A RECONTEXTUALIZATION OF THE BEAUTY MYTH
There is a lie in li(f)e and a deceitfulness in the vein the media reflects it. The pulse of our nation beats to the rhythm of a hegemonic doctrine. Societies consume “necessary” fictions so to protect the fragility of the fabricated reality within which they live. Gender norms are understood to be innate, justifying the economic inequality that is dictated by sex. An attempt to determine the origins behind women’s social subordination can be as difficult as trying to nail blood pudding to the wall. The splintered feminist discourse suggests the role of patriarchic politics and the mainstream media as prominate players, however I would argue that it goes deeper. Hidden beneath the flesh of the problem is the psychological self-imprisonment of the ‘beauty myth’. Stripping women of their power, the societal pressure to meet aesthetic expectations in America deteriorates sentiments of self worth and robs many of their sense of control.
The mass neurosis of women starving themselves skinny while struggling to remain youthful fuels the economy, not through participation but through the excessive consumption of insecure females. Yet this perverse phenomenon is a fairly recent one that was only truly recognized over a decade ago by feminist Naomi Wolf. Due to the novel nature of the discourse, a theoretical framework must continue to be constructed in order to position the historical evolution of the ‘beauty myth’ within the context of the contemporary capitalist system. The socioeconomic pressure to be beautiful has been a catalyst to the growth of the cosmetic and diet industries as well as consumption practices rooted in fetishism rather then necessity. Using the tabloidization of the media as postmodern paradigm for the ‘beauty myth’, I aim to recontextualize the discourse originally formulated by Noami Wolf’s so to better suit the present.
II. HISTORICAL EVOLUTION
In order to understand the present one must look towards the past. World War II triggered the transition of women’s experience from the domestic sphere to that of the work. However, as the horrific war came to a close in August of 1945, the men whose absence facilitated women’s presence in the industrial field returned home to reclaim their jobs. The country faced an economic and social predicament. As the backbone of the wartime economy, women had more freedom than they ever had before and sure enough 75% of women opted to continue working after the war. It was as if ‘Pandora’s Box’ had been opened. The patriarchic system, realizing the implausibility of female re-domestication, reluctantly allowed many women to keep their jobs in the post-war economy.
Statistically earning more money prostituting their bodies rather than using their minds, women have been an underpaid and undervalued part of the work force from the onset. Ensuing World War II, women’s new visibility in the economic sphere complicated the notion of gender roles. Questions of equality rose in response to the disparity in wages earned for parallel tasks. An effort, perhaps in vein, was made to create a new space for the female labor pool that would keep women in subordinate positions where no justification was needed for their lower salary. The “qualities that best serve employers in such a labor pool’s workers are: low self esteem, a tolerance for dull repetitive tasks, lack of ambition, high conformity, more respect for men (who manage them) than women (who work beside them), and little sense of control over their lives” (26 Wolf 1991). Yet this was just the beginning.
‘The Beauty Myth’ by Naomi Wolf was a national best seller back in 1991. The underlining concept of the novel is that in the postmodern world a women’s worth is hinged on their looks. Wolf argues that this social phenomenon came to fruition in tandem to the second wave of feminism. She goes further to claim that the beauty myth “is not about women at all…it is about men’s institutions and institutional power” (Wolf 5 1991). No longer shackled to the societal expectations of fulfilling their role as wife and mother, women’s newfound freedom was perceived as a threat. Thus, the beauty myth emerged as a means of keeping women in their place. Rooted in the debatable argument that beauty and futility are intertwined, the beauty myth rapes women of their ability to be conformable in their own skin and extrapolates how reproductively fit they are on their beauty.
III. THE BIRTH OF THE BEAUTY MYTH
Like “adults, play-wrestling a child, enjoy letting the child feel it has won” (46 Wolf 1991), the independence given to women of modernity carried with it the expectations tied to the ‘beauty myth’. According to Wolf, this ‘cultural conspiracy’ is not only the “last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact,” but also the last of the “old feminine ideologies that still has the power to control those women” (Wolf 3 1991). This psychological prison bred rotten self-esteem, voluntary subordination and the emotional distress that was fueled by the sentiment of never being “good enough”. This amalgamation of anxieties shadowed women’s perceived economic feat. Although women were welcomed into the labor force, it was under ‘controlled conditions’ that tainted women’s newfound liberty with “self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control” (Wolf 3 1991).
The residual undercurrent of legal and social discrimination leaves women second-class citizens even in today’s evolved socioeconomic environment. “According to the culturally imposed physical standard” of beauty, women are perceived as objects rather than individuals. In response to social pressure, many put their ambition on the backburner and focus their energy instead on cultivating their physical appearance. Weight fixation, cosmetics products and extrapolating self-worth to beauty came practically in tandem to women’s visibility outside the domestic sphere. The culturally constructed paradigm for the desirable physique was and still is disseminated by means of cinematic production and advertisements. In fact, the “cosmetic industry did not become a fully recognizable, commercialized, mass industry” (31 Black 2004) until the second half of the twentieth century brought on the proliferation of product placement. This fabrication of need poisoned the American women’s psyche provoking them to inadvertently consume out of aesthetic concern and insecurity.
In 1948, 90% of women began wearing lipstick (5 Black 2004). Underpinned by media text, the aesthetic symbolized “female empowerment”. Alarmingly, it was only recently that the ‘Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ found that thirty-three brand name lipsticks tested positive for lead at levels exceeding that of the FDA’s regulation of 0.1 parts per million (41 Houton 2004). The release of these statistics is enough to wipe the red glossy grin off any women’s face. Ironically once a marker of self-righteousness, red lipstick adopted over time the stigma of sexual deviance. This semiotic shift is suiting as it laces the slow subconscious surrender of the woman of modernity, as they forfeited their ambition in the career sphere and embraced the never-ending pursuit of beauty. The fact that there is lead in lipstick translates nicely as a metaphor for how this marker of beauty weighs women down.
IV. A BACKLASH TO THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT
Women’s battle for gender equality has been undermined by the beauty myth. It seems as if “the more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us” (3 Wolf 1991). There is a cultural belief deeply engrained in our society that beauty is a standard against which all women are measured. Wolf argues that in the past a women’s worth was hinged on her virginity whereas in the present it is determined by her physical appearance and sexual lure. This paradox can be extrapolated to the mother/whore dichotomy. Furthermore, popular culture purports that women can be either beautiful or smart, yet never embody both. Society rarely praises or acknowledges the former. Mainstream media juxtaposes the studious brunette co-star with the beautiful yet not so bright blonde- two common archetypes for female identity formation. It goes without saying that the catch-22 is absurd, as although attractive women are said to have a leg up in society, they are often stereotyped as being as dumb as doorknobs.
The “maturing of feminism was crudely but effectively distorted in the lens of the myth” (69 Wolf 1991). Women’s growing obsession with beauty inflicted self-hatred and incessant struggle. The feminist movement for economic equality weakened as the influence of the media at large began reinforcing a beauty ideology that weighed a women’s worth on her waistline and cheekbones. With women working longer and harder for less money, the societal pressure to be beautiful brings on a burden almost unbearable. Furthermore, the ever-present effort to meet impossible beauty norms creates an undercurrent of competition that divides women. The every-woman-for-themselves mentality that arises as a result of the beauty myth counteracts the intrinsic aspirations of the feminist movement.
Entangled in a women’s psyche, the anxiety to be attractive is a repercussion of social conditioning at the hands of the hegemonic order infiltrating the masses through media images. One can trace the escalation of societal pressure as Hollywood extrapolated beauty to America’s national identity (32 Black 2004). The beauty “myth is political and not sexual. Money does the work of history more efficiently than sex” (49 Wolf 1991). As the insidious media fed women’s beauty obsession, there was a proliferation of industries catering to fabricated needs. From modernity emerged a new social identity of idleness and excessive consumption that spread like an infection among middle and upper class women.
V. CAPITALISM ARTICULATES WOMENS ROLE IN MODERNITY
Beauty “was no longer just a symbolic form of currency; it literally became money. The informal currency system of the marriage market” (21 Wolf 1991) enticed women into roles of dependency and apathy. Politically complacent and unemployed, these middle class women began having plenty of excess time as domestic labors grew less intensive thanks to the aid of inventions in home appliances. Thus, in order to “counteract middle-class women’s dangerous new leisure, literary” (15 Wolf 1991), capitalism wrote women into the modern market as consumers.
The disposable incomes of these women situated them in the social position of dependency “crucial to recreating and maintaining a productive cycle that functions to support the capitalist economy” (99 Lewis 1990). The slant that money can buy beauty served as a catalyst behind the rapid growth of the cosmetic, fashion and diet industry. “Modes of consumption thus became marks of social and cultural difference” (39 McRobbie 1999). Beauty presented itself as something that could be attained by anyone who was willing to invest the energy and money into acquiring it.
VI. SPACES OF CONSUMPTION AND PERCIEVED INDEPENDENCE
Within no time, department stores became public spaces for women who embraced this alleged freedom as an escape from the recluse of domesticity. Prior to this, women were confined to the chores and maintenance of the house and home. Even today, “females are expected to use streets as a route between two interior spaces, be they places of employment or consumption activity. The social consequence of street loitering or strolling is the label, ‘prostitute’” (92 Lewis 1990). Loitering within a department store was and is perceived as socially acceptable however.
Broadening the geographical constraints determined by gender, the novel intercourse between leisure and consumption afforded women the possibility to inhabit a social space outside their home. Furthermore, an element of escapism ran below the chance handed to women to try on new social identities. The fashioning of the self was advertised as a vehicle of expression, rendering the “regimen of dress codes” that laced confirmation, prom night and weddings (90 Lewis 1990) less rigid. Women realized that they could convey their social status and distinguished taste through the diversity of their wardrobe and brand names of their clothes, paving way for the emergence of the commodity system of sign value.
In tandem to the proliferation of malls and department stores came another social space inhabited namely by women- the beauty salon. It is here where the ‘hidden labor of beauty’ (19 Black 2004) temporarily relieved the emotional stress of societal pressure. Yet despite the illusion of beauty salons serving as grounds for communal interactions, the social exchanges that take place were and arguably still are oftentimes shallow. “Women can tend to resent each other if they look too ‘good’ and dismiss one another if they look too ‘bad’. So women too rarely benefit from the experience that makes men’s clubs and organizations hold together.” (75 Wolf 1991). The tendency to view the ‘Other Woman’ as the enemy can be tied to the mass neurosis of the beauty myth, which keeps woman incessantly competing with one another- denying the possibility of female bonding.
VII. FROM CONSUMPTION TO STARVATION
The absence of community in beauty salons and the apathetic distractions provided by department stores were merely the beginning. As “the weight of fashion models plummeted to 23 percent below that of ordinary women, eating disorders rose exponentially” (11 Wolf 1991). Beauty products and expensive attire were no longer enough, as magazines like Vogue portrayed stick thin models in the nude- their visible ribs reflecting the culture industry’s redefinition of “beauty”. These images “used food and weight to strip women of their sense of control” (11 Wolf 1991). Hostage to societal expectations, women have never before in history found themselves entangled in such a mass phobia that is so psychologically imprisoning.
Seventy-five percent of women have bodies that fall outside that the media propagates as beautiful. As “women breached the power structure…eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty” (3 Wolf 1991). The unprecedented boom of the diet and cosmetic surgery industry came about in tandem to the growth of the telecommunication and commercial industries. Threatening a woman’s sanity, societal expectations manipulate women to willingly starve herself- some consuming fewer calories a day then those in third world countries. This obsession with weight translates in to severe eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and compulsive binge eating.
An alarming statistic provided by the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association unveils the fact that millions of women nation-wide suffer from eating disorders. Each year a hundred and fifty thousand women die of anorexia. With one in five students suffering from the disease education, or lack there of, does not seem to be a factor. As women disparately struggle to obtain the correct height to weight ratio, the body suffers. The internal wounds of eating disorders and the corporeal scars of plastic surgery all trace back to the anxiety bred by the media’s reinforcement of the beauty myth.
VIII. MEDIA, MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS AND ARTIFICIAL NEEDS
Over the past several decades, America has become an “image saturated society where advertising, entertainment, television, and other culture industries increasingly define and shape everyday life” (227 Gotham). The onslaught of commercialization came about as a mechanism to promote consumption in the age of mechanical reproduction. To drive the economy, artificial needs were and are still to this day fashioned. As a result, mass society has devolved into passive spectators and consumers entranced by the hypnotic nature of the media- blindly embracing ideologically infiltrated images fabricated with ulterior motives (227 Gotham). Wolf claims that the beauty myth “is not about women at all.” She explains, “it is about men’s institutions and institutional power” (5 Wolf 1991).
Furnished with the agenda of multinational conglomerates, the media manufactures “fictitious, artificial, and imaginary needs” (161 Lefebvre). The culture industries bred by capitalism infect the American social psyche with hegemonic ideologies that not only cement the current social hierarchy, but also construct “powerful images, descriptions, definitions and frames of reference for understanding the world” (132 Storey). The media’s role in consumption patterns is predominately overlooked by society at large, thus more often than not people purchase without hesitation or reservation as to what motives lie behind their choices. Corporations like IBM, News Corporation, AOL Time Warner, General Electric and Microsoft dominate the communication industry (98 Fairclough 2006). This in turn facilitates the dissemination of a hegemonic discourse of cultural values. The cultural codes and conventions projected by the cinema and television alike are thus internationally acknowledged. Consumptions patterns can be traced to a corporation’s annual expenditure in the advertisement of their products. Susceptible to the subliminal, the masses spend without sense or practicality.
IX. ADVERTISEMENTS BREEDING INADEQUENCIES
In many respects, advertisements are a reflection of capitalist culture. There has been an onslaught of ads flooding the urban scape, lacing the highways of America, cluttering magazines and cutting up programs on TV. These glossy depictions “convince readers of their own inadequacies while drawing them into the consumer culture with the promise that they could buy their way out of bodily dissatisfactions and low self-esteem.” (46 McRobbie 1999). Advertisements project the unattainable in order to sell products laced with faulty guarantee. “They need, consciously or not, to promote women’s hating their bodies enough to go profitably hungry, since the advertising budget for one third of the nation’s food bill depends on their doing so by dieting” (84 Wolf 1991).
The pervasiveness of this subliminal propaganda is enormous. Brilliant marketing tactics tie wealth, sex, romance, joy and appreciation to images of youth and beauty. Thus, hostage to these beauty ideals, women kill themselves in this never-ending battle. The effectiveness of these advertisements is rooted in the repetition of these images. From this array of media text, gender roles are realized, social norms are cemented and beauty standards are established. Silicone breast, tummy tucks, acid skin peels, vacuumed out thighs and stitched tighter vagina’s all serve as a testament to the perversity of this phenomenon.
X. THROUGH A SEMOTIC LENS
Although the aforementioned is as common as it is shocking, oftentimes we as humans have a tendency to build immunities to the unthinkable. As society at large becomes jaded, the media reinforces perverse social norms subliminally. It is for this reason that one must take a step back and analyze the “gender encoded in media text” (73 Van Zoonon 1994) through a semiotic lens. De Saussure, the father of this discourse, argues that the connotative power of signs is unparalleled and that subconsciously humans are susceptible to social conditioning without being aware of it. He employs the ratio Sign= signifier/signified as a framework through which one can examine the extent the mainstream media is saturated with semiotic codes cementing a hegemonic doctrine.
Transmission models of communication, such as television and tabloids, use signs to “represent” or rather reconstruct our perception of reality and understanding of social norms. Through the transmission of semiotic codes, the media subjugates the American psyche with three distinct role for a woman: “(1) wife, mother and housekeeper for men, (2) a sex object used to sell products to men, (3) a person trying to be beautiful for men” (Hole and Levine, 1971: 241). This three-pier paradigm for female identity is perpetuated in advertisements where women are consuming either cosmetics or a product related to the domestic sphere (74 Van Zoonon 1994). Thus, women have the alleged “agency” to choose whether to be an object of male desire or an object of domesticity.
The media engrains in the women’s psyche “how to be a ‘perfect mother, lover, wife, homemaker, glamorous, accessory, secretary –whatever best suits the needs of the system’” (Davies et al.: 1987:4) (66 Van Zoonon 1994). Regardless of the role a woman plays out, their worth is still hinged on their beauty. Even the advertisements of the supposedly self-empowering program Oprah “show women in traditional roles, worrying about their weight and their children” (101 Sage 1994). Furthermore, Oprah Winfrey has celebrity icons like Brittany Spear on her show who nonchalantly admit to doing anywhere between seven hundred to one thousand crutches on a daily basis. The prospect that an average woman with a fulltime job and family would have the time and energy to commit to this sort of exercise routine is ludicrous. But the mainstream media normalizes outrageous expectation.
Makeover shows like “What Not to Wear and The Biggest Loser — even Queer Eye for the Straight Guy — show beauty as something created, a condition to which anyone can have access to with the right education and effort” (2 Sullentrop 2006). Cosmetic companies and plastic surgeons are having a field day as women anxiously pay a pretty penny to go under the knife- exhibiting complete disregard for the potential health risks that may be involved. Perversely, one can argue that women perpetuate the need for this sort of self-afflicted torture through their participation in it. The myth is kept alive by those who prop themselves up in six-inch stilettos that physically destroy their feet and by those who spend the night suffocating in corsets that crush their ribs. It is fueled by the mantra ‘beauty knows no pain’- an all too common yet ironic adage that has the split connotation that a woman must subject herself to pain for beauty but also beautiful women know no pain.
XI. TABLOIDS: A PARADIGM FOR THE BEAUTY MYTH IN POSTMODERNITY
The ironic fact of the matter is that the definition of beauty is not fixed. Glossy magazines are paradigms of this schizophrenia as they construct and redefine beauty with each issue. With the pages laced with airbrushed, emaciated models in the teens, it is no wonder that women are starving themselves to attain the unattainable. Furthermore, this medium has the faculty to influence society at large. Wolf writes that “ it was through these glossies that issues from the women’s movement swept out from the barricades and down from the academic ivory towers to blow into the lives of working-class women, rural women, women without higher education.” Thus the ever shifting and increasingly implausible standard of beauty breaches the invisible borders of class stratification and race through the glossy visual media’s accessibility and popularity.
Perhaps even more popular than fashion magazines, tabloids emerge as a reflection of the public’s problematic relationship with reality. Contemporary society seems to be plagued with an obsession for certain celebrity icons that emerge as incessant subjects of scrutiny. A perverse phenomenon particular to the postmodern era is the tabloidization of culture. In many respects, tabloid magazine are microcosms of the societal pressures women in American society endure. While standing in the check out line or waiting in the hair salon, one is bombarded with headlines surveying the physical shape and aesthetic appeal of these branded celebrities.
Magazine such as InTouch, Star and Life&Style target the female demographic. Women across the country indulge in hating and envying the media figures that grace the inky pages of the tabloids. These celebrities are praised one day and chastised the next. One must not forget that the beauty myth is not hinged on any biological or historical justification. “’Beauty’ is not universal or changeless, though the West pretends that all ideals of female beauty stem from one Platonic Ideal Woman […]. Nor is “beauty” a function of evolution: Its ideals change at a pace far more rapid than that of the evolution of species” (12 Wolf 1991). In short, beauty standards shift according to the mood of the market and the taste of the media. The limelight has sour appeal in a culture where perfection is never quite attainable, yet always expected.
XII: STAR MAGAZINE: “55 OF THE BEST AND WORST BEACH BODIES”
The headline of Star magazine’s August 2008 issue was “55 of the Best and Worst Beach Bodies,” a spread littered with paparazzi shots of celeb icons clad in bikinis. Cellulite and ribs are magnified to show why she could either shed a few pounds or be a contender for hospitalization. Kate Hudson was awarded the worst “secret sagginess”, claiming “Kate, 28, looks so perfect when she’s wearing clothing! But the actress and single mom’s plunging blue bikini revealed a surprisingly saggy tummy during a Hawaiian vacation” (Star Magazine, 10/08). This harsh critique referring to the photograph on the right is a fine example of how a mother of two, who still at the age of thirty has maintained a six-pack, can be nonetheless a subject to harsh scrutiny. “Actress Kate Hudson told one interviewer that, to lose post-pregnancy “baby weight,” she worked out three hours a day until she lost her 70 pounds: It was so hard that she used to sit on the exercise cycle and cry.” Shortly after this issue was published, Kate Hudson began suffering from an eating disorder, which once again landed her of the front page of Star in “The 20 Skinniest Celebrities”. This issue accused Hudson of suffering from anorexia nervosa and described her as a “walking skeleton”. This just goes to show that the ideal of “beauty” is incessantly in a state a flux and thus doesn’t truly exist.
XIII. MONEY CAN BUY BEAUTY
Although tabloids reinforce the notion that there seems to be no fixed standard of beauty, one thing is for sure: money can buy beauty. While half of Star magazine is dedicated to dissecting every flaw of a celebrity or praising a pair Prada shoes sported by another, the other half is committed to commercializing fancy beauty products, designer dresses and of course expensive weight loss pills. Wolf argues that “the formula must also include an element that contradicts and then undermines the overall pro-woman fare: in diet, skin care, and surgery features, it sells women the deadliest version of the beauty myth money can buy”. Again, beauty translates as currency. The fetishism of the image results in the public cannibalizing coveted celebrities. Just as fairy tales purport that the princess must be beautiful, tabloid preach that woman of beauty are worth photographing, worth stalking and most importantly they are worth acknowledging.
As the differentiation between capitalism and culture become increasingly blurred, re-contextualizing the discourse of the ‘beauty myth’ in necessary so to better understand it in relation to the age of post-modernity. The deep anxieties of women across the country translate into a 33-billion dollar a year diet industry and the 300 million dollar a year cosmetic industry. You see,“ beauty lives so deep in the psyche, where sexuality mingles with self-esteem” (36 Wolf 1991) that self worth is hinged on one’s body image. Women voluntarily and deliberately partake in this struggle to be beautiful believing that their happiness is hinged on it. Furthermore, a disgusting double standard emerges when one realizes that women appreciate men for who they are, albeit if they have gray hair, a fat gut and wrinkles- thus proving that the beauty rituals have been indoctrinate into namely the female psyche.
The historical evolution of the beauty myth was a slow than sudden transformation in the American psyche, accelerated by the proliferation of advertisement and growth of the telecommunication industry. Through the means of mass media cultural beliefs were cemented. Reinforced in fairy tales, Hollywood pictures, advertisements, conversations and commercials, the unattainable ideals of beauty infiltrate every aspect of western culture. The “violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement” (10 Wolf 1991) keeps females psychologically poor (52 Wolf 1991). Now women face a twofold burden to uphold not only their traditional role as wife and mother, but also to meet the ever-unattainable expectations of socially constructed beauty norms.
“More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our un-liberated grandmothers” (3 Wolf 1991). Looking at mannequins as models, paradigms of felinity that one should strive to emulate, women of today are imprisoned in the iron maiden. Instead of lying here awaiting a fate to come at the hands of metal spikes or starvation, I think it is time women take a stand. Women voluntarily and deliberately partake in this struggle to be beautiful believing that their happiness is hinged on it. Dissatisfaction and low self esteem drives women to go under the knife and choose carcinogenics over calories in a disparate attempt to achieve the socially constructed image of beauty. Human value should not rely on the aesthetic or appeal of youth. As women, we need to shed this burden of unrealistic expectations and decide for ourselves what is true and in doing so we will dismantle our disillusionment.
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