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            The current state of fashion lends itself to an unhealthy body image in the majority of young women today. Every form of visual media, from print, to television, to movies, to the internet is used to bombard us daily with unrealistic images of “perfection.” Yet how often do advertisements, television shows, and pictures tell us that this look was achieved through hours of makeup, hair styling, and airbrushing? How often do we hear that even the “perfect” looking people we see don’t really look like that in real-life? Cindy Crawford once said “Even I don't wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.”

            The expectation to look perfect has not always been around, it is something that has slowly developed over the last century. We did not go from last century’s expectation for young women to our currents expectations in one step. It was a series of smaller steps, like the expectation for perfect skin, that stacked up, and eventually made it harder for each generation of girls to feel good about themselves. In her book, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (available here), author Joan Brumberg discusses the history of these expectations, giving us insight on how things got like this. It explains how external forces such as marketing have had a strong, and adverse in the internal feelings of girls.

            Another good book dealing with the subject of societal expectations of beauty is a book called The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf. The content of this book goes hand-in-hand with The Body Project, and is a good read for any woman who wonders why she feels bad about her body. We have included an excerpt from this book below, please read it, and if you enjoy it, the full book can be found here.


     The qualities that a given period calls beautiful in women are merely symbols of the female behavior that that period considers desirable.  The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance.  Competition between women has been made part of the myth so that women will be divided from one another.  Youth and (until recently) virginity have been “beautiful” in women since they stand for experimental and sexual ignorance.  Aging in women is “unbeautiful” since women grow more powerful with time, and since the links between generations of women must always be broken.  Older women fear young ones, young ones fear old, and the beauty myth truncates for all the female lifespan.  Most urgently, women’s identity must be premised upon our “beauty”, so that we will remain vulnerable to outside approval, carrying the vital sensitive organ of self esteem exposed to the air.

     Though there has, of course, been a beauty myth in some form for as long as there has been patriarchy, the  beauty myth in its modern form is a fairly recent invention.  The beauty myth flourishes when material constraints on women are dangerously loosened.  Before the industrial revolution, the average woman could not have had the same feeling about “beauty” that modern women do who experience the myth as a continual comparison to a mass disseminated physical ideal.  Before the development of technologies of mass production-daguerreotypes, photographs, etc.-an ordinary woman was exposed to few such images outside the church.  Since the family was a productive unit and women’s work complemented men’s, the value of women who were not aristocrats or prostitutes lay in their work skills, economic shrewdness, physical strength, and fertility.  Physical attraction, obviously played its part; but beauty as we understand it, was not, for ordinary women, a serious issue in the marriage marketplace.  The beauty myth, in its modern form gained ground after the upheavals of industrialization, as the work unit of the family was destroyed, and urbanization and the emerging factory system demanded what social engineers of the time termed the “separate sphere” of domesticity, which supported the new labor category of the “breadwinner” who left home for the workplace during the day.  The middle class expanded, the standards of living and of literacy rose, the size of families shrank; a new class of literate idle women developed on whose submission to enforced domesticity the evolving system of industrial capitalism developed.  Most of our assumptions about the way women have always thought about “beauty” date from no earlier than the 30’s when the cult of domesticity was first consolidated and the beauty index invented.

     For the first time, new technologies could reproduce- in fashion plates, daguerreotypes, tintypes, and rotogravures-images of how women should look.  In the 1840’s the first nude photographs of prostitutes were taken; advertisements using images of “beautiful’ women first appeared in mid-century.  Copies of classical artworks, postcards of society beauties and royal mistresses, Currier and Ives prints, and porcelain figurines flooded the separate sphere to which middle class women were confined.

     Since the industrial revolution, middle-class Western women have been controlled by ideals and stereotypes as much by material constraints.  This situation, unique to this group, means that analyses that trace “cultural conspiracies” are uniquely plausible in relation to them. The rise of the beauty myth was just one of several emerging social fictions that masqueraded as natural components of the feminine sphere, the better to enclose those women inside it.  Other such fictions arose contemporaneously: a version of childhood that required continual maternal supervision; a concept of female biology that required middle-class women to act out the role of hysterics and hypochondriacs; a conviction that respectable women were sexually anesthetic, and a definition of women’s work that occupied them with repetitive, time-consuming, and painstaking tasks such as needlepoint and lace making.  All such Victorian inventions as these served a double function-that is, though they were encouraged as a means to expend female energy and intelligence in harmless ways, women often used them to express genuine creativity and passion.

     But in spite of middle-class women’s creativity with fashion and embroidery and child-rearing, and, a century later, with the role of the suburban housewife that devolved from these social fictions, the fiction’s main purpose was served.  During ac century and half of unprecedented feminist agitation, they effectively counteracted middle-class women’s dangerous new leisure, literacy, and relative freedom from material constraints.

     Though these time, and mind-consuming fictions about women’s natural role adapted themselves to resurface in the postwar Feminine Mystique, when the second wave of the women’s movement took apart what women’s magazines had portrayed as the “romance”, “science”, and “adventure” of homemaking and suburban family life, they temporarily failed.  The cloying domestic fiction of “togetherness” lost its meaning and middle-class women walked out of their front doors in masses.

     So the fictions simply transformed themselves once more:  Since the women’s movement had successfully taken apart most other necessary fictions of femininity, all the work of social control once spread out over the whole network of these fictions had to be reassigned to the only strand left intact, which action consequently strengthened it a hundred fold.  This reimposed onto liberated women’s faces and bodies, all the limitations, taboos, and punishments of the repressive laws, religious injunctions and reproductive enslavement that no longer carried sufficient force.  Inexhaustible but ethereal beauty work took over from inexhaustible but ephemeral housework.  As the economy, law, religion, sexual mores, education, and culture were forcibly opened up to include women more fairly, a private reality colonized female consciousness.  By using ideas about beauty, it reconstructed an alternative female world with its own laws, economy, religion, sexuality, education, and culture, each element as repressive as any that had gone before.

     Since middle-class Western women can best be weakened psychologically now that we are stronger materially, the beauty myth, as it has resurfaced in the last generation, has had to draw on more technological sophistication and reactionary fervor than ever before.  The modern arsenal of the myth is a dissemination of millions of images of the current ideal;  although this barrage is generally seen as a collective sexual fantasy, there is in fact little that is sexual about it.  It is summoned out of political fear on the part of male dominated institutions threatened by women’s freedom, and it exploits female guilt and apprehension about our own liberation- latent fears that we might be going too far.  This frantic aggregation of imagery is a collective reactionary hallucination willed into being by both men and women stunned and disoriented by the rapidity with which gender relations have been transformed:  a bulwark of reassurance against the flood of change.  The mass depiction of the modern women as a ‘beauty” is a contradiction: where modern women are growing, moving, and expressing their individuality, as the myth has it, “beauty” is by definition, inert, timeless, and generic.  That this hallucination is necessary and deliberate is evident in the way “beauty” so directly contradicts women’s real situation.

     And the unconscious hallucination grows ever more influential and pervasive because of what is now conscious market manipulation: powerful industries- the $33 billion a year diet industry, the $20 billion a year cosmetics industry, the $300 million cosmetic surgery industry, and the $7 billion pornography industry- have arisen from the capital made out of unconscious anxieties, and are in turn able, through their influence on mass culture, to use, stimulate, and reinforce the hallucination in a rising economic spiral.

     This is not a conspiracy theory;  it does not have to be.  Societies tell themselves necessary fictions in the same way that individuals and families do.  Henrik Ibsen calls them “vital lies”, and psychologist Daniel Goleman describes them working the same way on the social level that they do within families.  “The collusion is maintained by directing attention away from the fearsome fact, or by repackaging its meaning in an acceptable format”.  The costs of these social blind spots, he writes, are destructive communal illusions.  Possibilities for women have become so open-ended that they threaten to destabilize the institutions on which a male-dominated culture has depended, and a collective panic reaction on the part of both sexes has forced a demand for counter-images.

     The resulting hallucination materializes, for women, as something all too real.  No longer just an idea, it becomes three-dimensional, incorporating within itself how women live and how they do not live.  It becomes the Iron Maiden.  The original Iron Maiden was a medieval German instrument of torture, a body-shaped casket painted with the limbs and features of a lovely, smiling, young woman.  The unlucky victim was slowly enclosed inside her; the lid fell shut to immobilize the victim, who died of starvation, or less cruelly, of the metal spikes embedded in her interior.  The modern hallucination in which women are trapped, or trap themselves is similarly rigid, cruel, and euphemistically painted.  Contemporary culture directs attention to imagery of the Iron Maiden, while censoring real women’s faces and bodies.

     Why does the social order feel the need to defend itself by evading the face of real women, our faces and voices and bodies, and reducing the meaning of women to those formulaic and endlessly reproduced “beautiful” images?  Though unconscious personal anxieties can be a powerful force in the creation of a vital lie, economic necessity practically guarantees it.  An economy that depends on slavery needs to promote images of slaves that “justify” the institution of slavery.  Western economies are absolutely dependent now on the continued underpayment of women.  An ideology that makes women feel worthless was urgently needed to counteract the way feminism had begun to make us feel worth more.  This does not require a conspiracy; merely an atmosphere.  The corporate economy depends right now on the representation of women within the beauty myth.  Economist John Kenneth Galbraith offers an economic explanation for “the persistence of the view of homemaking as a “higher calling”: the concept of women as naturally trapped within the Feminine Mystique, he feels,” has been forced upon us by popular sociology, by magazines and by fiction to disguise the fact that women in the role of the consumer has been essential to the development of our own industrial society….behavior that is essential for economic reasons is transformed in to a social virtue”.  As soon as a woman’s primary social value could no longer be defined as the attainment of virtuous domesticity, the beauty myth redefined it as the attainment of virtuous beauty.  It did so to substitute both a new consumer imperative and a new justification for economic unfairness in the workplace where the old ones had lost their hold over newly liberated women.

     Another hallucination arose to accompany that of the Iron Maiden.  The caricature of the Ugly Feminist was resurrected to dog the steps of the women’s movement.  The caricature is unoriginal: it was coined to ridicule the feminists of the 19th century.  Lucy Stone herself, whom supporters saw as a “prototype of womanly grace… fresh and fair as the morning,” was derived by detractors with “the usual report about Victorian feminists: “ a big masculine woman, wearing boots, smoking a cigar, swearing like a trooper.”  As Betty Friedan put it presciently in 1960, even before the savage revamping of that old caricature: “ the unpleasant image of feminists today resemble less the feminists themselves than the image fostered by the interests who so bitterly opposed the vote for women in state after state.”  Thirty years on, her conclusion is more true than ever:  That resurrected caricature, which sought to punish women for their public acts by going after their private sense of self, became the paradigm for new limits placed on aspiring women everywhere.  After the success of the women’s movement’s second wave, the beauty myth was perfected to checkmate power at every level in individual women’s lives.  The modern neurosis of life in the female body spread to woman after woman at epidemic rates.  The myth is undermining-slowly, imperceptibly, without of our being aware of the real forces of erosion-the ground women have gained through long, hard, honorable struggle.

     The beauty myth of the present is more insidious than any mystique of femininity yet: a century ago, Nora slammed the door of the doll’s house; a generation ago, women turned their backs on the consumer heaven of the isolated multi-applianced home; but where women are trapped today, there is no door to slam.  The contemporary ravages of the beauty backlash are destroying women physically and depleting us psychologically.  If we are to free ourselves from the dead weight that has once again been made out of femaleness, it is not ballots or lobbyists, or placards that women will need first, it is a new way to see.


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