Last week I wrote in these pages that feminism is a relevant and important social movement that offers benefits for everyone. As part of this argument, this week I offer a discussion of the ideals of beauty which our culture encourages both men and women to admire and emulate. It may not be as serious an issue as other problematic areas of gender relations such as rape, abortion and pay inequalities, but I believe that the politics behind how we see ourselves illustrates many of the subtle difficulties of modern gender identifications.

These images of Brigette Bardot come from Tel Aviv University’s recent “beautification” software program, which ‘tackle the challenge of altering a face according to agreed-upon standards of attractiveness,’ according to researchers. Such a study demonstrates the absurd nature of the modern preoccupation with narrowing the parameters of beauty - Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These images of Brigette Bardot come from Tel Aviv University’s recent “beautification” software program, which ‘tackle the challenge of altering a face according to agreed-upon standards of attractiveness,’ according to researchers. Such a study demonstrates the absurd nature of the modern preoccupation with narrowing the parameters of beauty - Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 2007 UK women spent £3.7 billion on beauty products. The total cosmetic surgery market is now worth just over £900m – more than double the £430m spent in 2005. UK cosmetic surgery spending is expected by experts to treble and reach just under 1.5 billion by 2011.  

Reading many different interpretations of sex-appropriate approaches to physical appearances led me to think carefully about my own stance on the matter. I remembered that, as a child, I sometimes played with make-up and clothes, attracted by their theatricality. At other times, I played as a tom-boy, scorning anything resembling a dress and preferring mud to makeup. It didn’t occur to me that one might be deemed more ‘suitable’ than the other. Today, however, despite feeling essentially unchanged in my natural inclinations, I find it hard to ignore what virtually all visual media believes a woman ‘should’ look like – made-up, not muddied up.

This restriction goes both ways: men also have their own standards of masculine identity to adhere to, which often precludes experimentation with feminine accoutrements, or acceptance of looks that Hollywood might pass over. It occurred to me that modern expectations of what looks masculine and what looks feminine seem more rigid than ever, even though feminism has made progress in other areas. Why is this the case?

‘Gender is a form of social drag – women, and feminine men, are expected to ritually perform femininity every day through their appearance in order to define themselves as anything other than ‘manly” 

The influential gender theorist Judith Butler argues that gender is a form of social drag – women, and feminine men, have to ritually perform femininity every day through their appearance in order to define themselves as anything other than ‘manly’. Painting, plucking and primping are all widely accepted as part of a feminine daily routine in the UK and elsewhere. Masculine men, on the other hand, do not have to dress up into their gender role. Basic attention to hygiene plus shaving covers the bulk of masculine concessions to aesthetics.

The time and money invested in the cause of simply looking as a woman ‘should’ look is therefore an inbuilt social disadvantage. Before make-up, dieting and high heels, patriarchal cultures ensured that women were limited by physically limiting fashions such as corseting and foot-binding. In the past women had little choice over whether to follow these uncomfortable and painful trends; today we can ignore them if we wish. Yet now we are surrounded everywhere by messages from advertisements carefully designed to exploit insecurities for profit. Their messages rarely seem intended to make women comfortable, either psychologically or physically. High heels, for example, seem more like a modern reincarnation of corseting than a symbol of emancipation. Sure, they do create a sexually alluring silhouette – i.e. a provocative mixture of strength and vulnerability. They serve a purpose in this respect. But why is this day-to-day concern of independent women? And the woman who wears the new super-high heels not only requires a taxi to go anywhere, but also a man to escort her to the nearest seat. She is ostentatiously dependent on everything and everyone. This is no freedom; it is merely sexualised showing off. And yet high heels are ruthlessly marketed as symbol of female power. The conflation of frivolous spending with womanly independence has resulted in capitalist ‘me-first’ feminism, which undermines the wider goals of social movement towards gender equality.

‘Our masculine culture celebrates the self-confident, the unadorned, and the natural – yet it is a culture which vilifies these virtues when women attempt to claim them’ 

So why are women so keen to listen to the fashion and beauty industries? In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf suggests that as women have become more equal and more visible, men feel unconsciously threatened by this rejection of male supremacy. Patriarchy is therefore reasserting itself organically, through a cultural acceptance of male expectations. Now that non-masculine people can earn, they also can spend, and advertising encourages them to do so. Sexism lies at the root of why we are told to indulge in some ‘retail therapy’. Those who profit from advertising and commerce are more likely to be men than women, as men dominate the highest paid roles of such lucrative industries.

But the fashion and beauty industries are not the part of the issue which concerns me most, because at least they generally limit their exploitation of women to their finances. Cosmetic surgery, on the other hand, takes this a step further – people are now paying to have their bodies cut open in pursuit of beauty. All arguments aside, this is a worrying extreme to reach. I am not entirely against cosmetic surgery, however: I can see why people feel good when they can finally change something that makes them unhappy, whether internally or externally. It has enabled women (and some men) to meet society’s expectations of what their bodies should be like. Many feel that the confidence gained from this type of surgery makes up for the cost and physical risks. This is something only the individual concerned can judge, and I can respect that.

My concern is with the social forces which tell these women that happiness lies in both psychologically and physically internalising an artificial value. Women are increasingly forced to accept the objectification of their bodies as simply a part of life, and this is underlined by the fact that they are paying to have actual objects ( i.e. silicon implants) inserted into them. The masculine fantasy of women as objects is becoming a fact. The metaphor is less easy to refute when there are indeed objects under the skin of women, and not under the skin of men. I do not think that it is a coincidence that people seem to find it easy to trash the women who change themselves through surgery – it’s as if Katie Price’s plastic breasts and Madonna’s chemically frozen face outwardly confirm suspicions that they are indeed less than thinking, feeling humans.

At least make-up and fashion – for all their faults – have never claimed to sit any deeper than the surface of a person. They are superficial, and they remain on the surface. But now we are also allowing the natural interiors of our bodies to be invaded by this superficiality. And why? To please the gaze of those who enjoy the superficial. And this is something that should be fought, not accepted with a shrug.

Tattoos and piercing are an invasive way of altering appearance to; but at least they do not target a particular sex, and there is no pretence that they are how a person ‘should’ look. My issue with the cosmetic procedures marketed to target women’s insecurities is that they claim to create a natural appearance. This is a lie. A natural appearance is the one a person is born with; and though make-up and fashion may play with the boundaries of ‘natural,’ they never intrinsically alter it. Cosmetic surgeons sell aggressive conformity, not nature.

So what can we do? Resisting the negative messages that advertising bombards us with is difficult. These aspirational images of thin women and strapping men demand conformity from us, and yet they are looks prized because of their very rarity. It is the men and women in the public eye who resist this conformity are the ones who deserve celebration, and yet instead their idiosyncrasies are either airbrushed away, or ringed with a Circle of Shame in malignant magazines read by hundreds of thousands, particularly by women. These magazines hate the natural body ( body hair, spots, and wrinkles) and yet hate falsity too (implants, botox and over-generously applied make-up). They peddle self-hate and schadenfreude to us, whilst we are primed to feel these destructive emotions by a masculine culture which celebrates the self-confident, the unadorned, and the natural – yet it is a culture which vilifies these virtues when women attempt to claim them.

Both men and women are co-opted into these rigid limitations, and we are all complicit. Ultimately, the best we can do is resist these internalized aversions to difference and the damagingly paradoxical demands that society makes of us, and it seems that the only way to do this to try to avoid actively investing any further into this culture of conformity.

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The Badger

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2 Comments

  • An interesting article, and I do not disagree too much with the final conclusion – that we are all responsible and need to take responsibility for how much we comply with the socital expectation.

    However, I feel a little fact checking could have made the article a little more convincing. For instance, the entire sentence ‘High heels, for example, seem more like a modern reincarnation of corseting than a symbol of emancipation’, is flawed from beginning to end, thus making anything built off of it, which a lot then is, flawed as well. High heels are not modern. High heels became popular in the late 30s… The late 1530s. Even the ‘super-high heels’ referenced aren’t really modern, the prefered height of heels has varied wildly with time, and it is just that recently they have become more popular.

    Corsets came in popular fashion at around the same time, making them of the same age. It is, in fact, just that corsets have since fallen out of fashion, unlike high heels, that makes them seem older. Furthermore, the idea that wearing a corset is uncomfortable or even potentially dangerous is, as is implied in that sentence is entirely false, as long as one is careful to choose the correct size. Instead, they actually have health benifits, given that they promote good posture, and they are not overly restrictive to movement. Damage is only done if one is being vein and choosing a size too small.

    This is far from the only factual problem. Completely ignored is the fact that men too can have cosmetic surgery, and are an increasingly large proportion of the market. Equally, there is pressure on men to look a certain way, the amount of time a lot of men spend to look like they haven’t spent any at all is really quite ironic.

  • Thank you for reading the article Matthew, you present some interesting angles.

    Perhaps the point I was going for was more that it seems strange for women to embrace high heels as a symbol of independent womanhood. Yes, they have been around for a very long time – fair enough. But that makes it no less strange that women have now adopted them as power dressing, rather than shoes which increase sex appeal whilst nevertheless reducing mobility and comfort. I have no qualms with wearing heels myself, if I am consciously choosing to appear more attractive than comfortable. But arguing that heels serve any purpose beyond this seems slightly absurd.

    The health benefits of corsets may be manifold, but that does not alter the fact that many women found them restrictive yet still were expected to wear them. Modern society, for all its faults, at least now permits women to choose what they wear, even if it does hold up painful shoes as some kind of higher good. Now we can at least opt out.

    I don’t deny that men can have cosmetic surgery, and increasingly do. My point is that men – rightly or wrongly – tend to hold more power in society than women do, and can therefore do more to steer expectations of (male and female) appearence. Advertising is dominated by male executives (www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/jul14/mediatop1002008103) – all listed are male. Cosmetic surgery is dominated by male surgeons (thttp://www.privatehealth.co.uk/privatespecialists/find-a-doctor/plastic-and-reconstructive-surgeons/) – only 2 out the listed 20 top surgeons are female. I think that it is unfair that women are accusing of being materialistic and shallow, when actually all they are doing is responding to what men want.

    I do think that people can do more to take the emphasis off looks in our society, for the benefit of all.