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Beauty's ugly spot

A tall, thin frame perched confidently on stiletto heels ... . Is this the ideal, contemporary image of womanhood? If it is, is it worth it, asks B. REGINA PAPA.

Out of forty-eight chromosomes only one is different: on this difference we base a complete separation of male and female, pretending as if it were that all forty-eight were different.

Germaine Greer

THE word that comes to the mind when one thinks of women, irrespective of their nationality, culture, religion, class and social situation, is "beauty". Just as all men are assumed to have different I.Qs, so are all women assumed to have different Beauty Quotients, which means that some women are more beautiful than others, though all women are beautiful.

Beauty is no more defined in terms of abstract ideals such as "truth" (Keats), "essence" (Lawrence), "exuberance" (Blake), "genius" (Oscar Wilde), or bliss. Today, the concept of "beauty" has grown into a flourishing global industry which treats beauty and the female body as commercial equivalences. Sheer paradox. Worldwide, a woman's "Agency" and "Empowerment" are advocated, while a consumerist culture traps women within the ambit of market exchange relations.

This trap is laid for women right from childhood. For the girl, to be assessed as being "pretty" or "beautiful" is the highest accolade. "Little boys are made of frogs and snails, but little girls are made of sugar and spice"... thus goes a nursery rhyme. A baby girl is "beautiful" as a baby boy is "mischievous". The girl becomes a "charming" woman while the boy becomes a "daring" man. Beauty is no more an abstraction but can be made concrete by any woman who is rich enough to spend to measure herself upto the beauty standards set.

A global market revolves around these beauties or else it collapses. Beauty contests are, therefore, held all over the world. Female faces — from hoards of advertisements — stare, smile and invite us to buy everything under the sun: that new jar of face cream, box of powder, tube of lipstick, mascara, eyeliner... , which promise magic formulae to transform ordinary women into extraordinary beauties.

When a girl grows up, she is taught to absorb an ideal image of a woman which, in our contemporary world, is a "tall, thin frame perched confidently on stiletto heels". This frantic pursuit of beauty goes to the extent of skin peeling, reshaping of noses, fitting breasts with silicone, wearing false eyelashes and false nails, and starving at the risk of damaging one's kidneys and liver. But beauty is worth it all!

Beauty standards are neither natural, constant nor absolute. A woman's body and looks are assigned different meanings by different generations. The images created represent historically inert structures. The inertia and change are not merely cultural conditionings imposed on women but a result of their own construction of psychological gender. Taste and judgment are always contingent upon the observer, changing with time. The historical variations range from the most painful experiences in ancient societies to modern elective methods used to reshape the anatomical parts of the female body. Devices to reshape women to whatever image that happens to be currently acceptable to those with the power to define it, have resulted in sometimes painful, and harmful, contrivances.

The old Chinese practice of binding a girl's feet is a vivid example of the omnipresent principle of controlling women's bodies. Chinese poets went into ecstasy to see a woman's bound feet like "three inch golden lilies". They found beauty in women walking on their tiny feet like tender young willow shoots in a spring breeze. Here is a quote from writer Jung Chang, who discusses her grandmother:

"My grandmother's feet had been bound when she was two years old. Her mother, who herself had bound feet, first wound a piece of white cloth about 20 feet long round her feet, bending all the toes except the big toe inward and under the sole. Then she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch. My grandmother screamed in agony and begged her to stop. Her mother had to stick a cloth into her mouth to gag her. My grandmother passed out repeatedly from the pain.

The process lasted several years. Even after the bones had been broken, the feet had to be bound day and night in thick cloth because the moment they were released they would try to recover. For years my grandmother lived in relentless, excruciating pain. When she pleaded with her mother to untie the bindings, her mother would weep and tell her that unbound feet would ruin her entire life, and that she was doing it for her own future happiness."

The story of Chely Rodriguez of Carpentaria, California, in our times is not much different from the heinous practice of Chinese foot binding. Chely wanted to become a model and an actress. At 13, she enrolled in classes for modelling. She was then 5.3 feet tall and weighed 125 pounds. She was put on a severe diet. She starved herself so that her weight dropped to 98 pounds to concur with the ideal "hour-glass" image.

It is not surprising that a concept like "beauty" has a history. Different cultures in different eras have taken pleasure in perceiving women differently. Various factors influence such perception, including technologies, social and governmental systems, sexual practices and spiritualities.

Women have to change their figure every time the beauty standards are altered by the shifting social, economic and political influences. In classical Greece and Rome, female curvaceousness was unattractive. Women wore restrictive bands to flatten their breasts. Similarly, by the 1920s, flat chests were again fashionable and "boyish" figures were in. In the 1950s, the trend was different and elective breast surgery was in demand to increase the bra size. Elizabeth Taylor, who underwent cosmetic surgeries quite often, was described to be "the most beautiful 61 year old on the planet."

Notions of beauty are class advantageous. Beauty is contingent upon age and there is no level playing field in advancing age. The western images are downloaded in developing countries, which are potential markets of the beauty industry. Powerful signals are sent to girls to reshape themselves to the "hourglass" figure. Blatantly and subtly, the media preaches the ideals of beauty.

For those who have earned their living through the beauty-game, by playing to the tune of beauty-architects, aging is hellish. This is the case with film stars and models. As they grow out of 25, they are thrown out of the profession because their only merit was their "beauty". Failing to value themselves, some of them end their life.

A woman's body is functional. It has to carry a child, unlike a man who is better fitted to keep whatever looks he is born with. But a pregnant woman or an average woman is not the modern ideal of beauty. Even those women competitors in beauty contests are not allowed to be natural. They are the creatures of artifice. They wear false eyelashes, artificially lift their eyebrows, undergo cosmetic surgery to reshape their breasts, and are required to dazzle us with full make-up and have elaborate hairdos and the latest fashionable attire. As a result, average women are encouraged to artificially imitate them as these beauties themselves are not quite as nature made them.

How does the beauty theory impact women?

First, beauty norms render a very negative, devalued identity for women who gradually lose dignity. In the name of beauty, women are reduced to "biology" which, in turn, reduces the body into an "object", which again may be gainfully bought and sold profitably as a commodity in this new consumerist culture. The concept of beauty relates to a woman's body as the only merit that women can boast of, irrespective of any social distinction.

It is reductionism to the base. A woman is reduced to an object. It is the aggregated quality of physical, psychological, intellectual and spiritual endowments that make a man or woman an agency. When a woman is reduced to her looks alone, she is deprived of dignity and worth. Her looks alone define her, not her differentiated mind. Therefore, women are not naturally accepted by men as colleagues or intellectual companions. Beauty and intelligence are rarely thought of together. Nietzsche said "when a woman inclines to learning, there is usually something wrong with her sex". Rather, a girl who tries to show off her mind instead of her body is penalised. When a girl stops listening and starts talking, she is considered to be rude and aggressive. Hence Mary Wortley Montagu advised her daughter, as intelligent women often do, to hide her intelligence as "a physical defect." That was the reason why Jayne Mansfield hid her excellent I.Q. score — of 166.

Whether a woman's I.Q. is 60 or 160, her first duty is to look attractive. The value of a woman is in proportion to her approximation to the beauty standards set. In 1966, when a woman was appointed as a vice-president of a corporation, journalists were impressed not by her competence but by her own statistics — 34-24-36. People marvelled at the anomaly that a brainy woman can be built too!

Consequently, women are tutored to feel that their body is not worth unless it fits the "beauty" frame set by society. They are psychologically alienated from their body, feeling inferior and detesting every normal phase of their physical growth. These phases do not relate them to men. What is more painful is that they are treated as an inferior species and in a culture like ours, they are untouchables during those women-specific occasions in their biological growth. A woman's body is deemed to be valuable only as long as it satisfies men or pleases others in the society. In fact, one's body represents one's integrity, as a separate self, distinguished from others. It is only through the body that one integrates sexuality with gender. But the silent and meek subjugation of women under the barrier of "beauty" encourages the display of obscene advertisements, posters, and the broadcasting of vulgar film songs, dialogues, dances and postures. To women who are involved in these displays, it is one way of asserting themselves and turning their body to be gainfully used as an asset in a market world as it is in the case of a poor manual labourer for whom his body is the only asset accessible.

The saddest fact is that women absorb only what society imposes on them and try to live accordingly. They do not realise what they really are, but seek for a pattern from men. Being-in-the-world for women is conditioned by the relationship between body and beauty. Hence it results in the differentiation within the psychological experience of a woman, between how they relate to self and others and how they construct their identity. Their relatedness and identity are constructed by external agencies of power — in our times, by the business tycoons who spin out of the beauty concept a multi-million dollar industry.

It is time we corrected out attitude towards women. The dehumanisation of women is not only detrimental to women but to men also. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "If you want to keep a man down in the dirt, you have got to get right down there with him". A woman's subservient status signifies an aberration in the nature of men too. It is imperative, therefore, to unmask the beauty myth. Our concern should be to create those roles in which women and girls are valued for their merits other than sex and beauty. From childhood, girls should be taught to respect their own bodies and their options and choices in order to feel self-worthy. Above all, the media and advertisements that constantly dredge up insulting and demeaning images of women should be countered through a powerful convergence of political, social and institutional wills.

To sum up, the cult of beauty is a cultural insanity. Its touch is beastly. Destructive. Surreptitious. Glamorous. Ultimately death — the death of human dignity and worth. Beware of it! Both men and women.

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