In light of Britney Spears’ recent unaltered photos, a recent guest post at Jezebel proclaimed feminism’s battle with the beauty myth as bourgeois and not worth the fight. Author, Helen Razer, claims that the efforts to expose the gruesome reality behind the beauty myth is a tiresome and unworthy battle that detracts focus from issues of “real gender equality.”
I recall an era when feminism’s purview was not limited to banging on about the need for more fat chicks in glossy magazines. While others fight for the right to force-feed Kate Moss, I continue antique fretting over equal pay, domestic violence and federal representation. At 40, I am old and clearly out of step with a movement that demands Size 14 representation.
Yes. This just in: heat is hot, water is wet and teenagers are obsessed with their appearance. As such, let’s spend money on developing an industry code of conduct so that we can all enjoy the spectacle of more cottage cheese on Britney’s thighs.
Is it as simple as “teenagers are obsessed with their appearance?” I don’t think so. While the obsession with beauty has long been considered a narcissistic rite of passage among teens, beauty and body image issues are not limited to this demographic. Research shows that eating disorders and the preoccupation with beauty is found younger and younger girls as well as increasingly older women. Disordered eating, eating disorders and an overall obsession with the physical form is not limited to teens as part of a passing trend.
Not only are the consequences of the beauty myth not limited to a specific age group, it is not limited to rich (“bourgeois”), white girls. In fact, the Eurocentric beauty ideal is exported the globe over via the mass media and continues to erase our physical diversity. The global reach of these manufactured and altered images result in more and more individuals conforming to homogeneous definitions of beauty.
As Brumberg traces in The Body Project: An Intimate History of Young Girls, physical beauty has become the sole measure of the worth of girls and women. This reduction of value and self-identification to the numbers on the scale and shape of one’s figure signals a sociohistorical shift in the ways in which girls and women are valued. It doesn’t matter if you’re intelligent, independent, competent, charismatic, artistic, or successful unless you’re thin, toned and flawless. In other words, you’ve got to be hot, too.
The pursuit of hotness, as an extension of the battle to achieve the elusive beauty myth, trumps all other facets of a woman’s character or accomplishments. Even pregnancy and motherhood are not excluded from the pressures of the socially constructed measure of beauty. The MILF, a term made popular by the film American Pie, has become a staple fixture in pop culture.
Naomi Wolf sounded the alarm over twenty years ago with the publication of The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. As women began making strides thanks to the tireless efforts made during the second wave of feminism during the Women’s Liberation Movement, we began to be bombarded by increasingly unrealistic images of female beauty. This proliferation of our cultural space with skantily clad or nude women has continued and increased. The relentless and one-pointed focus on beauty has resulted in generations of women imposing, what Brumberg calls “internalized control,” on themselves.
1. The (big, fat) double-standard: As stated earlier, girls and women are judged and valued by the culturally imposed beauty standard. Not only have we been reduced to the shape and size of our body parts, girls and women are rarely represented in media culture unless they conform to these expectations. Girls and women who slip pass the filter of pop culture and deviate from the beauty norm are rarely seen as attractive, often get make-overs in the process and their characters are defined by their weight or general “ugliness.” While boys and men have come under corporate attack by companies looking to profit from their insecurities, there continues to be a much broader range of male representation. Graying hair, lines around the eyes, and extra weight around the middle doesn’t automatically exclude a man from being a potential love interest. Personally, I’m sick of seeing average guys with super hot women. I’d also like to see a more diverse representation of women and I doubt I am the only one. Maybe we wouldn’t feel so shitty about ourselves if we saw all sorts of women being represented, women celebrated for more than their physical assets.
2. Cost: To remain even remotely attractive by cultural standards, we must spend a lot of money. After all, “we’re worth it.” Newsweek reported the life-time expenditure to be just under a half a million dollars.
The combined annual revenue of the “cosmetic, beauty supply and perfume store industry alone amount to approximately $7 billion. Billion! This doesn’t include the diet industry or plastic surgery. Tyra recently aired a segment featuring a woman who has spent $80,000 on “beauty treatments” for her children.
3. Choice and control: There’s been a lot of dialogue on “personal choice” recently. Standards of beauty are informed by various industries, fashion, cosmetic, pharmaceutical etc, and disseminated via the mass media, specifically through advertising. We are subject to thousands and thousands of ads per year, reinforcing cultural values and norms, including normative images of beauty. When a woman “chooses” plastic surgery, how much choice does she have in a culture that promotes plastic surgery as a means to achieving the culturally imposed beauty standard?
4. Physical and mental health: The artificial and manufactured images of beauty pose physical and mental health risks. The fall-out covers a range of issues: complications and risks associated with plastic surgery [update: read about Carolin Berger’s death after 6th breast enlargement surgery, January 2011], smoking as a diet aide, disordered eating and eating disorders [update: anorexic model, Isabelle Caro, dies at 28, December 2010], toxic cosmetics, low self-esteem, depression and shame. The bottom line is the beauty myth is unhealthy and dangerous when consumed in mass quantities.
5. Maintaining other forms of inequality: The beauty myth is classist, ageist and racist. It emphasizes youth and erases authentic representations of age, predominantly features white women or women of color that fit within the Eurocentric mold and is extraordinarily expensive.
Is the beauty myth worth fighting against? Absolutely! Not convinced? Check out A Girl Like Me, a film that explores the impact of the beauty myth on African American girls and women.