Beauty Standards As Backlash

Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth in 1991 about “how images of beauty are used against women.” Almost 20 years later, Michelle Goldberg wonders if anything has changed. In her December 22nd article on The American Prospect website, she asks the question: “Are impossible beauty standards a subconscious cultural reaction against women’s growing political power?”

I’ve heard this argument before. In the 1960s, the most iconic female in the world was the supermodel, Twiggy. twiggyHer name described her looks: long, skinny limbs, no breasts to speak of, pixie haircut and large, childlike eyes. She looked like a little girl more than a woman. Her popularity coincided with the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement and feminists saw a conspiracy of sorts in the way the media publicized her looks. To them it seemed that the patriarchy was feeling threatened by these women who were calling for change and trying to liberate women from their “God-given” roles as wives and mothers. And it responded by trying to get women to think of themselves as powerless children.

You have to wonder if something similar is going on today. Only now the stakes are even higher–and consequently so are the standards. With the rise to power of women like Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin plus the last five decades of women’s advancements, it may be that the list of things that women must do to be “real” women has been lengthened on purpose. Nowadays women have to look great in a bikini (the skimpier the better) which means great breasts on an impossibly fit body on which all body hair has been removed. Women are made to feel that if they don’t fit the ideal, they’re of no consequence in the world.

Look at the popularity of the make-over: it holds out the promise that you can hold onto your looks and your youth forever. I confess that I am a big fan of shows like “What Not to Wear” and “Ten Years Younger” and I spend way too much energy agonizing over my weight, my sags and my wrinkles. When I was younger I swore that I would never consider plastic surgery; now that I’m almost 60, I admit that if I had the money, I’d be tempted to have a little “touching up” done. The only thing that saves me is that I’m getting to be the age where I don’t care what people think. But I wish I’d felt this way forty years ago.

So what is the answer? To blow society’s standards off completely? That’s almost impossible to do–unless you’re my age or older, and even then, if you’re being truthful, you have to admit that you feel at least somewhat inferior to those who are younger, fitter and prettier.

Do you agree that society is trying to keep women in their place by making them paranoid about how they look? How do you deal with society’s pressures to look perfect?