Is Beauty Toxic? May 3, 2010 18:51:26 GMT -5
Post by Erica Chan on May 3, 2010 18:51:26 GMT -5
Is Beauty Toxic?
Written by penname 'Eyes Wide Open' on the blog Socyberty. Find the original blog post here.
****************************************Note: I personally found this a rather harrowing, challenging article to read. But at the same time, I couldn't keep my eyes off it. What do you make of it?
Beauty in general is valued by our society. Being attractive puts you at an advantage, although often at an unfair one. However, can something so valued actually have a negative affect on us? What I am referring specifically to is female beauty. What I mean by “beauty” is what our society typically thinks of as the ideal beauty (Caucasian; thin; large breasted; etc.). Is this idea of beauty making our society sick?
Often when people hear the way I feel before seeing me, they either think I am large and overweight or an unattractive woman (an uneducated assumption). It makes people feel better to believe this, because they think it would make my opinion less credible. If it is less credible, than people can close their eyes and ears and do not have to face the truth. My eyes are wide open.
Over the last number of years, I have noticed more and more half naked women being plastered all over billboards, television, movies, magazines, and the internet. I can go into Blockbuster and see at least three or four movies per shelf unit with a half naked woman on it, or at least very sexualized. How many do I see of men, maybe three or four in the entire store? When I type in “sexy” on the internet, nearly everything that comes up are women.
I hear people say, “sex sells”, but what I think is really selling are women’s bodies. People say “sex sells” as if it applies equally to men. It is just a way of masking what it really is. Women are increasingly being portrayed as sex objects, and they are increasingly expected to conform to a standard of beauty set by the media that is unhealthy and unrealistic for most women. The way women are objectified and their beauty defined is a social problem. Social problems are sustained by different aspects of our society’s culture such as our beliefs, myths and the degree we individuals are blinded by the truth.
Overall however, there appears to be a lack of interest in women over this issue. I think that unlike other women’s issues that are at the forefront, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, etc., the objectifying of women continues to be largely accepted, and considered the norm. After all, it was legal and acceptable for men to beat their wives in the past, and acceptable for women not to be considered “persons” under the law. Sometimes we just need to open our eyes to the injustice.
Recently many feminist undertones can be seen in recent television shows and movie depictions of women. The idea of “girl power” has become popular, and has often been termed as “pop feminism”, with music artists carrying this theme such as “Pink” and “Christina Aguilera”; in movies such as “Underworld”, “Electra”, and other movies featuring super-heroines. While women are finally being featured as capable, heroic, and strong instead of meek and passive, a common theme continues. This theme is that women are still over-sexualized. I guess you cannot be a female hero unless you are skinny with large breasts, wearing tight clothes in high heels.
Women have come to highly scrutinize their own bodies, and are subject to the same scrutiny by the public. One major contributor to these is the media’s role in emphasizing the beauty only comes in a white, thin, able-bodied, and heterosexual body. Only this form of beauty is deemed acceptable as being, “sexy”, “acceptable”, “lovable” and “worthy”. “At the same time, women’s bodies have been culturally constructed as a site of sin, corruption, and uncleanliness” (Mandell 2004).
Many challenges face changing this unhealthy and “toxic” image of women. One of these challenges are from the “power holders”. These are people who have control and power over the current conditions, and those who have an investment in, and benefit from the current state of affairs. “Power holders” over the objectification of women are cosmetic companies for one. Cosmetic companies earn billions of dollars by making women feel unattractive. They imply that women are not good enough the way they are. Using only very “attractive” women to advertise this makeup is purposeful, so that you feel even less attractive, and actually believe you can look more like them by using this makeup. Their purpose is to make money off of you; they do not care how it affects you.
Diet programs are most often targeted at women as well. Women are constantly told that they must be thin in order to be attractive and beautiful. If women began to be perceived as being beautiful even though they were not as thin as the portrayed ideal in the media, the sales and services of these diet programs would plummet. Very few women want to lose weight
for their health; it is primarily to look slimmer. If our society valued the weight of the average women, this would also cause diet schemes to lose much of their value.
Another power holder of the objectification of women and women’s “beauty” is the pornography industry, who has a huge investment in the sexual objectification of women. Sexual objectification occurs, whenever a woman’s body, body parts, or sexual functions are separated out from her person, reduced to mere instruments, or regarded as if they were capable of representing her” (Rubin 2004). The pornography industry also make billions of dollars off this condition. Marketers and producers of pornography have admitted to the harmful consequences to women they produce and its links with sexism. Do they care? Of course they do not. It does not hurt them directly; they make money.
Television shows are also guilty of being power holders. Television shows such as “Extreme Makeover” and “The Swan”, are often based on taking, an “ugly” woman and perform cosmetic surgery to her whole body, and making her into a more “beautiful” and hence “better” woman. These shows would not exist if our society did not support these notions, and there was not a profit to be made. Miss USA or Miss World Beauty Pageants would also not exist if these conditions did not exist for women, and where would “America’s Next Top Model” be if women were not so highly valued for the appearance? These programs and events revolve around (but are not limited to) women’s physical beauty. Women are being judged primarily on their appearance, and those who do not fit with the image are eliminated; they are not beautiful enough, and not worthy of winning.
As stated previously, the problem is not merely with the kinds of physical forms the media is presenting, but the way in which they present women’s physical forms. Game shows, such as “Wheel of Fortune” and the “Price is Right”, only use “attractive” women, and present them as showpieces and display items. This continues in new game shows such as “Deal or No Deal” where dozens of thin, over-sexualized woman stand as display objects holding choice cards for players. Advertising commercials, movies and music videos increasingly depict women as objects. Commercials, especially those advertising beer, show women as sex objects. In recent years, it is becoming more difficult to watch a movie where a naked woman is needlessly and irrelevantly incorporated into the film. Women’s exposed bodies are becoming so common that these movies have gone from “R” rated, to PG13, and I wonder how far it will go. While there are new television shows, music artists, and movies that are “empowering” to women, women are still depicted with the same image, and still over sexualized.
One of the worst television shows I have seen for objectifying women is “The Man Show”. This show is hosted by two men, who claim to be hosting a show on what men are all about. Men should be insulted. The primary focus is on women. Throughout the show, attractive women wearing revealing clothes, dance and flaunt around amongst the audience. They giggle and laugh the way we would perceive an “airhead” to. The hosts constantly make sexist comments with regard to women’s role in relation to men and what a woman’s “purpose” is.
The media’s current portrayal of women also has negative effects on men. Studies show that there is a link between men’s attitudes towards women and media exposure (Hargreaves, 2003). For example, “…repeated and ongoing exposure to thin, attractive women in the media is shaping men’s and boys’ expectations and evaluations of women and girls” (Hargreaves 2003). In addition, exposure to degrading portrayals of women has been related to men’s objectification of them, and men’s perception of women as being less intellectually competent (Millburn, 2000). One study had men rate their partners on a scale of one to ten on their physical attractiveness. These men were then given playboy magazines or magazines of other models. Afterwards, the men were given the same questionnaire to complete on their partners to rate them. They rated their partners as significantly less attractive after this exposure. Think about this effect when your men are out at strip clubs and leer at their “nudie” magazines.
In parts of Ontario, Canada, it has become legal for women to be in public topless. Women worked very hard to achieve this goal. Since this time however, I have not seen any women take advantage of this law. Women who fought for this had the right intentions: being treated with equality and fairness. They believed that women should also have the right to walk around without their shirt and did not think women should have to be treated differently.
The unfair reality of this however is not that women’s chests are so much different from men’s, but that women’s bodies have become so sexualized in our society that it hinders our ability to do so. Women can look at a bare-chested male and find his physical appearance to be attractive, but we have objectified a woman’s chest so much so that it is not just “attractive”, it is an object. I know that as a woman I could not walk around topless without being treated like one. Look at the way men and women act simply when a woman wears a low cut shirt. Our society has become obsessed with women’s body parts.
Plastic surgeons are increasingly making profit off this “toxic” view of beauty in women as well. Plastic surgery is becoming more acceptable in our society, and as it does, women are feeling more comfortable with investing in the altering of their bodies to conform to the media ideals. Face lifts, breast implants, and liposuction is becoming a common phenomena among women. There are rare instances of men having plastic surgery as well. Although, the very fact that it is rare gives an indication of the difference between men’s and women’s value of appearance. Women are NOT shallower, they are just more brainwashed by inescapable societal expectations.
One of the biggest power holders is women themselves. The few women who do match the “ideal” beauty can easily benefit from the high valued placed on women’s appearance. Beautiful women have the opportunity to enjoy everything from free cars to free meals offered by men who are only interested in the way they look. Women who involve themselves in modeling careers or star in pornographic media also benefit. Beautiful women in general enjoy the power of having men bend over backwards for them, and other women envying them. Who does not benefit however is the female population overall. When everywhere you look is a very specific idea of what women should look like, or women over-sexualized, we begin to desensitize the rest of the population. We begin to make people believe that this is what is expected of women. When we value women primarily for their appearance, we value them less for who they are. We value them less as human beings.
There are western cultural ideologies about women’s bodies that support and perpetuate women’s subordination. These ideologies include: women’s bodies are never fine as they are; women should be constantly aware of, and attending to, their bodies; women should suppress their bodily appetites and functions (i.e. food, sex, emotions, passing gas); women’s bodies-their size, shape and style, and comportment-are texts though which their morals and values will be read; women’s bodies are objects and commodities; women’s bodies exist to service others; and beautiful women are thin and Anglo-featured (Rubin 2004).
Patriarchy also poses a challenge in creating healthier ideas of beauty for women. “Patriarchy is a system designed to maintain societal power, control and privilege in male hands (Odem and Clay-Warner 1998). A relevant patriarchal ideology is the insistence on women’s sexual access, and that women are made for the use and purposes of men (Schwartz, 1997). By keeping women primarily concerned about their appearance and competing for men, women will be less concerned about politics, business, and other positions of power in society. Consider how many beauty magazines there are for women, versus similar magazines on how to improve the appearance for men? Women’s beauty magazines predominately revolve around how to improve themselves for men. Everything including: how to be better in bed for men and how to look better for men (makeup, weight loss, etc). Despite research showing that looking at these magazines for only a few moments cause most women’s self-esteem to plummet, women continue to buy them.
I rarely see women buy magazines that nurture their minds and intelligence, which is often the result of their socialization to focus on their appearance. Keeping women focused on the trivial, keeps them from focusing on more important aspects in life, such as increasing their knowledge, power, and capabilities. This allows patriarchy to flourish by preserving the power and control men currently possess in society and over women’s bodies, and controlled by their appearances.
Women from other cultures who value larger women tend to feel the impact of this ideal less. Beauty magazines normally depict white women and these women as the ideal. The result of this is that many black women do not feel the same pressure to be thin and meet these ideals because they tend to compare themselves less with white women, and more with the images of Black women in the media (which there is very little of). Women of color are underrepresented in the media, and when they are represented, they typically portray “ideal” images of Black beauty as being light skinned and Anglo featured (such as a narrow nose). However, it would also be fair to assume that the White woman normally being the “ideal” image of beauty is having an impact on Black women based on the increasing number of Black women choosing to straighten their hair.
Whether men and women want to face it or not, and as much as we refuse to admit it, these message and images of women are having an affect on the way we look at women, and women look at themselves. Many women internalize these messages, which have led to increased dissatisfaction of their bodies. “Effects research shows significant relationships between exposure to thin, female images in magazines and television and anorexia, bulimia, drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction, lowered self-esteem, anger, depression, hostility, body anxiety, shame, and endorsement of the thin ideal” (Goodman 2002).
Women are not having these reactions simply because the idea is thinness, but because this ideal is unrealistic for most women and most women are not as naturally thin as the ideal. When only one specific image of beauty is portrayed to women, and women are told they must conform to this one ideal if they are to be considered beautiful, many will naturally think that if they do not meet this standard, then they must not be beautiful. These effects are even more dangerous when women are socialized to equate self-worth with appearance.
I have heard many men say to women, “You do not need to wear makeup to be beautiful” or tell their partners that their breasts are fine the way they are, or that they do not need to lose weight. Men may not intend to, but they often contradict what they say. Only moments after telling their partners this, they are bending over backwards to check out the women who have the large breasts, are thin, and are wearing lots of makeup. How should this make women feel? Actions speak louder than words.
Many women in general acknowledge that these images are unrealistic and that a different ideal image of women should be promoted, however they still feel driven to conform to the ideal. Women have undertaken a number of methods in order to achieve this thin ideal, which include: laxatives; diet pills; smoking; chewing gum; food diets; exercise and plastic surgery (Goodman 2002). Dieting efforts can have serious consequences such as inadequate nutrition, fatigue, weakness, irritability, depression, social withdrawal, loss of sexual desire, and even sudden death from cardiac arrhythmia (Malkin 1999).
Another example of the way women’s appearances are valued and scrutinized by the public is evidenced in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Countless times Monica’s appearance and weight was made fun of. It seems that every time Monica is brought up, so is her weight. Monica was not very large. She was not that far off from a significant proportion of our women in our society today. The scrutiny was not simply that Clinton had “sexual relations” with someone other than his wife, or that she worked for him, but it was because Monica was a “fat” woman. I heard many television programs comment on the fact that if he Clinton was going to have sexual relations with someone, the least he could have done was chosen a more attractive woman.
Even the news places value on a woman’s appearance. Numerous times I have heard of cases where women went missing or were murdered. In the reporter’s story, they often mention whether the woman was beautiful. They will start out their story something like this, “Just yesterday, this beautiful young woman was found dead…”. I have often questioned this thinking, “what does her appearance have to do with it?” It is as if by her being beautiful, her murder was more of a loss, because she was more valuable. I have never heard of a man being murdered and the commentary or report including whether he was handsome or not.
I had a personal experience similar to this. A few years back I was riding on the bus and overheard a passenger speaking with the bus driver. He was telling the driver that a few weeks before he had been on the bus and saw a woman being raped by two men. In the conversation he said, “She was pretty too, she didn’t deserve that”. I wondered, if she had not been “pretty” would she be any more deserving of the rape? Or is it a “waste” of a beautiful woman to be raped? Many physicians also continue to comment on a woman’s physical attractiveness in her medical file, as if that is relevant.
It is also common in video games to over-sexual and objectify women. I admit I enjoy playing video games. However, nearly every time I actually get to play a female character, she is over-sexualized. Examples of which are, “Tomb Raider” where character Laura Croft is thin and big breasted, which is typical in video games. One game that strongly objectifies women is “Dead of Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball”. This game displays this image of women in tiny bikinis playing volleyball. Women jump around while their breasts bounce. After all, that is probably the most important part of the game.
They also have clips of women lying on the beach sun bathing wearing bikini thongs. The video game is rated mature, however the rating is suggestive, and is not always enforced when children are buying it and parents are not always paying attention. What message is this giving to boys about women? Again, it is not “sex” that is selling, it is women and their bodies. This only scratches the surface in the objectifying and demoralizing games featuring female characters.
Female children are also being affected. Gradually more, children’s cartoons targeted at girls show female cartoon characters as being not only thin, and usually white, but wearing halter tops, mini skirts and tight fitting clothes. Popular Barbie dolls have the same effect and depict the same image. Young girls also look up to popular music artists such as the “Pussycat Dolls” and try to model after them, who present themselves this way.
There have been some efforts made in various communities such as a dance troop for young girls called the, “Dandelion Dancers” who operate out of Ottawa, Canada. This group is composed of young girls and women who do dance performances that promote healthier images for women and girls. All these girls are of different shapes and sizes, giving all girls the opportunity to share their love of dancing, instead of only the thin “ideal” little girls.
Another effort made is by the “Beautiful Women Project” which also operates in the Ottawa area. This “project” is artwork created by artist Cheryl-Ann Webster, which is composed of over one hundred artistically painted body casts of the front torso of different women, all shapes and sizes. The inspiration of this project came from Cheryl-Ann’s discovery of her twelve-year-old daughter saving money for breast implants. This child was only starting to mature, and she already felt the pressure of women and girls too appear a certain way. Cheryl-Ann now travels doing presentations of her art work, and conscious-raises about the issues and impact of women’s bodies. Each body cast has its own story.
Dove products, which are comprised of various cleansing products for women, recently changed their advertising scheme. Their television commercials now feature women of various shapes, sizes, ages, and ethnicities with the purpose of promoting a healthier image for women. Dove also started a campaign titled, “Campaign for Real Beauty” in which they are targeting the self-esteem of women, and are raising funds for the cause.
I have made my own efforts in trying to raise the awareness of the public regarding these issues and change the way women are perceived. I worked with the “Womyn’s Centre” at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada on a calendar promoting a healthier image for women. This calendar features different months designated towards different women in different fields of interest such as, “Engineering Women”, “Athletic Women”, and “Artistic Women”. The purpose was to make our best effort to reflect the beauty and personality within, and not simply without.
Nearly any calendar on the market objectifies women. Very few feature “average” looking women, or care about who they are. True they do also do this to men, but I am sure you can count for yourself how many calendars do this to women as oppose to men. If there were a calendar of female athletes, as they do men, I can almost guarantee they will be posed very sexualized with little clothes.
Too many women respond to the “beauty” images of women by feeling the need to objectify themselves in order to gain the acceptance of men or so that they feel worthy. Women should be getting angry and seeing the truth instead of becoming part of the problem! I know, easier said than done. The result is that women never really feel good enough, resulting in plastic surgeries, cosmetics, and sometimes eating disorders.
All the above mentioned contribute to the toxic idea of beauty. This toxin is harming our society’s community of women. Women are constantly being bombarded with negative media messages, and the frequency and strength of these messages and the slenderness of the ideal female body have greatly increased over the last few decades.
There is nothing wrong with men or women wanting to look attractive for themselves or the opposite sex. That is not what I am concerned with, and if you confuse the two, you have missed my point. The answer to these problems is not necessarily to enforce censorship over the media, but it should be more carefully monitored. In addition, I do not believe forcing women to cover up is the answer either. Women should not be required to wear baggy clothes or overly cover up their bodies in order to be respected as a human being. I also do not believe that the media should be changing their image so that it portrays only one other image of beauty. For instance, while most women may resemble more closely to a fully figured woman, if this image is the only one that is portrayed, women who do not fit this mould will be left in the dark. The key is variety and reality, and a reflection of all beauty.
Women are intelligent and worthy human beings who deserve to be treated as such. Women are not sex objects for men, but autonomous individuals. Women are more than the sum of their parts, and should not have to risk their health and have to invest large amounts of money in order to be considered valuable. We need to place intelligence, personality and who a woman is as a human being above the importance of physical beauty. Hopefully by doing so, media will increasingly reflect these new images, and will leave young girls and women with better self-esteem and a better self image that can allow women to focus on what is most important, and live a more fulfilled and happy life.
I hope that in the future, if I have daughters, they will be looked at with dignity and respect, and they will not feel they must conform to these images, and know their value as a human being lies not in their appearance as a woman, but in who they are. If I have sons, I have hopes that they will be able to look at women the way I hope my daughters will look at themselves. What are your hopes for the future? What are you going to do to create change? Or will you allow the toxic image of beauty to persist and contaminate our society?