“Real women have curves,” they say. “Real women look like this.” “Real women don’t look like that.”
I’m noticing this type of rhetoric cropping up more and more as size acceptance becomes more common (but by no means mainstream or without controversy) on feminist websites (and elsewhere), and it’s really starting to annoy me. It’s fundamentally about dividing women into different categories, and it also implies that there are “fake” women. Unless there have been dramatic improvements in robotics and genetic manipulation, all women are “real” and this kind of language is rather questionable.
Beauty standards still overwhelmingly favor a specific body type, but people on both sides of that divide are facing some interesting language usage. People who are thinner than the beauty norm are treated as “fake,” as in “no woman could ever look like that naturally,” while women on the other side are fat and ugly. Or, if they’re only a little bit over the norm, they’re “real women,” curves and all. Instead of being divided into attractive and hideous, women are now “real,” “fake,” and “ugly” (for which read “fat”).
I think that this distinction between real and fake is very dangerous, and also extremely harmful. “Real” women in fact come in a range of shapes and sizes, and making statements like “real women have curves” marginalizes women who do not fit into this norm, and it suggests that they are somehow unnatural or abnormal. This is just as harmful as perpetuating a very narrow and difficult to achieve beauty standard, and it serves to further divide women.
The elevation of natural over artificial reflects a general social trend which seems to be occurring in the white upper classes, in which anything “natural” is assumed to be superior, whether or not this is actually the case. Under this paradigm, a woman who is naturally thin might be accused of using artificial means to achieve this, and “natural-looking” faces, breasts, and other features are praised, while things which are obviously fake are disdained. (Although women who can use artificial means of enhancement will not be criticized as long as it looks “natural.”) The same holds true with food products: if it’s labeled “natural,” it’s ok and socially acceptable, even if a perusal of the ingredients suggest that the label might be stretching the truth rather a lot. The fact of the matter is that natural comes in a lot of flavors, and it’s not safe to assume that something is fake just because it doesn’t look familiar, or doesn’t fit in with someone’s belief system about how things are supposed to look.
I think that many feminists are praising “natural” women when they appear in the media because they want to reinforce the idea that they support a widening of the definition of beauty, and a rejection of beauty standards. But calling Christina Hendricks and women like her “natural” doesn’t actually do this. It just sets up yet another crazed and often totally illogical standard for women to meet, because now women look at Christina Hendricks and think “oh, I don’t look like that, I must not be natural.”
I would love to see the use of the terms “natural woman” and “real woman” banned unilaterally, because it carries some very dangerous implications and associations, and I see many people failing to explore these, even on sites which are otherwise very conscious and aware of the dangers of language.