ASK Musings

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January 2024



Disobedient Bodies by Emma Dabiri

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
All those impacted by Western beauty standards.

In a nutshell:
The way the West defines beauty (‘entangled in the forces of patriarchy and capitalism’) isn’t something to aspire to, and it is holding women back.

Worth quoting:
“How might we possibly reconcile the reality of the joys and pleasures we can find in our bodies, and in rituals of beautification…with the age-old and sometimes fraught feminist discourses, and the justified pushback against an overemphasis on our looks as not only a drag on our time, but a form of control?”

“Adornment brings with it rich associations of taking pleasure in our bodies as well as conveying a sense of ritual.”

“How did we end up with a phobic relationship to the passage of time itself?”

Why I chose it:
The topic stood out, but also the fact that this wasn’t a tome filled with centuries of history, meandering its way to a point. Sometimes I like that! But sometimes I don’t. This appeared to be focused and well-edited.

This review feels a bit all over the place, but that’s more about me than the writing in the book – I think the author succeeds with her project here; I’m just having some trouble synthesizing my thoughts into words.

This is a book in three parts – ‘How Did We Get Here?;’ The Birth of My Disobedience;’ and ‘New Ways to ‘Do’ Beauty.’ The sections are fairly self-explanatory; the first deals with societal expectations around women and beauty; the second features the authors own experiences in coming to realizations about what the Western / European expectations around beauty mean and the consequences of them. She is a woman with Black and Irish heritage, and so can speak to the racialization of beauty in a way that authors from a solely white background cannot, and that is something I valued in her writing.

The final bit is the part that I feel is missing from similar books: a discussion about the ways in which taking care and experiencing our own definitions of ‘doing’ beauty can line up with a positive experience of being a woman. She references braiding; I thought about going to nail salons with friends and how much fun that was (I still keep my nails painted pretty much all the time – I love the way it looks). She also talks about beauty as a verb – something you do, not something you are – and as not just a physical manifestation. I also appreciate that she pushes back on the idea that all we really need is more diversity and ‘representation’ of different types of bodies – she wants to fully interrogate how to upend this thinking. I admit I struggled a bit with this section, but I think I understand what she means – sort of like instead of pushing for more women CEOs, we should be upending the idea of capitalism itself as a goal. I think? I will need to re-read this section.

I’m about to enter my mid-forties, and about two years ago I stopped dying my hair. It’s nearly grown out now, and I don’t have tons of gray, but it’s definitely there. My fear of looking older kept me dying my hair, but now I think the streaks look kind of cool. But also … I don’t care if other people keep dying their hair, as long as it’s what they want and enjoy? I also have tattoos – I find them beautiful, but others definitely judge them as some sort of defacement of a body that they are entitled to take pleasure in viewing. I genuinely could not care less if people find my tattoos ugly; its the rest of me that I am working on feelings the same way about. I love a view of women’s bodies as not things for others to take joy in, but for us to take joy in, and that doesn’t mean we need to discard all beauty rituals we engage in. Dabiri is asking us to be thoughtful in what we choose.

What’s next for this book:
I’ll be keeping this one, and possibly picking up copies for friends.

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