While I’ve already written extensively about body image under capitalism (see both here and here), I’ve been feeling kind of down in the dumps recently, so thought it might be time to for another post.
As I’ve discussed before, it’s nothing new that capitalism creates insecurities among women (and other people, but particularly women) as well as unattainable standards of beauty to establish a steady inflow of profit.
It’s kind of like projecting planned obsolescence onto the consumer (generally a female body). So that instead of a product wearing down so that the customer is forced to keep buying a new car, microwave, etc. every few years– (thus supplying the corporation with a steady customer base even after everyone already owns a car, microwave, etc.)
Except that in the “beauty” industry the customer’s perpetual dissatisfaction that supplies the company with its ever-increasing customer base is not based on dissatisfaction of the product being sold (i.e. your refrigerator broke, or that 70’s lime green isn’t so “in” by next year), but instead based the [manufactured] perpetual dissatisfaction of the self.
As one blogger wrote at her “My Life as a Feminista” tumblr,
We are not born hating our bodies; it is taught to us as we grow up. Capitalism encourages this because our self-loathing is both profitable and vulnerable. The beauty ‘ideals’ of whiteness, thinness, smooth skin, etc. are purposefully unattainable, as they then leave us in a constant state of ‘imperfection.’
Encouraging this preoccupation with imperfection makes perfect sense from the standpoint of a system based on profit.
Imperfection!, says the Capitalist, Not to fear! Your imperfection can in fact be perfected! All you have to do is buy this razor, diet pill, skin bleach, cover-up, plastic surgery, etc., etc.!
However, while this may work out to the benefit of anyone in the business of selling things geared to the half of the population particularly endowed with estrogen, women are the clear losers in this marketing strategy which naturally produces deep feelings of inadequacy, failure, self-loathing, and depression among ever-younger populations of women.
In the United States, it is estimated that 7 million women and girls struggle with eating disorders.
One 2004 study commissioned by Bliss magazine in the UK found that nine out of ten teenage girls were “unhappy with the shape of their bodies,” wishing they were more “slender” and “beautiful.” That means that only 10% of the 2,000 13- and 14-year-old girls said they were “happy” with their appearance!!
The study noted that while only one-fifth of the girls questioned were medically considered overweight, three-fifths of them “thought they needed to lose weight and 64 per cent of girls under-13 had already been on a diet,”—something which can be detrimental to children’s physical development at this point when their bodies are still growing.
If this weren’t bad enough, the study found that over a quarter of the girls had already considered plastic surgery or diet pills.
19 PER CENT WERE ALREADY STRUGGLING WITH AN EATING DISORDER SUCH AS ANOREXIA OR BULIMIA. (For more articles, studies on the correlation between body image and suicide or depression, how this has spread to younger and younger girls, and the increasing normalcy of disordered eating among women see here, here, here, and here.)
MEANWHILE, acknowledging this reality of women feeling the need to starve themselves in possibly the most disturbing and shocking way imaginable, the 2013 Miss America Pageant took it upon itself to prove that they don’t force the contestants to starve themselves by essentially force-feeding the contestants doughnuts midway through the program, see minute 54).
“Let’s face it, they probably haven’t eaten carbs in about six years. They’re hungry!” the host said before bringing out trays of doughnuts for the women to eat there on the spot.
“You have no idea how deprived these ladies have been! (laughter).” Thus masked under a disturbing attempt so show that the Miss America phenomenon does in fact support women eating was the much-more clear message that if you want to be Miss America, you better get used to going hungry.
The only thing more disturbing than that this actually happened or was allowed to happen without an uproar was watching many of the women struggle awkwardly, visibly stressed out by the doughnuts they were supposed to graciously eat there on stage as they prayed for commercial break while cameras zoomed in on their faces. (On this note, check out this:
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Anyway, so like I said, none of this is particularly new, but what’s struck me more and more recently is how the “ideal” image of feminine beauty that we’re constantly bombarded with in the media and taught to strive for has in fact become less and less woman-like, and in some cases less and less biologically possible.
My point is that we (particularly in America) aren’t just told to strive for the thin, busty, blonde and shiny ideal of yesteryear, but now the image has evolved to such extremes that the ideal not only is counter to many women’s natural form, but it is also unattainable without surgery and a knife.
So first, the thin thing.
Women have curves. That’s part of what estrogen does. It’s healthy, it’s beautiful.
And yet the ideal goes against that.
Not only do magazines today use Photoshop to trim down celebs’ “tummies” or to smooth cellulite—they actually use it to cut away chunks of flesh and bone that leave models buttless and thigh-less, and leave women wishing they looked more like pre-pubescent girls or skinny teen boys.
But not only has the Ideal Woman has become less and less female, and in some cases she has become non-human.
This is due to the fact that no longer is it simply curves that are disappearing from the ideal image of beauty, it’s real live genitalia.
And like I keep mentioning, it’s not that labiaplasty (cosmetic surgery of a woman’s genitalia) itself is new (more on that in the post below),
But it’s the fact that the “ideal” has nothing to do with what real people actually look like.
Case in point? The latest “craze” in “vaginal rejuvenation” surgery is something called “The Barbie.”
Yes, as in the plastic toy created by Mattel.
As in women are actually going to surgeons asking to not simply alter their nether regions, but to make it look like they actually don’t have any—a la Barbie plastic doll that doesn’t actually have a hole, or flaps, or anything down there.
As Kirsten O’Regan wrote in an article for Guernica Magazine, this procedure, which one urogynecologist in Laguna Beach, California, Dr Red Alinsod claims is his most requested surgical procedure, actually
excises the entire labia minora. This results in a “clamshell” aesthetic: a smooth genital area, the outer labia appearing “sealed” together with no labia minora protrusion. Alinsod [says] he invented the Barbie in 2005. ‘I had been doing more conservative labiaplasties before then,’ he says. ‘But I kept getting patients who wanted almost all of it off. They would come in and say, I want a ‘Barbie.’ So I developed a procedure that would give them this comfortable, athletic, petite look, safely.’
The escalating pathology of the vagina is just one manifestation of a fairly ubiquitous desire to deny natural variations in female anatomy by casting them as aberrations. Alinsod and Alter speak with enthusiastic distaste about female genitalia-‘this big, fat pad’, ‘like a golf ball’, ‘she has a fatty majora’-and they don’t necessarily consider it a doctor’s obligation to advise patients if they are within normal range.
So basically the desired look now being promoted is not just alteration, but removal.
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Adding to the horror, the reality of sexism makes it so that in some instances and countries, self-manipulation to fit the standard of beauty isn’t merely to feel “beautiful.” It’s to get a job.
As one South Korean woman said, regarding why she and other women have chosen to get facial surgery that widens their eyes and shaves down their jaw bone to narrow their chin,
“When you are applying for university or applying for a job here, you put a picture of yourself on your resume or application… It is sort of taken for granted that how you look will often go into the decision.” The common understanding is that “if there are two otherwise equal candidates, the prettier person will get the job,” something that many women across the country have come to take as normal.
Realities like this have led South Korea to fast become the country with the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery in the world. According to an article on Jezebel, one in five women in Seoul have undergone some kind of procedure, the most popular being “eyelid surgery, to make the eyes ‘more Western,’ and getting your jawbone shaved or chiseled down for a less-square and more V-shaped look.”
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All this is to say that the profit-driven, media-frenzied ideal of beauty no longer leads women to feel inadequate to the degree of ‘Damn, I wish I looked like the girl down the street,’ but now it’s evolved to ‘Why don’t I look like a skinny pre-pubescent boy, with a genitalia-less genital region (a la Barbie)?? My bones are the wrong shape!’
And so it’s no wonder girls feel depressed and like they’re wrong— the ideal they’re striving for is biologically “unattainable without being cut by a knife or having your very bones shaved down.”
Making it so that no matter what a girl/woman does, she’ll always be struggling to match the standard.
And that struggle will inevitably be against her own body.
Which is incredibly frightening.
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It would almost be funny—like a bad dream we could all just wake up from:
“Look, honey! I realized I’ve been feeling bad about myself for not being something I’m not meant to be! Isn’t that ridiculous?! How silly of me!
Except that this manufactured standard is the cause of severe depression and even rising suicide rates among young women, as generations come to understand themselves as in some way “lesser” because they fail to meet the standard. Which itself is not only rare, but impossible to achieve without surgery that would have been impossible only decades ago.
I want to live in a world where young girls grow up knowing they’re beautiful. Where women can focus on other endeavors beyond their appearance and know that their value as human beings and as part of society has nothing to do with what they look like. And where maintaining this belief doesn’t have to be a struggle in opposition to the messages we’re flooded with on a daily basis.
I am reminded of a quote by the Australian feminist Germaine who once said, “The body reasonably healthy and clean is the body beautiful.”
I want that to be the image of beauty. Not bone shaving, genital slicing, or starvation. I want to fight for a society where maybe after a couple generations telling someone they’re beautiful would be as ridiculous as telling someone they’re human—because it’ll just be known. I am beautiful, just like everyone else.
When women (and all people) believe we are worth something (rather than built failures) it leads to a belief that we deserve things.
Respect, support, healthcare, a clean and healthy environment, equal (and adequate!) wages. The right to live the lives we want, and not have to sacrifice our values and desires because we were forced to have a child we couldn’t afford, or were forced to stay with an abusive partner because we couldn’t afford not to.
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After the Chicago Teachers Union won their historic strike this past September, one teacher talked about how different the vibe was among the teachers compared with the atmosphere before the strike. As they read through an old contract, the teachers were outraged by even more than they had thought was intolerable before, now both having felt the power of their unified strength and truly believing that they—and their kids and their schools—deserved only the best.
As Leela Yellesetty shows in this fantastic article, the strength of the women’s movement that came out of the 60s and 70s and ultimately won Roe. v Wade was enough to convince women that what they deserved went beyond just the legal right to make decisions over their own bodies, but that “freedom of choice also meant being able to have children if one desired, which meant demanding access to free child care” as well as standing up to the racist push for sterilization of women of color. “The popular slogan of this era, ‘Free abortion on demand,’ reflected a recognition that legalization alone wasn’t enough if poor women couldn’t afford to get access to abortions.”
When girls grow up feeling like they have already failed just by growing into their own bodies, this inclination to fight for better lives and a better world can be stifled. This is an atmosphere that helps rape culture to thrive and the Violence Against Women Act to be repealed without an overwhelming uproar.
It’s long past time for a new women’s movement in this country. One that can fight for and win all the basic things that women deserve (like healthcare and economic security)—and that in doing do can push our sense of what women—and what all people—deserve.