Beauty and the Times
Beauty is in the eye of the…era
Beauty rituals have always existed. The problem isn't that they exist (though current-day modifications seem more extensive and expensive than ever), it's that:
a) they exist far more for girls and women than for boys and men
b) girls and women are pressured to adhere to them and ridiculed if they don't
c) girls and women are manipulated to believe their appearance is a measure of what they deserve (too ugly to be on TV, too fat to enjoy the beach, thin enough to wear that dress, etc)
d) they connote there's an objective standard of beauty rather than a socially-constructed one (what we'll be discussing on this page)
Who decides what’s beautiful? We know something is beautiful based on the way it makes us feel inside. But we are also inundated with messages of what is considered beautiful based on where we live and what era we live in. In other words, there isn’t really such a thing as objective beauty; it is socially-constructed. That which is considered feminine, beautiful and sexy changes radically over time and place.
Race and class both play huge roles in what is considered beautiful. Western beauty standards are essentially a celebration of Whiteness and wealth. Poor people can’t afford braces, teeth whitening, fancy beauty salons and other modifications necessary to attain so-called beauty. People of color who don't fit the White body and beauty ideals or who opt to "decolonize" their beauty, are at risk professionally and personally. White people may not hire or socialize with them, and they may be similarly policed by people of their own groups who fear poor representation.
Until 1970, some of the most recognized contests — such as Miss America and Miss U.S.A. — refused to allow women of color to participate. The Miss America pageant even went so far as to codify its bigotry with its notorious "Rule number seven," which stated that all contestants must be "of good health and of the white race."
Corporate America today has tapped wholeheartedly into the teen-girl market and sees girls as consumers and sex objects to whom they can sell crop tops and heels. They don’t care that girls are real people in the midst of the important and intricate task of forming their identities. It’s why the adults in these girls’ lives have to care and why girls themselves need to think critically about their culture.
Hopefully the information below will empower readers to make more informed decisions about the time, money, energy, and pain they want to put into their appearance.
When did thin become in: The skinny on skinny
Prior to the 20th century, being thin was not considered a good thing. It meant you probably didn't have enough to eat because you were poor, undisciplined, or unwilling to work hard to make the money needed for adequate food intake. Being larger-bodied was lovely: it was a measure of health, wealth and vitality
During the prosperous 1920s when industrialization took off in the U.S., plumpness could signal laziness or a lack of self-control and the tides began to turn toward thinness.
While an ideal of thinness has mostly endured, it hasn't been totally linear, providing us with a good example of how the social, political, and economic realities of the times play a big role in beauty.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, being thin could reflect poverty. Advertisements and advice about gaining weight were common while in the affluent 1920s, just a few years prior, ads for weight-loss were plentiful.
Research has repeatedly found that African American girls feel greater body satisfaction than white girls, for instance. Why might this be? One study concluded that parental emphasis on dieting and dissatisfaction was the best predictor of teens’ feelings about their bodies. So culture matters, but not only media culture.
When (and why?!) did hair removal become a thing?
WHY did our modern-day obsession with sleek, hairless women begin? Hint: a sustained advertising campaign
WHEN did our modern-day obsession with sleek, hairless women begin? It’s a phenomenon that only took hold within the last 100 years — in May of 1915, to be precise. Harper’s Bazaar, a fancy fashion magazine, showed a young model in a sleeveless dress posing with both arms over her head exposing her hairless armpits. The accompanying ad read: "summer dress and modern dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair”
Before that, a woman was expected be covered to the wrist and to the ankle to avoid the insinuation of sex appeal. All covered up, hair didn’t show and wasn’t an identified problem. Poof, just like that underarm hair became a problem (and women’s sex appeal, I suppose, was no longer problematic). To think that literally days before, girls had no idea this problem even existed! Marketers jumped on board the embarrassing armpit hair train with ads like: “The fastidious woman today must have immaculate armpits if she is to be unembarrassed.” and the rest is history.
Imagine what could have been if that model, still smiling and relaxed, had been shown with her natural body hair.
Leg hair removal took longer to catch on, maybe because the leg is closest to the privates so showing it off might make you seem like that sort of girl. But as with sleeveless dresses, fashion was changing and as hemlines got shorter. It wasn't until the 1940s when leg hair removal became the standard. During World War II there was a shortage of silk stockings causing many women to shave their legs and to use leg makeup to give the appearance of being covered by stockings.
If we never started removing hair, we’d never think hair was gross. Few people actually enjoy shaving, waxing, plucking, depilation, and other similar forms of torture. Sure, we may feel sexy after we shave but we have to ask: why do we have to be hairless in order to be sexy? In many other countries, body hair is just part of being an adult.
If men shaved their legs, chests and armpits mean we'd think it was odd and unnecessary. Hair on these parts isn’t difficult to maintain or keep clean. It's easier to make an argument for shaving facial hair on men because it can become unruly, cover the mouth, and be a nuisance with food.
Seriously...The vulva too?
If you’re a woman with a vagina, you know even your lady bits can’t escape beauty standards. Like all things female in this culture which are supposed to be maddeningly replicable, vulvas are supposed to all look the same. Best in Show are the small, pink (racism anyone?) smooth and hairless types. Come to think of it, just like our bodies they should appear prepubescent and take up as little space as possible, regardless of the pain, itchiness, razor burn, and endless stubble involved.
Vaginoplasty -- cosmetic surgery for vaginas -- increased in the US by 30% between 2005 and 2006 and has continued to become increasingly popular in Western countries. Now sometimes referred to as "vaginal rejuvenation" and "designer vagina" procedures, these interventions are performed mainly for esthetic reasons or, in some cases, to increase sexual functioning, although with no clear medical indication. Surgeons' websites tout beauty, self-esteem and confidence with your new and improved vagina.
Yikes! Get your opinions, and your sharp objects, out of my pants please.
While underarm and leg hair disappeared on women in the US by the mid 1900s, full bushes remained the norm for several decades thereafter. Porn from the 1970s is known for its celebration of the full bush.
These days, much landscaping goes on down there and can be added to the category of time-, money-, and energy- sucking activities. We’re not just talking about the trimming of bikini lines. We’re talking the whole enchilada naked as a baby’s. Full-frontal waxing (ouch!) is not just for porn stars anymore. Twenty years ago though this was the stuff of fetishes. Today, many girls totally remove their pubic hair without thinking twice because it’s just what girls do, right? Like shaving their legs and armpits, it’s a rite of passage to adulthood (ironically so, given that hair growth is a sign of maturity and that we’re going for baby-soft). A lot of girls think it’s prettier, cleaner and what boys want.
Prettier? Personally I vote for full-on vulva pride -- its appearance matters little compared to what it can do. We’re talking babies and orgasms!
Cleaner? Actually, a bare vulva makes girls more susceptible to STIs. True story - no matter how you cut it (so to speak), hair removal leaves microscopic wounds. The vulva’s warmth and moisture serves as happy hostess to bacteria of all kinds, as well as viruses carried by the mouth and genitals and these can infect the open wounds.
Boys? Some boys do expect the so-called bearded clam to be unbearded. They may never have witnessed a vagina with hair both because of porn and because the girls they’re with remove it. So the unexpected is disgusting and what girl wants to risk humiliation? It should of course be asked why pubic hair on girls is dirty and gross but on boys it’s totally normal? Ultimately total hair removal seems like yet another double-standard and a way to make girls feel their bodies need overhauling.
Tell your daughters (and sons!) pubic hair exists for a reason - protection against skin abrasions and bacteria - so if they're going to remove it, it should be something they've thought about seriously. If they do, suggest they consider leaving a little bit of hair around the vaginal opening because the skin there is uber sensitive.
Some women find their bare vulva empowering; a way to show off the glorious velvet glove. Some women enjoy going au naturel, embracing their lady garden’s appearance and ease. There’s no right choice but it’s good to know the forces at work here.
A medical term for it is pudenda membra which comes from the latin word pudere meaning to be ashamed. So literally the vulva is referred to as something to be ashamed of. Hmph!
Examples of "vaginal rejuvenation"
Euphemisms for vagina
main function is for guys’ pleasure
Make up: vanity or self-expression?
Today women are still divided on the makeup debate.
Second wave feminists of the 60s and 70s viewed the use of makeup and mainstream fashion as buy-in to a culture that exploits women’s beauty and demeans their brain-power. They argued that rejecting these adornments was a way for women to stop joining men in women’s objectification and to stop lining men’s pockets.
Third-wave feminists believe personal choice is most important and that we should be able to adorn and decorate ourselves, or not, and not be judged.
Most feminists of all waves and ages though have real concern about the obsession with youth and beauty that is being sold to girls and women through the multibillion dollar cosmetic industry. The instagram war #NoMakeup VS #ThePowerOfMakeup is the perfect embodiment of the no-win situation girls find themselves in -- shamed if they do and shamed if they don’t.
Celebrity musician Alicia Keys decided she wanted to stop wearing makeup and the #nomakeup movement was born. Makeup to Alicia felt to like just another way of masking who she really was in response to the culture’s expectations. In an essay on lennyletter.com she wrote: “I don't want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing.”
Some fun headlines:
Alicia Keys Stopped Wearing Makeup and the World Is Still Having a Hard Time Adjusting
Hold up! Alicia Keys is a 15-time Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter/producer, an accomplished actor, a New York Times best-selling author, an entrepreneur, a mother and a powerful force in the world of activism but the world is worried about her makeup choices?
Jennifer Lopez, 46, dares to bare her naked face while showing off grey roots on Shades Of Blue set.
This article used words like Unrecognizable and barefaced (nooooo not barefaced! Bare bodied though...no problem) to describe J-Lo and referred to her as “the doll” in one of the photo captions. Good Lord, J-Lo is a singer, actor, producer, dancer, mother and fashion designer. She was the first woman to have a number one album and film in the same week. So yeah, hardly a limp, lifeless doll.
On the other side of things, Youtuber Nikkie De Jager took on all the makeup shamers out there and started tutorials on “The Power of Makeup.” Apparently another form of body-shaming is to make girls feel bad for using makeup. Nikkie’s videos of her making up half her face have gone viral and thousands of others have followed suit with the hashtag #ThePowerOfMakeup. Nikki and others leave half their faces bare to prove using makeup isn’t about insecurities. Nikkie says she loves makeup and uses it as a playful form of self-expression. She has clearly honed her craft to excellence and is having fun and making uber amounts of money doing it. She’s rocking it and that’s girl power! At the same time, when she says things like “let’s get FLAWLESS together!” the underlying wish to fit an impossible cultural standard becomes apparent.
Makeup has been around for thousands of years and it isn’t going anywhere. It can make us look young and healthy which sociologists say signal our reproductive fitness...a sort of come hither, I’m fertile and ready for a night of passion. But pale complexions became a centuries-long trend, only prostitutes and lower class women would venture to make up their faces. So how did makeup as we know it today come about? The answer lies at the end of the 1800s with the birth of photography, mirrors and motion pictures. Having your portrait taken by a photographer was a luxury and would likely be the one and only picture you had of yourself. Makeup before a sitting became standard practice.
The big push though was the advent of film. Max factor made a makeup that looked good on camera and in the 1920’s marketed it to women as the way to look like a movie star. Women jumped at the chance and to this day seem to disregard the hours that are spent preening and primping movie stars and fashion models to look like all-natural, minimal-effort beauties. So we spend time, money and energy and the occasional professional consultation trying to enhance our attractiveness while chronically falling-short of those perfect-looking stars with their staff of beauty experts. To top it off, an oft heard sexist remark is about how long it takes a woman to get ready. In trying to meet the ridiculous standards of a system that men specifically benefit from, we are mocked for trying. Sigh. Yet another double-bind.
So we are left with the question of whether makeup use is about vanity or about self-expression. The choice not to apply makeup is often met with derision or dismissal, as are most acts that are viewed as specifically not caring about or not putting in effort to attract guys. When beauty in this culture is so homogeneous and makeup helps us blend in and attract guys, no wonder we find it appealing. I want girls to choose if and when and how they wear makeup with nobody feeling free to voice their personal opinions about it. Given the enormous social benefits of wearing it though I’m not sure we can call it a true choice and that's troubling.
When did tan skin become fashionable?
Skin tone offers us a great example of how beauty is not objective and is actually socially constructed. For example, women in China, Korea, and Thailand want to look fair and pink in tone, and in India both men and women use “fairness creams” to lighten their complexion. Meanwhile Caucasian women in Europe, the US, and Brazil often want to look tan. But even that wasn’t always the case: before the 1900s, pale skin, not tanned, used to be in among women in the West.
Tan skin on white or lighter-skinned people was seen as unattractive and weathered before it was ever considered the golden glow it is today. A porcelain complexion was a mark of wealth and leisure — a distinct sign you were not laboring in the fields under the hot sun. Most likely it had racist undertones, as well.
Paleness was so important to some European and American women that they used lead- and arsenic-based lightening treatments, which turned out to be poisonous, causing muscle paralysis or premature death. Some even used leeches! Talk about suffering for beauty. You’ve gotta wonder what people in 100 years from now will think of spray-tanning and tanning beds, not to mention teeth-bleaching, and Brazilian waxes!
Around 1900, the sun came to be associated with being healthy, then with being wealthy. Attitudes began to change when sunbathing was prescribed to treat Tuberculosis (the 2nd leading cause of death back then) as well as various mental illnesses. Word has it that during the 1920s the fashion icon Coco Chanel accidentally got burned while on a yacht and almost instantly a fad (and an industry) were born. Tanning came to represent pleasure and relaxation, as well as health. Over time, a tan began to mean you had the money to travel to exotic places and the leisure to sit out doing nothing but cultivating your beauty.
All the beauty trends we've talked about are just that -- trends. And we could go on: heels (originally worn by men), skirts and dresses, going topless or not, etc. are all interwoven with history and politics and most especially marketing. The goal is to educate our daughters to understand where these hidden pressures come from and why so they have the information they need to make informed choices for themselves.