Gendered Sources of Physical Power: Beauty vs Strength
I don’t know exactly where I first heard it, but somewhere I read once: men want to feel powerful, and women want to feel beautiful.
Now: calm your “oh my god social construction of genderrrrr!” self and let’s start with some further clarification. Women feeling beautiful, in this expression, is also actually a source of power; and men feeling powerful, here, actually means “feeling physically strong.” At least mostly. Agreed?
So really, it’s saying that men want to feel strong, and women want to feel beautiful. These are two – of many – major sources of power based in the physical body.
I know this is a cliche. I probably read it in the context of gender deconstruction and the socialization process of gender. I know this goes along with conventional, normative, often damaging gender role assumptions that value men for their physical strength and women for their physical beauty.
And as much as I am aware that those concepts are socially constructed, I also have seen the ways that they are played out and real for many, many people. So maybe we’ve internalized the values of the culture. This is one of the problems with social constructionism in general – if something is created socially, then in theory it can be uncreated socially, right? But just because something is done socially – rather than biologically, say – doesn’t make it any less real or “authentic” or deeply ingrained in many of us.
And this gendered source of physical power is amplified, I think, in butch/femme culture, where we go inside these roles with purpose to explode them, exploring the socialization and de-essentializing traits said to be inherent in biology. Is it as easy as explaining that we are continuing to internalize the compulsory mutually exclusive gender paradigm? I don’t know, maybe. Certainly that probably accounts for (to pick a completely arbitrary number) 45% of it. But there is something else in there, something deep-seated underneath in me that swoons and grows and stretches its wings and feels so greatly alive when she whispers, “you are so strong, so strong” like she did last night.
And I remembered all the times I gazed in awe at her beauty (every time I see her) and remember the ways she swoons to be seen, femme and whole and holy, and I wondered if I should be saying more about strength and less about her physical attractiveness. Am I just buying into what the culture tells us we should be or say or value?
[ Yet - oh I do tell her I value her other qualities (don't I? Yes). The depth of her calm understanding and respect feels like such a gift each time I encounter it. I fear it could so easily go the other way, yet she has the connection to the world at her core which means she values others' experiences. And she's strong enough in herself to know that my feelings are not about her, and to accept that with grace and clarity. And then there's her wonderful good moods, her energy, her interest in keeping the spark lit behind her eyes. Her deep ability to feel, to observe, to respond. Her analytic skills, and how she can dissect things into pieces (while still respecting the whole!) and look at how it all fits together. There is much more to her than her beauty, heaven knows I know this. ]
And yet: in the deeply intimate moments, this is what comes out of my mouth: pretty girl, pretty girl. you are so gorgeous. I love the curves of you – here, and here. your skin glows so beautiful in the morning light.
And in that moment last night, when she commented on my strength, my heart swelled and burst like a wave cresting, and the inner cavern of my chest was smooth as a sandy beach, just for a minute, perfectly even, soft, made up of a thousand tiny grains, the breakdown of everywhere I’ve ever been.
I don’t know why it matters so much that I am seen as strong. But it does, it does.