cult of beauty
November 3, 2003 03:11 PM

This week on WHB, Brigitte asks about beauty, specifically about body augmentation.

In the sixth century women bled themselves to have the coveted pale complexion. Today AlloDerm and Cymetra Dermalogen Facian, used for facial augmentation, contains refined fat from cadavers; the vast majority of the patients recieving injections being women. We've come a long way, baby. So what are your thoughts on the "cult of beauty"? Is it part of the patriarchy? Or is body augmentation empowering?

There is a possibility for body modification to be a politically empowering act, but I don't think that is what happens in most cases.

Nor do I think things like injecting oneself with toxins or having voluntary surgery to make any part of one's body "prettier" are indicative of an increased focus on meeting some rarified idea of "pretty". Rather, the rise in the number of people pursuing what I'd consider extreme routes to beautiful is proportional to the availability of those routes - technologically, financially, et cetera.

What I find frustrating and disturbing is the tendency of the beauty "ideal" to narrow - for both genders, but especially for women. We have what Paul calls "The Night You Became Fat" (when the BMI assessment of obesity changed overnight), we have, as Morgaine has pointed out, the introduction of cosmetic surgery for the labia and women dyeing their pubes on shows like Sex and the City, not to mention the oft-cited thinning of the supermodel body type.

I don't believe these things point to a conspiracy to keep women from thinking about serious issues. Rather. There are two factors I see at work (well, two among many). One is the market, and the other is our own fear.

The market - obviously, there are a number of industries that depend on notions of ideal beauty. Not just the obvious ones that sell beauty-oriented products, but pharmaceuticals, advertising, entertainment, many others are built in part upon this ideal. In the simplest terms, a tightening ideal sells more. A widening ideal requires all these industries to reconsider some aspect of their strategies. So where do you expect the ideal to go - tight or broad?

Fear - I become more and more convinced that fixation on anything that seems frivolous or absurd on the part of Americans particularly is likely a symptom of a sort of culture dysphoria. We think we are the generous great-uncle of global politics, but there are so many problems with our image, with our policy, with what we experience as individuals on a day-to-day basis. I believe we choose to fixate on the material, the things we think we can control, in order to absorb ourselves away from the scary things we think we can't control. This ties very much into what Michael Moore has called the "Horatio Alger myth": namely, that we believe we can make ourselves.

There is undoubtedly some inequity in terms of gender here. Those two factors can affect both men and women, but women are far more caught up in the notion of making oneself as related to makeup, clothing, or surgical modification (women continue to make up 85% of the cosmetic procedures done, for instance). A lot of discussion on this topic makes women sound more stupid and vulnerable to suggestion when it comes to beauty, as if we're victims of the media on this one. I infer from this that women are supposed to be more susceptible than men, but what is more likely true is that we've trained ourselves to be susceptible to different types of peer pressure. Thus, it seems to be easier for men to accept their bodies, and easier for women to accept varying degrees of financial success.

Still - while I don't deny that beauty culture (not to mention cultural assumptions, role proscriptions in general) is incidentally disempowering for women as a group, I think there's more at work here than just this role proscribed for women - namely "be beautiful".

Some aspects of beauty culture can be appropriated and used in a way that is empowering. For my generation of women, I think the riot grrrl movement is an example of this - a lot of riot grrrl culture is about inversion of beauty ideals (those not of my cohort may still remember Kathleen Hanna's lipsticked "slut" proclamations on her midriff, which was just one of many diverse expressions of angry femininity). That riot grrrl aesthetic has fed quite a bit of watered-down pop culture, but even that runny version can still empower young girls to embrace their Britney Spears tube tops as an ironic choice.

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