Beauty and the Beast -- an Unhappy Marriage

by Steven Hill
This article was published in Women vs. Men
The Battle of the Sexes is and has been, at various times and places and among certain women and men, a hotly contested one. Few aspects of this battle have played as central a role as women's appearance. How a woman dresses or undresses, how she walks or wiggles, how she coifs and colors herself, how slender or large-breasted she is, all these have been areas of extreme anxiety, endless fascination and even blind obsession, revealing an intersection of complicated cultural forces.

Of course, these cultural forces, sometimes as abstract as the air that we breathe, play themselves out in concrete ways in real people's lives -- a woman or teen debating whether she should wear make-up or not; a man deciding he's attracted to a woman i n his office, and worrying how it will be received if he tells her; a woman wondering how she should dress at the office, wanting to dress attractively, but not wanting to encourage one co-worker's obvious and increasing affections; another woman deciding whether to undergo the knife for cosmetic surgery, liposuction, or breast implants; another man wondering if his salary is high enough, or if he's rugged or hard-bodied enough, to phone the knock-out he met at the bar last night; yet another woman, that knock-out he met at the bar, starting her tenth diet this year because she can't keep the weight off, yet she can't bear to not keep the weight off, vomiting her food in the toilet after bingeing to soothe her hunger-ravished body.

It's a complicated picture, and not getting any clearer. Men and women hurl accusations at each other across a murky divide, wondering why the other can't understand the most basic of realizations. Many women say it's a man's world, which all the vital economic and social statistics reveal overwhelmingly that, for women as a class, it still is; yet many men say they are the powerless ones, and accuse women of manipulating them with their female beauty and seemingly irresistible sexuality, insisting tha t women take the sexual initiative more. Who's right, who's wrong?

"Beauty is Nature's brag..." -- Milton

Let's start at the beginning. By and large men have been the main connoisseurs of female beauty and appearance, sampling and appraising it, weighing the beauty and the imperfections, like judges at a cattle show. Historically, women have been denied ac cess to the traditional male avenues of political, economic and social power, and have had to rely on their physical appearance -- their "beauty" -- rather than their natural intelligence, skill and achievement, as one of their principal avenues to power. It's easy to forget, in the carnival game of gender relations, that women have had the right to vote and own property for less than a hundred years.

Furthermore, the body size of women has always been a highly selective factor in the norms of physical appearance for women. Botticelli's Birth of Venus, painted about 1480, the three women in 17th century Rubens' Three Graces, and Renoir's rosy female bathers in the 19th century, all reflected the voluptuous, fleshy ideal that for centuries was equated with prosperity and pleasure. But in the Roaring 1920's, the "flapper" look presented a leaner standard of physical appearance, followed by a return to the fleshy, voluptuous ideal in the form of the post-World War II "pin-up" girls like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Rita Hayworth and Jane Russell. More recently, beginning with the ultra-lean Twiggy look that burst onto the fashion scene in the 1960 's, the "in" body size for women has been quite a bit smaller and more lean, `a la Cindy Crawford, Madonna, Jane Fonda, Naomi Campbell, Michelle Pfeiffer, and the ultra-twiggy Kate Moss.

In 1954 a Miss America contestant was approximately 5'8" tall and 132 pounds; in 1980 she was inclined to be about 5'8" and 117 pounds. The composite figures for the average contestant of the Miss Universe pageant for 1991 was an extremely lean 5'8 1/2" , 118 pounds (Seattle P-I, May 7, 1991). Playboy centerfolds and Miss America pageant contestants became more and more slender between 1958 and 1978, and the winners were even more slender than the average contestant (Garner et al., 1980). Meanwhile, the average woman in North America is actually about 5'3.8" tall and weighs 144 pounds. According to the film The Famine Within, a model today weighs about 23% less than the average woman, but twenty five years ago a model weighed only 8% less than the avera ge woman. Furthermore, recommended weights based on insurance charts show that a "healthy" women today is 5 - 10 pounds lighter than her counterpart 25 years ago; diet center charts for women's weight are lighter by 20 pounds than the medical ideal for wo men, while for men the average difference between the two ideals is only 5 pounds.

Something's happened here, a shift has occurred. And it is having profound repercussions in the lives of women. A 1984 poll by Glamour magazine found that, of the 33,000 women who responded, 75% thought they were "too fat." In one study of students at Boston College (Hesse-Biber et al., 1987), 78.8% of the women were at least moderately concerned about their body weight and 96% of the women wanted to lose weight. For many of the women, dieting was a regular part of life: 47% of the women dieted occa sionally, and 36.7% dieted most of the time. Note that this study looked at female students, who presumably would rely more on their academic achievements and less on their physical appearance than the general female population. Another study found that almost all cases of eating disorders began with bouts of dieting (Polivy and Herman, 1985). The Boston College study concluded that those women in that sample who had poor body images and who felt less desirable were more likely to have eating disorders.

Thus, it is not surprising that eating disorders among women have reached epidemic proportions. In the Boston College sample, 69.7% of the women had abnormal eating/dieting habits that involved one or more of the following: fasting and starving themsel ves, compulsive dieting, vomiting their food, and use of laxatives and diuretics. Most of these, 38.8%, were in an At Risk category for eating disorders. Three fourths of the 69.7% engaged in binge eating. Studies conducted at other schools have found between 30% and 70% of college women report binge eating (Halmi et al., 1981; Katzman et al., 1984).

Perhaps most alarming is the fact that this obsession with a thin body size begins early for women -- four-fifths of girls in the fourth grade are dieting, according to a 1986 study by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco (Toufex is 1988:54).

This dizzying array of statistics easily gets lost in the heat of the gender wars. It is an integral part of what is called 'women's reality,' yet it is, by and large, a reality that most men fail to grasp. Most men can understand the unfairness of ec onomic and political inequality, and are revolted by the horrors of rape and domestic violence. But most men do not 'get' the torment of internalized misery and discrimination that pressures women to engage in ever greater heights of unhealthy and bizarr e beauty practices. Past beauty practices -- like Japanese foot binding, consumption of poisonous arsenic to blanch the skin white, whale bone corsets that crushed ribs to produce the "perfect" female shape, and golden rings to stretch female necks in ce rtain African countries -- are perceived, rightfully so, as barbaric. Meanwhile current practices are defended, even celebrated, as beauty 'aids,' and as a woman's 'free choice.' But are these practices any less barbaric? Consider: surgically enlarged silicone breasts, that scientific evidence has revealed is causing major trauma and risk to many women's long term health; liposuction and stomach stapling; painful and uncomfortable forms of dieting with numerous ill side effects; the all-too familiar c rash diets, self-starvation, bingeing and self-induced bulimic vomiting of food; and bodily confinement via girdles, push up bras and bustiers, and self-hobbling high heels. The intensity of the barbarism has scarcely declined over the centuries, even af ter the movement for women's liberation.

Free Choice -- the right to hurt oneself?

The 'free choice' issue is a sticky one, dividing even feminists into camps that can't agree, and it is no less confusing for we men. Indeed, a recent article in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia defends cosmetic surgery as being "first and foremos t...about taking one's life into one's own hands." After brilliantly dissecting and slaying the 'beauty myth' in her groundbreaking book of the same name, feminist author Naomi Wolf proposes a curious concept of female choice and agency:

"The real issue has nothing to do with whether women wear make-up or don't, gain weight or lose it, have surgery or shun it, dress up or down, make our clothing and faces and bodies into works of art or ignore adornment altogether. The real problem is ou r lack of choice."

In her book, and even more so on the college lecture and talk show circuit, Ms. Wolf speaks favorably for (and even demonstrates with her own fashionable appearance) a new feminist chic in which woman reclaim a self-defined glamour "as merely a demonstra tion of the human capacity for being enchanted." In other words, even as she slays the old "beauty myth," Wolf offers a newer improved version to her audience, with the following condition: if women freely choose to dress and paint themselves like the o ld "beauty myth," then that's OK. The obvious corollary to this confusing distinction is that, if a woman freely chooses to diet in order to maintain a fashionably thin body, or to have breast-enhancing or stomach stapling surgery, or to wear back breaki ng and semi-crippling high heels, or to spend her time and hard-earned money remaking her clothes, face and body into a "self-defined" work of art that hews to the standards imposed by the old "beauty myth," then that is a feminist position. The gaunt spe cter of emaciated females -- now as young as eight years old according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) -- purging, bingeing and starving themselves seems not to affect Wolf's celebration of glamour and choic e. This brand of feminism never addresses the issue of how much free choice is actually involved in imitation, whether of adults, one's peers, or People, Teen and Cosmopolitan. Are we to believe that eight year olds also might be acting out of a careful ly considered choice?

Wolf's and other feminists' convoluted notion of choice as it is applied to the beauty myth makes a critique of unhealthy practices and of discrimination against those who fail to "measure up" virtually impossible, which is odd since that is ostensibly what much of Wolf's The Beauty Myth is all about. According to this notion of choice, any beauty myth behavior may be defended, and any critique and analysis of it may be countered, by simply waving aloft the banner of "free choice."

But these notions about choice also have the effect of making the world profoundly more confusing for we men. They send out a conflicting message, as men observe that many women participate in reproducing sexist culture, indeed, many women are willing - - even enthusiastic -- participants in unhealthy cultural practices that objectify and sexualize themselves. Men are caught in a modern-day dilemma of loving women and wishing them well, yet wanting to make love to a culturally contrived, artificially e nhanced, and even surgically sculpted 'sexy' image of women that is produced via slick air-brushed Madison Avenue photographic and computer techniques. When real women mimic these images, indeed flaunt themselves as reproductions of these images, men ass ume that this is an invitation to participate in the objectification and sexualization. And, if we are to be honest about it, this is a reasonable assumption, though not necessarily an accurate one. The woman probably does not 'want it' the way her cos tuming advertises to the man that she does.

Yet any attempt to raise the issue of female appearance for discussion is quickly squashed in a storm of political correctness, for fear that such a discussion will quickly translate to the idea that women "ask for it," and in the most extreme case that how a woman dresses or acts contributes toward her sexual assault. Blaming the victim, no matter how she dresses or acts, for her own sexual assault is a despicable falsehood and a misplacement of personal responsibility for criminal acts. Yet the lack of discussion about the sexualization and objectification of female dress and appearance has the effect of keeping both men and women from understanding how bodily appearance and female sexuality have functioned as a modicum of power and control for the o therwise powerless.

In her new book Unbearable Weight, feminist social critic Susan Bordo encourages such a discussion. Such a discussion, she writes,

"should not be interpreted as entailing the view that all players are equal, or that positions of dominance and subordination are not sustained within networks of power. Men are not the enemy, but they often have a higher stake in maintaining institution s within which they have historically occupied positions of dominance over women...To struggle effectively against the coerciveness of these forms it is first necessary to recognize that they have dominance."

While some worry that such a discussion will re-victimize the victims of sexual assault, others worry that such a line of inquiry will be hijacked by "feminist extremists" wishing to outlaw notions of female beauty. Are we all to be bland carbon-copies of each other, they ask? Men who say they love women, and women too, need to keep reminding ourselves that our modern-day versions of "female beauty" are actually elaborate rituals requiring physically unhealthy practices, often tremendous amounts of mon ey to pay for various expensive "beauty aids," and ultimately are artificially produced at great financial expense, effort, emotional pain and physical discomfort. By and large, late 20th century female beauty is not something that women are born with as , for instance, the petals of a flower or the plumage of many varieties of birds, especially the brightly colored male birds. Rather it is something that a woman must work hard to attain. Jane Fonda, who helped so much to set that standard, now confesses that she resorted to exercise as a way of dealing with her 20-year battle with bulimia. Unfortunately, she was able to convince the rest of American women to buy into her obsession. Now, she says she realizes that it's unhealthy to obsess about her appearance.

Let there be little doubt, that without such artificial bodily display and pageantry, without the slender or muscular thighs, buttocks and breasts of a Barbie doll or Cindy Crawford, the natural beauty of women and men would still shine forth. In fact, it can be argued that this costuming and false pageantry serves to cover up the true human beauty of women.

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