Desirability politics and why I’m no longer talking about it (for now)
Recently, I saw a TikTok video cross my Twitter timeline that once again ignited the never-ending desirability debate in the comment section. The curtain of light-hearted comedic jest that shrouded this short clip reminded me of the first time I became conscious of Western standards of desirability and how I entirely missed the mark. It was June 2010 and I had recently moved from the sunny south of the USA (Duluth, Georgia) to the ‘garden of England’ (Kent). It was my first day at my new primary school (I was still getting used to saying that), and upon hearing that I was ‘American’ all the questions from my eager Disney-obsessed classmates came flooding in. At 10 years old, like most kids, I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and relatively carefree. Dark-skinned and quite tall for my age, with a gap-toothed smile, an extended widow’s peak, and a fresh tex-lax that somehow never fully tamed my tightly coiled curls, I definitely didn’t fit the ‘pretty’ bill. I was now the tallest girl in my class, and as pre-pubescent 10 year-olds tend to do, I was instantly ‘matched’ with the tallest boy in my class. As I was shown to my new cubby, I saw one boy point over at me and overheard him jokingly suggest to my taller-than-average male counterpart that I could be his new girlfriend. To this, 10-year old Jake retched and then repeatedly fake-vomited which of course, aroused a chorus of laughter from the others. I remember feeling a pang of embarrassment, but growing up in a strict Nigerian household, Jake’s response hadn’t mattered. I wasn’t even allowed to watch tv shows that had teenage romance as the primary storyline (y’all remember the Hannah Montana love triangle? yeah, I don’t), so boys weren’t even on my radar. Yet, this first acknowledgment that I was highly undesirable planted a small seed in my mind that would grow to weed out my self-esteem for a number of years to come. But we were 10 years old, right? No harm, no foul.
I admit that as I share the above story, I realise that I am approaching the issue of desirability from a singular place, specifically that of a heterosexual dark-skinned woman. Thus my positions on this topic cannot be all-encompassing. Nevertheless, I share this anecdote to set the precedence of where not only I but many others frustrated by discussions surrounding the politics of desirability and ‘preferences’ are coming from. When we talk about the everyday realities of desirability politics, which often entail memories of being side-lined or ridiculed from a young age for features that we were born with, it’s not a distant second-hand experience which we refer to. I do not blame Jake or anyone else for my childhood insecurities. Neither do I believe that everyone must find 19-year old (let alone 10-year old) me attractive. But almost 10 years later, after a mouth full of metal for 15 months and many years of learning to love my face and hairline, several discussions around the light-skin vs brown-skin vs dark-skin paradigm, hijacked natural hair movements, and continuous examples of colourism in daily media, honestly y’all, I’m tired.
“…attempts at redefining meanings of attractiveness and desirability are constantly over-ridden and at times spear-headed by those who more often than not benefit from the historical benchmarks of ‘pretty privilege’.”
According to everydayfeminism.com’s 2016 article entitled ‘What are the Politics of Desirability’, “desirability politics deal with the questions of how social ideals for attractiveness can have a pull, and how one can also pull back. It’s the idea that desire is political — both affected by and simultaneously shaping systems of power and oppression.” While I do not agree with all of the views shared in the article and I admit that the semantics of the political world is not a subject that I am well-versed in, one thing I do understand about politics is that it is constantly evolving. For something to be political, it must be current. Although not a perfect comparison, but a parallel one, let’s consider issues of race in the United States. Race politics have evolved from issues of segregation in the 50s and 60s to mass-incarceration, to police brutality and BlackLivesMatter in most recent years. Many of these societal issues overlap one another, exist simultaneously and persist still today. Change hasn’t been made in leaps and bounds, but some progressive steps have been taken, even if only in terms of raising awareness. Yet, when it comes to desirability, the conversation is stagnant. Herein lies the first issue. The same themes of colourism that existed half a century ago are the same problematic motifs we see in popular culture today. Moreover, attempts at redefining meanings of attractiveness and desirability are constantly over-ridden and at times spear-headed by those who more often than not benefit from the historical benchmarks of ‘pretty privilege’ (issue #2). We skip around and around in circles about the often problematic nature of preferences, the importance of representation, the tensions of the ‘one-drop rule’ and why healthy hair is ‘good hair’ regardless of texture, but to minimal avail.
Perhaps it’s the makeup of my own social circles, or the algorithms of my Twitter and Youtube feeds which constantly generate the same debates about desirability. Maybe some of us continue to engage in topics of discussion like these in the hope that one day we will be able to effect evangelical-type change in our uninformed neighbour. However, the truth is that just as you may lead a horse to water but cannot make it drink, you cannot force others to acknowledge problems where they see and enjoy privilege. Desirability politics are heavily at play in our daily lives and many benefit from it. As much as we attempt to maintain an attitude that says that we alone define ourselves and our preferences, the fact is that we are heavily informed by our surroundings and the content we consume daily. Until we are ready to interrogate our so-called ‘preferences’ and ‘tastes’, the modes of media and social environments that inform them, we will remain on the (not-so-)merry-go-round of desirability politics.
“…the truth is that just as you may lead a horse to water but cannot make it drink, you cannot force others to acknowledge problems where they see and enjoy privilege.”
Introspection is a great word. But guess what’s better? Encouraging introspective attitudes and retiring the accusatory tones which incite more animosity than understanding. Unfortunately, I continually encounter individuals who feel that their particular walk of life makes them a singularity to this rule. They regard their way of seeing the world as being autonomous and ‘unique’, constituting an ‘individual identity’. However, our preferences, likes and dislikes are not developed in a vacuum. To this end, I believe that just because you supposedly do not ‘follow the crowd’ doesn’t mean that you are any different to the masses. If approval from your social circle is enough to suppress any accountability you may have in contributing negatively to desirability politics, then that is part of the problem. I am not saying that a couple of conversations in the group chat or a purge of your following list on Twitter or Instagram is going to fix all of the intricate issues of desirability. What I am saying however is that the change borne from introspection is a start and a necessary one.
So, what exactly am I proposing? Let’s stop debating about desirability and continually recycling the same rag’n’bone arguments and blanket statements. Let’s put a pause on the kitchen debates, podcasts and panels surrounding desirability and its damage. In my experience, very few ever leave these forums encouraged or with heightened awareness or sensibility. If anything, these discussions encourage more hostility between the varying groups of thought. Instead, let us all take some time to interrogate why we believe what we believe, the influences that surround us and the ways in which they shape our understanding of desirability. It is only then that we may begin to have honest and effective conversations about desirability, being able to challenge others about their beliefs only after we have challenged ourselves.