Tuesday, March 4, 2008
It's a thin line between love and hate
Do you ever think about how much erotic feeling there is behind women's bitchiness about each other's looks? I've been thinking around the issue ever since I wrote the post last week about BBW feminism. Straight women's fascination with other women's bodies, especially when it has a negative cast, is a very curious phenomenon.
It's usually written off as envy, and that's surely a part of it, but envy doesn't explain why women will attack--viciously--other women who are older or less attractive, and clearly no threat to them. When I was in college it wasn't unusual to hear cruel remarks from students about female professors' lack of allure--and this was at a women's college that prided itself on its feminist values! Some of that was the natural tendency to cut down an authority figure, but there was definitely a charged gender element behind it as well. Of course, the flip side happens, too. I hear women my age and older make catty insults about young girls, and it always seems bizarre. Surely those of us in late middle age aren't competing in the same sexual arena as teenagers. If we are, somebody probably needs to call the police, or a good therapist. (For the record, I won't say I've never been guilty of ragging on another woman's looks, but my unkindness usually takes other forms.)
No, I think there's something a lot more powerful than envy going on. I think it's desire--or rather, the fear of desire. It's always seemed to me that the straight women who are least able to acknowledge their sexual feelings for other women are harshest in their judgments. They're the female version of the hypermasculine man, defending their own tender psyches from any lurking suspicion of homo tendencies. That natural erotic interest we feel, at least to some small degree, in everybody around us scares some people to death, especially when it locks in on an unacceptable target.
In fairness, libidinal attachment to unlikely people can be surprising and unsettling, even if you aren't hung up about the issue. Or think you aren't. There's a woman I see out running occasionally who's just a little younger than me, but she has a body most 20-year-olds would covet. She's tall and slender, with the most incredible legs I have ever seen. I don't know her at all, but I've always been very aware of admiring her looks, and envying her a little. I wouldn't have said I was attracted to her, though I certainly get my share of girl crushes. I saw her on a recent warm day, in shorts for the first time in months, and I immediately noticed that she was ever-so-slightly less toned than usual. Maybe she was having a bloat day, maybe she'd put on a half pound of winter weight, maybe I was imagining things. In any case, she looked marginally less perfect to me. As soon as I realized I was evaluating her body, I also became aware that I felt disappointed. In other words, I was reacting exactly like a lover, or would-be lover. It kinda shocked me, because, as I said, I wasn't aware of having a thing for her. It just crept up on me. Now, I'm okay with having a thing for her (lord knows what she would think about it), but if I were the type that isn't okay girls pairing up, I can see how I might react with hostility, even cruelty.
Anyway, it's all just something to keep in mind the next time you hear a bitchfest about a botoxed face or sagging breasts.
Jupiter and Callisto, Peter Paul Rubens, 1613. Image from Web Gallery of Art.