I love the show The Sing Off, it is an a capella singing competition. As with most reality shows of this type there are three judges – Ben Folds, Jewel, and Shawn Stockton from Boys to Men. Last night on the first episode (no real spoilers…) everything was going well and then it was time for the all girl group. They sang their number and it was Shawn’s turn to critique. He said “First of all you guys all look beautiful. First and foremost you all look great.” then continued with his critique.
First and foremost. Foremost: before anything else in rank, importance, or position; in the first place.
The most important thing, in Shawn’s estimation, in this singing competition in which these women just sang complex harmonies over a wide vocal range, including vocal percussion, sound effects and choreography, is that they “look great.” If he hadn’t decided that they looked “beautiful” would he have scored them differently? Would the fact that they didn’t, in his estimation “look great” be the thing that is first and foremost in his mind.
Now, before someone freaks out in the comments about how I’m way over reacting to this comment and how he may just have been looking for something to say or trying to create a “compliment” sandwich or whatever that may well be true, and yes this is just one comment, but it’s certainly not the only time it’s happened. If you watch singing or dancing reality shows, check out how many more times the female contestants are complimented strictly for their looks, or first or their looks, vs. the male competitors (though men are certainly subject to being judged by how they look.) I feel strongly that a world where women are judged first and foremost based on how we look regardless of what we’re actually trying to do is fucked up. It also means very real ramifications for fat women since, in this culture, there are many who believe that “looking great” and being fat are mutually exclusive.
If we take The Sing Off for example, other women who want to compete on the show just heard a judge say that looking great was first and foremost – how will that influence who they choose for their group? It makes choosing an amazing singer who is also fat, or in any way not stereotypically attractive, a risk.
We can see the effects of this everywhere. At least once a week I see a video on facebook that I’m told is a “shocking performance” that I “won’t believe” but turns out to be just a talented person who is not stereotypically beautiful. Talented fat people are not actually shocking, we’re just hidden either by those who want to judge us, or kept out by those who don’t want to be judged for their association with us. But the single stereotype of beauty has been shoved at us so hard by Hollywood and the music industry that people are legitimately shocked when someone who doesn’t fit the mold can sing, or act, or dance, (or do anything), I call it the Susan Boyle effect. Imagine how different the world would be if we chose our singers based first and foremost on their ability to sing, or our actors based first and foremost on their ability to act.
I think that if we want to change this the first step is to be aware of how often we are judged first and foremost on how closely we can approximate the current stereotype of beauty, whether we call it out when we see it or just make a mental note that some bullshit is happening. We can also choose to stop participating in it – refuse to make guesses about people’s abilities based on how they look, consider that if we don’t see the beauty in someone it means that we are deficient – that we haven’t yet fully developed our skill set for seeing beauty. We can also push to do the things that we want to do – sing, act, dance, etc. – whether it’s in main stream environments or by creating our own spaces and opportunities. First and foremost, we should get to decide what is first and foremost about us.
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