Operation Normative

Operation Beautiful has been getting a great deal of press in the feminist community lately, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I’ve read a lot of comments arguing that it’s empowering and revolutionary and awesome, but I haven’t read a lot of criticism about it, let alone criticism which addresses my mixed feelings.

The idea behind the concept is that women should write affirmative notes and leave them in public places for others. Women are supposed to encounter these notes and feel loved or affirmed or what have you. And while I think that the goal is admirable, I’m not sure that it always turns out as intended, but that might have more to do with my own thinking about beauty and perception than it does about the project itself.

The major criticism I’ve seen is from women who have pointed out that random notes can come across as creepy and stalkerish, depending on how they are framed and where they are presented. That’s why there’s a specific focus on public places, with the goal of preventing a feeling of creepiness; the notes are supposed to be left in dressing rooms and on light posts and so forth rather than on cars and in mail slots. Another criticism is that the project will inevitably be taken up and commercialized, as seems to happen with all good ideas these days.

My question, though, is why we need to be reinforcing the beauty norm. Yes, the site specifically says that “You are enough…just the way you are!,” but I’ve always found that phrase to be a tool used by people who are trying to console other people for not being beautiful or beautiful enough, and it just ends up reinforcing the beauty norm by suggesting to women that they need to be beautiful. Why, I ask, should beauty be a goal to which we are supposed to aspire? Why do we need to be told that we are beautiful to feel valued? Why is beauty, in other words, so fucking important? Especially when so many works of famous art feature “ugly” women, I say ugliness is a value all its own to aspire to as well.

As I said above, I think that my reaction really says more about me than it does about the project. I find it a little creepy and weird and offputting because beauty is not an important value to me. Oh, I appreciate it in an aesthetic sense, although my standards of beauty are definitely different than those of the rest of society, but it’s not really a priority for me, so I have trouble understanding why it’s so important to other people. And I find it deeply troubling that “beauty” is used as an affirmation for women and girls, when it’s definitely not for men and boys.

Reading the notes that people have posted, a lot of people seem to equate being beautiful with being “amazing” and “wonderful” or even “powerful.” (Admittedly, there is a very clear connection between power and beauty, especially for women; women who are perceived as conventionally beautiful are definitely in a position of power over others, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing.) Why does someone of any gender need to be beautiful to be amazing or wonderful? How, specifically, is being told that one is “beautiful” affirming?

I don’t really know where, exactly, I am going with this. I like the subversive idea of anonymous woman to woman communications which are intended to empower women, I just wish that beauty could be taken out of the equation. Like anonymous notes that say “you are awesome” or “you are amazing” or “you are wonderful” without needing to bring up physical appearance.

I find it intriguing that a lot of activities like this involve women who are conventionally attractive, who are used to hearing affirmations that they are beautiful, and who are used to the idea that beauty is an important value and that women need to hear that they are beautiful to feel valued. They want to “spread the beauty” because they have been culturally indoctrinated into the belief that beauty is important and because they have been trained to feel good when they are told that they are beautiful. And for people who are viewed as conventionally beautiful, I think that it might be hard to understand why people who are not beautiful hear things “beauty comes from the inside” and “you are perfect just the way you are” and hear empty, sometimes almost apologetic, platitudes. I know that it’s not meant to come across that way, but it almost feels like a sly insult.

The creator’s intent was totally laudable, but I guess my response just goes to show you how differently people can read something. At the very least, Caitlin definitely sparked some thoughts for me, and a lot of conversations about beauty and cultural values which might not have happened otherwise, so I’ve got to thank her for that.