Beauty Ideals: A War on Women

by: Amanda Owens

Recently, I launched a personal body-positive campaign, for which there are plenty of resources to undertake a journey, if an individual knows how and whereto look.

Our society is inundated with negative representation of women, which is rarely found to be critiqued in depth on a mainstream level, except for maybe by Jean Kilbourne in Killing Us Softly 4 (Part 1 and Part 2). I’d go so far as to say that the societal war on women [1]  is strongest in the militarization of beauty ideals and expectations.
Women are told from the time they are young through media and other institutions that they are not whole or complete until they have improved themselves with an immense list of products; women are told a lie that their efforts are not in vain of capitalism, but for beauty.

Consider this: women are expected to buy disposable feminine products monthly to help their menstruation process smell “better;” to buy razors to shave their armpits and legs or even invest in special creams to remove hair from faces and other areas; to buy make-up for entire faces, eyes, eyelashes, and special occasions, and even make-up removal creams and products to enhance natural skin health and the look of “youth;” to buy the latest fashion trends, accessories, shoes, hair styles, hair products, and hair fasteners; to diet and have food restrictions to be thinner; and much much more that tell women with these things they will be more attractive. All that $$$ adds up!

A seemingly innocent ad tells women all of these things in the smoothness of the model’s skin, hairless and pore-less, well-groomed and heavily made-up, in the best outfit and accessories and hair style that money can buy. And we believe it.

Why? Because there exist social rewards and consequences for following this strict beauty regimen. Cosmopolitan magazine tells women that they are more successful at work if lipstick is worn; Marc Jacobs tells us that sexualizing a youth actress like Dakota Fanning for product placement is sweet, not suggestive or criminal; that desiring cosmetic surgery is expected in the face of low self-esteem ignoring the social institutions and ideologies that influence self-esteem, instead.

Working on being body-positive has been mostly inspired by Sonya Renee‘s The Body Is Not an Apology Campaign and the Unapologetic Posse which include some amazing people that are my friends.

However, some of my friends have given me pushback with comments about my lack of make-up or plucked eyebrows, “Don’t you want to improve yourself?” and male acquaintances have remarked, “Well, how are you going to find someone to date?”

Really? Those are my choices? To be “better” – because it is impossible to be the best ME possible the way that I am or how I choose– or to be someone I am not FOR someone else?

Furthermore, I’ve heard so many men complain about women being complicit in these forced and false beauty ideals, yet many of those same men enforce it in words, actions, and media consumption. Creators of TV, film, and adverts argue that their products or stories won’t sell without beauty. This causes me to pause… is beauty then definable? an Absolute Truth that has never changed throughout history?

No!

We all know that beauty has changed with time, by culture, through individual perception. Yet today in the U.S., “54% of women would rather be hit by a truck than be [considered] fat… 81% of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat. 67% of women withdraw from life-engaging activities like giving an opinion, going to school, and going to the doctor because they feel badly about their looks” [Statistics from Delta Delta Delta and Ending Fat Talk].

These aren’t silly body esteem issues that can be tossed aside or dealt with on only a personal level.

These are issues that need to be dealt with society-wide.

Some product companies and countries are not making rules, regulations, and restrictions about the use of photoshop on models, models that don’t represent real women (the body type searched for in fashion models only represent about 2% of the actual body types of women in society), and the use of women in seductive, suggestive, or objectified ways.

This restriction that is highly criticized for, what? Freedom of speech?

Yet, the reality is that the majority of women are damaged and harmed by these insensitive, unrealistic, and unrelenting imagery.

Force-fed beauty ideals do not discriminate blindly across lines of difference such as race, class, and sexuality. Women of color have much less representation in media that women who identify as white do, and the representation that exists is often derogatory in the depictions of stereotypes, social locations, and class.

Women of color are given different social standards and may be harder pressed to find beauty products that relate to their skin color. Just how band-aids and crayons have a “skin color” that refers to White individuals, make-up foundation, pantyhose, and other maketed beauty products are largely exclusive of women of color. Models used are predominantly individuals who would be considered light-skinned  and style of hair is constantly policed and monitored.

I feel the false notion of a post-racial nation can be tossed aside, along with the idea that feminism has empowered women beyond the warring beauty-tactics and shaming launched by society’s media and consumer moguls. Subtle and blatant messages in all forms of media, sometimes hiding under the pretense of feminist-choice, are conforming to an idea that a woman must discipline her body in a painful and punishing manner, to be held to a unrealistic standard and blamed for failure. Failures that are based on arbitrary guidelines that aren’t just often unrealistic, but damaging and uncaring towards women in real life.

The social expectations for women introduced, perpetuated, and exacerbated by media represent a hegemonic ideal of beauty that is overall very harmful for women’s self-esteem, self-efficacy, and productivity.

Considering the use of social control, these battle-like tactics against women make perfect sense. Socially constructed and enforced beauty ideals are another weapon of the patriarchy to undermine and undervalue women in the larger picture.

Is it possible to feel empowered on basis of our own perception, and not through the lens of society?

Could we set aside these barriers and come together to fight the war that’s being waged on our reproductive, political, and economic rights.

I honestly don’t know. But I do want to incite thought and invite change for the use of beauty in our own lives, and call to showing love to our own bodies every day.

So, now, 5 months after launching my own journey to discover my beauty and make no apologies for my body, I can say I wear make-up as an occasional accessory, but not an obligatory one. That I don’t suck in and that I dress more for me than ever before. Do I still struggle? of course. But am I getting better at not concerning myself with my image and how others perceive me? Absolutely. I encourage you to do the same.

[1] I use woman/women loosely to identify individuals who identify women, and not solely restricted to those individuals who were assigned female at birth.

Note: This piece was originally featured on the author’s blog and reposted with permission. You can find the original here.

Amanda Owens is a summer away from starting grad school at DePaul University. She’s struggling to discover reality in a society that hides behind a curtain of falsified perfection, by being a loud advocate for survivors of sexual assault, being queer and then writing about it, and volunteering for her community. You can always read more of her poetry and politics at http://wagingwarwithwords.wordpress.com.

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One response to “Beauty Ideals: A War on Women

  1. Love your pieces as always :] I often find myself inadvertently critiquing the smallest of details in relation to a person’s appearace, and I have to remind myself frequently of my own imperfections. In my observations, people tend to be critical, in particular, of the gender, or group of genders, that they are attracted to.

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