Ukrainian Women’s Looks Are None of Your Business
Even as missiles pound Ukrainian cities and soldiers guard trenches, the war in Ukraine has maintained a stubbornly online element, as supporters from all around the world clash with Russian trolls and fascists. As someone who has refused to leave Kyiv amid the air raid alarms and kamikaze drone attacks and is chronically online, I find being Ukrainian in the age of social media simultaneously infuriating, uplifting, and just emotionally exhausting.
One of the oddest aspects of this is the focus on Ukrainian women’s looks. There has been a vigorous debate among Ukrainian supporters about why people tend to fixate on Ukrainian women’s physical appearances. That includes claims like “Ukrainian women are hot and good at cooking.” Personally, I haven’t found these remarks terribly offensive—although, perhaps, I’ve just got bigger issues to worry about at the moment. But the stereotypes concerning Ukrainian women (and Eastern European women in general) are troubling and potentially harmful—and they point to issues of gender and national identity that a postwar country will have to reckon with.
As in the case of any grassroots movement, the informal community of Ukraine supporters is prone to disagreements and internal debate. Discussions tend to be civil, even when the topics themselves are hugely complicated, such as whether Ukraine should have exchanged a Wagner Group mercenary for Ukrainian prisoners of war. Most of these discussions are purely theoretical: Ethical issues are discussed, military strategies are dissected in minuscule detail, and short clips of Russian President Vladimir Putin posing for the cameras are studied for clues on the state of the Russian president’s allegedly deteriorating health. But arguments over the descriptions of Ukrainian women are a little more personal.
Statements online range from well-intended but questionable generalizations to outright objectifying compliments comparing “naturally attractive” or “well-groomed” Ukrainian women to their “Western counterparts” (usually with the implication that Western women have somehow been ruined by feminism). The weirdest interaction I’ve experienced was a foreigner angrily reacting to my celebration of McDonald’s return to the Ukrainian market. He was adamant that Ukrainian women are good-looking because we live off a steady diet of fresh produce and simple, healthy, and home-cooked meals, and he even tried scolding me for enjoying the cheeseburger (and the brief illusion of normalcy) I had been dreaming of for months.
Users posting opinions such as these are also fond of sharing and reposting images of what a stereotypical Ukrainian woman apparently looks like—and although the traditional beauty standard for Ukrainian women has historically called for deep brown eyes, dark eyebrows, and tan skin, these images tend to portray buxom blonde and blue-eyed girls wearing heavy makeup. The men posting these compliments claim that they are simply appreciating Ukrainian women while supporting Ukraine’s struggle, but critics (many of whom are, coincidentally, Ukrainian women) call it creepy and perhaps even fetishistic. Complicating all this is that the most vocal foreign supporters of Ukraine online are mostly men.
Fetishizing women from other countries is common, of course, but behind all this is that the burden of lookism for Ukrainian women is one of the heaviest in the world—a reality rooted in the country’s post-Soviet history. Although vocal so-called appreciators of Ukrainian women claim they find Ukrainian women attractive because of their natural good looks, what they actually appreciate is the amount of effort Ukrainian women have learned to put into their appearances.
The fall of the Soviet Union brought along turbulent changes in both society and ideology—including gender expression. Although the Soviet idea of femininity demanded that women be flawless, resilient, and (in some ways) androgynous and asexual builders of the socialist utopia while remaining supportive wives and loving mothers, the 1990s brought along two new models of female gender expression. Hugely influential Ukrainian anthropologist and feminist historian Oksana Kis describes these two polar identities as the Berehynia (the hearth goddess, a pseudo-traditional model of femininity rooted in nostalgic nationalism and conservative ideas) and the Barbie.
As the name indicates, the Barbie identity adopted by women in young post-Soviet countries grew from a sudden influx of Western media and consumerism. It was also an identity borne out of sudden social change and an uncertain future. Millions of women, who had been an integral part of the Soviet workforce and who had at least been able to rely on state-provided child care and social support, ended up jobless in a largely lawless society where ruthless men were abruptly climbing to the top.
Although the Soviet ideology had convinced women that they had to carry the dual duty of being both comrades and mothers, the 1990s taught them that the surest way to build the life of their dreams (heavily influenced by suddenly available Western television and magazines) was to attach themselves to tough, aggressively masculine men on the rise to riches.
Looks became a widely accepted social currency—and, for a while, one of the only types of influence and power available to ambitious young women in Ukraine. Beauty salons rapidly opened up on every street while magazines—including the local versions of Elle and Cosmopolitan, which reached the Ukrainian market in the early 2000s—aggressively preached the importance of following the latest fads and keeping yourself thin and youthful-looking, pleasing your husband, and chasing away any real or imaginary rival. As women from Russia’s ex-colonies (and Russia itself) started traveling abroad more often and Western tourists discovered a new market, Slavic women became associated with sex work and a willingness to marry relatively well-off foreigners without asking too many questions.
Thankfully, the recent popularity of feminism (along with a general movement toward stability, democracy, and gender equality) has convinced Ukrainian women that they don’t have to limit themselves by choosing to be a traditional housewife or a glamorous gold digger constantly on the prowl for a husband.
Instead of telling their readers how to dress to find the man of their dreams, Ukrainian magazines have begun addressing matters such as politics, domestic abuse, sexual identity, personal finances, and wellness—although today, they are also forced to write about staying safe in the midst of a war or dealing with power outages. In turn, the women themselves are building impressive careers without having to bat their eyelashes at a perpetually horny boss. In fact, about 15 percent of the Ukrainian army is made up of women, as is more than 20 percent of Ukraine’s parliament.
Yet even this doesn’t deter people from objectifying Ukrainian women—just take a look at the comments under photos of Ukrainian servicewomen published online. The stereotypes are persistent—whether it’s in the relatively harmless form of Western supporters going googly-eyed or the far more disturbing language out of Russia. Online comments from “pro-Z” Russians on social media are packed with fetishistic sadism (for example, rape fantasies, queries about where to find a forcibly deported “Ukrainian refugee wife,” and just general leering comments) aimed at Ukrainian women and girls.
For Ukrainian women, this is hardly new: As with any colonial power, Russia has a long history of treating Ukrainian women as attractive but uncouth and naive provincials to be reeducated at best or exotic objects to be leered at in the worst-case scenarios. While 19th and 20th-century Russian poets treated Ukraine (or, as it was known to them back in the day, “Little Russia”) as an inspiring exotic locale populated by primitive but kind-hearted locals prone to superstition, not much changed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.