Beautiful Choices, Illusive Freedom

 

According to the ASPCA there are over 70 million pet dogs int he US.    each one, to it’s human, is a little fuzz ball of love.  So how could popele possibly judge the best dog in show in a matter of momments, without even a good ball throw?  Turns out, the best dog in show isn’t, surprise, the best dog there.

8cb640dfb3e7732b6e1e62f5f4076d00.jpgDogs in dog shows are juded against their breed convention.  This means the best dog is defined as the dog that most closely fits the rules for how that breed of dog shoul look.  None of the qualtiies that make you love your dog–fun, cuddly, playful, loyal–matter in the ring.  Its all about fitting the form as laid out by the Kennel club hosting the show.  Critics of dog shows say that the focus on sucha  narrow set of qualities leads to unethical breeding practices, including inbreeding, resulting in harm to the dogs, all in the name of the perfect pup.

Like those dogs in the ring, human beauty takes the shape of conforming to a narrow set of norms.  This comes as no suprise to you smarty pants that you are.  A quick look around our culture shows us just how narrow the ideas of ideal beauty can be.

From magazine covers

vogue covers.jpg To youtube videos that assure us their process is sound in choosing the 100 most beautiful women out of 7.5 billion humans.

To the way models are chosen to represent “every woman of every age”

Since images of women who conform to beauty conventions are everywhere, they become the norm.  We don’t have to read into these convention to know that they are conveying the expectations for those in the culture.  It is explicitly stated over and over that theis is the expectation:

1D274907109615-141029-VS-perfect-body-2001.jpgAnd that meeting those expectations is tied to your consuption of products and services.

Where do these ideas about the body and beauty come from?  Biology, history, culture, art–any number of spheres of human experience influence what you, today think is beautiful.

A biologist might say that many of the thing we think of that make the human body beautiful may be tied to our own desire to mate and procreate.  In the clip below British zoologist Desmond Morris looks at our beauty norms and connects them with our animal nature.

Or we can go farther back, before greeks gods–or greeks for that matter. Anicient indigenous cultures around the world have their own ideas of beauty that have nothing to do with the Greek norms.  Venus, Oshun, and and Lakshmi are all goddesses of beauty in their respective culutres.

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Just like today’s conventional beauties, these goddesses are young, unblemished, shapely and fair of face.  Unlike today’s princesses, they did more than look hot: they invented love, created arts and culture or grew wealth.

These ancient codes come to us from across the world and thousands of years of human civilization.  Each human group, each era puts its own stamp on the idea of beauty as it marches across history.  Whether beauty is desirable for display or designed to remain carefully hidden, the construct remains important, especially in structuring relationships among and between genders.

It’s important to consider who it is that is deciding and defining these cultural norms.  Those that make the definitions wield power over the culture, since values and norms are not held in a vacuum, but are closely tied to societal benefits and consequences.  In western civilisation, early ideas of beauty are debated by the thinkers, writers and artist of the time.  Here from the Ennead Plotinus makes it clear that adherence to form–our dog show rule–is the rule for human beauty as well:

We hold that all the loveliness of this world comes by communion in Ideal-Form. All shapelessness whose kind admits of pattern and form, as long as it remains outside of Reason and Idea, is ugly from that very isolation from the Divine-Thought. And this is the Absolute Ugly: an ugly thing is something that has not been entirely mastered by pattern, that is by Reason, the Matter not yielding at all points and in all respects to Ideal-Form. But where the Ideal-Form has entered, it has grouped and coordinated what from a diversity of parts was to become a unity: it has rallied confusion into co-operation: it has made the sum one harmonious coherence: for the Idea is a unity and what it moulds must come into unity as far as multiplicity may.

Plotinus, 22 [Ennead I, 6]

Artist of the time were pretty obsessed with the idea.  Polyclitus, a 5th century sculptor wrote a treatise on the perfect form and in case you were unclear, he created a companion statue that showed what he purported to be the ideal human form–and here he is!

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Not your cup of tea?  Philosophers like Humes and Kant believed beauty to be entirely subjective–it’s in the eye of the beholder, so to speak.  Therefore, there were no hard and fast rules about what made someone–or something for that matter–beautiful.  Problem solved—especially for important people who were a little less than hot.  Wealth, status, mothering and godliness could give one the gentle glow of beauty in the 19th century.

godeys-lady-book

The domesticity-and-godliness school of beauty was faced with growing challenges created by the industrial revolution.  Along with electricity and cars, new fabrics and textiles and  new fabrications methods meant new kinds of clothing came into style.  The wide availablity of cheap cotton along with the invention and eveoloution of the home sewing mchine meant fashion had come to the masses.

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Of course now that you could sew it yourself, why make the same old thing? More form fitting, more comfortable clothes with lighter fabircs took place of heavy mulitlayered clothes.  Whale bone shapers of the 18th and 19th century gave way to steel and then lighter plastic based fabric in the 20th century. New fabrics and new fashions were accopanied by new values that encouraged women to participate in efforts to make themselves more beautiful. Later, an increasingly industrial society meant that women had leaisure time freed up by new inventions like the dishwasher, refriderator and washing machine.

50s dress pattern

So far it seems as though it’s not just ideas about beauty and gender identity, but also the cold gears of capitalism that are grinding women into new shapes in the contemporary world.  In our own  time we are seeing again shifting images of bodies that are considered attractive or acceptable.  Is this born out of a new genration’s desire for equality and freedom?  Maybe not.

A typical fashiion model is a size 0, 2 or 4, but the average size woman in America is a size 12-14.  Plus size models are typically a size 8 while plus size clothing starts at 14. Its not just the line between traiditional and plus sizing as well.  The sizes themselves shift with consumer attitudes and the demands of the market.  Vanity sizing is a process by which stores rename sizes to make consumers think they fit a smaller size. Check out some of your favorite retailers below.

dress size 8

In a world where language, image and lived reality are so wildly different no wonder women feel such conflict over body size and shape.  We have no shared way to describe ourselves or each other and our ideas are constatntly being manipulated in order to increase profits.

There seems to be a lot of push back–any number of campaigns that seek to challenge traditional beauty standards by featuring bodies typically unseen or not described in desirable terms.  Dove is most known for their Real Women campaign:

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While people were busy looking at these “atypical bodies” many failed to notice the accompanying product and copy was less celebratory and more antagonistic to those bodies.  The product that was being advertised in the original ad series was a thigh firming cream.  on the one hand, your body is acceptable enough to be a part of the marketplace, and by the way, your thighs are disgusting.  Additionally, later reports show that the campaign had used photoshop for retouching of the women who were size 4-12.

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Lots of ad campaigns have come out to “celebrate” real beauty.  Ads feature women whose size is often invisible on fashion runways.Before you start to celebrate, many of the images of “real women” are as skewed as unrealistic conventional standards. These ads maintain many of the conventions of a desirable body–young, cellulite free, relatively smooth belly, coke bottle shape, smooth skin.

aerie-realI mean, did this woman need to be retouched? No. We are certainly seeing a variety of body sizes, but what is being defined as increaing diversity is merely a slightly broadening of what is acceptable.  Women who are visible constinue to maintain the age-old conventions of beauty and appeal to sexuality.

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Instead we are withnessing a calculated move to expand the customer base in some industries while protecting that wide number of industries that rely on continued unrealistic body images and standards. This is a careful line to walk for multinationals like Unilever who owns both dove and Slimfast.

Which leads us to the idea of choice.  Third wave feminism is born in the debate within the feminst movement about sex, choice, the construction of the body and equality.  Whereas second wave feminist were as a group unwilling to adopt or endorse a sex-positive agenda, the third wave was more willing to engage thesese questions and the varied responses to them.  With several decades of debate over these issues there certainly is no one answer that easily applies across the board.

A deeper issue beneth the skin of body issues has less to do with beauty and more to do with the way that power rewards–or doesn’t–women who are willing to fit hegemonic beauty standards.  The battle between second and third wave feminist over beauty ideals seems to center here.  As women fight for an equal share of finanacial and social captial, does making choices that kowtow to hegemonic beauty ideals set us back or disrup the fight?  Second wave feminist worried that continued forward progress would be halted or at least confused by women participation in a beauty regimine set out by the patriarchy.  Third wave feminists argue for a braoder tent where women with varying beliefs, including around the body, can fight toghether for equality.

But here is the rub to balls-out screw-em-if-you-got-em-all-choice-all-the-time feminism:  can choosing the adoption of beauty rituals really be a choice?  Third wave feminists are cut from the same cloth as neoliberal politics which elevate choice and individuality above all else.  Whatever you want to do is up to and on you.   What seems like the freedom of born-this-way ideology though is problematic in a culture where the body is constructed in the media to sell product and reinforce dominnat cultural values.

Stripping, six inch heels, and the makeup counter at Sephora all seem like choices available to the modern woman.  A little nip tuck?  Why not–it is up to you.  But Jefferys and other feminists show us the deep rabbit hole of patriarchal culture we can choose to jump down when we engage in cutting, carving and coercing our body to fit hegemonic ideals.

Before you go hard claiming the cultural artifacts of western hegemonic beauty standards, ask yourself:

If women really do have choice to look any way they want why is there such a narrow set of choices for them in visible culture?

What if you looked perfect right now?  Would you do anything differently?

What would I do with the time and money I spend making myself look presentable?  What if every woman had an increase in disposible income and time–what would they engage in?

Revenue_of_the_cosmetic_industry_in_the_U_S__2002-2016___Forecast.jpg

What postitive social outcomes for women and girls could be achieved if the money spent on achieving beauty was used in other ways to enact policies for women?

These questions get under the skin of the false promise of a neloliberal culture.  A year of violence against trans women and women of color and continued inequality in pay show us that many of the fights of all waves of feminism are under attack.  If you want to put lipstick on, go ahead–as long as it doesn’t stop you from fighting for real freedom.

 

 

 

 

Susan X Jane

Susan Jane thinks a lot about media and race…a lot. She teaches Communications at Wheelock College, writes and speaks about media…and race... and generally encourages everyone she meets to think about the way media shapes their sense of self and their ideas and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

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