Today on BC Almanac, Mark Forsyth was interviewing an historian. Being one myself my ears always perk up. This woman was talking about a female immigrant to Canada who walked great distances. I didn’t quite catch all of the information but it is not really germane to my issue. As this historian was describing her subject she stated that we have a picture of her so we know she was thin and attractive. I was shocked.
What does her physical appearance have to do with her accomplishments? This focus on appearance as a measure of a woman’s value is the root of all that is wrong with how women are treated in our society. Women are judged, even by other women, on how they look. It does not matter how accomplished we are or what we achieve it is only valid if we are thin and attractive.
This can be taken a step further without too much difficulty. If thin and attractive women are valued more than those women who are not what is the likely outcome? Women who do not meet expectations of thinness and attractiveness can have many problems in our society. These problems can stem from finding a mate, to employment even to credibility when reporting rapes. The focus on outward appearance and its presence in the popular discourse endorses the expectation that is ok to judge women this way.
As an historian, I bristle at the presentism in this historian’s work. It is a faux pas within the discipline of history to apply the values of today to the past. Certainly in the 1800s women were not judged on appearance to the same degree they are today. Women in rugged British Columbia needed to be strong and resourceful. They needed to be able to endure hard winters and work all summer to prepare. Women who were on their own for whatever reason had to look after themselves as there was no social safety net. In fact, the woman she was talking about had walked all the way from the lower mainland to Prince George. She was clearly a survivor and able to look after herself.
Personally, I am sick to death of this stuff. We need to start questioning this focus on the appearance of women as it is this that allows women to be commodities. As women, we must stop judging each other on appearance. We need to change the discourse. Talking about women in positive ways, focusing on accomplishments and personality rather than dress and bra size. Women together are a strong and powerful group. Let’s use our power and see if we can cause change.