By Osien Kuumar:
“The beauty myth of the present is more insidious than any mystique of femininity yet” — Naomi Wolf
There’s nothing more daunting than the pressures and reserves of norms surrounding beauty in the current days. I was 10 when my grandmother first said “lose some weight if you want to look beautiful”. As a child I was lost. It made no sense till I reached my teenage and began to comprehend the snarky comments made on my body, much of which came from my family and friends. So I starved myslef, put my body through a plethora of diet plans to see what fits right, worked out for hours, and yet today I am struggling to figure out what is the “right weight”, good enough to be termed “beautiful”. Am I there yet? Will my grandmother be proud? Will it change the way people look at me? Will the world love me?
Many women, I am confident, have been through something similar across the globe. “Beauty” surrounds us, defines us and moulds us into the “perfect” “desirable” woman. Or does it?
Naomi Wolf, author to the popular book “The Beauty Myth” written in the 90s had much to say back then. And she did. Some of her assertions, in my view, are not only applicable to women but to other gender categories of the contemporary times as well. However, most of it is primarily about “being women” or “women-like”.
Not much has changed since the publication of that book. The contemporary times are equal participants to what women struggled for earlier and have to, even today. What has further evolved over the years is the participation and “victimization” of the “other” gender(s) under this mythic rooftop.
So what is the beauty myth? What led to its discovery and construction in the first place? Why does it constantly travel with a woman’s identity? There are in fact, a number of perceptions that one can form when it comes to the topic of beauty. Whether it’s a choice or a necessity, it’s difficult to differentiate. But following the historical perspectives that have today made “beauty” a significant fact that many feminist movements failed to eradicate, it has become a necessary choice. The beauty myth therefore becomes an ideal, a standard, and a delusional creation of beauty that one must attain to survive and achieve.
A direct result of this is the self-image anxiety women put themselves through. They live in a sphere where their bodies define their self-esteem and progress. “We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth.” says Wolf. Thus, ‘beauty’ serves as an effective belief system to keep male dominance intact where they razz women for not being desirable based on a set criterion. The beauty myth here, covertly outdoes the good that feminism has done for women.
Industrialization evolved the ideas of beauty to a new, much more engaging level, where women literally became a carrier of its possession. The beauty myth therefore eventually ended up undermining women’s role in work places, where they were judged on their physical attributes instead of their work and talent. Where they were already working multiple shifts i.e. of workplace as well as home and family, a third distraction from work developed with respect to beauty: waxing, plucking, toning, trimming, etc. Wolf calls this the Professional Beauty Qualification (PBQ) to state the role played by beauty in work places that prevent women’s success.
The corporate culture today stands on representation of businesses, which is valued not just by talent or human effort but also by the personalities, and appearances of their employees. However, women’s appearances are given more weightage. For example, news channels prefer “pretty” faces as anchors instead of someone who holds reliable talent. In fact, it communicates the “ vital lies” that rests on the pillars of desirable beauty, which directly contradicts women’s real situation. Women that follow the myth of beauty are hired as marketing faces. The fashion industry, too, completely rests on the prejudices against women’s natural body figures.
Another significant factor responsible for the current construct around beauty is the fixation of it with respect to women in power. This coincides with the current media portrayal of women who are doing well in their careers, primarily the celebrities and high flying corporates. It’s as if their fight for success is not merely about sitting at a powerful position in society but with their own bodies to stay within the criteria of “a flawless body” or a body that justifies their role. (For instance: Women in politics are required to dress a certain way, women in the film industry are desired a certain way).
Women over the years have been trying to escape the confines of the beauty myth. Some have succeeded to some extent, for instance, Ellen DeGeneres, an American TV talk-show host, who is also considered an LGBT role model, has managed to challenge the beauty norms and escape the myth. The others who haven’t, often fall for the myth. The sudden drop to size zero, and then eventually overcoming “rumoured anorexia”, as known about Bollywood actress Kareena Kapoor, did in fact start a trend in India. My very own classmate back in school dropped 40 kilograms to end up in a hospital!
Not only do cultural stereotypes such as “beauty without brains” or “Oh! She’s intelligent, but needs to improve her personality”, make sure women engage with “beauty”, but other social messages pertaining to women descriptions, constantly try to control women. Advertisements on television, endorsements in magazines, concurrent articles written on women health (dieting, anti-aging, fair skin, etc.), that constantly “objectify” women as their “selling” quotient, or target them as consumers under the shadow of “women liberation”, often end up glamorizing the role of women with respect to their “empowering” identities. They are not subjected to the whole truth and therefore come to absurd revelations about themselves. This makes them less interesting and desirable and the myth stronger and more persistent than ever. Taking my own example for instance, I often debate with my male friends on why they only look at “women of a certain type” and not all for who they are as human beings, but at the same time, deep down I desire to become that “type”, because that gets more recognition. In spite of realizing how dreadful this myth is, I (and most other women) fall in the trap.
Here I would quote Anuradha Ghandy, an Indian communist writer, who saysÂ “Marxism understands that some material conditions had to arise due to which the position of women changed and she was subordinated.” How were these conditions created? Who created them? The answers lie deep within the capitalist structure of women representation. Feminists who challenged these power equations and structural differences were termed “repulsive” by anti-feminists.
The relationship with female liberation and female beauty is another crucial aspect to the beauty myth. Here the permutations of “beauty” are deeply rooted within ideologies around religion, sex and culture. This is how women, in spite of breaking through several legal and material power structures, are stuck on images of beauty to dismiss their distress. Where women of colour are called “ugly” and so they strive to become fair, where a woman’s lovemaking skills are defined by the confines of the pornographic industry, where eating disorders and cosmetic surgeries are becoming a common deal, are we in fact, liberated? And are our “male counterparts” the sole game changers?
Are women propagating their own self-worth demise constantly? Wolf mentions how women treat “beauty” as religion, as an ultimate ideal, a belief. Mothers constantly feed their daughters with lies about beauty and age. “Your grandmother was once very beautiful” is what I have often heard from my mother. It’s as if the “old-age” ruined her and she is no longer worthy of the word “beautiful”.
Wolf says,“Men too have reverent feelings about this religion of women. The caste system based on “beauty” is defended as if it derives from an eternal truth.” She describes the contours of Christianity with respect to ideas of “decent” and “indecent” that existed but is now a part of the old moral code (with reference to creation of the “virgin Mary”). Today, however the “rites of beauty” have been modified, which reflects the “Judeo-Christian tradition: A woman’s flesh is evidence of a God-given wrongness; whereas fat men are fat gods”.
Even though the past rituals have been eradicated, the current statuses of these rites are more gnawing than ever. The “Weight-loss” cult, anti-aging potions, “skin salvation” creams, etc., used by the beauty industry are as severe as the earlier religious cults. The resulting self-loathing, depression and helplessness, because of inability to meet the demands of the beauty myth transgressing through beauty industries into women identities, is definitely scary.
Thus, the beauty myth eventually finds its way past religion, into a woman’s sexuality. A man’s, however, is irrelevant. Wolf recounts how our culture treats sexuality, and the way in which — not just through our advertising industry but through our art, literature, films, music and just about everything – we are taught to think about sexuality. The men under this platform become the doers and the watchers, while the women are done-to and watched. In fact, even after so many years of “female liberation”, most women are afraid of talking about their sexuality, bringing it up in conversations, admitting to the wants of playing the role of a “watcher” and question the “good-girl” image of them. For most, the “guilt” factor, or the “shame” aspect, plays a much larger role.
The emergence of “beauty pornography” after the 1970s (example: Playboy) did create sexual revelations for women, when they became free (with respect to American culture), however, Wolf assert in her book that this promoted sexual violence and normalized claims of “beauty” to be “ sexuality”. The intuitive understanding of the female sex organ as something to be taken care of, being the organ of reproduction constantly asserts the beauty myth.
The depiction and portrayal of sexual violence against women, today is censored and is a crime. However, at one point of time rape and sexual violence were blatantly described, while women sexual fantasies were considered obscene. Their beauty was only meant for men fantasies and pleasure. But as far as today goes, there are only a handful of changes in the society in terms of a woman’s sexuality.
“So powerful is pornography, and so smoothly does it blend in with the advertising of products…that many women find their own fantasies and self-images distorted too,” writes Debbie Taylor in Women: A World Report; as quoted by Wolf.
The perceptions of beauty today is much more complicated and talked about. Recently I read an article on 11 celebrities who were “not popular” in school. Their reasons for unpopularity were directly linked with the way they looked physically in their early days and the perceptions with which they were looked upon. This article, on MTV’s blog section quotes Lady Gaga, who mentions she was “Being teased for being ugly, having a big nose, being annoying.”
It is important to note how consumer culture drives the market by objectification of women who ironically want to be objectified. Beauty pageants such as Miss Universe, Miss World, etc. across the globe stand on steady platform screaming how a woman’s beauty defines her worth to the world. Even though they talk about the “intelligence” and “talent” of the participating women, they forget how their application forms itself stand behind the beauty myth.
The increasing number of cosmetic surgeries especially in the glamour industry for the sake of “beauty” has killed many women. But there is no stopping. The extreme makeovers to attain the “proper” height and weight have remarkable consequences. The worst part of this myth is that it sets women in opposition to each other.Â The beauty myth therefore enhances class divisions, where only the upper-class women can afford to look youthful. An expensive cosmetic industry, along with surgeries such as those for enhancing breasts or removal of ovaries, is designed for the upper-class women who very readily fall in the web.
Let’s not forget the Internet here. The Internet that has revolutionized communication has managed to create “face-less” identities for women who can survive in this space regardless of their physical attributes, as their knowledge and ideas are of paramount significance. However, advertisers, market monopolies, pornography, etc. exist to oppress women roles even here. There along with this exists the social media that surpasses the realms of the physical into the virtual, where again beauty has managed to influence the “social media identities”, and the social “profiles” of people on the web, particularly women. The beauty myth, thus, sustains itself through the Internet as well and therefore, Naomi Wolf’s work still holds relevance to a considerable extent.
What needs to be done today, by women, is not simply adapting to feminist ideologies, but firstly, understanding what feminism and feminine liberalization is. It is not an individual movement but a collective ordeal. Women need to realize that the challenge they face is universal instead of particular. It is systematic oppression that demands a systematic reform. That is the only way any changes can happen. To break free from the confines of artificial beauty or mythic ideas about oneself, women have to question their role in endorsing such a system. The idea of equality or reliance on emotional response to “equality”, it’s not what women want. What exploits them is the mode of production that uses their “beauty”, makes them believe that it is only their “beauty” which keeps progress in tact, and the understanding that there is no way out of it, and if there is one, it is with the help of the “superior” gender. Thus, to escape from the confines of beauty into an egalitarian, uncompromising, self-liberating environment, a collective approach against oppression, excluding men, is needed. The beauty myth subdues all and unless we turn away from the demands of the myth, we won’t find any escape route. Women have to understand the meaning of self-worth, self-confidence and not hurt themselves. The influence of the beauty myth is slowly transcending to other genders as well, however, the only way to stop it is by challenging it and not by hoping for an egalitarian society where everyone (including men) fall under its unjust purview.