Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
Normative beauty standards are an essential tool that the patriarchy implements to oppress women. The American standard of being a young, white, skinny, able-bodied, cisgender, delicate, friendly, et cetera, woman is implemented in a multitude of ways, and it affects all women in their various non-normative appearances. We have studied this in several different contexts in class, in a couple of the readings from Women: Images and Realities, a Multicultural Anthology, compiled by Kelly, Parameswaran, and Schniedewind, and in The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. In my outrageous act, I hope to implement consciousness-raising techniques to get women at Wheaton College to think critically about their sense of self worth, as related to their physical appearance, and where this feeling of right or wrong beauty stems from. The goal of my project is to have women think about the patriarchy as it applies to both themselves and how they interact with others, and take this new knowledge to change themselves and the world around them.
The two key essays from both Women: Images and Realities, a Multicultural Anthology and the novel The Bluest Eye drove me to do a project surrounding women’s beauty. The first, which we read for class, is The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. In it, Wolf proposes the connection between the exponential rise in prevalence of women in power and the simultaneous rise in cosmetic surgery. She explains that this is due to the rise of a new weapon used to thwart women’s advancement and maintain social control: the beauty industry.
This new weapon supersedes feminist mindsets to commodify and oppress them as human beings. The beauty myth is a specific, objective standard that every woman must strive to attain, or else be non-normative, with all of the negative social connotations this entails. This norm dictates an acceptable behavior in terms of “emotional distance, politics, finance, and sexual repression” (Wolf, 2011, p. 122) by shaming and oppressing women’s bodies, as a way to belittle their power in these areas. “Inexhaustible but ephemeral beauty work took over from inexhaustible but ephemeral housework…” (Wolf, 2011, p. 122).
This is done by the patriarchy, which aims to promote men’s institutional power. The need to promote men’s power is closely tied with the economic need for slavery. In this sense, there is economic need for propaganda to promote women as subservient beings, so as to normalize and justify the dominant-submissive relationship. The consumer is essential in promoting this culture, and thus the circle of oppression. The result of this—and the quantitative representation of the oppression of women—is clear in the wage gap between women and men in the United States. “Behavior that is essential for economic reasons is transformed into a social virtue…” (Wolf, 2011, p. 124). Therefore, when one defies beauty norms, or social virtues, one is defying the systemic and economic suppression of women. The patriarchy attempts to control women who deviate from the norm by insulting them, rendering them invisible, and systemically disadvantaging them. Women are psychologically depleted by the exhausting nature of sexism, and will need to find a new way to see in order to escape the confining nature of being “feminine.”
This relates to the most important part of the other sources that inspired my project, the first of which is The Body Politic, by Abra Fortune Chernik. This essay deals with combating an eating disorder, which are far too prevalent in our society, and how this disorder stems from the hegemonic patriarchy. The woman in the story struggles with anorexia, and eventually reaches the point where she is so sick that she is hospitalized. After going on an excursion from the hospital to the mall, and having an employee in a fitness store congratulate her on her health based on her low body fat, she began to change her outlook. She realized the connection between the patriarchy’s success and the continued prevalence of eating disorders, and begins to realize the complexity of how deeply ingrained these beliefs are. She realizes that gaining weight is a political act of protest in a society where “…women feel safer when starving than when eating.” (Fortune Chernik, 2011, p. 132)
By starving ourselves, or succumbing to other societal ideals, we diminish our power as women; we allow the patriarchy to win in their endeavor to oppress us. In this sense t is not through lack of equal employment and pay, although these issues still persist, but through forcing women to harm and even kill themselves to fit into an impossible beauty ideal. If we spend all of our energy working towards beauty ideals, not only will we become mentally and physically exhausted and ill, but we will waste time we could have spent making an impact in this world.
The final source that really struck me is The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Throughout this book we see the main character, Pecola, become more and more overrun by society, as she is taken advantage of and beaten down. Beauty, for Pecola, is dependent upon having blue eyes, which she, as a young African American woman, does not have. The book shows the progression of her life in her struggle dealing with beauty ideals, as these ideals continue to oppress her exponentially throughout her story. We can see examples of this, from when she is little and receives a white skinned, blue eyed doll as a present, and tries to find its beauty by pulling it apart, to when she goes insane, driven by her desire to have blue eyes and be beautiful. The patriarchy’s beauty standards made her feel as if she was worthless, and alongside every character’s continuous belittlement of her and internalized racism, she slowly idealizes normative beauty standards more and more to justify why society treats her so poorly, and why she must change the way she looks.
All of these examples and the ubiquity of studies and activism surrounding the negative affects of beauty norms on women really enforce the extent of these harmful ideals. Since the patriarchy relies on depriving women of power through persistent and powerful visual and cultural messages, I wanted to combat that message and the patriarchy by empowering women to define their own ideas of beauty. This is especially important at Wheaton, where we simultaneously have a small, homogeneous population and are at an age where we are developing the critical skills to reject society’s ideals and create our own. I think this campaign, and others like it, that challenge the way society and the individual are conscious of themselves and others is essential to our progressive future and necessary in order to create a society where women are equal.
I went about this by creating a survey, asking self-identified women about the things they did not like about their body and why they thought they felt that way. I then collected the data of around 250 responses, the sheer number of which speaks to how these standards oppress so many women, and wrote them out on special transparent paper that clings to surfaces. I put this up on many of the mirrors in bathrooms around campus. Along with the text taken from the survey, I included a message about how the patriarchy decides beauty ideals in order to keep men in positions of power, and that by defining our own beauty standards, we can defy the patriarchy. I decided to do this act in the hopes that it will make the women who see it think about the things they don’t like about their body, or realize their privilege as they fit in to patriarchal beauty norms.
I want women at Wheaton to challenge the ideas they have about why these stereotypical notions of beauty exist—how they are driven by a systemic, external source that intentionally demeans and oppresses them in order to maintain dominance, as opposed to purely an internal process of negative self-worth. I hope they take this and feel a little empowered in their knowledge, either because they relate to the struggle they see or because they learned something new from what they read. The idea is that the person who reads these messages will combat the internalized sexism in their own mindset, while also possibly challenging the beauty standards they see in their daily lives.
While I will never see the extent of the result of my project, as I will not hear from every individual person who will see them, I plan on monitoring social media sites such as Yik Yak to see if anyone says anything about them. However, I have seen smaller effects. I have had some of the friends and family, whom I asked to take the survey, tell me that the questions I asked in my survey made them think critically about beauty norms and their causes. Additionally, in this process I have also learned a little about the different types of oppression women face on a daily basis. For example, I received a response from a seventy-three-year-old woman about her insecurities surrounding her physical signs of aging. Another response that surprised me was from a woman who talked about the insecurities she faced surrounding her teeth and how they indicated her lower socio-economic background.
Issues relating to beauty are directly related to the patriarchy’s control and domination of women. Examples of this are everywhere, from the media, to policy, to everyday social interactions; they are firmly imbedded in our lives. By consciousness raising about the oppression that women face, we can begin to see similarities amongst many women, and from there recognize larger social patterns of oppression. With this project I hope to raise awareness and break the cycle of the normative oppression of women as it relates to unjust beauty standards.