Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Democratizing Beauty

A while back, I wrote a post on my own conflicting opinions about our culture's images of beauty. Since then I've heard some really good comments from people, one from a male friend who said that even if our culture only displayed one idea of what was beautiful, men in general had a much broader definition of a beautiful-looking woman which includes proportion not just slimness and a sense of personality shining through the exterior.

This past week on the internet, in a magazine, papering bus stops and I think on TV once, I've been seeing ads for Dove lotion featuring six average women and NO retouching. When I went to the website they reference, called Campaign For Real Beauty, I found a document with the results of a study on contemporary women's perceptions of beauty in 8 countries. The results aren't a brief read at 48 pages, but the opening remarks, and some of the insights were interesting. I particularly liked these words from Dr. Susie Orbach of the London School of Economics (pp.5-6):

"The last fifty years have witnessed an interesting paradox. Beauty - as an idea and an ideal - has moved away from being the exclusive province of the Hollywood dream factory, of fashion models and the young bride, to become an essential attribute to which women of all ages need to pay heed. But at the same time that women of all ages and classes want to claim beauty for themselves, there has been an insidious narrowing of the beauty aesthetic to a limited physical type - thin, tall - which inevitably excludes millions and millions of women. The conjunction between democratizing the idea of beauty and the limiting of what constitutes the ideal of beauty has caused considerable anguish to women - young and old - who strive to find in themselves the means to meet those aesthetic values which have come to make up what we regard as beautiful.
. . .
"What women in this study tell us is that a sense of legitimacy and respect is wrapped up with beauty in today's world. Whether this sentiment dismays or delights us, it poses a serious challenge. And it is this in the first instance: For the idea of beauty to become truly democratic and inclusive, then beauty itself must be revitalized to reflect women in their beauty as they really are rather than as portrayed in the current fictions that dominate our visual culture. With such fictions removed, the many hours of anguish, spent in self criticism, or in the attempt to reshape themselves so that they do in some way resemble the ideal, have a chance to be freed up and find expression in the many other desires and ambitions that women hold."

I guess that encapsulates what I've been thinking - this drive for beauty, for self esteem through bodily and facial perfection, is distracting us. Hey, I'm not gonna stop highlighting my hair or wearing make-up when I feel like it. The point is not that it's ALL a waste, I think, but that we tend to spend TOO MUCH money, waste TOO MUCH frustration, and TOO MANY hours of our lives on pursuing it. Health is more vital, serving others more important, and achieving some of our goals will contribute more to our well-being. One of the things that hurts me most is watching my mother's peers be ashamed of their age, attempt to fit into fashions that don't flatter them, submit to torturous beauty regimens, and feel worthless when they are in fact wise, witty, and BEAUTIFUL women even if they don't fit the 23-year-old supermodel ideal. As Dr. Nancy Etcoff of Harvard University said (p.4): "Let the discussions and debates begin and let us reclaim and rejoice in authentic, diverse human beauty once again."


Neil said...

while i definitely agree with the silly stereotyping of 'beauty,' i think that that The Campaign for Real Beauty would probably be far more convincing and seem much more genuine if it weren't an obviously corporate-sponsored campaign - more designed, i think, to attract customers than spread any genuine awareness of a broadening definition of 'beauty.'

but that is just cynical me. and i do agree with the gist of the campaign - if i think over my friends and think whom i'd consider the most beautiful - the people that immediately come to mind aren't the stereotypical ideal - some are chubby, some don't have big breasts, some are too tall, etc.

thieves and beggars said...

hi erica.

my first reaction was virtually word for word that of neil's, in regards to a particularly malicious ad campaign now focusing on non-beauty. but then i repented.
as for me, there is nothing more beautiful than a woman who can express herself, be it in fashion (as is the case here) or in words (take for instance your blog as a whole).

good read.

Neil said...

i'm not sure why dan repented from agreeing with me, but i should probably be offended.

E.A.P said...

Oh, lads. You are too funny. And kind. :-)

Actually, if you read the results of the study, there is very little mention of Dove. There aren't even any leading questions asking women whether they use Dove products. The closest thing to that was a question regarding what, if any, types of beauty products women use to make themselves feel more beautiful (hair care, cosmetics, etc.) and it yielded some interesting results across cultures and no references to brand names. So, yes, it is marketing, but could anyone but an industry insider really get normal women and no retouching in an ad campaign? Seriously, I think the only other option would be some sort of lobbying organization pushing for legislation and I would much rather have it this way.

I guess what happens next is what's important. Is this just a blip on the radar screen, or will real change occur?

Neil said...

it seems like there has been gradual change for a while - bulemia- and anorexia-induced heroin chic is no longer viewed so highly, it's acceptable for female stars to not be rake thin (scarlett johansson and the former lindsay lohan come to mind, although their physical popularity probably stems from other areas, heh - and lohan has even been criticized quite a lot for her sudden weight loss. Also - the mega-stardom of teen-pop goddesses has fallen off quite a lot - look for instance - at Britney nowadays). But that's just small change, really.

J. Morgan Caler said...

Wow, I have wanted to write about this in a public forum for a while now. First, I really like this post and, generally, like this Dove Campaign. At the same time, I have a short argument to make:

The pop-feminist argument about body-image issues goes something like this: Media portrayals of feminine beauty cause body-image issues (usually in the form of anorexia, bulimia, etc.) because they present an unrealistic standard for women to achieve. Now, I think that is crap for a lot of reasons, but the two big ones are 1) the unstated – and completely false – premise is that women cannot help but take their cues on beauty and self-worth from the media (talk about an oppressive gender traditionalist assumption), and 2) the unstated – and completely false – premise that this standard of beauty presented in the media shapes and is shaped by the way men view women (in all actuality, this “unattainable standard” is usually set by other women).

I say this to get at my main point: the media portrayal of women is a grand myth that, by and large, only other women have bought into. The most amazing part of this myth is that “the media” were not only able to convince women to be unhappy with their bodies, but were also able to convince women that men were unhappy with women’s bodies. The fact is that men, in general, have never been as narrow in their conceptions of beauty as the media have been (or as the media have portrayed men for that matter). Men definitely have standards of beauty, but they are generally much broader and more inclusive that what women think they are. So, rather than having a media campaign to “democratize beauty,” I think what we need is a reality check. Next time women go to the mall, watch men watching women (CAUTION: SPOILER AHEAD). What you will find is that all sorts of men are looking at all sorts of women. If women would trust their lived experience a bit more – without first filtering it through the negative stereotypes that most of them hold about men and masculine perceptions of female beauty – I think women would be very satisfied with the way they look (or at least the way they look to men). I think that would go much farther than a Campaign for Real Beauty.

J. Morgan Caler said...

PS - Erica, I think you are a beautiful woman (don't be offended, K).

thieves and beggars said...

i had to pause a bit when i found myself agreeing with j. morgan. but i think he's dead-on.

as a sidenote, today i was sitting around the jewish center pool (more on that later, if you're lucky) and i overheard two women talking about how akron's one and only trendfitting club -- "posh" -- is having a contest tomorrow in which the winner recieves $4000 in plastic surgery. they both agreed that their breasts were waaaaaaaaay too small.

lvs said...

How is it that I miss reading your blog for one day, and so much happens? And all the comments are by men.

Um, I have nothing to add.

Moi said...

Are men to be applauded for their primal appreciation of beauty? Is that most, if not all women, are attractive to men because women have T&A (or in the case of Jewish pool women, like myself, wishful thinking T&A) and men have hormones, a GOOD thing? Men have a base appreciation of attractiveness. Women, on the other hand, see it as a goal, a perfection, so that they can be adored, and coddled, and worshipped by their menfolk AND their female peers.
Men do go beyond initial attraction and perceive true beauty (uniqueness, kindness, quietness, gentleness, wisdom), and for that, men are beautiful themselves.
Most of the males on this response have missed an HUGE portion of what this topic should contain: advertisements geared towards MALES. I understand that Dove creates mostly female products. The products FOR females use advertisements geared toward this archetypal, "worship me" perfection women strive towards. However, advertisements for men are not exclusively read by men. Women see them too, and see the huge knockers, perfectly tan, wee nosed, bombshells waxing cars with their bikini bottoms.
Men definitely have an impact on how women perceive themselves through the context of media.

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree with most of what everyone else has said above. The media might concentrate on a false and largely unsafe view of female beauty but the fault also lies just as much with the women who choose to believe it. We will all be unsatisfied with parts of our bodies at any given time but we can choose whether or not to play into the media's view of us. As a recovering anorexic who still struggles everyday with the images and the real beautiful women around her I realize i have a lot of work to do.

J. Morgan Caler said...

Maestrapescadora: See, remember how I said something in my post about avoiding filters that rely on stereotypes? Your comment was exactly why I said that. I didn’t say anywhere in my post that anyone should be applauded for anything. I also didn’t say that most men are restricted in their understanding of beauty to the visual. Read the words on the screen and don’t make inferences. My manuscript on human aesthetics that I am circulating to several publishers is about 900 pages - this is a blog;-) This is a specific portion of a much larger argument - it was designed to counter the claim that men’s visual sensibilities are as narrow as those visual images presented in “the media.” I wasn’t talking about real or personal beauty because “the media” have nothing to do with that - they have never and, because of the nature of the fora to which they have access, can never portray that.

As for advertisements to men that contain women, I will quote my original comment: “The most amazing part of this myth is that “the media” were not only able to convince women to be unhappy with their bodies, but were also able to convince women that men were unhappy with women’s bodies.” The second part of that is my comment on just that: women think that because ads directed at men utilize “T&A,” that is all men are interested in. The media portrayal of sexuality, the visual aesthetic, beauty, and the whole bag has narrowed the cultural respresentations of everything: not just cultural presentations of feminine beauty, but also cultural presentations of masculine appreciation of beauty, feminine or otherwise.

As for the anonymous poster, I don’t think I would feel comfortable faulting any woman for their body-image issues. I think it is more a product of circumstance (i.e. a culture that has disregarded the feminine person and her values since it existed, but somehow thinks that allowing them to be “sexy” on TV has corrected that through “liberation”) rather than individual shortcomings. I think it is important for women to realize the nature and genesis of these “issues” and then work to correct them, but I would try my best to avoid the morally-loaded language of fault.

Moi said...

This filter of which you speak of: it is based on my lived experiences. How would you defend your perspective against a person unable to separate negative life experience from their own "filtering"?

CharlesPeirce said...

maestrapescadora: obviously, no one can be 100% objective; I think j. morgan would simply say "Try." It's important to fight the media, because, as it's been pointed out multiple times here, the media is trying to sell, and almost nothing else.

I don't think j. morgan was saying "Narrow conceptions of beauty have had no impact on gender relations"- he was simply saying that they don't have to.

Good question, maestra--fight the filter.

All--great discussion.

J. Morgan Caler said...

Maestrapescadora: I think Charles got it about right. To answer your question, however, if I had a friend who had negative experiences that (over)informed his/her “filter,” I would do my best to model and provide positive experiences as often as possible for him/her. In so doing, I would have a variety of shared experiences at my disposal to point to any time I felt that he/she was relying too heavily on an unrealistic interpretation of reality. Of course we are not – and should not be – completely objective in our interpretation of the world, but we are not – and should not be – ideologically/experientially blinded either. We need to understand that the world and the people who live in it are far more complicated than normative sets, media portrayals, and even our own experiences can adequately account for. Anyway, thank you very much for your question – one that required me to clarify my point. Cheers.