Catch-Up Post 2: The Beauty Myth

I just went out to do errands in my most modest outfit ever-- a long skirt, long-sleeved top, and headscarf. And I have to say: it is so liberating to have an excuse not to try and look trendy. I had suspected that this would be the case, but the strength of the relief I feel is surprising. I have no image, and I can't be critiqued for not wearing those stupid not-pants and a loose shirt, nor can I feel weird at a bar because I don't have the requisite long, wavy hair because hey-- I just don't dress like that. It's wonderful to have the "excuse" not to compare my trendiness with other women's, and to my shock I caught myself wondering if, when I turn thirty and TME is over, I'll even want to go back to the way I used to look. This feeling may also be a product of carefully putting my outfit together today, which I did-- the skirt and blouse are comfy and adorable and the headscarf is cute too. I feel beautiful, but like a princess, not like a twenty-something, middle class white woman. It's a wonderful feeling, peeps. Seriously. I highly recommend it. I'm also pretty sure that no one stared at me, though I felt a little silly.

I picked up Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth (1991) at a library on campus to see what Ms. Wolf had to say about how we as a society got to where we are in terms of attractiveness standards in this country. Now, this book was written in '91 so it's not as relevant as, say, Female Chauvinist Pigs (Ariel Levy, 2004-- AMAZING BOOK), but if the beauty industry was generating x billion dollars back then, I think we can safely assume that it generates more now.

Wolf's contention is that the Beauty Myth is what rushed in to fill the vacuum left behind when women realized that they weren't just wives and mothers thanks to The Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan, 1963-- I promise I'm not doing all these citations on purpose, these are just books that changed me and made me feel so much less alone). She says that the standards of beauty imposed on American women after we started competing with men professionally are a social control mechanism designed to keep things running smoothly, a way to continually keep women worrying about stuff that doesn't matter so that we won't have time to worry about what does matter. After WWII we were defined by our households, the gadgets and furniture which filled them supplied mostly by companies who needed to stay afloat after the war; now, we're defined by our youth, weight and beauty. Same mechanism and same effect-- different medium. Wolf also acknowledges that some biologists say that "beauty" is a marker of reproductive desirability, but she says that that isn't actually true, that beauty isn't universal. If you think about it, beauty standards do change. Quickly. I need to do more research on this, but I know that there's a popular theory that a preference for beauty is natural and biologically built-in. But what if it's not? Then why does it feel like life and death for some of us?

Of course, she doesn't imply that "men" are meeting in back rooms somewhere and going, "Those little women, they're getting too big for their britches! We gotta take them down a notch. Let's make them think they're... ugly! YEAH!!" But you gotta admit, the world is male-dominated, and American culture, which is decidedly misogynistic, enjoys its position as an international trendsetter. The thing is, this isn't coming just from men-- we as women assent to it, we use its standards to judge ourselves and other women, we voluntarily wax and buy and fret and make catty comments about one another. But could you imagine what would happen if suddenly women stopped buying cosmetics, unnecessary hair products, diet products and expensive clothes? What if women just consumed as much as men do to keep up their appearance, but no more? Could you imagine how drastically the world economy would shift if there were no more cosmetics ads to sell, no more mani/ pedi stores in the mall-- not to mention the companies that would crumble if women stopped buying most of their products (L'Oreal, Estee Lauder, Proctor & Gamble)? And for the love of all things holy, What would happen to Nordstrom's? They'd be reduced to setting up shop in refurbished Walgreens(es)!

I'm not sure if there's some sinister reason for the pressure that's put on me to look a certain way, but I have been observing just how many times a day I'm assailed with images of beautiful women. It's inescapable: characters on TV shows and movies, commercials, posters, internet ads... it's unending, and nowadays you see pictures of Bedouin tribeswomen with copies of Cosmopolitan (this is true-- I saw a picture like that just recently). Next time you watch TV, compare the male characters to the female ones in terms of attractiveness. Try a one-to-one comparison, and see how you feel. Just be aware of how hard the women must work as opposed to the men, and look for unattractive women, see what roles they play and how often they appear. Whether it's a matter of social control or not, women are constantly bombarded with the message: "You need to look like someone else."

And then there's the "requirement" of makeup being part of the uniform of a professional woman. In The Beauty Myth lawsuits were brought because bosses fired women for not wearing makeup-- and the women LOST. Well, I thought to myself, That was "back then." That doesn't happen now. But then I ran into someone who told me that her friend was taken aside and told to "look more feminine" by her female boss; now the friend wears makeup so thick that you can't see her real skin. Her demeanor has changed, too: she's self-conscious and nervous, always wearing revealing clothing, where before she was confident and happy according to the woman I spoke to. Ministers, professors, executives, saleswomen, doctors... all are expected, generally speaking, to wear makeup to work. So... in order to be taken seriously, I literally have to look like someone else? I have to wear a mask at work? WHAT? And of course, the most upsetting part of this idea that to look "professional" one must wear makeup: I accepted it myself, unconditionally, without thinking about it. Then... I thought about it.

Still other women feel a deficit because their mothers never taught them how to apply makeup. I've heard this more than once, and it's interesting to me because I wasn't taught either-- I just do it. But a few women I've spoken with have said that they feel as though a piece of their identity as a woman is missing because they were never "initiated" into the world of grown-up makeup and stuff.

It's a creepy thought, that modern beauty standards are a culturally sanctioned way to keep women constantly distracted and competing. Nowadays it's not cool to insinuate that women are still oppressed but in more subtle ways than ever (people will call you a... gulp... feminist), but I do know one thing: TME has made me happier. It's that simple.


  1. Hi L! This is a wonderful post with lots of great stuff in it. However, I'm still not caught up with HT reading so instead of a thoughtful reflection to your post, you get a snarky comment:
    "not-pants and a loose shirt" are not stupid when worn by Nöel :D

  2. Hmmm. There's a lot I want to respond to here. I definitely have been on the receiving end of the "why-don't-you-wear-makeup-to-work" speech. However, that story has a happy ending because the boss saying it was also my pastor who ended up expelled from the church for saying super-inappropriate things. During the time though, I felt super uncomfortable and creeped out. So, rebel that I am, I went far in the OPPOSITE direction so as I make myself seem more "professional" and be taken "seriously." I cut and dyed my hair dark, wore thick glasses and stuck to boring suits in neutral colors. Now, however, I realized that that bad experience was still forcing me to not be myself. Now I dress how I like and let the church say "amen," so to speak.
    While standards are outrageous for women, I feel like the beauty standards for men don't get talked about. I've witnessed men get freaked out and feel self-conscious about their bodies and make bad choices based on what they think women want and what "Men's Health" tells them What their abs should look like. It's also more dangerous sometimes for boys who develop eating disorders in order to "make weight" for the wrestling team or try to attain physical perfection. This doesn't usually get talked about for them.
    It still bothers me, though, that if I decide not to wear makeup people think I'm ill and ask me if I need to go home. However, I'm also super fair so, maybe a fair question?