Feminist Critique of the Beauty Industry Essay

Beauty is a part of our lives and philosophers argued for ages how to define it. Beauty should not be something harmful but in the last decades we witnessed that women’s strive for perfection surpasses the threshold of normal. Through the media we are bombarded with images of celebrities that promote perfect beauty. This often leads ordinary women to take unnatural and unhealthy measures to achieve the ideal.

The American research group Anorexia Nervosa ; Related Eating Disorders, Inc. says that one out of every four college-aged women uses unhealthy methods of weight control—including fasting, skipping meals, excessive exercise, laxative abuse, and self-induced vomiting. The pressure to be thin is also affecting young girls: the Canadian Women’s Health Network warns that weight control measures are now being taken by girls as young as 5 and 6. American statistics are similar.

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Several studies, such as one conducted by Marika Tiggemann and Levina Clark in 2006 titled “Appearance Culture in Nine- to 12-Year-Old Girls: Media and Peer Influences on Body Dissatisfaction,” indicate that nearly half of all preadolescent girls wish to be thinner, and as a result have engaged in a diet or are aware of the concept of dieting. In 2003, Teen magazine reported that 35 per cent of girls 6 to 12 years old have been on at least one diet, and that 50 to 70 per cent of normal weight girls believe they are overweight.

Overall research indicates that 90% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance in some way. [1] Today the beauty industry is worth billions of pounds and its development can be traced back over hundreds of years. In this paper I will present the opinions about beauty industry of feminist critiques such as Paula Black, Betty Friedan, Sheila Jeffereys and Naomi Wolf. Historical Overview of the Development of the Beauty Industry Prior to the mid-nineteenth century women did not generally wear visible make-up.

What they were avidly interested in, however, were recipes for creams and preparations which would improve their complexion and provide the smooth, white complexion which signified the genteel lady. Recipes for skin creams and complexion lighteners could often be traced to folk remedies, the ingredients for which had been used for centuries. These preparations were used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as part of a generalised knowledge held by women concerning general housekeeping duties, the growth of herbs, treatment of the sick, and their own beauty routines.

Preparations were used to combat the effects of illness such as smallpox or to reduce or promote colour in the complexion. In this sense the ‘cosmetic’ use of these preparations was clearly linked to a wider care of the body, and to general health care. By the Victorian era these types of self-remedy were well known and women distributed recipes for a variety of skin treatments. The market began to expand partly due to the availability in drugstores. What this early market focused on were urban women with access to disposable income, and to the ingredients or products desired.

A small cosmetic industry developed and hair treatments were also popular. Similarly, perfumiers were important in this early development of the market. However, most sales focused around preparations for improving the complexion rather than the application of cosmetics. The Victorians feared that cosmetics were a paint which could be used as a mask. Also the use of make-up was associated with prostitution and with stage make-up used by actresses. In Victorian times and earlier, actresses themselves were viewed as little better than prostitutes in terms of their ‘loose morals’.

The conspicuous display of cosmetic use among ‘respectable’ Victorian women could bring stares in public and violent disapproval from men and women alike. The ‘good’ woman was reflected in her ‘natural’ appearance. The most popular preparations purchased by white Victorian women were skin lighteners. These were designed to give the pale, alabaster appearance so valued in middle-class Victorian society. This appearance of course was not always possible to achieve naturally, and middle-class women invested in skin lighteners and powders to present an appearance which signified a number of things.

First, pale skin signifies a lack of physical labour and exposure to the elements. Middle-class Victorian women signified upon their bodies that their lives were constrained by propriety, and clear class boundaries. Second, the use of powders designed to reduce perspiration and shine achieved a similar effect. This provided the illusion that women did not perspire, that they did not need to exert themselves, and as a result that they achieved some level of naturalised pale skin beauty. Finally, and most importantly, the use of preparations to ‘whiten’ the appearance of the skin is a clear indicator of racial boundaries.

What beauty preparations did for white middle-class Victorians then was to mark class and racial boundaries, as well as divisions within classes. They also established an image of delicate and natural femininity. From the mid-nineteenth century we have a clear link to the past in terms of home-made remedies used by women, but also the use of some preparations which are linked directly to the social and political climate of the day. An important development during this period was the growth of an urban middle class which was attuned to the pleasures of display and consumption.

Seeing and being seen took on new meanings and importance in the late nineteenth-century city. The development of the department store allowed women to enter this public space as consumers, or simply as voyeurs. Department stores were originally designed to be attractive to women, as women became the engines of the growth in consumption. The introduction of photography also had a huge impact on the way women and men viewed themselves. There was a high demand for pictures to be altered and tinted. Coinciding with these developments, the fashion and media industries also began to flourish.

Women’s magazines carried advertisements for skin creams, yet continued to publish only limited information or advertising for cosmetics. The phase from the mid-nineteenth century into the twentieth saw women’s growing interest in beauty products coincided with their new sense of identity as consumers. Women had long bought and bartered goods, but around 1900 a new, self-conscious notion of the woman consumer emerged. Women’s magazines and advertisers inducted their female readers into a world of brand-name products and smart shopping, while department stores created a feminine paradise of abundance, pleasure and service.

From the end of the nineteenth century, women entrepreneurs became involved in the manufacturing and marketing of beauty products, as well as in the setting up of beauty businesses. The beauty business provided one of the few sources of employment open to women where their expertise propelled them to the highest levels of authority and entrepreneurship. At the end of the nineteenth century both working-class and some middle-class women entered the beauty business. Hairdressing and beauty salons often relied upon the women working within them to mix up their own preparations for use on the hair and bodies of clients.

The vastly expanded numbers of women employed in the industry were also encouraged to learn the systems of care preferred by each of the beauty businesses. From the end of the nineteenth century formal training was established in hair and beauty courses. The women in this business, however, still faced the problem of establishing the ‘respectability’ of beauty as a business. Cosmetic use and ‘beautifying’ in general could still be scorned and associated with ‘loose’ morality, and vanity.

In the first twenty years of the twentieth century the beauty industry developed and expanded. Between 1909 and 1929 in the USA the number of cosmetic and perfume manufacturers nearly doubled. However, as the market for beauty products exploded, the industry was gradually taken over by men. Make-up still remained a riskier and more controversial product. However, companies that did enter this market vastly expanded the ranges women could choose from, even as the factories which manufactured the basic preparations remained small in number.

By the beginning of the Second World War the beauty industry had been increasingly commodified, and had become a mass market. By the end of the war cosmetic use had become part of a culture of femininity, no longer either seen as suspicious for its potential to mask the true women underneath, and also in general disassociated from prostitution and ‘loose morals’. By 1948 in the USA, almost 90 per cent of adult women used lipstick. However, markets were segmented along class, geographical and ethnic lines.

It is during the 1950s that the meaning of cosmetic and beauty product use is removed from the sphere of performance and linked instead to the idea of a natural femininity. Paradoxically, then, cosmetic use and beauty preparations are sold to women as bringing out their real inner beauty, or as enhancing their true nature. Artificiality is sold under the guise of a natural, already present femininity. The emergence of the teenage market during this period was both a function of the increasing sophistication of advertisers to segment and develop particular markets, and also of a changing social context.

As make-up use had become subject increasingly to psychological interpretation during the 1950s, so too did cosmetic use become linked to questions of identity. Young women in the 1950s saw experimenting with appearance as a vital element to their own developing sense of femininity. It was also part of social rituals enmeshed in the culture of young women. The use of make-up from the 1950s also came increasingly to signify a rite of passage which denoted entry into ‘womanhood’.

From the 1960s young women were using appearance to mark distinctions between themselves and an older generation, but also between different cliques within youth culture. Advertising and cosmetic companies were keen to market their products to these segmented markets, and designed products which would appeal to a variety of different social and cultural groups. It is during the 1960s and 1970s that the fashion and beauty industry begins to receive political critique. The modification and commodification of women’s bodies had become a personal, a public and a political issue.

Fashion styles fractured. Among the 1960s counter-culture, the ‘natural body’ was promoted. Unmade-up women, body hair, and long hair for both women and men were considered erotic, and also somehow authentic and ‘real’. While critiques may have been successful in intellectual and political terms, the cosmetic industry was not necessarily weakened by them. It responded by repackaging its products. The ‘liberated woman’ became an advertising type, and the rejection of make-up among feminists was reinterpreted in the industry as the ‘natural look’.

From this point onward it has not been possible to understand the beauty industry without reference to politics. [2] Analysis of the Feminist Critique of the Beauty Industry Throughout the history many feminist critics have discussed the consequences of beauty industry and its effects on the lives of women. Gatlin argues that as the women’s movement evolved in the 1960s and 70s, three major political branches emerged. Of these, the liberal feminists were by far the largest and best established.

Drawing on the women’s rights’ traditions of the First Wave, the liberal branch consisted of popular, broad-based organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW). Despite the terminology, the “liberal” branch was the most politically moderate of the three. The other two branches were smaller and substantially farther left. The socialist-feminists had roots in the American socialist movement and were ideological Marxists. But a more influential group was the radical feminists, who urged major political and social realignments to offset the historical oppression of women by patriarchal society.

The philosophical and political differences between the radical, socialist- feminist and liberal feminists are amply illustrated by how they each saw the issue of sexual objectification of women. For the radicals, the social pressures on women to be “beautiful” were an example of a patriarchal society’s treatment of women as chattel — property to be displayed and exploited. The socialist feminists added the criticism that the promotion and sale of cosmetics and fashionable clothing to women was a divisive class-based Capitalist strategy to sell more consumer goods.

Liberal feminists also crusaded against many aspects of sexual objectification, but their approach tended to be more pragmatic than philosophical. One area of concern to them was mediated images of women -especially images of women in advertising. As early as 1963, Betty Friedan, who would later become founding President of NOW and one of liberal feminism’s most popular spokespersons, blasted the advertising industry in her international best seller, “The Feminine Mystique” , for perpetuating and exploiting the oppression of women through the use of negative advertising stereotypes. 3] When Betty Friedan produced “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963, she could not have realized how the discovery and debate of her contemporaries’ general malaise would shake up society. Victims of a false belief system, these women were following strict social convention by loyally conforming to the pretty image of the magazines, and found themselves forced to seek meaning in their lives only through a family and a home. Friedan’s controversial book about these women – and every woman – would ultimately set Second Wave feminism in motion and begin the battle for equality.

Betty Friedan’s seminal feminist text is an eloquently argued criticism of the role which American women in the fifties and sixties were expected to take – the ‘feminine mystique’, as well as a condemnation of the scholars, magazine editors and advertising executives who created the stereotype of the ‘ideal’ woman. The book investigates ‘the problem that has no name’ – the repression and frustration of American housewives, surrounded by material status symbols and living vicariously through their husband and children, who were told they had everything they could ever want but are inexplicably depressed.

Friedan devotes much analysis to the individuals which she felt contributed to this problem; Freud, anthropologist Margaret Mead, university professors who encouraged women to study home economics instead of law or science, all come under her scathing gaze. She produces some shocking statistics – in the late 1950s and early 60s, the number of women going to college was dropping, and 60% of those who did go did not finish their course, whilst the average age of marriage was also falling, teen marriages becoming increasingly common.

This apparent step backwards, which took place in living memory, is bizarre and contradicts the relatively widespread idea of women’s rights activists as steadily gaining ground since the vote was won nearly a century ago. [4] One of Friedan’s major criticisms was that advertisers consciously manipulate their portrayals of women to insure they continue to serve as good consumers of the thousands of products and services sold by the food, drug, and fashion industries.

She wrote: ” The perpetuation of housewifery, the growth of the feminine mystique, makes sense (and dollars) when one realizes that women are the chief customers of American business. The really important role that women serve as housewives is to buy more things for the house. ” [5] By the 1970’s advertisers began to co-opt the accomplishments of the women’s movement and redirect them for their own ends. In this, they were willingly assisted by many popular women’s magazines, which were themselves economically threatened by a decline in the fashion and cosmetics business.

Naomi Wolf has documented the strategies of the beauty industry in her 1991 best-seller, “The Beauty Myth”. She argues that during this period, the old myth that women were fulfilled as housewives and mothers (Betty Friedan’s “feminine mystique”) was gradually replaced by advertisers with what she calls “the beauty myth. ” This notion suggested that to be accepted in the world of the liberated and independent “new woman,” one had to meet rigid new standards of slimness, beauty, and fashion.

As Wolf explained, the industry’s motives were simple: How to make sure that busy, stimulated working women would keep consuming at the levels they had done when they had all day to do so and little else of interest to occupy them? A new ideology was necessary that would compel the same insecure consumerism; that ideology must be, unlike that of the Feminine Mystique, a briefcase- sized neurosis that the working woman could take with her to the office. To paraphrase Friedan, why is it never said that the really crucial function that women serve as aspiring beauties is to buy more things for the body?

The beauty myth, in its modern form, arose to take the place of the Feminine Mystique, to save magazines and advertisers from the economic fallout of the women’s revolution. So by the early 1970’s both the advertisements and the editorial copy of popular women’s magazines had become fixed on redefining feminism. [6] Another feminist author who critiqued the Beauty Industry and its way of functioning is Sheila Jeffreys with her book “Beauty and Misogyny”.

In the 1970s feminists criticized pervasive beauty regimes such as dieting and depilation, but some ‘new’ feminists argue that beauty practices are no longer oppressive now that women can ‘choose’ them. However, in the last two decades the brutality of western beauty practices seems to have become much more severe, requiring the breaking of skin, spilling of blood and rearrangement or amputation of body parts. “Beauty and Misogyny” seeks to make sense of why beauty practices are not only just as persistent, but in many ways more extreme.

It examines the pervasive use of makeup, the misogyny of fashion and high-heeled shoes, and looks at the role of pornography in the creation of increasingly popular beauty practices such as breast implants, genital waxing and surgical alteration of the labia. It looks at the cosmetic surgery and body piercing/cutting industries as being forms of self-mutilation by proxy, in which the surgeons and piercers serve as proxies to harm women’s bodies, and concludes by considering how a culture of resistance to these practices can be created. 7] “Shoes,” Sheila Jeffreys says, are almost becoming torture instruments. During a woman’s daily make-up ritual, on average she will expose herself to more than 200 synthetic chemicals before she has morning coffee. Regular lipstick wearers will ingest up to four and a half kilos during their lifetime. “Beauty And Misogyny” is her sixth book. Jeffreys’ introduction to feminist campaigning began in the early 70s when she joined a socialist feminist group (she was later thrown out for suggesting men were to blame for the oppression of women).

She became a lesbian in 1973 because she felt it contradictory to give “her most precious energies to a man” when she was thoroughly committed to a women’s revolution. In Jeffreys’ latest book, she questions why the beauty industry is expanding, and why liberal feminists should see a virtue in women having the power to choose practices that a few years back were condemned as oppressive. The history of the beauty industry is threaded through the book. Cosmetics have been used to alter appearance for thousands of years, sometimes exclusively by prostitutes and others deemed disreputable, other times as a political gesture.

The suffragettes fought for the right to look and dress as they saw fit, some wearing red lipstick as a symbol of feminine defiance. After the Second World War, a shortage of men meant that women tried hard to look as attractive as possible in the hope of getting a husband, and make-up became, Jeffreys argues, “a requirement that women could not escape, rather than a sign of liberation”. “Beauty And Misogyny” is the book she has wanted to write for years, as “liberal feminists and postmodernists” challenge the early feminist critique of beauty practices. Not only are the practices creeping back, they are becoming more severe and invasive of the body itself,” she says. She has taken on a tough battle: the cosmetics industry is bigger than ever (in Brazil, for example, there are more Avon ladies than members of the armed forces). And she has taken on broader targets, too. The sex industry, the misogyny of fashion, what she calls the “mutilation” of transgender surgery and the dangers of sexual libertarianism are all seen by Jeffreys as intrinsically linked to the beauty industry.

In the chapter on cosmetic surgery, she looks at the growing pressure on women to conform to models of femininity derived directly from the sex industry, such as having trimmed labia and Brazilian waxed pubic hair. “Men’s desire for bigger and bigger breasts, and clothes commonly associated with prostitution, has resulted from the mass consumption of pornography. ” Jeffreys can always be relied upon to back up her arguments by unearthing facts that are both disturbing and hard to believe.

She points to studies that have found significantly higher rates of suicide among women who have had breast implants. The latest, conducted in 2003 by the International Epidemiology Institute of Rockville and funded by Dow Corning Corp, a former maker of silicone gel breast implants, included a study of 2,166 women, some of whom received implants as long as 30 years ago. Dow Corning also funded an earlier Swedish study, which examined 3,521 women with implants, and found the suicide rate to be three times higher than normal. There are other unwanted effects.

Nipples can lose sensation and, in extreme cases, rot and fall off; stomach stapling can cause severe swelling in the pubic area; and liposuction can leave a patient in serious pain. A number of women have died after surgery, while others have been left in permanent discomfort. Jeffreys also argues that many male fashion designers are “projecting their misogyny on to the bodies of women”, and gives examples of collections featuring images based on sexual violence – Alexander McQueen’s show for his masters degree was entitled Jack The Ripper, and depicted bloodied images of Victorian prostitutes.

A later show in 1995, Highland Rape, featured staggering, half-naked, brutalized models. And John Galliano, in his 2003 collection for Christian Dior, Hard Core Romance, used the imagery of sadomasochism, putting his models in seven-inch heels and rubber suits “so tight they had to use copious amounts of talcum powder to fit into them”. “One notable difference in fashion shows in the past 10 years is that the models are required to show more and more of their bodies,” says Jeffreys. “Some are posed to look as though they are about to engage in fellatio.

Pole dancing is now a staple of some fashion events. ” For Jeffreys, the last thing women should be doing once they achieve a semblance of choice is returning to practices imposed on them during darker periods. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, for example, beauty clinics opened up all over the country, offering cosmetics as an antidote to the enforced wearing of the burka. “You’d have thought the women would have had other things to worry about,” she sighs. She likens cosmetic surgery such as labiaplasty and breast implants to female genital mutilation.

She concedes the distinction that genital mutilation is carried out on children who have no choice in the matter, “but the liberal view of choice, which is that women can now ‘choose’ to engage in harmful, oppressive actions, does not make the practice of slicing up women’s genitals to please men any less vile”. As Jeffreys points out, hymen repair surgery, which is available through the public health service in the Netherlands, is sought not only by women whose cultures require them to be virgins when they marry, but also by western women whose partners wish to penetrate a tighter vagina.

Jeffreys unearthed some frightening facts – for example, a Home Office paper claiming that BSE can be transmitted through beauty products because many contain bits of dead animal. Breast implants can contain brain, fat, placenta and spleen. A link between hair dye and bladder cancer was discovered in a US study of 3,000 women who use such products regularly, and formaldehyde, found in nail polish, shampoos and hair-growth preparations, has been outlawed in Sweden and Japan, with the EU allowing its use only in small, regulated quantities.

Jeffreys also points out that there is much evidence that children are being targeted by the beauty industry too. Kiss Products, a cosmetic retailer, has joined forces with Disney to promote lip gloss and nail polish kits through licensed animated characters. Proctor ; Gamble is looking to market its Cover Girl cosmetic range to eight- to 10-year-old girls by making the use of make-up resemble game playing. “It is not only the cosmetic industry that is recruiting young customers,” says Jeffreys. It is becoming more common for young women from affluent families to be given breast implants for their 18th birthday. ” Again, she blames the fashion industry. “Some designers are using 12-year-old girls in shows because their bodies are perfect to show off the type of clothing being peddled at the moment. Many men are sexually excited by this look, and the industry exploits this. ” Parisian designer Stella Cadente used models as young as nine in her 2001 show; it was reported that they wore “plunging necklines and high hemlines”.

And, Jeffreys points out, Cadente is not alone in using child models in the world of fashion. There is little, if any, feminist critique of men’s cross-dressing, but in “Beauty and Misogyny” Jeffreys provides a unique analysis of what she describes as “men adopting the behaviors of a subordinate group in order to enjoy the sexual satisfaction of masochism”. She says we need look no further than transvestite pornography, with titles such as Enforced Femininity and Forced to Grow Breasts, to understand how femininity and womanhood have been developed to ensure that women are seen as different and less powerful.

Jeffreys maintains that transsexual surgery is an extension of the beauty industry offering cosmetic solutions to deeper rooted problems. She argues that in a society in which there was no such thing as gender, there would be no need to undergo such surgery. Jeffreys offers no comfort zone for her readers. Unlike some feminist theorists, she refuses to couch her arguments in inaccessible, academic language, or to accept that feminism has achieved its aims. For Jeffreys, the word “complicated” does not exist.

The reason for women’s oppression is horribly simple: men want their power and, for that reason, they will keep women in a state of subordination to maintain it. Jeffreys says: “I cannot imagine living without a purpose of changing the world for the better. It gives life meaning. It is more urgent now than ever. No liberation is possible for women in a world in which inequality is sexy. “[8] Conclusion Based on the mentioned critiques we can conclude that beauty and buying and using beauty products is not a trivial issue.

Pressures on women to be more “beautiful” led to some acts that can create health problems. Jean Kilbourne, a media activist, argues that the overwhelming presence of media images of painfully thin women means that real women’s bodies have become invisible in the mass media. The real tragedy, Kilbourne concludes, is that many women internalize these stereotypes, and judge themselves by the beauty industry’s standards. Women learn to compare themselves to other women, and to compete with them for male attention.

This focus on beauty and desirability “effectively destroys any awareness and action that might help to change that climate. “[9] Despite the gains of the women’s movement things did not change, we can even say that situation became worse. It seems that people became so obsessed with beauty that they tend to forget that have a charismatic personality, be yourself, stand up for what you believe in, have pride are qualities that will always be ours, unlike appearance. It seems we are so obsessed with what we want to be that we don’t want to know who we are.