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 roles are said to be innate in order to justify the economic inequality that is extrapolated to sex. An attempt to determine the origins behind women’s social subordination can be as difficult as trying to nail blood pudding to a wall. The splintered feminist discourse suggests the roles of politics and the mainstream media as prominate players, however hidden beneath the flesh of the problem is the psychological prison of the ‘beauty myth’. Stripping women of their power, the societal pressure to be beautiful 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. Therefore, a theoretical framework must first be constructed in order to position the historical evolution of the beauty myth within the context of the 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 will 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).
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’. This psychological prison bred rotten self-esteem, voluntary subordination and the emotional distress stemming from the sentiment of never being “good enough”. This amalgamation of anxieties shadowed women’s perceived economic feat. The perception that corporal obsession is temporally unconfined is far from true. Weight fixation, cosmetics products and extrapolating beauty to self-worth came practically in tandem to women’s visibility outside the domestic sphere. The culturally constructed paradigm for beauty was disseminated by means of the cinema and advertisements. In fact, the “cosmetic industry did not become a fully recognizable, commercialized, mass industry” (Black 2004) until the second half of the twentieth century. Yet the transition was sudden.
In 1948, 90% of women began wearing lipstick (Black 2004). Laced with lead, the aesthetic choice was fashioned as a paradigm for empowerment. However, ironically this notion disintegrated over the years and lipstick soon served as a marker of sexuality more so than anything else. This semiotic shift laced 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 one down.
IV. A BACKLASH TO THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT
A cultural belief deeply engrained in our society is that woman can either be intelligent or beautiful, but never both. Society rarely praises or acknowledges the former. The “maturing of feminism was crudely but effectively distorted in the lens of the myth” (69 Wolf 1991). Women’s growing obsession with beauty led to self-hatred and incessant struggle. The feminist movement for economic equality faded as the influence of the media at large began reinforcing the beauty ideology and weighing a women’s worth on her waistline and cheekbones.
Entangled in a women’s psyche, the anxiety to be beautiful is a repercussion of social conditioning at the hands of the hegemonic order infiltrating the masses through images. Societal pressure escalated as Hollywood extrapolated beauty to America’s national identity (Black 2004). The beauty “myth is political and not sexual. Money does the work of history more efficiently than sex” (49 Wolf 1991). The insidious pressure of the media fed women’s beauty obsession, which in turn fueled the 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 become marks of social and cultural difference” (39 McRobbie 1999).
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. An element of escapism ran below the possibility 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.
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 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). This 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 any hope 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. The unprecedented boom of the diet and cosmetic surgery industry came about in tandem to the growth of the telecommunication and commercial industries.
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” (Gotham 227). 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 while blindly embracing ideologically infiltrated images fabricated with ulterior motives (Gotham 227).
Furnished with the agenda of multinational conglomerates, the media manufactures “fictitious, artificial, and imaginary needs”(Lefebvre 161). 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” (Storey 132). 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, Vivendi and Microsoft dominate and globalize the communication industry (98 Fairclough 2006), which facilitates the dissemination of a hegemonic discourse of cultural values. The cultural codes and conventions projected by the cinema and television alike are internationally acknowledged.
IX. ADVERTISEMENTS BREEDING INADEQUENCIES
Advertisements are, in many respects, 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. From this array of media text, gender roles are realized, social norms are cemented and beauty standards are established.
X. THROUGH A SEMOTIC LENS
To see this, one must take a step back and analyze the “gender encoded in media text” (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 subliminally humans are susceptible to social conditioning without being aware of it. He employs the ratio Sign= signifier/signified as his framework. The mainstream media is saturated with semiotic codes that convey social conventions and establish the hegemonic doctrine. Transmission models of communication, such as television and tabloids, use symbols 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 wherein women are consuming either cosmetics or a product related to the domestic sphere (72 Van Zoonon 1994). Thus, a woman can be either an object of male desire or an object of domesticity. The mainstream 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.
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. A perverse phenomenon particular to the postmodern era is the tabloidization of culture. Contemporary society has been plagued with an obsession of certain celebrity icons that emerge as incessant subjects of scrutiny. In many respects, tabloid magazine emerge as a microcosm of the societal pressures women in American society endure. While waiting to check out in the grocery line 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 who grace the inky pages of the tabloids. These celebrities are praised one day and chastised the next. Beauty is an ideal that shifts 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, for example 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 is nonetheless a subject to harsh scrutiny. 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”. As I said before, 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. Beauty again 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, who are objects of male desire are worth photographing, worth stalking and most importantly worth acknowledging.
As the differentiation between capitalism and culture become increasingly blurred, re-conceptualizing the discourse of the ‘beauty myth’ in necessary so to 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. 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. The beauty myth can be conceived as a “violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement” (10 Wolf 1991) keeping women psychologically poor (52 Wolf 1991). Looking to mannequins as models or rather paradigms of feminity 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.