Recently, I encountered a discussion where a female “plus-sized” model was being discussed, and the conversation drifted into the subject of what society believes is attractive in a female. It was suggested that the projected ideal of feminine beauty is a limited one, and that it is pushed by a patriarchal structure that allows men to subjugate women to a specific standard of beauty.
I will admit that this idea struck me as odd. I visualized a frightening villain’s lair on a mountain, where a small cabal of evil old men got together and decided how to keep women in their place this year, hatching a nefarious plot to decide what the rest of us will find attractive in a woman.
That unlikely scenario is merely the one that formed in my mind (I do that, my mind tends to move towards the weird end of things) but if I look toward existing social factors and their history, it is impossible to entirely dismiss the idea of paternalistic forces that have long existed to subject women to cultural rules. It is clear that many men still fear female sexuality unless it is corralled in ways that benefit themselves.
The massive and continual influence of Abrahamic religions throughout the world and in this country illustrates this. Those religions have always exerted an enormous, perhaps THE most enormous, social control mechanisms in the US.
Until rather recently, it was almost unheard of for a person to not claim affiliation with a mainstream religion, and even those that quietly disbelieved were still influenced by social customs derived from paternalistic religious tradition.
Still, I feel that the accepted view of feminine beauty is not the result exclusively of paternalistic forces. It is true that by suppressing and controlling female sexuality, one of the reactions to that suppression is an increase in the objectification of the female body. The very act of a woman showing a little skin is still transgressive and can stir emotion in cultures where women are encouraged or forced to cover themselves or dress modestly.
But this isn’t intended as some argument that women aren’t subjugated to paternalistic forces intended to control them. I think that it’s obvious that women are often treated badly in our culture when they step too far out of line. No, they usually aren’t killed like they might be in some particularly shitty regions of the world, but the non-compliant woman does face pressure and backlash that a male might not.
I would argue that the social rule book that seeks to control women, to make them behave, also seeks to a lesser degree to control men that transgress, but I’m not suggesting that there aren’t sexist forces bent on controlling women. There are so many factors that affect gender issues in this country, that you could fill books discussing them. People have, and continue to do so, and I don’t intend to do that here. Instead, this is meant to explore a few points that I think affect a set ideal of feminine beauty as much or more than living in an inherent paternalistic culture.
The only thing I will offer to suggest that this isn’t purely a one-sided phenomena is that men are also guided by many of the same societal forces that women are. I mention this not as a way to suggest that men have it “just as bad” as women, or to draw a direct comparison, but merely to point out that both genders are subjected to social pressure involving appearance.
Men and women both tend to cultivate an appearance that they think will be attractive to potential mates. Look at the current trend of young guys with giant beards. Think that would be happening if enough women were repulsed by having sex with bearded guys? I guarantee that there would be a stampede to the razor aisle the moment guys realized that having a big ass beard wasn’t gong to help them get laid anymore, and might actually prevent it.
There is a popular Internet meme that shows a photo of Marilyn Monroe, and makes the point that she is an enduring sex symbol and was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, but would now be considered “fat” by modern standards. And a casual look at sex symbols from the past 70 or 80 years will show that many of them were much bigger, much curvier, than most sex symbols from the last decade or two. And are those women still considered “beautiful”? I think most people would agree that they were. So what happened?
It’s estimated that the average dress size for an American woman is currently a size 14, so why are we bombarded with images presenting that as a “plus size,” while the models and celebrities that are usually promoted as attractive are much much smaller? What changed?
One of the reasons that popular ideas of beauty have moved away from the larger, more curvy ideal of the female body is simple. Marketing.
We have increasingly as a culture had our very idea of what we “are” marketed to us. And increasingly, what is being marketed is an unattainable ideal of beauty.
In the distant past, being fat and pasty was the ideal of beauty. Only those individuals wealthy enough to avoid manual labor and to have a surplus of food were able to stay pale and grow fat. It was a display of power and prosperity.
Look at the very different way society regards overweight people today. Being fat is often associated with people of a lower income, and many people consider an overweight person to suffer from a lack of self control, or other unattractive personality traits.
Why the shift in perception?
It has to do with changes in our society. It is much easier for a person that has accumulated a certain level of wealth and social status to eat healthy foods, and to tailor their lifestyle to activities like attending a gym. When you’re working two lousy low-paid menial jobs, things like expensive health food and a gym membership are potentially out of reach. When an individual busts their ass doing landscaping or some other menial job just to survive, the idea of spending their money to perform additional physical exertion might seem crazy to them.
In short, being poor doesn’t make pursuing a high societal standard of beauty an easy choice. Dental care and a high level of fitness are not luxuries everyone can afford. Being fat is thus no longer associated with wealth, but with poverty, and is not attractive to most people anymore.
The attainment of an idealized form is constantly promoted by our media as the goal we should all chase, and that’s increasingly aimed at both genders. Men are often fed the same message that women were traditionally bombarded with, that in order to be happy and of value, that they must fit a certain physical standard. It is true that an ugly man with power and money still has an advantage over an unattractive female with a similar level of power and money, but that sexist inequality is slowly changing, and I think it’s largely because of how the media markets to us all.
And what does this kind of saturated marketing achieve?
It basically places value on that which is difficult or impossible to obtain.
Look at it this way. Most people can save up and buy some form of car, but only a small minority of us are ever going to be able to afford a Lamborghini. The luxury brand is valued because of it’s exclusivity, and that applies to any item that people perceive to be obtainable by only a small minority of individuals.
Technological changes have brought into play several forces that affect this. First, the Internet has made it common for many of us to be presented with an almost constant reinforcement of unrealistic beauty. The culture of celebrity worship has never been stronger.
The media has also pushed an old fantasy, but in new ways. The idea that if someone is pretty enough, all they have to do is get the attention of the right person, and instant stardom will surely follow. Witness the new crop of “celebrities” that have become famous by a leaked sex tape, or the incredibly popular talent show format of dreck like “American Idol.” Seemingly anyone that’s good looking or popular enough can become a huge star overnight. It’s a revision of the old “Starlet being discovered walking down Hollywood Boulevard” stories from decades ago.
At the same time, technology has made unreal, actually unreal, depictions of beauty commonplace. We’ve all seen recent examples of airbrushed, or more likely “Photoshopped” models on magazine covers or websites, and this has become more and more popular over the last two decades.
When reality of body image becomes “inconvenient”, technology continues to rescue us, and to feed us a new view of human beauty. The problem is obvious. When that artificial standard starts to become the ideal that people actually compare themselves to, what are the social implications of that unreality?
Women have always been unfairly judged and valued for their physical appearance, and now they’re increasingly being told to alter themselves to better match increasingly unrealistic body images. Why? Money of course. There’s not much to be had marketing the concept that it’s acceptable to be an average looking person, but plenty to be made promoting an impossible ideal of beauty.
Look at the plastic surgery industry. Increasingly, average people turn to various procedures to better meet that increasingly high ideal. There is a well publicized case of a woman that started out pretty enough, but decided that she wanted to look as close as she could to a Barbie Doll. Enter the surgeons, hundreds of thousands of dollars exchanged, and her appearance also completely altered. What sounds like a science fiction story is viewed by many as a success.
I will mention another trend that has sprung up over the last twenty years ago – THE WAR ON PUBIC HAIR.
Yes, and what a hairy war it is. I came of age in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. At that time, most women I encountered did not shave everything off.
Even a casual perusal of any nudie magazine or pornographic film up to about the early 90’s proves that as a society we weren’t previously hung up on women having pubic hair. To most people, the idea that it would soon be normal for a large percentage of adult females to shave everything, would have seemed like a strange direction for our culture to go.
This trend seemed to gain momentum from a media push towards a more standardized and plastic view of female beauty. About the same time that regular women seemed to break out the razors for a more complete body shave, I noticed that, in mainstream porn like Playboy Magazine, the photo editors were adding a synthetic gloss over the models, reducing the obviousness of any pubic hair, and making their whole bodies look unnaturally toned, shiny, and poreless. The level of artifice was suddenly very high, higher than even Playboy had pushed it before.
Since then, I’ve encountered numerous men and (this strikes me as somehow sad) women that think any female that doesn’t shave everything is “gross.” That opinion seems so weird and unsexy to me. By all means, shave whatever you want, but when people start projecting their own hang-ups on others, that’s a weird way to think.
Yet one thing these trends HAVE achieved is to have made us all, but particularly women, subject to a new physical standard, that is farther away from anything naturally achievable by most humans. And of course, since most of us weren’t born with this unreal look already in place, there are lots and lots of businesses that would love to charge us for the service of altering ourselves to better fit that mold.
It’s probably easier feed women the fantasy that if they can just lose another dress size they’ll be afforded the honor of being able to buy something that will make them more attractive than it is to just make the same dress for larger women. It’s a way of reinforcing their insecurities for profit.
If those same clothes were marketed to women of all sizes, then the exclusivity would be diminished. It’s a way of ensuring that only the “right” kind of people – mostly wealthy and incredibly (sometimes artificially) fit looking people can wear your clothing line. It’s an elitist way of protecting the “brand” and it seems to work.
So, is all of this some organized patriarchal plot to keep women down? I think there are plenty of ways that our society treats women poorly, and that patriarchal influences are still there, but I think that societal standards of beauty have been modified. Ideals have slowly changed into something less natural, and just as controlling, but for reasons of commerce and profit as much as keeping women in line. Of course, in many cases, it IS men that are pulling our strings and running the businesses that prey on insecurities. I think there is a difference of intent, although the intent is still evil.
Finding new ways for women to hate themselves, then selling them a solution, is a wildly profitable enterprise. We have to ask, what’s the end game? Better yet, what would happen if everyone in the world wised up, all at once?