September 11, 2008

America the Beautiful

Darryl Roberts’ documentary, “America the Beautiful,” is out!  In the never ending and unhealthy pursuit for the elusive image of beauty, we purge, restrict calories, over exercise, smoke, drink coffee, nip/tuck, suck, pluck, wax, shave, exfoliate, peel and pull.  Roberts’ forces us to look in the mirror as a nation and confront our value system.  As women, we are primarily valued by the degree to which we conform to acceptable standards of beauty and our accomplishments as scholars, business women, artists, poets, mothers, activists and politicians fall by the wayside if we are not coiffed, polished and flawless.

At a historical moment in which Sarah Palin has a serious chance at taking the VP slot, we are forced to confront the role her culturally determined and accepted level of attractivesness plays.  Poor Hillary!  That woman could barely get dressed in the morning without getting ripped apart.  Donatella Versace offered her fashion advice and in a political debate she was not evaluated on her policies, she was evaluated on the basis of her looks.  Hillary Clinton was touted as an ugly duckling, a woman too unattractive to have been married to Bill.  Among the other variables that have thrown Sarah Palin in our faces, we shouldn’t downplay the role of the beauty norm which takes on a religious fervor in this country.  For many women, the pursuit of an unrealistic beauty ideal becomes a crusade.

Elizabeth Wellington, a fashion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, devoted an entire article attesting to Palin’s feminine wiles and her ability to harness and use her femininity. While fashion and pursuits of beauty that are destined to ultimately fail are seen on many counts as frivolous, vapid and superficial pursuits, we can’t underestimate the rewards and positive sanctions bestowed on those that adhere, however painfully, to these definitions. Sarah Palin is proof that a woman’s figure and the way she clothes that figure, will help catapult her into the limelight and project talents and gifts she may not actually possess.  Despite the rewards, let’s not get confused.  This is not a form of empowerment when we become slaves to a culturally defined and imposed male standard of beauty.  It is not empowerment when we loathe the body’s we inhabit.  It is not empowerment when we use our physical assets to manipulate a system for recognition that would be lost otherwise.

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