly follow the rules of “what girls wear” or “what’s flattering for larger ladies.” Personally, I like it, but that’s not really the point. Most of the online feedback was (deservedly) positive but for one heckler whose response rose above the standard troll droppings. To one strangely confused Tumblr denizen, who simply wrote

don’t get it

the heckler replied:

it’s a heavy set lady dressed up in* 50s scampwear and trampwear.

it is considered good because she is plus sized and gender bending and both of those things are currently favored as to not offend anyone.

“Currently favored as to not offend anyone.” That’s an interesting choice of words. This person could have simply typed “their fattiez lol” and moved on. But they eschewed that in favor of this comment, which packs the following ideas into a mere thirty-seven words:

  1. No one actually likes fats and queers
  2. except for the PC police
  3. who only pretend to like them so as not to offend fats and queers
  4. who everyone knows are completely disgusting.
  5. So don’t worry. All this trendy of-the-moment fat- and queer-lovin’ shall soon pass like sands through the hourglass.

At this point I would applaud the writer for their creativity and economy of phrase, but I’m too busy getting pissed off. Not only is this heckler packing a lot of statements into one comment, but they’re managing to multi-task while they’re at it. These statements are working overtime:

  1. Reassuring the status of fats and queers as disgusting and abnormal
  2. Taking down those who appreciate fats and queers by framing them as pretentious and obsessed with political correctness
  3. Reinforcing existing beauty standards, which are defined as not-fat and not-queer
  4. Maintaining the status quo of existing beauty standards with the assurance that all this fat- queer-lovin’ will soon go out of style, sands through the hourglass, move on, nothing to see here.

Sinister stuff. So besides getting me fired up, what does this one measly heckler matter? Well, people have been defining the dominant norm (usually thin, white, cis) as the only acceptable type of beauty since about the beginning of time. Sure, it makes sense to define the most prevalent features in your civilization as the most beautiful. If most people in your town have hooked noses, you’re going to think hooked noses are beautiful because otherwise you’d think you were all unlovable, which doesn’t bode well for the survival of your town. But in our current globalized information era, continuing to look at beauty in that way just doesn’t cut it. We have access to information about people all around the globe. We know we aren’t all thin and white. Yet the majority of our images report otherwise, and when we see an image that depicts fatness or brownness we feel the need to put it in its place.

When I look at clothing and body presentation as a form of self-expression, I’m doing myself a disservice if I only focus on the norm. I know there are infinite types of beauty out there. This informs my methodology. Sure, I’ll look at the norm; I need to know what everyone’s trying to measure up to or, alternatively, what they’re trying to talk back to. That’s what makes those out of the norm the most interesting. The choices they make – to flaunt their fatness, to bend gender, to dress like a fifties throwback – aren’t fads that we need to pretend to like so we can keep our PC cred. They’re expressions of self.

Posted in: Clothing