Category Archives: Feminism

Lexicon of Beauty: the pen is mightier than the mascara

beauty pendant
Pendant by RiverwalkDesigns (www.etsy.com)

 

Etymology always makes me happy. It’s some of the best useless information around, and I’m stocked with trivia about the origins and histories of words. And then sometimes it turns out to be useful after all: here are some delightful facts about the words beauty, pretty, gorgeous and glamour, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

I thought about this while reading the medieval uses of the word beauty, as you do, and I noticed the word burde in this quote from 1375 by William of Palerne:

“A worschipful lady, þat burde was of beuaute briȝtest in erþe.”

(“A worshipful lady, that woman was, in her beauty, brightest on earth”. My translation, i.e. an educated guess)

The word burde for woman caught my eye because in British slang young women are often referred to as birds, although this has reduced in recent years thanks to the latest rise of feminist activity. Could it be that this mildly offensive bit of slang dates back to the Middle Ages? And could this, just maybe, be the origin of the American slang use of chick?

ermine
A hot chick. Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci 1489-90 (wikipedia.org)

So then I looked up pretty, and was surprised by the primary definition:

1. a. Originally: cunning, crafty. Subsequently: clever, skilful, able.
b. Cleverly or elegantly made or done; ingenious, artful, well-conceived.

It’s only the second definition with which we are now more familiar:

2. a. Of a person, esp. a woman or child: attractive and pleasing in appearance; good-looking, esp. in a delicate or diminutive way.

I also found that the derogatory use of “pretty little” – as in “don’t worry your pretty little head about it” – has been in use since the Middle Ages too:

c. In collocation with little. Freq. depreciative.

1450  (c1410) >Hist. Holy Grail xxvii. 228 (MED), The Ademawnt..hath no More strengthe Aȝens the Eyr..Thanne A lytel praty fownteyne Aȝens Al the grete See.

I think this means, “The adamant has no more strength against the air than a little pretty fountain against all the great sea”. Gotta love that Middle English.

But that’s a digression. The definition of pretty as something artfully made becomes even more interesting when you look up gorgeous:

Etymology: Old French gorgias; elegantly or finely dressed, fashionable, gay. Adorned with rich or brilliant colours; sumptuously gay or splendid; showy, magnificent: of persons (with reference to dress).

So both pretty and gorgeous – two of our most used words to describe an attractive person – originally referred to something artificially, cunningly, elegantly made. Could this be the origin of our centuries-old fear that human beauty is a cunning deception, or is it just a reflection of that fear? The conflict between artificial and natural beauty, wherever you decide to draw the line between them, has been responsible for condemning women as whores and elevating them as deities, and this still happens today. Just as wearing makeup was once the prostitute’s mark, people still say that someone looks slutty if they are wearing too much makeup (which is how much exactly??).

I find it a little disturbing that some of the central issues we have with beauty (especially feminine beauty) are actually inscribed in the very words we use to describe it. There’s no getting away from these tensions. But it is useful to recognise that sexism and misogyny (to name just two problems) are deeply embedded in our language, and if we want to sort them out we will have to go right back to the beginning. See you there.

 

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Covering Up to Reveal? Makeup and Your True Self

“I’m inviting you to blend in to stand out.”

Dermablend-2

Cheri Lindsay for Dermablend (www.adweek.com)

This is what Cheri Lindsay says in her testimonial for Dermablend camouflage makeup, whose adverts have been getting a lot of attention for their visually surprising and emotional accounts of using camouflage makeup to cover skin conditions. Lindsay’s statement is obviously a pun, on blending in makeup rather than – or as well as? – blending in socially, but I still take issue with it. **Not with Dermablend or their camouflage makeup, but with the wider idea as it works in cosmetics advertising.** I mean, really: blending in to stand out? And I’m going to get academic on its ass.

medieval

(Pulp Fiction http://www.ugo.com)

The key idea behind this advertising campaign is that of the True Self. Buy this product and reveal your True Self – to yourself and the rest of the world. In Dermablend’s other advert, model Cassandra Bankson, who has acne, says, “I used to use makeup to cover up, and to hide who I was. Now I use it to express myself, and to show the world who I truly am”. I sense a contradiction here: covering up to reveal your True Self?

The same logic as in Lindsay’s statement is at work here – buy this product and find your True Self – or as Michelle M. Lazar puts it, advertisers “link the normative practice of beautification with an emancipated identity” (“The Right to be Beautiful” p.37). Normative = telling us what to do, which the beauty industry certainly does. And cosmetics adverts link this pressure to do beauty work with the idea that the product will set us free from skin imperfections and self-consciousness, to be who we really are: that’s the “emancipated identity”, or the True Self.

The logic of the True Self has been used throughout the growth of consumer culture, since to make people buy something you have to make them feel that they’re “worth it”. Or that they need it. So we have been persuaded that the things we choose to buy define and express who we are: adverts then tap into who we want to be. That’s the logic of capitalism all over: it’s everyone for themselves, and if you can construct the most attractive, skilled and likeable Self then you will be successful.

And we definitely need perfect skin to do that, right?

Apparently so. Cassandra Bankson says in her testimonial, “We think that to be successful we have to be a certain way, when in reality, in order to be successful and happy, all we have to do is be ourselves.” But is that the Self who has acne, or the Self who appears not to have acne because she’s wearing a really great foundation? And is that really what defines Bankson’s True Self – her skin?

dermablend-hed-2014

Cassandra Bankson for Dermablend (www.adweek.com)

Don’t get me wrong, I would never take issue with camouflage makeup to cover up skin conditions. I am concerned with the extension of this idea to all skin ‘imperfections’, because Dermablend’s adverts imply that the only way to reveal your True Self is to have unrealistically perfect skin. It makes sense when Cheri Lindsay says that her makeup helps “people to look through the initial shock” of her skin condition “and see who I was as a person”, so that she can go through life being asked about her work or her interests rather than being asked what’s wrong with her face. Absolutely. But does that extend to everyone who has a couple of spots and slightly uneven skin tone (something I suspect was just invented by cosmetics advertisers)? No: in that case it suggests that you aren’t a proper person unless you have PhotoShop-perfect skin. I don’t feel that is helpful to my True Self. Or any of my other Selves, who are feeling a bit inadequate now.

Lazar writes that “the freedom to be beautiful is implicitly set against the ‘tyranny of ugliness’” (p.40) and I think we can all understand how it is possible to feel trapped in an unattractive body. I think the emotional power of Dermablend’s ads draws on this. Cosmetics give us the freedom to change the way we look, to express rebellion or sweetness, softness or power, and this is no bad thing. As Geoffrey Jones says in Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, “the mass production of beauty has been a force for the democratization of personal aesthetics … it granted to every man and woman new powers of self-reinvention” (p.275). I agree that this is a liberty, and a good one.

It becomes less good, though, when beauty is no longer a choice: Marlis Schweitzer writes that since around 1911, advertisers have “preached that it was not only possible for all women to be beautiful, but it was also every woman’s responsibility to be beautiful” (“The Mad Search for Beauty” p.136). Spreading this attitude is, of course, a very good way of selling cosmetics – creating a need and then supplying the solution, another basic principle of capitalist economics. And it is no coincidence that the rise of this “responsibility to be beautiful” happened at the same time as the rise of consumer culture and also of testimonial advertising, of which the cosmetics industry has always been “one of the most active and innovative exponents” (Schweitzer p.135). Now we’re under the tyranny of beauty.

dominatrix

(Les Dolgatsjov, http://www.viscoimages.com)

What all this means is that Dermablend’s claim to liberate us from unattractive skin in order to reveal our True Selves is not the answer to a natural human problem. It’s the result of a hundred years of capitalism in which beauty has been constructed as the only way for women to become successful and happy, and the idea of a True Self has been created as a way of selling us stuff. What is a True Self anyway?

Or am I taking that too far?

After all, Dermablend’s camouflage makeup is intended for skin conditions like Bankson’s and Lindsay’s, so that they can go about their business without being mocked or stared at, which is great.

But. They’re still “inviting” us to “blend in to stand out”. To be normal, to be indistinguishable from others, so that we can, er, “stand out” in some unspecified way. We’re all under the tyranny of the normal, and are mocked and rejected if we stray too far from the standard. That’s what Dermablend is offering: to make you normal. In this case, to judge by Bankson and Lindsay, ‘normal’ is beautiful, so we seem to have come back round to the same old problem, that women are just not allowed to be anything other than beautiful – and this is one narrow definition of beauty.

My True Self has gone to plan a revolution. She isn’t wearing foundation.

 

References:

Jones, Geoffrey. Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Lazar, Michelle M. “The Right to be Beautiful: Postfeminist Identity and Consumer Beauty Advertising”. In New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity. Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff, eds. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Schweitzer, Marlis. “‘The Mad Search for Beauty’: Actresses, Cosmetics, and the Middle-Class Market”. In Testimonial Advertising in the American Marketplace: Emulation, Identity, Community. Marlis Schweitzer and Marina Moskowitz, eds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.


Cleopatra was a Redhead: A History of Hair

Thanks to a conversation with fellow blogger Vivienne of Bluestocking Blue (on this post), I have been doing some research. Vivienne asked about the beauty politics of hair: what is it about long hair that makes it central to our ideas of beauty, and what roles do gender and economics play in this? Good question.

Rapunzel

Artwork by Jamie Fales (noosed-kitty.blogspot.co.uk)

To start with, we could ask the Bible. I admit that I’m reluctant to do so, but I Corinthians says this:

“I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man praying or prophesying with anything down over his head dishonours his head, 5 but every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7 For indeed a man ought not to cover his head, being the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.”

So there’s that. Interestingly, the Quran does not say that women should cover their heads, only that they should dress modestly (7:26) and covers their chests (24:31). The Muslim veil was adopted from Christianity. In both religions we see the idea that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory, and that it is related to her sexuality and should therefore be covered. It’s astonishing how squeamish we still are – two thousand years later – about female hair, and how it is policed from head to toe.

So hair is related to sex. But what about money?

Vivienne raised the possibility that long hair is prized as beautiful partly because it is a status symbol: long hair is impractical, so having it implies that you are rich enough not to do physical work. Could this also be why is has been gendered feminine, since women have historically been kept in the house?

My first thought is that while there must be truth in this, it’s also true that women have always worked physically – just not all of them. Women of the forgotten working classes worked physically inside the house and outside, and just tied their hair up. It may not have been practical, but long hair was too tightly bound up with the idea of femininity to be given up: cropping a woman’s hair was a used as a punishment (albeit under the veil of practicality) in prisons and asylums, and also charity schools if Charlotte Brontë is to be believed in Jane Eyre.

Long hair was, however, very much a status symbol when it came to the trend for long powdered wigs (a.k.a. the peruke) in the mid-1600s. Wigs had not been fashionable, but at this time a syphilis epidemic swept Europe (those naughty Europeans!) and an awful lot of people were losing their hair to the disease. When the young French King Louis XIV started wearing a wig to cover his thinning hair, shortly followed by his cousin Charles II, King of England, wigs became a bit of a craze. They got bigger and more elaborate, and could cost more than the annual salary of most workers. And this, Vivienne, is where the term ‘bigwig’ came from. But the peruke was killed off along with the aristocrats in the French Revolution of 1789: the final blow in England came when Prime Minister William Pitt introduced a tax on hair powder in 1795. Trés amusant.

louis xiv

Louis XIV (www.newworldencyclopedia.org)

The relation of hair, sex and economics only got more complex as the centuries wore on, and hair colour became far more important than it deserved to be. Victorian novelists such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens used hair to symbolise their characters’ qualities: blonde hair was given to a “sweet, gentle and submissive” woman (Galia Ofek, p.103), while “dark hair signified fallen or dangerous female sexuality”. The golden hair of a virtuous woman is placed centre stage in Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem ‘Goblin Market’ (read it here), a surreal and sensual fairy tale in which sisters Laura and Lizzie are tempted with fruit by strange “goblin men”. For fruit read sex, obviously (the poem was later published in Playboy, that well-known bastion of poetry). Laura buys some fruit with a lock of her golden hair, but it doesn’t go well – only Lizzie’s strong virginal resistance can save her sister. Both blonde, the sexual and economic power of their golden curls is ambivalent: it can damn them or save them. I’m reminded of Rapunzel.

goblin market

Artwork by Arthur Rackham (rainbowresource.com)

However, in the 1860s sensation fiction – melodramatic, gothic tales of murder and sexual deviance (I know, brilliant. Start with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White) – challenged this norm by introducing the character of the “fair-haired demon” (Margaret Oliphant, quoted in Ofek p.103). She may look like the sweetest golden-haired angel, but this character is a ruthless manipulator with no morals at all. The public loved her.

Writing in Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre (2006), Galia Ofek analyses the association of blonde hair with “gold and sexuality” (p.106) further, arguing that it connects to the “Woman Question” which was in constant public discussion at the time. In 1857 two important legal battles were being fought: the Divorce Act was passed, which made divorce quicker and easier; and the Petition for Married Woman’s Property Bill took place. This petition was part of the process by which married women were eventually given the right, quite simply, to own anything. Before that, once a woman married everything she owned became her husband’s property, as did she. Married women had the same legal status as children, criminals and the insane. Once this began to change, women became more threatening to the social status quo as their economic and legal power increased.

Since a woman’s beauty was one of her only marketable assets, her seductive golden hair really could be the gateway to wealth and power, through marriage. And once her legal rights as a married woman allowed her to wield wealth and power herself, it suddenly felt more dangerous for a man to be tempted by that hair.

Then there were the redheads, like Cleopatra. Cleopatra? Yes, according to historian Joann Fletcher in Cleopatra the Great (2011). The evidence is not conclusive, but one particular portrait in the Herculaneum seems to show Cleopatra, identified by her royal diadem, with red hair. There were fair-haired Greeks in her family line, and red hair does show up in that part of the world, so it is possible. Maybe this explains her fiery and seductive disposition – oh wait, another cliché. Aren’t we humans simple-minded?

rita

Rita Hayworth (fansshare.com)

Although the association of blonde hair with virtue, dark hair with vice, and red hair with sex was constantly questioned throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, classic Hollywood was happy to make use of the old images. Mary Pickford and Doris Day were the blonde sweethearts, while Theda Bara and Hedy Lamarr turned things dark and Rita Hayworth tossed her flaming tresses. Then again, Mae West, Jean Harlow and later Marilyn Monroe shook things up as peroxide vamps – and just like the “fair-haired demon” of Victorian sensation fiction, the public liked it.

But Hollywood doesn’t stand still, and hair has a new starring role nowadays, in How to Win an Oscar. Just ask Anne Hathaway, and Natalie Portman (OK, she didn’t win an Oscar for V for Vendetta but it’s much more memorable than her winning role in Black Swan). A woman shaving her head is still seen as an incredible sacrifice of her crowning glory (oh hello, Bible). Hathaway and Portman are celebrated for shaving their heads because they managed the astonishing achievement of still being beautiful even without hair. Non-beautiful lady skinheads do not receive such adulation, unless I am much mistaken.

anne hathaway

(digitalspy.com)

Now, there is something notable about this whole history of hair – which of course is not exhaustive, but these points are the ones my library and internet research led me towards. Where’s the black hair? Sure, we’ve had dark hair and that had a bad enough rep, but we’re still missing a lot. The politics of the afro, hair relaxing and braids are weighty issues that are still in play – stories crop up about kids with cornrows being kicked out of school, and black models told that they won’t get work if they don’t have their hair relaxed. The best thing for me to do is direct you to bell hooks, and her famous 1988 essay “Straightening Our Hair” (scroll down a bit for the essay). There are also responses to hooks from Hannah Pool and Glenor Roberts in The Guardian, just for a start.

We each navigate our own personal hair politics all the time – should I go blonde, dare to get a fringe? – but the politics of hair are interwoven throughout social, sexual and economic history. Hair matters, far more than I’ve been able to describe here. How much do you think it should really matter – and have I missed any important hair stories?


Guest Post at The Beheld

guest-blogging-relationships

(www.searchdecoder.com)

Having followed Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s blog The Beheld for a long time – and having been inspired by her writing in starting this blog – I’m very excited that she is hosting a guest post from me today. Here’s a taster:

Recently I got into an argument with a male friend who couldn’t see the difference between makeup, clothes, and jewelery when it came to beauty work and feminism. I thought the difference was obvious, but being forced to explain it properly I settled on the argument that it came down to adornment vs alteration. Makeup sits right on your skin and changes the way you look, and it isn’t always easy to see that it’s there. Clothes can alter your shape and general appearance, but they are more separate from you than makeup; jewelery is more separate still, not actually changing the way you look but merely adorning you with sparkles.
At the time I was quite pleased with this argument, but now I wonder. When does adornment become alteration? I’m not sure that the boundary is as clear as I had assumed—after all, do we then have to draw a distinction between BB creams and bright red lipstick, on the grounds that lipstick is obvious and artificial, and therefore falls more into the adornment camp, whereas BB cream is a deceptive alteration of your skin (or at least its appearance)?
I’ve certainly never heard anyone argue that wearing jewelery is part of the patriarchal oppression of women by pressuring them to be beautiful. But it is something that women do, with the purpose of enhancing their beauty. Does that mean a feminist should rethink her earrings, giving them the same weight of consideration many might give makeup?

Read the rest here… and read everything else on The Beheld too!

 


Can You Fake Beauty – just with Body Language?

amy cuddy

(www.blog.ted.com)

An intriguing proposition, no? I have just watched this TED talk by Amy Cuddy, called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”, after my excellent friend Elli Harris sent me a link to the Top Ten TED Talks Women Should See (they should). Cuddy isn’t actually talking about beauty but power, and how your body language can make you not just look more powerful, but actually feel more powerful – and as a result, be more powerful. But I kept wondering about the body language of beauty, and whether the same principle might apply.

Cuddy, who is a social scientist, says that humans and animals the world over express power and dominance in the same way: by making themselves big. When we feel powerful we stretch out, take up more space. And when we feel powerless, lacking in confidence, we close up, wrap our arms around our bodies and make ourselves small. Even blind people, who have never learned this by seeing others do it, use the same body language.

I think there is a body language of beauty, and it’s related to that of power. Think of a peacock strutting, and compare with a Victoria’s Secret model. In fact, think of modelling generally: surely the poses and style of walking that models learn are the non-verbal display of beauty? All the people taking duckface selfies are using this language too.

That suggests that you can learn this body language. Cuddy shows that you can learn the body language of power, and by holding a “power pose” for just two minutes (e.g. Wonder Woman hands on hips), your power hormone testosterone levels rise, and stress hormone cortisol levels drop. This means that you actually feel more confident, and are likely to perform better in whatever you are doing. Pretty cool, right?

So maybe we can all learn some non-verbal signs of beauty and, as Cuddy says, “Fake it till you make it” or better still, “Fake it till you become it”. Have you ever known someone who was not, in your eyes, particularly good-looking but carried themselves as if they were, and had admirers all over them? I’ve sought out a few famous examples of this, although I recognise that it’s a subjective view. I certainly don’t mean to be passing judgement on people’s looks here, just observing the body language of famous people who are widely considered to be ‘not conventionally good-looking’.

SARAH-JESSICA-PARKER-VOGUE1

The inimitable SJP (www.theimproper.com)

Jagger

Jagger (www.timesunion.com)

david-bowie-1972-wearing-the-so-called-rabbit-costume

Bowie, of course (www.metro.co.uk)

miss-piggy

Point made. (www.landlordrocknyc.wordpress.com)

I also think that the body language of beauty is one of the ways we learn how to be feminine, but this is where my theory encounters a problem: Cuddy says that women in general use less powerful body language than men, tending to make themselves smaller. If you think about how little girls are taught to keep themselves neat and tidy, legs crossed and arms in, this makes sense. When Cuddy showed images of powerless poses in her talk, I recognised all my usual positions.

So is the body language of beauty one of power or feminine submission? I think it’s both, coexisting in a delicate balance. For instance:

scarlett1

Scarlett doing powerful (www.newsbiscuit.com)

scarlett-johansson

And the opposite – but still beautiful (www.hdwallpaperscool.com)

In the second image, Ms Johansson is clearly making herself smaller, but her facial expression is pretty confident. And that’s just it: beauty’s body language is about the performance of desirability, which for feminine beauty often means a position of weakness performed with confidence. Because submission is feminine, and confidence is sexy, right?

I suspect that it would be an entire social sciences research project to get to the bottom of this (anyone fancy a collaboration?), but I’m convinced that beauty is in body language as well as body shape. What do you think – does that mean we can learn to feel (and be seen as) beautiful, and is that a good thing?


The Beautiful Author over at FWSA

Zadie Smith

(www.inspirational-black-literature.com)

The kind folk over at the FWSA blog (Feminist and Women’s Studies Association) have published my piece on The Beautiful Author here. Whatever would the publishing industry have done without Zadie Smith?


No Boobs in Scandi Noir

jakob_saga

(www.svtplay.se)

Firstly, if you haven’t watched Swedish/Danish crime drama The Bridge, do it now.

There are many reasons why the trendy Scandi noir genre, and this show in particular, completely justify the hype, but here is one reason I haven’t heard talked about.

No boobs!

This is so subtle that I didn’t properly notice it until series two, and I like to think I have an eagle eye for these things. What it comes down to is the simple but innovative way in which The Bridge has approached its sex scenes. As I said, no boobs!

Saga Noren, a character who makes feminists happy in so many ways, likes to have sex. She says so, very bluntly (her bluntness is a thing). And we see her having sex several times: but, each time, she is wearing a vest or t-shirt. Her partner may be naked, but she isn’t. And it’s not as if the Scandinavians are particularly bothered about nudity – in fact, perhaps it’s their lack of juvenile excitement at the prospect of naked boobs that means they don’t bother with them.

The importance of this lack of boobs really comes into focus when you think about pretty much all other TV: in, say, British and US shows a sex scene is always – always – an opportunity for boobs.

mad men

Mad Men (www.laweekly.com)

dexter

Dexter (www.fanforum.com)

ripper-street-s01e01-hdtv_-x264-river-mp4_001636760

Ripper Street (www.horrorpedia.com)

Game-Thrones

Game of Thrones. So many to choose from… (www.organiconcrete.com)

The only exception I can easily think of is Breaking Bad, and I reckon that’s because Skyler is pregnant for much of it, so her boobs would make people feel uncomfortable.

The images above are the kind of TV we are used to, in which sex scenes are often gratuitous and always an excuse show some boobs: whether the sex is significant to plot or character development tends to be a minor concern. This is not the case in The Bridge, which deliberately avoids the boobs to make sure that Saga’s character development really is what’s important.

And this is the way forward. The Bridge proves that you don’t need sex or boobs to make people tune in: people are raving about the plot, the dialogue, the atmosphere and the amazingness of Saga’s character. The fact that she is actually really hot doesn’t get much attention, because that’s the least interesting aspect of the show. And that’s just it – as soon as women/female characters are given a chance to show how interesting they can be, they step up. Of course they do. It shouldn’t seem so revolutionary to say that boobs are one of the least interesting aspects of women.

Go and watch The Bridge now. If you’ve seen it, then have a go at Googling TV sex scenes and tell me which ones I’ve missed, either with boob or no boob…


Book Review: Nanny Knows Best over at FWSA

Nanny

(fwsablog.org)

Anything for a free book! I’ve written a review of Katherine Holden’s Nanny Knows Best: The History of the British Nanny for the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (UK and Ireland) blog, which you can find here

Considering how childcare has changed over the twentieth century, Nanny Knows Best is surprisingly topical and interesting – even for someone who has never watched Mary Poppins, let alone encountered a real nanny.

Shout out for the FWSA too: their website is always great and it’s well worth being on their mailing list for events and opportunities.


Women as Wives and Workers: Marking Fifty Years of The Feminine Mystique

#FemmysAt50

feminine mystique

(debate.org)

There are some books which make their mark even on people who have never read them, and Betty Friedan’s 1963 feminist work, The Feminine Mystique, is definitely one of them. On Saturday 30th November I went to a great conference at Royal Holloway University of London, marking fifty years of Friedan’s influence and questioning the place of her most famous book today.

And if I’m honest, I actually couldn’t remember if I’d read The Feminine Mystique. I knew what the ‘feminine mystique’ was, and had read masses of feminist work talking about Friedan’s book or drawing from it, but wasn’t sure if I had ever read the original. I didn’t admit this at the conference (imagine!), but it was a running joke that many people have ideas about the book without having read it. Its influence has spread far, but has often been distorted along the way, predictably placing Friedan in the Angry Feminist camp (you know, the one that doesn’t really exist).

So if you aren’t quite sure whether you’ve read it either, the feminine mystique is Friedan’s identification of ‘the problem that has no name’: the frustration and dissatisfaction of the 1950s housewife, trapped in the domestic with her identity disappearing into that of her husband and family, and unable to speak out because the role of wife and mother has been so idolised and mystified that it is the only acceptable role for a woman to play. 1950s adverts for household products provide the best illustration of this, painting a picture of the beautiful, demure and capable housewife finding the deepest satisfaction in a new vacuum cleaner.

vacuum

(copenhagenize.com)

I won’t attempt a full review of the Royal Holloway conference because I couldn’t do justice to all the insightful papers and discussions, so instead I’ll talk a bit about the reception of The Feminine Mystique, and beauty, since that’s my particular hobby horse.

For decades now, Friedan’s book has been criticised for failing to address anyone but the American middle classes – after all, working class women tend not to have the luxury of getting bored at home. Alice Lilly’s conference paper highlighted how working-class US mothers in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Programme have been forced, throughout the 20th century, from a financially unfeasible housewife role to an equally impossible working mother role, their income dependent on changing ideals and political machinations. From a different perspective, Caitríona Beaumont fleshed out the 1950s housewife image by detailing the range of community and political work done by women in organisations like the Women’s Institute. Gwen Jordan discussed how even Friedan’s friends and contemporaries in the upper-class neighbourhoods of her hometown Peoria didn’t identify with the housewife Friedan described – an image that Friedan herself didn’t fit either, active as she was in all kinds of work beyond the home.

I think it’s generally accepted that Friedan’s concept of the feminine mystique was important in articulating gender issues that simply didn’t get airtime, and that it would have been difficult to include the huge range of women’s experiences under one banner. What The Feminine Mystique did make clear was that women needed to be able to work, for the sake of themselves and their families, and that the traditional structure of paid work just didn’t accommodate people who might take time off to have children and then have to look after them. We still have that problem.

Another problem we still have is the mystification of certain ideals of womanhood. Household products are still advertised to women, and the perfect wife and mother who can raise kids, keep her home exquisite, please her husband and now have a career too, is still an ideal whose pressure is felt everywhere. And that perfect woman is very much expected to be slim, sexy and fully made-up even after all the kids and the work. Naomi Wolf’s 1991 book The Beauty Myth made an instant impact with its updated understanding of feminine ideals, and the way that women can be kept under control and fleeced of their cash by the pressure to be beautiful, and I won’t be surprised if there is a conference marking the 50th anniversary of that book. I suspect it will remain as controversial and influential, even among those who haven’t read it, as The Feminine Mystique.

beauty myth

(en.wikipedia.org)

What these two books have in common is the idea of mystification, and how one of the main pressures on women is the fact that they are supposed to live up to an ideal at all. The presence of any ideal is a problem when it becomes a requirement rather than an aspiration. Beauty is central to the feminine ideal we have, similar to the way in which strength is central to ideals of masculinity, but men are not nailed to the cross of their ideal image in quite the same way as women. I don’t think ‘the masculine mystique’ would strike such a chord. Or would it?

The feminine mystique has a slightly different face in 2013 – though not as different as many of us would like – and it is now a problem with many names and few solutions. Discussion at the conference shot out in all kinds of directions, taking in generational conflict in feminism, pink toys, husbands’ surnames and gender segregation in religion. And that is precisely the value of The Feminine Mystique: for all the things it doesn’t address, it still opens up discussion of many problems that need to be named and challenged.

With thanks to the conference organisers, speakers and fellow feminists.


Frankenbabe

imagesCAP73D3E

jeffach.deviantart.com

If the experts at Glamour, Grazia, Cosmo et al. are right, then us ladies are only ready to leave the house and inflict ourselves upon the world when the following ‘body parts’ are correctly assembled:

  • Locks or alternatively mane (if you’re feeling fierce)
  • Pins
  • Talons
  • Tootsies
  • Peepers
  • Pout

As I understand it, the construction of these parts is meant to result in Angelina Jolie. However, the image I am left with is the lovechild of Rapunzel and a lion, with needles for legs, flashing hawk-like talons. Aspiration is not what I feel.

While it must be difficult for magazine writers to avoid repetition when endlessly discussing how to perfect eyes, lips, nails, legs and hair, the constant use of words like pins is not only a patronising attempt to create a linguistic community (despite the fact that none of their readers ever use those words), it also does some disturbing work in objectifying women’s bodies.

Pins are sharp objects, talons and manes belong to animals, and peepers sound like something a stalker might use. What all these terms have in common is a lack of humanity and a forced sense of frivolity, not to mention a complete failure to resonate with the way women think and talk about their bodies.

That’s not to say magazine language has no influence, however. A lot of attention is paid to the visual side of objectification, with important discussions around the way images of women’s bodies are cropped, dismembered and photoshopped into idealised body parts. But the language of beauty is just as alienating, working to make our bodies seem like haphazard collections of objects that don’t belong to us.

It’s strange that this formula continues to dominate women’s magazines even in an era when women writing blogs, journalism, novels and tweets are showing that we neither read nor write that way. Our lips are made for talking, not pouting, and if the magazines could realise this they might finally be able to speak to us.