Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Beauty Myth, Part I

You know those books you'll be meaning to read for ages, but it will never be quite urgent enough to put them on the library list, and then there's a giant used book sale, it's a dollar or less, and then just kind of sitting there in front of you at home, on a train ride... Which is how I ended up finally getting to Naomi Wolf's 1991 The Beauty Myth.

I'm somewhere in the middle of it now, so I have a good sense of the argument, only inklings of what the solution might be that she may provide. But basically the idea is, whereas women used to be held back economically, professionally, with every advance made in those areas, a step or several backwards have been taken in terms of escalating beauty requirements placed on everyday women. Whereas there was once a subset of women expected to be officially, professionally beautiful (actresses and such), thanks to modern media (which, these days... remember that this was in 1991! the stuff about how pornography has changed expectations, presumably one may assume the internet, the smartphone, has had some kind of an impact), this can now plausibly be asked of all women.

Who or what is the agent making this so? The patriarchy? In anticipation, no doubt, of arguments along the lines of, 'but I'm a man and I prefer the natural look,' or, 'women are much harder on one another than men are on women, they're doing this to themselves,' she attributes this not merely to men thinking they're entitled to porn-star clones, but also to women's own ambivalence regarding their relatively new power in society. That, and above all else, to corporate interests - if women are no longer buying ten different kinds of laundry detergent, why not try selling them a different moisturizer for every facial feature?

Much of the book - and I suppose, in retrospect, I half-expected this, but not to this extent - is made up of arguments I thought I'd come up with myself over the years, indeed, ones I suspect a great many women think they've thought of themselves. Whether the credit goes to Wolf as trickled-down into the culture, or whether women have been thinking these things for a good long while regardless, I couldn't say.

-Wolf on skin creams is wonderful. She - not that I thought I was the first, perhaps we must all discover this for ourselves - makes the distinction between color cosmetics (lipstick, foundation, eyeshadow, etc.), which do actually paint the face as promised, and the pseudoscientific world of lotions that don't do a thing. And there really is a division between the two, one marked largely by price, but also by where stuff is placed in a store. In a Sephora, say, there will be an upbeat paint-yourself section, where you can drop $20 on some high-end eyeliner, and then a quasi-medical beauty section, where you can spend $98 on a half-ounce of "advanced antiaging eye treatment," no link because I'm not suggesting anyone go do just that.

While we may debate the social value of makeup - does it improve our looks, or merely convey that we've put in some effort? - it is clear enough that if you line your eyes with eyeliner, you have lined your eyes. Whereas if you rub thousands of dollars worth of cream into the skin of your face, you are at best doing nothing, at worst exposing yourself unnecessarily to all manner of toxins. You're going to age along with everyone else born the same time you were.

Wolf makes some great points: that these products promise to "nourish" the skin, aimed at women often starving themselves; that these products cost so much as to effectively keep women's take-home income down; that the products (and here I felt ashamed, having succumbed to the "luminizer" promise, albeit just owning, and never figuring out how to use, the stuff, which is something between color cosmetics and skin product, I suppose) claim to illuminate the skin, as if one is at a fashion shoot at all times.

All of this, of course, made me think of my own perverse fascination with "Into The Gloss," a site that celebrates the woman who doesn't much go in for makeup, but takes really good care of her skin. This is supposed to be, what, higher-class? More French? It's just so much more serious business than my own routine of concealer, liquid eyeliner, lipstick, and SPF. (And nail polish. Lots of that.) Such a strange, exotic version of femininity, the land of the do-nothing not-even-moisturizers. Not something I was ever initiated in, and a good thing too.

-Wolf (well, 1991 Wolf - not sure what she thinks these days) would probably be on board with the content of my concept of weight-think. While Wolf has been accused of exaggerating the prevalence of eating-disorders-strictly-defined, she's no doubt correct about the way in which women imagine they ought to weigh "a stone" (or 10-15 pounds) less than they'd weigh if they didn't give their weight any thought, and that the process of trying to stay just a bit thinner is, well, maddening. It leads women to think about food all the time, leads in some cases to women weighing more than they would if they'd left well enough alone, leading others to a permanent state of hunger and crankiness.

All of this has if anything gotten worse since 1991 - these days, a woman who chooses to abandon weight-think stands accused of having succumb to the corporate interests devoted to keeping her on a diet of industrial food-product. It's become socially unacceptable not to think about food constantly. Where does your food come from? What are you putting into your body? What about the obesity crisis, which is apparently relevant even if you're 130 pounds, but would take a smaller dress size at 115. While men can sign up for this new let's-think-about-food without this having all that much to do with weight, it remains to be seen whether women can do the same. I will once again draw your attention to the strongest criticism to date of the food movement, found, of all places, in a NYT reader comment.

-Wolf and I do not have the exact same take on male beauty - she praises women for caring about the person, not what he looks like, and more troublingly, suggests that women come to find certain men beautiful once they get to know them, their looks presumably not entering into it. Whereas I tend to think there's a (largely subjective, if influenced by the culture, and more influenced by the culture for straight men than for straight women) bare minimum someone of either sex needs to meet to be romantically appealing, and past that point, it isn't necessarily the better-looking, the better partner. But the spirit of her argument is one I agree with: that it's a problem not simply that men have unrealistic ideas about what women might look like, but also that women are expected to repress the physical attraction they have to men.

10 comments:

Petey said...

"Whether the credit goes to Wolf as trickled-down into the culture, or whether women have been thinking these things for a good long while regardless, I couldn't say."

Wolf was simply faithfully chronicling her zeitgeist.

Feminism has just stalled over the past two decades in the US. We're not much further along now than we were then, and one could even argue that man of the deep thoughts of the day have been forgotten in a neo-Dark Ages.

(Of course, Scandinavia marches on as always. Time to watch "Borgen", if you haven't already...)

fourtinefork said...

At least luminizer actually does something palpable (maybe not good, if one isn't good at applying it! But something noticeable nonetheless), unlike all the supposed anti-aging creams which may or may not be doing a damn thing. I stand by High Beam. It makes me look awake when dabbed in the corner of the eyes, although it can't seem to magically give me fantastic cheekbones.

And, that NYT reader comment was fantastic.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

"Feminism has just stalled over the past two decades in the US."

It would seem that everything Wolf mentions has gotten more extensive. There's a whole new world of procedures between cosmetics and facelifts, such that enhancement beyond makeup and snake oil has become routine in images of women. And then there's Photoshop, internet porn, fashion blogs a thin line away from the also-new world of online thinspiration, etc.

There's a backlash, but it's very much like how Wolf describes women's mags - there will be some serious post on Jezebel, say, about one of these issues, and then some mainstream celebrity coverage, as in, look how cute whichever actress looked at whichever gala event.

Danish television, my goodness. I may not be highbrow enough for that.

Fourtinefork,

With the luminizer, I suspect it's the one that I bought - a Lorac one that seemed sufficiently pale for the likes of me, but that's strangely not greasy enough, plus with a pump that doesn't really work, which can lead to situations where one is quickly wiping luminizer off the floor before one's poodle gets to it.

And wasn't that comment great? I so often cite comments for being ridiculous, but sometimes they spell out exactly what needed to be said about a given article. Because it's not just that women have long dealt with the drudgery of cooking. It's also that women have long dealt with the drudgery of incessant thoughts about food.

Petey said...

"It would seem that everything Wolf mentions has gotten more extensive. There's a whole new world of procedures between cosmetics and facelifts, such that enhancement beyond makeup and snake oil has become routine in images of women. And then there's Photoshop, internet porn, fashion blogs a thin line away from the also-new world of online thinspiration, etc. "

Being the good Marxian economic determinist that I am, I'd propose that the radical explosion of the GINI coefficient in the US since Wolf's book was published has had no small effect in creating a more sea lion-like sexual dimorphism in human US society.

"Danish television, my goodness. I may not be highbrow enough for that."

I do fully understand you can't get enough of professional wrestling, American Idol, and The Nanny, but it is worth your while to at least check out Borgen. If you can get past the subtitles, it's just good, clean, middle-brow, gender-equality fun.

Britta said...

If Danish TV is anything like Norwegian TV, than it looks like it was made by a community theater filming a show on cable access. (Sweden and Norway, and I'd assume Denmark as well, have anti-Anglocization policies wrt media, so that xx% of TV shows have to be locally made, rather than American or BBC imports. This allows for a thriving, if low-budget TV industry where most similar sized countries would just be dubbing CSI and call it a day.)

Being the good Marxian economic determinist that I am, I'd propose that the radical explosion of the GINI coefficient in the US since Wolf's book was published has had no small effect in creating a more sea lion-like sexual dimorphism in human US society.

This sounds very plausible.

Phoebe said...

What I really need is Flemish television. Unfortunately, Belgium is one of those countries where they watch American and British shows with subtitles. Which is great insofar as that's why I can chat fluently with my in-laws, but not so great for chatting even haltingly in their language.

Petey said...

"If Danish TV is anything like Norwegian TV, than it looks like it was made by a community theater filming a show on cable access."

Danish TV is actually different, and really quite exceptional.

There was a halfway decent article in the New Yorker a few months back on the topic, using the widespread popularity of subtitled Danish TV in Britain as its hook.

The article's thesis is that Danish TV has created a long-term and very smart institutional system that heavily cross-pollinates with the national Danish film school and the Danish film industry to crank out excellent teevee show after excellent teevee show.

My only problem with the article is that, while it mentions him, I think it gives short-shrift to the pivotal role of the singular Lars Von Trier in kicking things up to a whole 'nother level. Once you put The Kingdom on national teevee as a mega-event, it really raises the bar for everyone who comes after...

Petey said...

If you are interested, but can't get past the New Yorker paywall, here are a couple excerpts excerpts from the piece.

Lisa said...

"Wolf and I do not have the exact same take on male beauty - she praises women for caring about the person, not what he looks like, and more troublingly, suggests that women come to find certain men beautiful once they get to know them, their looks presumably not entering into it."

This notion that men's looks don't/aren't supposed to matter as much to straight women is precisely why it took me such a (relatively) long time to work out that I was actually sexually attracted to women and not men.

Phoebe said...

Lisa,

That's interesting! I've written before something related. To sum up what I now see was a very long post, my sense is that the belief that women are all inherently bisexual (as opposed to, some women are bisexual, as are some men, but the social pressure on men to pick one/act straight is much greater) comes from this idea that women fundamentally don't care what a partner looks like. Also that women do not have sexual desires, period, but rather just put up with sex in order to have relationships/social status. In that framework, a heterosexual woman is simply one who wants a boyfriend/husband, not one who actively desires men.

But I hadn't considered how confusing this definition of female sexuality, in which male looks don't matter, could be to women who are doing exactly what society imagines and not lusting after men... but it's because they like women. If we imagine that under the best of circumstances, women are merely putting up with men, despite finding men physically unappealing, well, that would make one big clue about one's sexuality harder to figure out. Of course, then there's the attraction-to-women aspect, but then there's the social expectation that even straight women will have very close "girlfriends," so... long story short, I see how something along the lines of what you describe could happen.