The ‘Beauty Myth’ Myth..

15 01 2013

If an earworm is a song that you can’t get out of your head, then I guess a mindworm would be an idea you can’t get out of your head… This is one of them. Much has been said in the popular media about the enduring issue of female body image and following the seminal work by Naomi Wolf in 1991: The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. This work essential birthed a US movement, which has now spread worldwide, purportedly to expose the ‘beauty myth’. So what, exactly IS this myth? According to Wolf, the myth is that ideal or archetypal female beauty ought to be the standard for women to aspire to when it is, quite patently unattainable for the vast majority of women to ever achieve. Moreover, she states that the beauty myth leads to assault in five areas of  female experience: work, sex, religion, violence and hunger.

Now this article is not so much concerned with Wolf’s postulates here, in fact they had (and still have) considerable merit in exposing and asking questions about what we value about women. Instead, I am going to examine the irrational car wreck that occurred when the self esteem industry, the personal hygiene mega-corporations and overpaid advertisers met Wolf’s ideas. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you exhibit A: A ‘Dove’ ad, analysed by Gruen Planet last year. The irony of this is that the ‘Dove’ brand is one of hundreds owned by Unilever, that provides hundreds of products in the cosmetics, beauty and hygiene products sector of the market and is worth billions, essentially through its extraordinary success in persuading women that ‘natural’ is not good enough. What is mind-boggling is that a company this large can basically question the whole idea of attainable female beauty whilst making a profit by selling hundreds of products that promise just that. The campaign is now a ‘textbook standard case study’ in undergraduate marketing courses.

So why is beauty SO important to women (predominantly) in the developed or developing world? The reasons and complex and myriad but, at their core, it is because we can afford to obsess about beauty. If you live on a part of the planet where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs forms your daily ‘to do’ list, which usually gets stuck somewhere around the “food” and “shelter” issues, then exfoliation is a LONG way down that list.

So surely the female obsession with unattainable beauty can be firmly laid at the feet of men, can it not? By far the easiest target of the angry feminist, the more ‘utlitarian’ gender appears not to be guilty. Groups of women frequently ‘do themselves up’ at functions where men aren’t even present. If the goal of presenting an image closer to the ‘ideal’ was to attract men, it is rather intriguing then to see so many apparently happily married women dressing and being made up to this standard, even for work, where their husbands are not even present. Is it possible that the mimicking behaviour of pre-adolescent girls stems not from the influence of fathers and brothers but mothers, sisters and female friends? Do women trade on that most basic and primal commodity to establish social power amongst each other? A wall of psychological research would proclaim a resounding ‘yes’.

Sure women do ‘enhance’ beauty to a mythical standard to attract men, it works. However, the more important benefit appears to be higher standing amongst women. Couple that with well-developed social and emotional skills and you won’t find it hard to pick out your ‘Alpha female’ from any bevvy of women out for an event. So how does this relate to the beauty myth. Easily. Men are far more in agreement with what constitutes an attractive woman, whilst women are notoriously difficult to pin down key attributes of a physically attractive male. So here is a test: 1. Would you consider this woman generally attractive:


2. Ok, how about THIS guy?

Gerard Dep

Well people around my age may remember both Andie MacDowall (top) and Gerard Depardieu (bottom) as both acting in the classic feature “Greencard”. At the time, Andie was in the top ten regularly of polls of beautiful women in the US and Gerard of beautiful men predominantly in (his country of origin) France.

But wait, we know you want MORE, right? Well, such ideas go further in a way that seems, at first glance, to be a noble and admirable goal but one which leaves women in an even poorer state. Let me explain. The ubiquitous message we hear in the 21st century about women is that “All women are beautiful”, that all women should be proud of their bodies and realise that they are beautiful. Now this seems to include genetically responsible conditions such as deformities, large visible birth marks, skin abnormalities and so forth, but also those predominantly related to health and lifestyle including obesity.

This is where the message gets weird and dangerous for women. We are now (often) telling women that ‘you are all beautiful just the way you are’. We say it to the morbidly obese, we say it to the anorexics struggling to hang on to life in hospital and we say it to tragic burns victims that can’t face looking in the mirror. Why do we do it? To make them feel better? The absurd thing about this is that psychologically it can’t work and fundamentally, rather than devaluing the concept of beauty, it simply elevates it above all else… because everyone MUST be beautiful, right? No, everyone is not required to be beautiful and, I am going to say it; everyone is not ‘beautiful’.

Let me use two analogies that relate to men. Firstly, physical strength. This is an archetypal ideal for some men.. the ‘condom full of walnuts’ look and able to lift a truck up with your bare hands. Are ALL men strong? No. Some incredible men, like the actor that played Superman, the late Christopher Reeve, a quadriplegic from a tragic horse-riding accident until his death in 2004 could not even lift a spoon. Is it important that all men are strong? No. Is it OK to say that some are not strong? Yes, of course.

Now what about smart men? Another archetype for men in establishing a socially stable hierarchy is intelligence. Notoriously hard to measure but we seem to know it when we see it. Now, is EVERY man a smart man? You’d have to be off your rocker to support that notion (or at least go for a drive!). Is it important that ALL men are smart. No. Not at all.

So why doesn’t telling women that they are beautiful work long term to improve their health, self-esteem and social opportunities? For the same reason that mothers telling woeful singers on Australian/American/UK Idol that they are awesome singers. It is a blatant lie because making them feel good is now far more important than being  good. When it comes to beauty, however, it doesn’t stick. We know this because survey after survey (even of beautiful models) show that women do not like the way they look. they don’t feel  beautiful. It is not fair but it is reality that beautiful women tend to have social capital in groups of adults, both mixed and single gender.

Despite flaws in intelligence, empathy, integrity or other attributes, beautiful women tend to get more attention in class, in interviews, in selections for promotion and other areas of societal competition. If a woman is told she is beautiful but not does experience the ‘benefits of the beautiful’ then she will know that what is being peddled about her ‘beauty’ is a lie. Worse, it now shows her just how far down this (unfair) hierarchy she really is, because beauty is the most important commodity.

This gets one step more bizarre when we encourage women whose health issues impinge on their beauty to ’embrace who they are’. Now for this controversial point, I expect some brickbats in the comments, but, PLEASE, read this section carefully. It is as damaging and absurd to tell an overweight woman that she is beautiful just the way she is and to not change a thing as it is to tell a smoker with lung cancer that his x-rayed lungs with grapefruit sized tumours are ‘a thing of beauty’ so keep on smoking.

Overweight or not, requiring someone to obtain some unattainable ideal of beauty is unfair, shallow and places value on something that for most of us might be very hard to change. Encouraging someone, whether they be anorexic or obese, or choose to use damaging solaria to get a tan with UV rays is simply irresponsible.

Ok, are you still with me? So what can we say to women about their bodies that can help them with health and their psychological well-being? What about that they are worthwhile human beings and that we ALL can benefit from being as healthy as we can be, particularly if we are globally rich and overindulged. Secondly, that, just like God, we can broaden the value we see in people; some are funny, some are empathic, some are very smart, some have awesome work ethics and tenacity, some are reliable and so forth. Let’s be genuinely complimentary about the people around us and the real beauty we see. Not flattery (which is an untrue compliment to make people feel good). Just let people separate themselves from the importance of being physically beautiful.

If you think there is heresy in this article. Stop, ladies and consider how we treat overweight men, funny-looking men or strange-looking men. It is a LOT more socially acceptable to pay out on an Australian man for being any of these things than a woman. Why? Because neither men nor women generally value physical beauty of men in the way that women do. Men have the same needs for self-esteem too, but physical beauty, in most research, is a lower priority for men. Watch out though if you insult his intelligence or his physical strength (or sexual prowess, an area where men are often woefully inadequate and very sensitive to criticism!).

So where does this leave us? With some sensible but promising work to do. What if we devalued physical beauty to a more reasonable level, whilst acknowledging the benefits to the ‘lucky ones’ in much the same way we do for those of gifted intelligence? What if we divorced health issues from self-esteem issues and decided that being healthy is more important than feeling beautiful. Health is a far more objective measure and it is quite possible that if you are proud of your ability to get yourself healthy (lower/higher fat percentage, healthy blood pressure, cholesterol, healthy liver and kidneys etc) you will be more confident regardless of how you look against the impossible standard and can realise your real worth as a caring and interdependent part of society.

Finally, what would society be like if we stopped being obsessed with the way our bodies looked and burdening our communication with others about our own physical and emotional inadequacies and focussed instead on the lives of others and the less fortunate whose lives we mentioned earlier. Now THAT, to me at least, sounds beautiful. Women who live like that, regardless of how they look are VERY attractive.. don’t you think? 😉




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