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All The Cool Kids Reject Beauty Fascism…

2012 January 12
A young white woman with short dark hair poses in black leggings and a blue and white striped t-shirt with a teapot. Photo: Rayani Melo, 2008

Have some cake with that, if you want. Photo: Rayani Melo, 2008

This is just a quick little post inspired by my recent visit to the Belle & Sebastian merchandise website. I was all ready to buy a charming new twee-shirt when I noticed that in this little corner of planet indiepop a UK size 12 apparently constitutes ‘extra large’. I have no photographic record of the face I made, but here’s a rough approximation.

This survey from 2004 places the UK average dress size for women at size 14. And yet a 12 is not just ‘large’ but ‘extra large’… something here doesn’t add up. I know the band probably have nothing to do with their merch, but I still felt disappointed. Aren’t we all shy indie outsiders together? Or are girls with curves not allowed to join the hairclip brigade?

I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course – every scene has its spoken or unspoken rules and standards, and just because they’re ‘alternative’ in some ways doesn’t mean they’re not deeply conventional in others. Besides, ‘indie = skinny’ is well established. Here’s a nice comment on the Stereogum 2007 awards for ‘Ms Indie Rock Hotties’ from the Idolator:

once again the winners… prove that when it comes to wank-mining material, your average indie-rocking male is looking for (gasp!) a skinny white girl with a shaggy haircut. Emphasis on the “skinny.” And did we mention the “white”? Aside from a few notable tokens exceptions, there are enough pointy elbows and too-sad-to-leave-the-house complexions here to fill up a year’s worth of American Apparel advertisements. Way to reject mainstream standards of beauty, dudes! The guy hotties list also features many downy, bony gents, yet somehow offers a slightly wider range of body types than the chick list’s parade of waifs.

It also reminded me of a post by Laurie Penny from a couple of years back, about the prevalence and acceptance of self-objectification in alternative subcultures. As she says, “there is an assumption that misogyny and beauty fascism don’t count outside of the mainstream, that they don’t hurt.” Penny also points out that the notion that getting your kit off is empowering for women is as readily accepted as it is in mainstream pop culture: “the idea being that because the young women with no clothes on aren’t necessarily blonde and permatanned, it’s all fine and dandy and edgy and exciting.”

This stuff can still hurt, perhaps even more when it’s under the banner of quirky individualism; be as eccentric as you like, as long as you’re thin and sexy while you do it. EJ Dickson did a great post for Nerve about how the message to ‘be yourself’, so beloved of all kinds of alternative subcultures, can actually contain coded pressures to look and act a particular way when you are being dripfed an ideal, in this case Zooey Deschanel.

Would Zooey Deschanel have sex after eating a bucket of chicken wings?, I often wondered. Would she be self-conscious about the way her stomach looked while she was on top? The answers to these questions, of course, was invariably no, she would not: Zooey Deschanel would be thin and awesome during sex, and after she blew the guy’s mind she’d take out her ukulele and write a song about it.

Dickson is honest about the damage she did to her relationships with others in pursuit of the version of herself she felt she ought to be. People will always want to be attractive, whatever that means to them. But it feels like a lot of goths and punks and indie kids are missing the point if we just swap one set of impossible beauty standards for another.

Not for the first time I find myself wishing I’d had something like Mookychick when I was a teenager. Alongside tutorials on applying neon eyeshadow they have features about health, self esteem, and a whole section on alternative plus size fashion including stockists.

In case it’s useful for anyone out there struggling with body image issues and self esteem (and I think everyone does sometimes, surely), one thing I’ve found that helps me chillax and stop thinking about it is remembering that no one is studying me as hard as I’m studying myself. Most people won’t even notice whatever it is that’s bothering you, not least because they’re too wrapped up in their own lives and their body worries to care if your pores look big or your hips are cellulicious.

It’s not easy, and I certainly haven’t cracked it, but one of the most radical choices you can make is to give up thinking you’re ugly.

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Becky Shepherd permalink
    January 12, 2012

    I find this kind of thing all too often in my beloved alto/indie/retro subcultures. I’m a size 14 with an unavoidably round arse and the rejection, as you’ve pointed out here, is all the worse because it’s like we’re expected to FIT IN with the OUTSIDERS.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      January 12, 2012

      Over the years I’ve met a huge number of strenuously alternative people with deeply conventional attitudes to body diversity and beauty standards. I wish they’d do something really ‘out there’ and get over the idea there’s a particular way for people to look and an objective scale of attractiveness.

      • Becky Shepherd permalink
        January 12, 2012

        Me too. It saddens me that being different has been hijacked by folk looking to create a scene with very similar principles that many ‘alternatives’ were trying to avoid in mainstream culture to begin with. Exclusivity and superficial ness being the most blatantly obvious of those principles.

        A couple of years ago, I walked into a vintage shop and when I asked about a pair of shorts I liked, I was told very rudely “I can look, but I know we won’t stock anything above a 30 inch waist”.

        But as Kat says below, it’s not just size. Colour, hair cut and taste in socks all seem to be persecuting factors.

  2. January 12, 2012

    I remember being at a Mystery Jets/Bloc Party gig in 2004 with a friend and wondering if the audience capacity for venues was calculated along the lines of x+50 for skinny indie kid gigs. It’s a really pervasive thing.

    As a non-white person, people have been genuinely surprised that I listen to indie and punk because apparently all Asian people listen to grime/hiphop/rap. Unless they’re someone’s kooky Japanese girlfriend of course. Then it’s alright if you listen to twee indie pop. I’ve been to gigs where I’m the only non-white person there to the extent where I notice and get weirdly excited if I’m not. Don’t even talk to me about Glastonbury.

  3. Sarah J permalink*
    January 12, 2012

    My god yes, so many scenes are whiter than white and it draws no comment because it’s an alternative / niche thing.

  4. January 12, 2012

    This is one of the best BadRep articles I’ve ever read.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      January 12, 2012

      Thank you! :-) It’s all been said before but I thought it was worth saying again.

  5. Eleanor Blair permalink
    January 12, 2012

    I’m a slightly busty size 14 at the moment, having been slightly slimmer as a teenager but much bigger at some times in the year in between. Thankfully these days I’m old enough (and just about wise enough) to know that they are the insane ones, and that being 4 inches bigger than extra-large doesn’t make me the biggest fattest ugliest person in the world, it makes their size chart completely bonkers. But it’s pretty scary to realise that size charts *did* make me feel that way as a teenager.

    I’ve mailed them and asked if it’s a misprint – I fear not of course, but I shall see what they say!

    • Sarah J permalink*
      January 12, 2012

      It drives me crazy. When you’re older you generally get a bit of perspective I find, and also you realise the time cost involved in all the UPKEEP and say sod that. But definitely when I was a teenager I was thinking I ought to look like Shirley Manson or Louise Wener, and I doubt they were even very photoshopped back then, must be worse now.

      Hooray for writing to them though! I grumbled at B&S on twitter about it the other day but haven’t done anything else, I should write to them and the merch company too, great idea.

      • Eleanor Blair permalink
        January 16, 2012

        The merch company got back to me and apparently there may be a misprint – they’ve measured their XL and it’s actually a 38″ bust – which still isn’t exactly enormous! That’s the biggest size available from their current supplier – but they’ve said they might be able to find an alternative one for me the next time they do a print one. So 10/10 for customer service – even if it doesn’t actually solve the body image problem!

        I have just had Tom point out it is a very very small world – though it was Jo who pointed me at your article in the first place – for which thanks.

  6. January 12, 2012

    Great post. I think a lot about the issues outlined here – broadly, the replication of mainstream hierarchies in alternative subcultures. As I’ve become less involved with contemporary alt/indie music, their immediacy and urgency (and their ability to hurt, anger or discomfit me) has faded, but it’s still fundamental to how far I feel able to comfortably participate in any ‘scene’.

    The thing is that I’m sure it wasn’t ever thus – it seems to have become more prevalent as ‘indie’ has moved closer to the mainstream, abandoning a lot of what was liberating or empowering about its subcultural status and simply absorbing mainstream mores. As a 90s kid, I remember a whole host of women in early Britpop and UK indie who, while not being actively touted as Positive Female Role Models, nevertheless presented themselves as confident and secure in their unconventional looks, build and dress. Off the top of my head, there was Kenickie, Manda Rin, Cerys Matthews, Shampoo, Echobelly, Elastica, to say nothing of riot grrl – and it seemed as though their looks were accordingly given much less attention. Admittedly I’m more distant from contemporary alt/indie, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the case anymore – female indie artists, regardless of how edgily they’re packaged, seem more or less identikit right now, and far more packaged and produced – with a related impetus towards the widest mainstream aesthetic appeal. Even with someone like Beth Ditto, her distance from the norm was so exceptional that it ended up becoming a fetish in itself. I don’t know how much of this is female-specific and how much just a function of a subculture increasingly becoming as bland and homogenised as the mainstream.

  7. Lorna permalink
    January 12, 2012

    Great article. I read chillax as climax the first time – made it slightly peculiar.

  8. Kirsty permalink
    January 12, 2012

    Great article – i too think about this a lot.

    I have wondered if it’s to do with ‘indie’ / hipster culture being supposedly about the ‘alternative’, and the ‘alternative’ somehow being something to do with being the kids at school without boobs and sex appeal.. but then you overcome that and make it into a strength because you’re, like, HOT in the alternative world. Sort of like the whole narrative about Erin O’Connor and a lot of those ‘strange’ looking ‘dorky girl’ supermodels. But then that in turn becomes a kind of reverse snobbery. Which is ridiculous anyway because fashion has long idolised those ‘dorky’ girls, mainly because they also happen to look rather good in couture.

    Another idea: maybe it’s just that extensive amounts of recreational drugs are a very effective weight-loss aid.

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