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Beauty Is a Feminist Issue

Questions about beauty have always been central to feminism. Indeed, the politics of appearance might be said to be foundational to the feminisms that emerged in the West in the 1960s and after, with beauty taking its place alongside reproductive rights, violence against women, workplace and pay equality, and sexual freedom as a key issue of feminist concern. ‘Origin stories’ of the women’s liberation movement often date its inception to a protest against the Miss World beauty pageant in 1970 in which activists railed against female objectification and the evaluation of women only in terms of their physical attractiveness. Since then, decades of research, writing and activism by feminists have largely centred on beauty as a tool of patriarchal domination, seen to entrap women in narrow and restrictive norms of femininity, contribute to their subjugation and make them ill with ‘disorders’ such as depression and anorexia. There are many different perspectives on beauty among feminists- by no means can we speak of a singular perspective. Radical feminism, Marxist feminism, black and anti-racist feminisms, and postcolonial scholarship all offer contrasting accounts. There are many summaries of beauty studies and some attempts to periodise the ‘lifespan’ of feminist debates on beauty (Chancer 1998; Craig 2006; Jha 2016). Here, we will simply highlight briefly three broad orientations that have been central to feminist research, before moving on to consider the new and emerging concerns of contemporary feminist beauty scholarship.

Much feminist work on beauty has been influenced by psychology. Psychology as a discipline has long dominated research on body image, with experimental studies examining how cultural constructions of the body impact self-perception and self-esteem (see Grogan 2007, for a useful discussion). More than this, though, psychology’s understanding of ‘media effects’ has become a kind of widely circulated common sense and implicitly informs many understandings of beauty pressures even today. As we write, for example, the Women’s Equality Party in the UK has just called for a ban on Size Zero models in London Fashion Week. Such a campaign rests on the assumption that seeing such thin models will have negative effects on women’s self-esteem, leading to eating disorders and mental health problems. These kinds of ideas are widespread and taken for granted in journalism and policy discourses, even though they have been roundly critiqued in academic literatures for their individualistic, ‘linear’ and ‘hypodermic’ model of influence. They accord little space to resistance or even negotiation among people viewing negative images and essentially present appearance-related mental health problems in reductive terms as ‘reading disorders’ (see Wykes and Gunter 2004).

Another approach that has been prominent in beauty studies—though less mainstream than body image perspectives—is a feminist Foucaultian account, exemplified by the work of scholars Susan Bordo (1993), Sandra Lee Bartky (1990) and Jana Sawicki (1991). Broadly speaking, this perspective regards beauty as a disciplinary technology. It argues that women’s appearance is subject to profound discipline and regulation—even when beauty practices are seemingly freely chosen. For example, Sandra Lee Bartky (1990, p. 75) has argued that women are ‘not marched off to electrolysis at the end of a rifle’ and nor are they passive but display extraordinary ‘ingenuity’ in beauty rituals, yet ‘insofar as the disciplinary practices of femininity produce a “subjected and practiced”, an inferiorized, body, they must be understood as aspects of far larger discipline, an oppressive and inegalitarian system of sexual subordination’.

For us this work has been formative in offering a non-institutionalised and non-individualistic understanding of beauty as a form of disciplinary power, though it is not without problems—most notably its lack of an account of the precise mechanisms that mediate between the ‘beauty myth’ and women’s embodied practices (e.g. repeated dieting) or feelings of failure or shame. It does not have a theory of affect or a psychosocial understanding of how it is that ideals ‘out there’ get ‘inside’ to shape our desires, deepest feelings and what we find beautiful. It has been criticised for its cultural determinism and inattention to women’s agency—though this has been contested as we discuss in the second part of this chapter. The body corporeal—fleshy, feeling, embodied —is not prominent in these accounts; it is rather figured as a cultural ‘site’ in which power and discourses of femininity play out, leaving some to argue that the body itself ‘disappears’ in these accounts.

A third established position theorises the ramping up of beauty pressures over recent decades in terms of backlashes against feminism. Susan Faludi (1991) and Naomi Wolf (1990) are the most prominent exponents of this view. Faludi characterises beauty as part of a wider backlash against second-wave feminism which she understands as nothing less than an ‘undeclared war’, which uses diverse means to frighten, cajole and bully women into abandoning feminist projects. This is aided by a ‘media echo chamber’ in which journalistic ‘trend stories’ with little credibility are amplified and recirculated so that they take on the status of selfevident truths. Wolf’s target is more explicitly the beauty industry itself. She argued (1990, p. 2) ‘we are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth’. She contends that ‘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’ (1990, p. 1). This is not because feminism makes women unhappy, Wolf argued, but because feminist successes are met with ever more intensifying and unrealistic beauty ideals that then cause in women ‘a secret “underlife” poisoning our freedom...a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control’ (1990, p. 2). As Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra argue (2007), backlashes are multiple rather than singular as feminism is characterised by complicated ongoing gains and losses. This historical contingency is evident in Faludi and Wolf’s analyses which link key moments in US feminist history (e.g. achieving suffrage, the development of the contraceptive pill, the rise of the women’s liberation movement) with intensifying pressures in fashion and beauty—including images of female desirability that became thinner and thinner the more advances women made in public life. Whilst at times such a view can seem almost to resemble a conspiracy theory—and may therefore be problematic—its strength overall is in highlighting that beauty pressures do not exist in a social and cultural vacuum but are connected to broader social trends in complicated ways.

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