Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What Makes YOU Beautiful? A Conversation with College Women About Beauty

In  this day and age, beauty has become a social construct. Advertisements and magazine articles constantly bombard women, specifically between the ages of 15 and 22, with rules regarding how we dress, walk, talk, stand, eat and basically live so that we may be perfect, some may say beautiful, and basically unattainable to the opposite gender. 

But there is more to beauty than make up and clothing, or knowing how to giggle or how to look nonchalant at all times. These aspects have nothing to do with beauty. I strongly believe that beauty comes from within. And now, more and more people are beginning to realize that Photoshop is not a mirror. Photoshop does not create the standard for what beautiful is. Real, live, men and women do. And we create that standard of beauty for ourselves. The definition of beauty is being rewritten, and it is being rewritten on our terms. 

Shakanna Inman, a sophomore at Western Washington University recently sat down with a group of young women to discuss their definitions of beauty and feminism. Feminism and beauty are connected in a way that many people don't piece together at first. But in fighting for equal treatment to men as a gender, we are also fighting for our societal norm of beauty to not be dictated by Vogue. The women that Shakanna talked with, myself included, expressed many things about themselves, their concept of what beauty means to them, and whether or not they thought this made them a feminist. The answers varied on many things, but one of the points that came up over and over again was that beauty is the ability to be yourself. 

And as many women know, we aren't always accepted for being who we are. We are told to just be ourselves, but the hidden message is actually to just be ourselves as long as you look flawless 100% of the day. Women have been told for so long that our natural selves are so wrong that we spend hours a day staring at ourselves in a mirror doing our hair, our make-up, our eyebrows. And when men tell us they prefer the "natural look" they don't mean that they like girls who aren't wearing any make-up. No, they prefer girls who wear neutral tones of eyeshadow. And men, if you are reading this and thinking to yourself "that's not true" try to imagine why women as a whole are rarely seen without make up. I once had a teacher tell a girl she shouldn't wear make up because she was so pretty and when she came to school with no make up on, made fun of her for appearing ill. She had to be dismissed from class because she couldn't stop crying. 

But the day when women are not ashamed for going out barefaced is coming. Already women around the globe are embracing their definition of beauty. These women fight to be heard and to be able to say that they are beautiful just the way they are. 

As the following interviews will show, young women are over the whole "let society decide what beautiful is" trend. "What is beauty?" they were asked. Beauty is strength. Beauty is confidence. Beauty is joy. These were all answers that came back. 

Michelle Fields is a 22 year old feminist who believes that the most beautiful thing a woman can do is smile. "It's hard not feel beautiful when everyone around you is sharing your enjoyment". Michelle is very adventurous and has traveled around the country, and has even swam in the Arctic Ocean! She is a lifetime girl scout member along with her mother, whom she bonded with over their responsibility to "take care of the men". 

"Being a feminist to me is feeling like a woman and being comfortable with that".

Fields is a feminist because she believes that power should be equal, along with rights and opportunities being the same for both genders. The example she used was the disrespect she receives from not wanting children, which is becoming more and more common in our generation. "I do not believe this supports equal rights or opportunities," she writes, "men and women should have equal legal rights and be looked at equally as individuals".

Alex Synnodis-Butler agrees. "To me, feminism is being proud of yourself as a woman, no matter what that
entails".  And what makes Alex feel beautiful? Confidence. "I feel most beautiful when I feel confident in myself". 

Alex is a 19 year old sophomore who wants to major in Spanish and travel to Argentina. She considers herself a feminist and says she is happy with the rights she has and "feels good about being a woman". I personally find Alex refreshing.

It is hard for a lot of women to feel confident in their own skin. For someone to so openly embrace everything about themselves is amazing. Confidence goes a lot of way in making yourself feel good about your own brand of beauty. 

If we, as women, can start to feel more confident about how we look, how we feel, and ourselves as a whole, we can start to feel genuinely beautiful about natural selves. 

For Tara Noir, a Junior at Western, that's what beauty is. Being carefree, with no makeup and without all the hair styling. You know, just being natural. 

Tara is conflicted about whether or not she is a feminist but she's pretty positive she is. "To me, feminism means being most like yourself, and you shouldn't have people judging you for doing what you want".

Tara is going to be the first woman in her family to graduate from college is doing things for herself, and not worrying about what other people think. While she was living in Omak, WA she was sexually assaulted. "I want to be okay with it and I’m going to school to empower people to help them be okay with what happened to them".

To me, empowerment and strength are synonymous. And while empowerment is the strengthening of spirit, many women believe that bodily strength is what makes them beautiful. 

"My big brown eyes, my size, and the slow but sure growth I see in myself at the gym (make me feel beautiful). That’s why I wore a sports bra and yoga pants—I feel the most beautiful when I know I am making small accomplishments for the sake of my health and strength, those accomplishments make me happy, and it’s hard not to radiate beauty when you feel happy and strong". 

Monica Griffin is a sophomore at Western studying behind the scenes music production and journalism. She loves music "more than anything else and concerts are my spiritual home - there is no better universal language than music". She works out almost every day, in case you couldn't tell. "I love waking up sore because it means I kicked my ass the day before".

Monica considers herself a feminist, "but not a femi-nazi. I still appreciate a little chivalry. I am not blind to the mistreatment of other genders and do not think feminism is the answer to all societal problems." When asked what feminism meant to her, Monica replied, "feminism is a support network for women. It helps every woman get what she deserves and gives the community of womanhood a voice among the rest of the world". 

Celia Peacock also believes that beauty lies in strength. "I get a secret satisfaction from lifting more than boys". 

Celia enjoys her independence. As far as whether or not she is a feminist, Peacock says no. 

Celia wasn't the only model photographed that wasn't a feminist. Madison Hatch, another Sophomore and a hopeful exercise physiology and nutrition major believes that beauty shouldn't be determined by what you look like, but what you are doing in your surroundings. 

She believes that feminism means respect for females and equal opportunities for both genders. However, she has never considered herself a feminist because she has always felt that she has had equal opportunities in life and never needed to change how she was treated as a woman. "Personally, I have never had to think about woman's issues". 

This poses an important question. Are there people who aren't feminists in the world just because they haven't thought about gender inequality or women's issues? Unfortunately this was a question I never got to ask. 

And then there's me. I believe that a person's best attribute is their ability to shake themselves off and move on with life. Yes, I too believe that there is a certain beauty about strength. 

I am a 20 year old girl living in Omak Washington who frequently blogs about feminism and how hard it is to be a woman in today's world. So yes, I am a feminist. And to me, that means that women as a community band together and fight for equality. 

I applaud Shakanna for putting this project together. It is important to see women being able to feel beautiful in their own terms, instead of adhering to the cookie cutter woman that society would have us be. 

So, reader, after seeing these young women and reading about their brand of beautiful, what makes you feel beautiful? 

"This project is dedicated to women of all kinds. I want women to embrace what makes them feel beautiful. You can be told how pretty you are all day, but if you don't feel beautiful then it doesn't mean anything. I want women to focus on feeling beautiful, instead of what society says beauty is. Most of the women I interviewed said that they feel the best about themselves when they are most natural; not wearing makeup and not worrying about how they look. However, women feel they must conform to society to make themselves "beautiful". When we try to be someone else's misconfigured version of beauty, we are only hurting ourselves". - Shakanna Inman

All photos in this post are by Shakanna Inman, copyright Shakanna Inman, 2014. Except for the photo of Shakanna. That's by me, copyright Alexis Olmstead, 2013. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Pretty Without Make-Up

Until I started working as a waitress I never wore make up regularly. I actually had a really difficult time applying make up. Growing up my grandma stressed that I didn't need to wear make up because I was beautiful without it, that I had gorgeous skin people would die for, that I only needed to wear it on special occasions to be fancy.

During that time I had no problem waking up in the morning and doing my hair, not doing my make up and finding no fault in how I looked. I had no problem thinking I was naturally beautiful. I always told myself that if I didn't feel pretty without make up, I wouldn't feel pretty with it, either. I went through all of high school and a year of college not wearing make up and not caring.

But then I started wearing make up. I started having to work an extra 15 -30 minutes into my routine to "put on my face" and it changed everything. I would like to pretend that starting to wear make up didn't change the way I perceived myself, but it totally did. And I know that some women wear make up to feel pretty, some women wear make up to enhance their beauty, and some just like the process of putting make up on. There is no fault in that. But I started wearing make up and suddenly I felt ugly without make up. I can pin point the moment when I changed the way I thought about how I looked with make up on, too.

Someone saw me on the street while I was walking to work, and after not seeing me for literally years their first comment was "ohmygosh you look so good...with make up on!" Their one comment killed my self confidence. And I know that is a lot of power to let one comment hold. But after going through 20 years of life believing I am beautiful without make up on, one person making it seem like I should wear make up 24/7 to continue looking pretty really just shatters all that work.

So I am fighting back. And again, with another lesson from my grandmother. Every morning when I don't put on make up and look back at the mirror, see my face, and get disappointed, I look myself straight in the eyes and say "I love you". Because to love someone, even yourself, is to love them (you) in spite of them (yourself). In spite of all the imperfections, the frizzy hairs, the pimples, the eyes that look so small without eyeliner, and in spite of the lack of self confidence I feel without make up now. Because believe it or not, I still get stopped on the street and told I'm pretty. Not often. But who goes out of their way to tell someone that they are good looking? One in a million people. But people still compliment my eyes, my smile, they tell me I'm kind for treating them well at the grocery store, on the street, and those are qualities worth loving.

And if the "I love you" trick doesn't work, I turn on Feeling Good by Micheal Buble and listen until I feel good. We shouldn't have to depend on things to make us feel gorgeous. I know we all do. But we are all beautiful in our own unique way. I have a friend who is seriously one of the most beautiful women I have ever met just because of the way she carries herself and her willingness to help anyone at any given moment. Beauty comes from your soul. Let's all try to remember that.

Alexis Olmstead is a part time waitress, and full time diva who strongly believes winged eyeliner will be her undoing. She is currently consuming too much coffee and trying to maintain her foothold on sanity. For more opinions and reflections (and a lot of ranting) check back often

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Case Against School Dress Codes

When people ask me what I hated most about high school, I cannot usually give them an answer. Honestly, I have a hard time recalling moments or events from my high school career that I actually didn't like. But I got to thinking the other day, and one thing stood out. The dress code. I really did not care for the high school dress code. I understand, reader, that at this point you are probably thinking to yourself that my reasoning was because I was constantly in violation of it. You would be wrong. I never got in trouble for breaking the dress code because I exist in baggy sweaters and skinny jeans or pants. I always just thought it was unfair that as I female I was being punished and being held to this laundry list of rules dictating how I was allowed to address because apparently teenage boys are uncontrollable.

Holding students to a standard of wearing professional or semi-professional clothing to school makes sense. Demonizing the female body does not. And if you don't agree with me when I say that dress codes demonize the female body, then please continue reading. By telling girls and only girls that they have to wear certain clothing so that school can be a place of education free of distractions, you are telling them that their bodies are distracting and that is a bad thing. I'm sorry but if shoulder blades are so distracting that high school boys cannot control themselves any longer, then I think there might be a deeper issue. Like how shoulder blades became sexual. I'm not being ridiculous by using shoulder blades as a point. Most high schools (mine included) prohibit girls from wearing spaghetti strap tank tops. If I remember correctly I was once told straps on tank tops had to be at least an inch. Excuse me, but who is going to go around and measure that? "I'm sorry, Sally,  your tank top straps are too thin, and John over there is about to die from the sexual tension between him and your very arousing shoulder blades."

Screw. That.

Telling girls they have a responsibility to wear certain items of clothing versus other options is telling them that being ogled at and possibly assaulted will be their fault if they made the wrong clothing choice. Telling young girls who are just getting in touch with their sexuality and developing their self image that if they wear short skirts that they are "inappropriate" and thus "slutty" is not going to make them feel good, it isn't going to stop providing distractions in school, and if anything, it is going to create more distractions because people are constantly judging what other people are wearing and if it doesn't fit within this pre-constructed idea of "good" that the school has set forth, then automatically the person inside of the outfit is a rebel, a slut, a girl your parents don't want you dating. And if a girl wears a skirt and looks "sexy" without trying, why is that her fault? And if she isn't pole dancing in the classroom, why is being sexy a bad thing? Teaching girls to have a positive view of their bodies and their budding sexuality should be being stressed in schools. After all, isn't high school supposed to prepare students for the real world? After 12 long years of girls being told that mini skirts are bad and strapless shirts are bad, and anything too tight is bad, they go into the real world and feel judged and dirty and bad when wearing anything against those dress codes. Why can I make that generalization? Because I can't wear my jeggings anymore without feeling mildly skanky because once, in high school, a male teacher asked if I didn't think my "pants aren't a little too tight?"

I'm sorry - wait, no I'm not - if you thinks my pants are too tight but I can breathe and I am comfortable and I don't feel like I'm being overtly sexual...in fact I didn't think anything inappropriate until you brought it up, teacher. And really, most of the time girls wouldn't be thinking about whether or not their outfits were sexy if school administrators weren't constantly policing girls to make sure that anything even hinting at sexy was immediately removed so the boys didn't get distracted. 

Because after all, boys will be boys, right?


It is not my job to not be a victim. It is not my job to worry about whether or not a boy can control himself if he sees too much of my thighs. It is not my job to worry about getting raped. It is the rapists job to not rape. It is the rapists job to control themselves. It is the rapists to make sure they do not rape me. It is not my job to avoid being raped and ogled at. It is my body. I own it. And school dress codes remove ownership of the body by employing the "modest is hottest" method of shaming girls into robotically wearing and doing whatever the school wants them to do in regards to sexuality.

The female body is not sinful, it doesn't determine her character, and it is not any more sexual than a man's body.


Why is that being stressed? Because boys don't have dress codes. Administrator's don't worry about what girls will do if a boy wears a bro tank that is so tight that their abs are defined. They don't penalize boys for wearing pants so tight we can see their junk (ew) and I don't hear about kindergarten boys being forcefully removed from outfits deemed to inappropriate for school. For some reason administrators who write dress codes are still under the delusion that boys cannot control their penises whenever they see a girl in something that might be kind of sexual, such a short skirt, or a shirt that shows a tad bit of cleavage. But being a boy doesn't mean anything except they have a different body part and a different gender.

By ensuring they we aren't wearing anything that might make a boy want to rape me, the boys will be boys excuse is not only being reinforced, but their ill behavior is then condoned and excuse me, but why are we really marveling about the high rate of rape and sexual assault?

By telling girls that they have to dress a certain way because they are at fault if they become a victim, you are telling boys that they are somehow not to blame for raping a girl. In the same breathe you are are classifying girls as sexual objects and condoning bad behavior from boys.

This is how we have rape culture. This is how we have victim blaming. This is how come boys find rape jokes funny. I'm not saying dress codes are completely to blame, I'm saying they are part of the problem. I understand not wanting a distracting environment for learning, but not at the cost it comes with. Yes, it is bad to wear underwear to school. Spaghetti straps and mini skirts that are long enough to cover a girls ass? I think one could probably let that one slide.Students go to school to learn. If all we are teaching young girls is that their bodies are bad, and showing skin makes them even worse, what are we accomplishing?