May 19, 2010

Five Feminist Criticisms of Beauty: Is It Worth the Fight?

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.

She continues:

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.

Beauty in itself is not the problem. Dominique Millette tackles this debate in a recent post. So, what is the problem and why is it important?

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.


  1. Congratulations for this article and thanks for all the links in there.

    Comment by Hithere — May 20, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

  2. wow. That film A Girl Like Me is really disturbing. Seeing those little girls with the dolls was heartbreaking. It seems there’s a strong chance they’ll grow up with those negative messages imbedded inside their minds. Even some of the older girls felt bad about themselves. It seems not enough has changed at all since the original doll experiments.

    Comment by Dominique — May 21, 2010 @ 8:35 am

  3. India Arie said in her song ‘A lady isn’t what she wears but what she knows’ – This is so true!

    However, the sad truth about the beauty myth is that even the most intelligent, empowered, fabulous women can be affected by it. It is a struggle which even feminists like myself face every day – and whilst it can seem a bit self-indulgent and bourgeois, it is also complex and pervasive and should be continuously addressed by feminists in order to encourage other women and new generations of feminists.

    Comment by Sophie — May 26, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

  4. […] Melanie Klein of Feminist Fatale states five excellent reasons why the beauty myth must be deconstructed. Read the rest of her article here. […]

    Pingback by The Beauty Myth: Worth Fighting Against? | Adios Barbie — May 27, 2010 @ 5:43 am

  5. I once read something further to the cost analysis, showing that where young men were spending x amount of money training & upskilling themselved & creating better futures, women spent about the same amount of money on beauty treatments. They linked the beauty treatments as a direct opportunity cost to keep them in relatively low paid jobs, thus exacerbating the situation as the beauty costs became higher relative to their low salaries, while men earned (& kept) increasing amounts. It can also become a big issue for retirement savings for women & particularly when relationships separate & the woman is then put very far financially on the back foot.

    Google pinkstinks for how insidious the pressure is almost from birth, for girls with clothes, toys etc aimed at beauty ideals, while boys are surrounded by strong, creative, constructive ideals.

    Comment by Andrea — May 27, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

  6. […] Thanks to Nathaniel Janowitz for posting their newly released video, The Story of Cosmetics, on Elephant Journal and giving me the heads up. The new short covers point # 4 in The Five Feminist Criticisms of Beauty. […]

    Pingback by Feminist Fatale » What’s lurking in your compact? Annie Leonard will tell you. — July 22, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

  7. How refreshing !!! I getting more and more sickened by externally beautiful women (used to be one but into the aging process). Divorced and considering dating I find myself in a “market” where men 10 years my senior consider me ok, those my age think I am totally over the hill. Exceptions are around (inner beauty, don|t we need it dearly) but the standard is sexist, oppressive and makes me mad.
    I also hate to see physically unaesthetic elder men, dominating major shows and the news in TV. Where are the female elders?? Has any of the kicked out female moderators ever sued a TV station for letting her go while keeping the old guys?
    We should have a law, requiring the stations to hire male and females of same ages !!!! Anything else is sexist oppression.

    Comment by Susan — September 8, 2010 @ 6:47 am

  8. […] narrow and obsessive focus on an unrealistic beauty standard has increasingly  reduced our girls and women to their position in the beauty […]

    Pingback by Pretty is Not Worthy of Everything You Will Be. | elephant journal — September 9, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

  9. […] in an environment that emphasizes a digitally enhanced, youthful, Eurocentric and thin image of beauty. Let’s face it, our beauty standard is ageist, classist, racist and a weight biased one-size […]

    Pingback by Should Members of the Yoga Community and Yoga Publications Emphasize Weight Loss, Size Zero Bodies and Advertise Diet Pills? | elephant journal — September 14, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

  10. […] and the NOW Foundation’s Love Your Body Day (October 20) are more important than ever to combat the onslaught of voices undermining our personal and collective […]

    Pingback by (Self)Love is a Battlefield : Ms Magazine Blog — October 21, 2010 @ 11:26 am

  11. […] past is characteristic of the dangerous lengths girls and women will go in order to achieve the ubiquitous and unrealistic beauty ideal. For many, the gamble seems worth it in a culture that repeatedly emphasizes the number one way […]

    Pingback by The Princess and the (Downward-Facing) Dog | elephant journal — March 1, 2011 @ 9:31 pm

  12. Wow. I have never felt more inside a box than I do right now. How can we make any sort of headway when every way we turn, women and girls are being force fed fake images of beautiful women. I’m scared for when my little sister grows up…what am I saying, I’m scared for her right now!

    Comment by Danielle G. — April 19, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

  13. […] girls and women feel to embody an unrealistic and dangerous beauty ideal. It also exposes the mental and emotional health risks, the incredible and painful risks women are willing to take in order to embody an ideal of […]

    Pingback by You’re So Perfect…Except for Your Boobs | Adios Barbie — June 29, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

  14. […] girls and women feel to embody an unrealistic and dangerous beauty ideal. It also exposes the mental and emotional health risks, the incredible and painful risks women are willing to take in order to embody an ideal of […]

    Pingback by You’re So Perfect…Except for Your Boobs. | elephant journal — June 29, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

  15. […] I don’t think of it at all. But when I do, I feel defeated. Because even if I still tried, it feels to me like the USA views an aging woman’s […]

    Pingback by Morning Maidens « Hiding In Plain Sight — August 30, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

  16. […] culture’s obsession with creating unrealistic and falsified images of beauty. It’s the double-standard. It’s the exorbitant cost to chase the beauty myth. It’s the damage to one’s […]

    Pingback by Looking Towards the Future and Beyond Beauty | Adios Barbie — October 27, 2011 @ 7:11 pm

  17. Five very good points! All five equally important to mention to make us realize how distorted the beauty myth really is. Thank you. We need a change and the change has to start with each one of us.

    Comment by Tandis Shams Fard — November 7, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

  18. A culture obsessed with beauty, defined narrowly, is one which we live in. Girls today have the burden of incessantly trying to fit the standard of beauty defined by society and exemplified through media such as television, movies, and advertisements. The fact that an average woman will spend almost 500,000 dollars on beautification efforts is eye-opening and enough evidence to suggest that something is very wrong.

    Comment by Tiffany Majdipour — November 7, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

  19. […] Beautiful, Fat Talk Free Week and the NOW Foundation’s LoveYour Body Day are rising up to combat the onslaught of voices undermining our personal and collective […]

    Pingback by Generations of Body Battles: How I’m Learning to Be a Peacemaker. | elephant journal — November 13, 2011 @ 10:53 am

  20. 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.

    Um, when have we ever as women been valued for anything else? Aside from our ability to birth and rear children and keep a home? The simple fact of the matter is as long as men rule it will be ever thus.

    The fight needs to be centered on getting women in more positions of leadership, authority and decision making.

    Comment by elle — November 20, 2011 @ 9:26 am

  21. You go girl. I’m a man, I’m short skinny and bald. If the media didn’t brainwash women into thinking that tall muscular men with a full head of hair are cuter, women would have no preference. There’s a tribe in Africa where women only like short bald guys and think tall guys are disgusting.

    Also, I have striking breath, and REAL women like it. Only shallow bimbos want a guy with bland odorless breath, because they are intimidated by a real man.

    Did I tell you about my perineal hair? Like boars bristles.

    Comment by Brad — January 30, 2012 @ 11:39 pm

  22. “A Girl Like Me” is so disturbing. And this shows well how the beauty myth is destroying a young girl’s mind. She learned to disapprove herself before learning to embrace her. In her mind, whiteness is more valuable so her black skin means “bad” and therefore she is not pretty. This study reminds me of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eyes” in which a young black girl is mentally damaged from the yearning for blue eyes. Even a few facades later, it is so sad to see how almost nothing changed; still whiteness is standard, pretty and is the widely accepted mythical norm that people of color has to desire. Unfortunately, I have to admit that diverse representation of women in the mainstream media will be difficult within this generation, and we women will be struggling against the mythical norm for a while.

    Comment by Jin Min — February 7, 2012 @ 3:20 am

  23. Of course I am aware of what a large emphasis our society places on beauty, but seeing the figures of how much we actually spend is outrageous!! On a normal day I don’t wear much make-up, but I know when I need a self-esteem booster, a little primping here and there can make me feel more confident. The media portrays the ideal woman as attainable, but in reality, there are so many behind the scenes beauty tools the average woman can’t fulfill. Advertisements reinforcing the attainable beauty keeps us running back to the store to buy the product that is going to “change our lives” or “make us beautiful.”
    The other dynamic of this beauty ideal is skin color. The Beyonce ads demonstrate how she plays up her features to be seen as a colored woman or more light skinned for different types of ads. She will appear with blonde hair and lighter complexion to fit an ideal for one magazine, but be back to her darker image for others.
    The “Girl Like Me” film was a real heart breaker though. It made me really think about toys, so the next time I was shopping I checked out the doll section. I saw mostly white dolls, with a few light skinned girls, but only one darker skin doll. When these girls at such a young age, don’t see their skin color represented, it can reinforce a negative image of the “white is right” idea. This post really demonstrated how largely our media affects our self images and the limited variety of people represented.

    Comment by Samantha H — March 29, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

  24. The beauty myth is worth fighting for. The feminist movement has brought attention to domestic violence, equal pay, and federal representation to name a few, but this does not mean that self-esteem and self-image is not an important enough issue to tackle. Teenagers are not the only age group that is affected by self-image issues. The media has set out an ideal of beauty that is unattainable that in turn affects women globally. The beauty myth is an important issue to discuss and tackle because of the consequences it has on women. Not only is trying to reach the beauty ideal expensive, it is remotely unattainable when compared to the airbrushed models. Aside from this, not being able to meet the criteria for being beautiful has a negative effect on women’s health. The beauty myth also brings into light the double standard of men’s beauty vs. women’s beauty. Men get away with many things, such as wrinkles and belly rolls, and are not criticized for it as much and even get the hot girl in the movies. The beauty myth is just as important as other issues that the feminist movement has brought up.

    Comment by Cynthia M. — May 10, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

  25. It would be amazing if in 2012 we could laugh about the beauty myth and how stupid we all were for giving into it. Unfortunately the beauty myth still plagues women’s self esteems whether they are little girls or middle aged women. There is no way of getting around it. Ridiculously beautiful women are shown at every turn enforcing the idea that society is only interested in women who look like this. As much as it pains me to admit it I have fell to this beauty myth and hard at that. I have become convinced that this is what it takes. Perhaps my looks will not cut it. I have become better because I have been educated on exactly what makes these women so beautiful. Photoshop. Without it they are not as spectacular as they appear in magazines. If only magazines could incorporate real women of all shapes and sizes.

    Comment by Melody S. — May 27, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

  26. I still vividly remember the first time I saw the scene where they ask the children which doll is the good and bad one. I cringed as I watched this again. The beauty myth does affect women but it completely destroys little girls of color. How are they ever going to be able to develop their full emotional and intellectual capacities if they’ve already internalized that they are evil and inferior simply because of their skin color? This truly breaks my heart.

    Comment by David A. — May 30, 2012 @ 10:52 pm

  27. I agree with the post above me. I cringed at the scene with the “good” and “bad” doll experiment. It shows that how children are exposed to this idea parts of society hold at such a young age. They grow up thinking they are inferior to their peers and this can limit the growth of the child emotionally and intellectually. This myth of beauty strips females of all ages to make their own choices of beauty and what it means to them. If they do not fit into the norm, they are not as accepted into society as those who do. This beauty myth provides a barrier between women who are supposed to be sticking together and supporting each other. All this beauty myth does is create tension and a division among women who do not fit your own personal idea of beauty.

    Comment by NadiaA — October 24, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

  28. It is unbelievable the way we subconsciously allow the media to tell us what products to use, what we need to look like and more importantly who we are. It had a huge impact on me growing up. I remember having a Seventeen magazine suscription in the 6th grade and how I changed my ways and looks to reflect the ones I saw in the magazine. I remember buying numerous Clean and Clear beauty products. From morning scrubs to day lotions to scrubs that would activate with the steam of the shower. I was only 12 years old and I was beginning to worry about my pores and concerned with having clear perfect skin. I never even had a pimple, I just knew I had to prevent it. I remember feeling very self conscious about my skin tone as well. Being latina I have dark hair, dark eyes and darker than the norm skin. I remember getting aggravated over the fact that I couldn’t have been lucky enough to have colored eyes, light colored hair and paler whiter skin. This article has definitely caused me to reflect on how I contribute to the subconscious acceptance of such standards and how change needs to be achieved to prevent an even younger generation of suffering the consequences from “looking good” for society instead of “feeling good” for themselves.

    Comment by RosaE — November 15, 2012 @ 9:11 am

  29. Comment by web page — February 10, 2013 @ 5:37 am

  30. I think it is said how a little girl prefers one colored doll over the other. Children are already growing thinking that they are not pretty enough or good looking comparing themselves to others. But the beauty myth is a fight that is worth just about anything!These types of things have tremendous impacts on both children and adults in todays society. As it is our society is already diverse with the complications of differences and the beauty myth does not help.

    Comment by JessicaH — July 24, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

  31. Wow! I just watched the link to “A Girl Like Me” and it brought me to tears seeing the children pick the dolls. I had heard of this experiment before but to see the children in today’s times actually declare the “white” dolls as the “nice” ones and the “black” dolls as the “bad” ones and connect that back to their own sense of self was heart wrenching to watch. This is the power of socialization. They were not born thinking this way and feeling this way about themselves. This reinforces how “self-image” is so powerfully “constructed” from the moment we are born. It is impossible not to be affected by the messages we get from society. We are internalizing them continuously. This goes for grown women too when they are bombarded with ads about how they should “look” on a daily basis and reinforced with compliments over and over again from well-meaning friends about their appearances. I witness many people thinking that little girls are born wanting to “be pretty” and play “dress-up.” They think that this drive is biologically inherent. How many times are little girls told that some part of their appearance is “pretty” in a day though? How often is that value reinforced by the well-meaning individuals that they come into contact with on a daily basis? People are trying to be nice but is it any wonder that by the time girls reach adulthood it has become the number one value for them? Then the message that they must strive for this narrowly constructed “beauty standard” is just reinforced over and over again by the media. I heard a story recently of a parent upset by a 5-year-old little girl who had told his daughter that she couldn’t play with her because she wasn’t pretty enough. This story was recounted to other parents who couldn’t believe that the offending little girl would have said such a thing. They were horrified. I ask why? I am sure that the “offender” has been told over and over again how pretty she looks and how beautiful her outfits are. Is it any wonder that she might start measuring her friends using the same value system that has been forced upon her since birth? This is not her being inherently “mean” but just implementing the same measuring stick that has been used upon her. I too have complimented friends and children on their appearances in an effort to be nice. I have been socialized into thinking that that makes me a kind individual. I struggle with the idea of beauty today. Should I throw out my make-up and high heels and deny any sense of wanting to look “pretty?” What I am realizing is that it is about balance. We have to find other ways of complimenting little girls and women and reinforce all aspects of our beings. We also need to manifest the idea of “beauty” into a vast and broad concept that encompasses and reflects all forms of human beauty in all of its diversity. I would like to see this start with a celebration of inner beauty and a building of an inner confidence of what it truly means to be a woman.

    Comment by Lucy T — May 30, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

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