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.
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.