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Beauty,Spring 2005
Fourth Web Papers
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Beauty: Creating Inequality

Elizabeth Newbury

It has been said that women are universally subjected to standards of beauty. While the specific aesthetics will change from culture to culture, the fact that we feel pressure to achieve these standards is fairly universal. In most cultures, the standards that are set for a man differ from that of a woman, depending on the cultural norms and values. The reasoning for why these standards differ between men and women is not too hard to imagine since the genders differ in their basic, physical, bodily construct. After all, one couldn't ask that the standard for men being beautiful must be that they bear good children. No, the standards are generally within the realm of achievement, but at the same time women find themselves at the short end of the stick. They have historically, speaking from a Western cultural standpoint, been given standards that take much more effort to achieve. For instance, during the colonial and expansion period during which this country was founded, fashion was critical, but the fashion for men did not require that they damage their internal organs, in the form of wearing a corset, for the sake of vanity.

One could argue that this is due to the historical status of women. Historically speaking, the two genders have not had equal footing. In our patriarchal society, the men are supposed to achieve such characteristics such as strength, intelligence, and a competitive edge; on the other hand, women are meant to be nurturing, docile, and gentle. Where these characteristics came from isn't certain, however, some anthropologists hypothesize that they come from the division of labor between the two genders. While men have traditionally managed affairs outside of the household, such as politics, hunting, war, and commerce, women have managed affairs within the household, the primary concern being that of managing offspring and nurturing the family.

Women outside of the sphere of the household are primarily decorative. They have no power outside of the household except to exhibit behavior that would reflect favorably on their husbands or fathers. Let us bear in mind an example from the book, "Veiled Sentiments" by Lila Abu-Lughod. (1) This is a book about Muslim women from the Bedouin society, a society that practices many of the traditional Muslim behaviors, such as women being veiled. Women in this society are considered objects of lust, of sexuality, and therefore in public they must display modest behaviors. Silent in front of men, subservient, the women in this society are a model for how roles between women and men can be unequal. They are beautiful when they display moral, 'proper' behavior, and remain veiled. This is their beauty. It is also a standard of beauty that is forced upon them by society.

Why is this example significant? Because it demonstrates how historically women have been portrayed in our society with beauty. Men and women have always been on unequal footing, with women having to subject themselves to standards that undermine any attempts to being equal to men. In the case of the Bedouin, that standard is the veil. The veil is not only their symbol of beauty, but also a symbol of their morality, namely, their modesty, obedience and consequently their inferiority to men.

In Western culture, we do not have such a specific symbol, as fashion has evolved over time. But let us take for example, the skirt. Women have worn the skirts for centuries. Skirts are not the ideal clothing of choice for horseback riding or running, and women wore skirts because they were not performing tasks that would require as much mobility as men. It is a symbol of feminism, a cultural icon that means woman, and that when worn is supposed to make women attractive. "Simply put, the skirt is the most flattering object that an attractive human female can put on her lower torso. It highlights hips and buttocks and suggests, through the open bottom, the possibility for immediate sexual contact."(2) Therefore, such as simple thing as wearing a skirt broadcasts this ideals of women as a sexual object, as being an icon of admiration and lust. Thus for the modern Western woman, we still have not managed to shuck the shackles of being the objects of admiration.

But does this mean we have to do without skirts, because they symbolize the subjucation of women? If we were to do that, then we would have to do without a great deal many things that we considered in the realm of classic beauty. For instance, nudes, such as Manet's Olympia. This piece of artwork was ground breaking because the model, a prostitute by trade, was staring audaciously at the viewer. Her presence in the painting is one of empowerment. Is it because she's staring in the eye of the male viewer, instead of demurely turning her head to one side? In a sense, it does not matter one wit if she's staring or turning her head. Her posture, in all likelihood, was mandated by the artist. So the fact that she is staring at the audience has nothing to do with radical feminism, but with the artist trying to produce a piece of artwork that would win him acclaim. Therefore, at the fundamental level, it is still a woman lying naked before the male eye, demeaned to an object of beauty and deprived of her dignity.

In a sense, Olympia represents the modern woman. She recognizes that she is an object of beauty and has decided to use this position, and her sexuality, to empower herself. More likely than not, she did not ask to be drawn, but was paid to model for the painting because of her beauty. Seizing this opportunity, she reaped financial gain by selling her sexuality. But she is still being exploited, she is still just a sexual object.

The modern woman, despite the best efforts of the feminist movement, has not demolished the stereotype of the female form being an object of beauty. Although we now have the choice between skirts and pants, we still learn from a very young age what it is to be beautiful and be a woman. In fact, we are bombarded from all sides with standards of beauty. We must be pretty, aesthetically pleasing. Having the latest styles, most up-to-date fashion is what most women try to achieve. There is still a double standard between the importance of beauty for men and women, and women are still treated as objects of beauty.

For those disbelievers out there, simply walk into a supermarket. You don't even have to go to any particular aisle, just walk straight to the checkout counter and take a look around. You'll most likely find yourself facing rows and rows of magazines filled with gorgeous women. These women that stare back at you, glamorous and sleek, are the women that are the trailblazers for the standards of beauty. You'll see the occasional male model, but the amount of glamor put into his appearance will pale in comparison to the women surrounding him.

Pick up a copy of Cosmo.(3) The front cover will be oozing with beauty, not only from the woman, but by the titles of the cover stories. Get the perfect bikini line, a quiz on how sexy you feel today, and seven secrets of highly orgasmic women are all sample titles. Flip through the pages, and the advertisements will blow you away with models that are beyond perfection. If that doesn't do it for you, you can always learn how to give yourself a facial or put together the perfect wardrobe. In short, this icon of cultural values, the magazine, is promoting the very standards of beauty that the feminists were trying to pull us away from.

Is there anything wrong with that, though? By using our sex to sell ourselves, we manage to pull ourselves up in a male world. Take Madonna, for instance. Madonna, a nation wide sex symbol, has exploited her beautiful body and her beautiful voice in order to gain not only appeal, but also to gain economic status. There's no doubting that by identifying herself with the cultural standards of aesthetic beauty that she managed to play the system. It is almost a new form of feminism.

Yet at the same time, by exploiting our sex and our feminine charm, we draw attention to the differences between our two sexes. By highlighting our beauty, by accenting our sexuality, we might as well be putting up neon signs that say that we're women. It serves as a constant reminder that we are women, and brings up the history of the division between the sexes, and the renew the cycle of subjecting ourselves to the standards of beauty.


1) Abu-Lughod, Lila. "Veiled Sentiments." University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1986.
2)Everying2: Skirts -- a forum discussing the origin of skirts and the implication thereof
3)Cosmo -- Cosmo magazine

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