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The Politics of Desirability

The Politics of Desirability

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.” 

 — Audre Lorde

Preferences are political. Desire actively shapes systems of power and oppression. People who are considered less desirable in a world that is built around and actively centres on whiteness; black, fat, disabled, poor, gay people; stand on the fringes of society. 

The concerted erasure of marginalised and oppressed people from mainstream media and the centring of those generally deemed attractive or desirable creates an image of the superiority of those centred. 

Desirability politics creates a hierarchy of existence and determines who deserves love, care, benefits and basic human rights based on seemingly individualistic “preferences” that are rooted in bigotry and biases.

Many people think the people and features they find attractive are simply personal preferences but, these preferences do not develop in a vacuum. Socialisation and culture play a prominent role in shaping our desires and preferences.

In a 2016 article on everydayfeminism.com, Hari Ziyad writes, “It’s not hard to see that these “objective” standards which I easily recognised have deep parallels to systems of oppression. A “fit” body is rarely disabled and never fat. “Good” skin is often light, if not white. Ideas around masculinity and femininity and who fits into them are all directly related to cisheterosexism.”

Sometimes, we subconsciously further oppression and oppressive systems through these preferences that glorify some while completely alienating others. Lack of consideration for disabled people in societal planning, medical racism, institutional fatphobia and other forms of oppression are born of desirability politics. 

Document Women spoke to some women about the impact of desirability politics in their lives. 

21-year-old Grace was “a spec in Nigeria, like, big time” and then she went to America for school and realised that colourism was a thing.

“I was cute but, I was also African and dark-skinned and chubby. It was a huge shock. I thought I became ugly overnight and, I lost so much social capital. Then I went to Nigeria in 2020 (pre-pandemic) and I was hot cake again. People were toasting me left and right (men and women).

I went on so many dates. It felt very exciting to be seen and wanted again. That was when I realised that it wasn’t me. It was the location. I try dating apps once in a while and I consciously avoid white people because they talk to you as if you’re a type of food they’ve been meaning to try to expand their palettes. I’m not sushi, I’m human.”

“The first thing I want to say is that everybody is confused and the post is forever shifting,” 23-year-old Skylar says. She says she’s rarely ever spoken about from a place of desire and when she tries to speak about it, people don’t seem to get it. 

At 23, Amber is still adjusting to the changes in social capital that came with looking a certain way different from how they usually do.

“In terms of experiences, I guess I’ve always known that I’m not considered desirable by most standards of beauty. My features are broad, I’m dark-skinned, my hair is coarse and refuses to yield to a perm or edge control. I was also pretty skinny with no boobs and few curves so that didn’t endear me to Ghanaian guys sexually either. So I didn’t get much romantic interest growing up and I was just one of the boys. I had guys convey that to me several times so I just took it for granted and leaned hard into my label of undesirable. I wore pretty much whatever I wanted because why bother if my undesirable status wouldn’t change regardless of what I did? When I moved to the US and later Canada, it was pretty much the same story except now I knew that I was undesirable because I was black.”

“One time, my white female friends wanted us to randomly swipe right on ten people in a row and see how many matches we’d end up with. I went along with it, even though I knew I’d end up with the fewest matches and that’s exactly what happened. 

But a couple of months ago, I let a friend talk me into wearing makeup and more revealing clothes and then all of a sudden, it felt like my beauty capital had changed and I was suddenly “beautiful” which was incredibly unnerving because I was used to being invisible. It felt nice though, to get some of the attention I’d seen my more conventionally attractive friends get. Interestingly enough, I’d never gotten much romantic/sexual interest from black men until I decided to contort myself into this elaborate performance of femininity that wasn’t me. So it didn’t last long because it was so exhausting to put on makeup and do all that just for a sliver of what conventionally attractive people get as a matter of course. I also realized that men and people, in general, were nicer to me during that time. So, in the end, I went back to my usual self but I still use the pictures from that time on my dating app profiles and I definitely get way more matches than I used to. It’s just very weird to digest yourself as attractive when the world constantly reminds you that you aren’t considered as such by whatever arbitrary standards of beauty.”

21-year old Vee does not fit the standard of a socially acceptable Ugandan woman and it has impacted her relationships. 

“When I found a guy who accepted my features and personality to a small extent, I believed that was the only chance I had in the love department. So, I did my best to maintain this relationship with an abusive, manipulative man because I’d been told time and time again that who I am is not to be desired. This relationship took a serious toll on my mental and physical health but I kept at it because I wanted love from someone who clearly did not love me.”

“I’m thankful that I’m free of that relationship now and it made me realise I wasn’t trying to be desirable to men only. I had transferred that same mindset to friendships. It took that nasty relationship to make me realise some female “friends” of mine treated me like shit because I did not fit into these boxes that people they considered valuable human beings should fit into…be it my features or the amount of money my parents have, the way I choose to dress or the things I choose to participate in,”

Desirability politics shape the lives of numerous people who are not conventionally attractive or desirable. Social capital is measured by desirability and, this shallow system is what constitutes desirability politics.

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