The Beauty Myth

On Twitter the other day, Champagne and Benzedrine and I were disagreeing about something (shocking, I know). He tweeted the following (which will now be referred to as The Most Epic Tweet Ever Tweeted™):

Not only do I disagree with this statement, I believe that body image and self-esteem are the main way that the patriarchy keeps women down, now that women have made major strides towards equality in other ways. In fact, I just finished Naomi Wolf’s amazing book The Beauty Myth, which tackles exactly this.

C&B wrote his own post on the matter before I could write this one. Instead of tackling his piece by piece, which I may do at a later date, I’m instead going to address the above statement and discuss why I think that it’s flat out wrong. It’s important to remember, when discussing these things, that it’s not about what INDIVIDUAL MEN find beautiful. There is a difference between men as individuals and men as patriarchy. And men as individuals are often unaware of the patriarchy’s existence, let alone of how it functions.

The whole overriding point of everything I say here  is that it all ties to the patriarchy because the point of the beauty standards is to keep women from gaining equality and power. Power which, at this time, is held by the patriarchy.

Take the myth of the “ugly feminist.” It’s not the feminists themselves that were ugly; it was what they stood for. And the biggest insult to a woman (or so we’re told) is to call her ugly. So by painting feminists as “ugly,” being associated with feminism and feminist ideals becomes undesirable, and thus, can slow down the women’s movement by discouraging women to be involved in it, for fear of being seen as unattractive or ugly.

Women’s beauty has long been equated, and used, as a form of currency, or as a commodity. Think about dowries, or the first jobs that women were allowed to hold: display positions, like models. Wolf says, “A woman looks like a million dollars, she’s a first-class beauty, her face is her fortune.” And money, as we all know, is power. And so, “in the bourgeois marriage markets of the last century, women learned to understand their own beauty as part of this economy.”

Then came the women’s movement, where women gained real forms of equality, and as always, when an oppressed population begins to gain too much, the oppressors need to find a way to squander that. So how do you take the ideals of the women’s movement, and the power women are gaining, and use it to keep them from gaining any more? Simple: you use the American dream mentality of “you can be whatever you want if you work hard enough.” You convince women that they can becoem beautiful if they work hard enough at it. I mean, look at the cover of any women’s magazine! You can “get the body you deserve!” Learn how to “maximize your own assets!” Therefore, if you’re not “beautiful,” you just aren’t working hard enough. But there’s always surgery!

As Wolf said:

For every feminist action there is an equal and opposite beauty myth reaction. In the 1980s, it was evident that as women became more important, beauty too became more important. The closer women come to power, the more physical self-consciousness and sacrifice are asked of them. “Beauty” becomes the condition for a woman to take the next step. You are now too rich. Therefore, you cannot be too thin.

And by placing these impossible beauty standards on women, they spend all their time, energy, and money trying to meet them. This limits the time and energy they can spend on other things in their lives, because they believe that beauty is the key to getting those things. You must be beautiful to get the job, get the promotion, get the man, get the social status and admiration. And so, that’s what you spend your time and energy trying to be.

And what about the focus on youth?

Competition between women has been made part of the myth so that women will be divided from one another. Youth and virginity have been “beautiful” in women since they stand for experiential and sexual ignorance. Aging in women is “unbeautiful” since women grow more powerful with time, and since the links between generations of women must always be newly broken… Most urgently, women’s identity must be premised upon our “beauty” so that we will remain vulnerable to outside approval, carrying the vital sensitive organ of self-esteem exposed to the air.

Beauty standards and the patriarchy are not related to what real men find beautiful, or anything of the sort. They’re ingrained into our society as a way to keep women from gaining too much power. Notice that the same standards don’t apply to men. Many successful women are beautiful, or at least, they look very beautiful and polished. Most are conventionally attractive. The same cannot be said for men. Look at newscasters! There’s always the attractive female reporter; it’s virtually a requirement to get on as a news anchor if you’re female! But the men are almost always older, and their looks are nowhere near as important. It’s a double standard.

Perhaps my favorite metaphor that Wolf uses to describe the plight of the modern woman when it comes to beauty is the one of the Iron Maiden. She says:

It becomes the Iron Maiden. The original Iron Maiden was a medieval German instrument of torture, a body-shaped casket painted with the limbs and features of a lovely, smiling young woman. The  unlucky victim was slowly enclosed inside her; the lid fell shut to immobilize the victim, who died either of starvation, or less cruelly, the iron spikes embedded in her interior… Contemporary culture directs attention to imagery of the Iron Maiden, while censoring real women’s faces and bodies.

While the metaphor may seem extreme, I think it’s quite apt. Women may appear beautiful on the outside, but they’re suffering, and at times even dying (in the cases of women struggling with eating disorders, or those that die of complications from plastic surgery) on the inside for those looks.

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  1. Nell GwynneNo Gravatar
    Posted April 25, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    One thing that I constantly seem to battle with myself, is my perceptions of my beauty. People tell me “you are so pretty/sexy/have sucha a great body”, and I often don’t believe it. Being in an industry that places special emphasis on women’s attractiveness and desirability, where people like Tina Fey and Lea Michele are given roles as “awkward”, “unattractive” “nerds”, and it’s practically impossible to find good roles for women after the age of forty can really fuck up your sense of self.

  2. AmyNo Gravatar
    Posted April 25, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I’ve got this on my shelf ready to read it as soon as exams are over so I’ll reserve comment until I have read it properly. I think the point about men’s individual views of beauty versus the patriarchy’s beauty standards – every man says that they don’t like women to be ridiculously thin, tanned, manicured and whatnot and yet people do terrible things to themselves to fit this ideal. And for what? Obviously men’s attention is not the main thing to strive for but that is what is assumed to be the main goal of getting hot. The patriarchy sucks.

  3. Champagne and BenzNo Gravatar
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to get to responding to this post.

    First off, I just wanted to say that it was GREAT. You present so much that you really can’t argue with here – like how the fact that women are pressured to meet whatever society deems as ‘beautiful’ is a hangover from a patriarchal past, in which women were essentially property of their fathers, then husbands, and their value was either political or sexual.

    The point I was trying to make wasn’t so much about whether or not women are still defined by their looks – just listen to what they said about Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin to see that they clearly are – but that the ‘standard’ looks are supposed to meet these days aren’t set by men; but by an industry dominated by women and gay men.

    I agree that women are pressured to appear ‘beautiful,’ but I think the fucked up standard of what ‘beautiful’ is supposed to be today can’t be blamed on men. It’s gone from what men might find sexually desirable, to a freakish standard of unnatural body image that can only be achieved by genetics, abnormal dieting and photoshop.

    One of my friends is a top fashion model in New York and we *thought* we saw her in a magazine the other day, but had to call her up to check because the picture in the magazine made her look utterly, utterly different to how she *really* looked.

    And from that perspective, I have really trouble with this whole concept of a shadowy patriarchy perpetuating standards that they didn’t set (indeed, that were set by the very people they’re supposed to oppress.)

    The beauty standard clearly has it’s roots in patriarchy; but society is changing and I honestly believe women are currently just as complicit in maintaining the ‘beauty myth’ as men (why do women invariably call their rivals ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ – just remember Trollface, from this blog.)

  4. alanaNo Gravatar
    Posted May 10, 2010 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    All subordinate groups help perpetuate their own subordination, so of course women have part of the blame when it comes to beauty standards. (Women also help maintain the patriarchy.) That’s not really the point though. And to deflect blame from the patriarchy and place it on women and gay men only further emphasizes the neutrality the patriarchy has.

    • Britni TheVadgeWigNo Gravatar
      Posted May 10, 2010 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      Right. Patriarchal standards are ingrained into women, and women are a victim of them, too. Women help to unhold the patriarchy; if they didn’t, it would have crumbled long ago. We’re raised in a world where these things are thrown at us day after day, and we absorb them and believe them. All of us. Even I’m victim to them sometimes.

  5. Britni TheVadgeWigNo Gravatar
    Posted May 11, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    I just stumbled across this and thought it pertained quite well to C&B and Alana’s comments:

    “…feminism (and its associate movements, such as anti-racism, anti-ableism, anti-classism, anti-homophobia, etc) is a political critique of a wildly imperfect world. It draws to our attention the many ways in which inequalities manifest themselves, and gives us to the tools to question things that might otherwise be taken as natural, or ‘givens’.

    But just because we’re able to make those critiques and ask those questions doesn’t mean we’re not also products of that world. Human beings are deeply social creatures, and it is not so easy to extract ourselves from 15, 20 or 40 years of social conditioning. Hence, individual women – even feminist women – might continue to engage in behaviours that are oppressive to themselves (or, more problematically, to others), even if on an intellectual level we understand the ways in which our behaviours and desires might have been socially conditioned. The process of reprimand and reward runs deep.”


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