In a culture which categorises some groups of women as unattractive, D H Kelly explores how this has an effect far beyond whether or not we find love or get laid
It’s always hard to talk about discrimination when it comes to sex and romance. Unlike employers and service providers, potential lovers are free to discriminate on any grounds. Outside the brutal world of online dating, it is difficult to prove that superficial traits – skin colour, weight, impairment, age etc. – dramatically affect our responses to any given romantic prospect. The whole thing is deeply subjective and none of us can really know who is or isn’t attracted to us, let alone why.
The problem is illustrated well by Scope’s End The Awkward campaign, which reassured non-disabled people that it was normal to feel uncomfortable around disabled people using implausible statistics such as the idea that only 5% of non-disabled people have ever asked a disabled person out on a date and the truly ludicrous claim that only half the British public had ever started a conversation with a disabled person.
One in seven people are disabled and we’re very evenly distributed throughout the population – literally everyone knows some disabled people. Almost everyone has, at some point, started a conversation with one of us. But you know how sometimes a male friend will complain that he doesn’t know how to talk to women, and you’re sitting there thinking, “But I’m a woman and you’re talking to me”? Of course, he doesn’t mean ‘women’ the way you’re thinking, he means women; attractive and available women.
Disabled people often have the reverse status; if you talk to non-disabled people about their attitudes and their experiences with disabled people, they don’t necessarily think of their sexy autistic colleague, their beloved deaf grandmother or their best friend who has MS. They think about disabled strangers who they wouldn’t know how to communicate with; disabled strangers whose behaviour they might find challenging. Have you ever started a conversation with someone like that? Have you ever asked someone like that out on a date? Have you even had the chance?
Fat people have a similar status, especially when it comes to sex and romance. If asked, I should imagine many people will say that they are not attracted to fat people because – despite efforts to neutralise the word – most people don’t associate ‘fat’ with people they find attractive.
Fat, disabled and transgender women may all receive that dubious compliment, “I don’t see you as (fat/ disabled/ transgender)”. Friends and family sometimes express the hope that we’ll find someone who will “see past” our weight, impairments or transgender status. The same probably goes for some older women and some darker skinned women of colour.
Part of our problem, as marginalised women, is that a significant but incalculable proportion of potential lovers will never be attracted to us because of prejudice towards bodies like ours. But another part is that we live in a culture that constantly reinforces the idea that we are not attractive. Did you know only 5% of people have ever asked someone like me out on a date? Just goes to show.
* * *
It was in the first year of high school when I began to hear about what boys or men found attractive, mostly gleaned by friends from women’s magazines. Being at a single sex school and having a more diverse social circle than some of my classmates, I would be consulted about the truth of some of these claims. Was it true that all boys liked long hair? The boys I knew didn’t talk a lot about hair, so I guessed not. Was it true that all boys were turned off by non-matching underwear? The boys I knew rarely matched a pair of socks, but I was all too aware of sexist double standards.
I understood that my supposed knowledge of such things was a source of power. Even at twelve or thirteen, girls would use the desires of hypothetical boys and men to attack one another; “No boy will ever go out with someone who has pictures of K D Lang all over her bedroom walls”, etc. One time, when I complained about my older sister running late, she responded, “You do know that men find it deeply unsexy when a girl turns up on time?”
There are no end of books, magazines, newspaper articles and makeover shows which tell women how to make ourselves more sexually attractive to men and there are no shortage of private individuals ready to chip in – not because they have some special insight (who does?) but because it’s a power rush. Whenever feminists and others attempt to explore gendered grooming issues online – body hair, high heels, make-up, etc. – there will be no end of responses from almost entirely straight cisgender men and women explaining what’s really attractive. Whatever grooming choice is up for discussion, “real men” find it irresistible or else completely gross. It’s evolution or basic hygiene or all about self-respect. Anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves.
All women are evaluated along these lines and – given that sexual attraction is truly diverse – we are all found wanting. Even lesbians, asexual women and others who have no personal interest in being attractive to men get subjected to the same values and pressures, because these are cultural values and people won’t leave you alone just because there’s no man you want to attract.
However, women with marginalised bodies – disabled women, trans women, older women, fat women and women of colour – are often seen as automatic losers in this game. I was thinking about this when this tweet came into my timeline;
Woman on bus: "You know, you're quite pretty. If you made more of yourself, make-up, hair, people wouldn't care that you're deaf."
— Emily Howlett (@EHowlett) June 2, 2016
There are those who hope someone will “see past” basic and morally neutral aspects of our identity or appearance, and there are others who will advise us to disguise or distract from what we are.
* * *
There’s a joke in which a single man laments, “Women are like parking spaces. They’re all either taken or they’re disabled.”
It’s not a nasty joke; it doesn’t suggest anything disgusting about disabled people. It’s nothing like the horrible ‘humour’ applied to fat women and especially trans women still commonplace in mainstream movies. It simply places disabled women out of the game.
When I became a wheelchair user as a young woman, the way people reacted to my appearance changed dramatically. One effect was the tragi-comic reaction of young men who were checking me out in settings where sitting down was normal, like in a cafe or a pub, only to then notice that my chair was not like other chairs. Smiles would drop. Eyes would avert. Brows would furrow.
To be honest, this always amused me, while other reactions – like red-faced parents dragging their talkative children from my presence without so much as a glance in my direction – were far more dehumanising. But a few months ago, I read Kayla Whaley’s article ‘Nobody catcalls the woman in a wheelchair‘. The title commits the same error as the #yesallwomen hashtag Whaley complains about; some wheelchair-users certainly do experience sexual harassment. Meanwhile, some non-disabled women get very little or no such harassment.
Whaley’s lack of experience of being treated as a sexual object has led her to believe that she is “sexually objectionable” and she is not alone. Occasionally, we’ll hear older women lament the silence as they stroll past a building site when there once might have been whistles and shouts. While those of us who have had frightening or degrading experiences of sexual harassment may struggle with this thinking, I suspect it’s more complicated than believing that all such interactions are complimentary.
Male attention isn’t merely desirable for its own sake, but because it is an indicator of a woman’s value. Silence doesn’t just mean that a particular group of male construction workers haven’t noticed you passing (or you know, are maybe too polite to shout at strangers), it presents the possibility that you might have lost value.
As a white woman, I am poorly qualified to speak on this, but race appears to have a slightly different effect. Women of colour are sexually objectified within our culture, often in highly racialised ways, but are quietly excluded as romantic prospects. Women of colour may be more visible on film and TV than some other groups, but they are rarely romantic leads – and thus, given the way women in TV and film are written, are very rarely major characters at all.
A few years ago, Courtney Milan wrote about the difficulties she has finding suitable stock photos of black women to illustrate her romantic fiction. In the waiting room for a pain clinic, I once browsed an entire wedding magazine (about an eight on the pain scale) and noticed that the only non-white faces amid literally hundreds of models posed in wedding dresses were five black children in the role of bridesmaids and pageboys for the “Caribbean Beach Wedding” shoot. The bride and groom were white.
* * *
Happily, we know that bodies don’t play an overwhelming role when it comes to falling in love. Almost every happy long-term couple I know were friends to begin with or were introduced through friends. My social circle features a high proportion of tech-savvy disabled and queer people which might skew something like that, but that’s also how my straight non-disabled sister met her husband (first attracted by her persistent lateness, he later succumbed to her beauty and charm), how my parents and parents-in-law met, how both sets of grandparents met and so on.
This doesn’t mean looks count for nothing, but those who wish for long-term loving relationships needn’t fear that their destiny will hinge upon a swipe left/swipe right scenario. Similarly, folks I know who enjoy multiple, more casual partners are not universally young, white, tall, thin, cisgender, non-disabled and so forth.
Not that cultural messages don’t directly affect our relationships; in a culture which tells us we should expect to be unwanted, marginalised women – many already living with social isolation and financial insecurity – are more likely to be convinced that any abusive, exploitative or simply unsatisfactory relationship they might find themselves in is their only hope.
However, the effects of being seen as unattractive go far beyond the business of being loved and getting laid. Men are also evaluated according to their looks and that’s not a good thing, but it doesn’t affect the lives of most men nearly so dramatically. A man’s looks are much less likely to affect his job prospects or whether or not he is likely to see people like himself – same weight, same age, same ethnicity, same physical impairments – represented on TV and in the images around him. Should he become famous, whether by accident or endeavour, his sexual attractiveness is unlikely to be publicly discussed at any length. Should he disappear or be found dead, his looks are unlikely to affect how the mystery is reported or investigated. I have male friends who consider themselves ugly and that sucks, but they don’t imagine their supposed ugliness is having a major impact on their lives. Women I know who consider themselves ugly expect that to affect everything.
At Christmas, a family conversation about TV history programmes turned to Mary Beard and the abuse she had received for being a woman of around 60 who is neither thin, nor immaculately made-up, coiffured or dressed in the latest fashions – for being, in short, unsexy. One male relative offered in mitigation, “Yes, but to be fair, she is a bit of a wreck.”
Quite apart from internet trolls, TV critic A.A. Gill (a man slightly older than Beard) declared that she “should be kept away from the cameras altogether” because she was “… this far from being the subject of a Channel 4 dating documentary”, referring to the ‘inspiration porn’ show The Undateables, a rare programme that features real life disabled people.
Such voices don’t represent how most people feel – most people who are interested in ancient history can enjoy a programme presented by Mary Beard without wishing she was thirty years younger. However, women as ordinary looking as Beard remain rare on TV and when famous women are publicly criticised in this way – usually for appearing old or fat – all unsexy women get the message: no-one’s going to fancy or fall in love with us so it would be better if we stayed out of sight altogether.
* * *
I have read many arguments about discrimination in sex and romance over the years. Some people insist that everything about a person’s sexuality is hard-wired; if someone is only attracted to people who could pass for Angelina Jolie in a low light, then that’s just the way they are (if they only fancy fat women or amputees, it’s called a fetish). Other people insist that we choose who to love and should navigate our sexual and romantic lives with our political consciousness at the helm.
However, marginalised women know – perhaps more than anyone – what it is like to be pressured to give this or that suitor “a chance” and not to be so “fussy” – as if we might apply the same criteria to someone we spend time alone with as to someone we might attempt to save from drowning. We don’t want to be the ones demanding love and attention and calling people names when they’re not interested.
In fact, I don’t think we win this one by trying to change anyone’s mind about our desirability. The body acceptance movement is a truly wonderful thing, but the flaws which sometimes arise within it demonstrate how easy it is to unwittingly perpetuate our problem, when we attempt to work within oppressive systems. Talk of what “real women” look like (every woman is real!), “health at every size” (both health and size are morally neutral!) and an emphasis on feeling beautiful, illustrated exclusively with women who meet every cultural standard of beauty except for thinness, can only broaden the group of women who are valued as attractive rather that breaking down the system entirely.
As feminists, we need to be breaking down the system. Beauty is diverse. Sexual attraction – which may have something or nothing to do with beauty – is even more diverse. I suspect that all human beings have both some beauty about them and would be sexually attractive to someone – and that’s an important message. Being disabled, fat, older, trans or a woman of colour is only an obstacle to beauty, sex and romance because of cultural values that make it so.
But a more important and more radical message is that neither of these things have any bearing on our value. There’s absolutely nothing natural about the ways in which being profoundly unsexy, supposing such a phenomenon to exist, should impact on non-sexual aspects of a woman’s life.
[The first image is a photograph of the author’s eye; a largely black and white image with some blue-grey colour in the iris. The photograph belongs to Stephen Whitehead, can be seen on Flickr and is used with the permission.
The second image is a photograph of two wheelchairs viewed from a low angle. Discarded clothes, including underwear are hung on the wheelchairs and a pair of high-heeled shoes sits beside them. The photographer belongs to D H Kelly, can be seen on Flickr and is used with permission.]