How do women value themselves in a society that values their physical beauty and outward appearance above all?
The first time I realised that being born female was a disadvantage was when I was 11. I was walking down the street to meet my mother, terribly excited to be wearing my new summer dress with various pastel-coloured flowers printed on it. I was walking with my back to the traffic flow, enjoying the sun and warm air on my skin when suddenly I was being honked at by shouting, leering men in a van who looked at me like I was theirs for the taking. My body flooded with shame. It was the first time I was sexually harassed on the street, and it has not and will not be the last. I told my mother what had happened to me when I eventually met her, and she laughed it off saying that I must be growing into a woman. My introduction into womanhood was a reminder that my body was not mine, it was an object for men to look upon and own. It was the first time I felt as if the world had given me the label of what Simone de Beauvoir calls ‘the Other.’ Before I knew how to spell “pneumonia” or how babies were made, I was aware that my role was to appear, not act.
John Berger in his canonical Ways of Seeing wrote that women watch themselves being looked at, and as a result she turns herself into an object which is primarily consumed by vision. As I grew up, I began to find that this object had to look a certain way in order to be ‘powerful’. I was repeatedly told by my parents: “There is nothing more powerful than a beautiful woman.” All the media I consumed, be it online, in print, or on television, reinforced this focus on women being beautiful. But as Renee Engeln states in her book Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, that while beauty can definitely be powerful for women, it is a ‘weak and temporary power.’ Thus once your beauty fades, do you become redundant to society?
Becoming a woman in today’s societal climate felt like an exhausting uphill battle. No matter what I did to myself, I couldn’t fit the ideal perpetuated by the media and I thought that I didn’t deserve to be alive. I was filled with shame about how I looked. I felt as if I was constantly failing. I knew that my primary function on this planet was to please others with my appearance, but I felt as if I was falling short and was incredibly insecure as a result. This mythology of women needing to embody one type of beauty is not about women at all, it is about men’s institutions exalting control over economic and cultural structures. Women are told to aspire to look like the women in advertisements and are encouraged to buy those products as they promise to help them achieve this type of perfection. As women began to have more freedom in choice of their careers and bodies in the last half of the twentieth century, there was a shift from the marketing of household products to those of beauty, thinness and youth to women. In order to ensure that these multi-billion-dollar industries prosper, Naomi Wolf explains that ‘Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that they will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring “beauties”.’
Due to these feelings of failure and insecurity, women often have severely distorted views of themselves and their bodies, caused by this obsession with the one-size fits all image of physical perfection. This sentiment is reiterated by Jenny Saville when discussing her painting “Branded” from 1992 which depicts a female body, her own nude self-portrait, viewed from below (fig. 1). On her flesh she has written words such as ‘decorative’, ‘petite’, and ‘delicate’ backwards. These adjectives describe what women are encouraged to embody, however Saville contrasts this with the unidealized and monumental fleshiness of her body in the painting, done with thick paint to stand out from the canvas as another mode of not conforming, this time to the traditional two-dimensionality of painting. She states: “I'm not painting disgusting, big women. I'm painting women who've been made to think they're big and disgusting." In her work she creates ‘an overwhelming sense of flesh’, which she uses to celebrate the female form and question the conventions of beauty.
In a similar critique of these claustrophobic conventions of beauty, the artist Orlan stages ‘performance-operations’ in which she undergoes plastic surgery on a live broadcast in a staged format, with designer costumes and colourful backdrops (fig. 2). She has implants inserted above her eyes and in her cheeks and chin. In the forty days after the operation, Orlan took photographs of her healing and heavily bruised face and compared it to computer morphed images of Greek goddesses from antiquity in order to show the pain and physical deformity she endured to ‘attain a culturally idealized beauty.’ Her use of plastic surgery to achieve these beauty standards is reflected in youth culture today. The demand for plastic surgery in teenagers aged 13 to 19 has dramatically increased, most likely due to the heightened self-esteem issues caused by social media and the toxic and constant stream of images of perfection, often heavily edited, that they consume. As Susie Orbach writes in her updated 2016 introduction to her original book Fat is a Feminist Issue from 1978, if girls do not feel all right within their bodies, nothing else in their life feels good as they are consumed by troubles and worry and are ‘subsumed under a preoccupation to get her body right.’ Natasha Walker in her book Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism raises the point that for a women who is looking to become self-fulfilled she must focus on perfecting her body and going through a sort of ‘make-over’ transformation, rather than attempting any intellectual or emotional growth.
Social media is intrinsic to young people nowadays, and girls are expected to present themselves in a way that ‘conforms to an aesthetic shaped by the semi-pornographic images they find elsewhere in their culture.’ The illusion of the perfect woman is defined by her sexual attractiveness, if she does not look like a porn star what does she have to be confident about? Women’s other attributes and skills are often overlooked and devalued, by others and themselves. The narrowing of girls’ minds to only pay attention to their looks severely restricts their lives. This encourages a certain form of narcissism that prevents them from internal growth and going for roles that they would otherwise embrace.
Why don’t women just ignore the male gaze and enjoy themselves? Well unfortunately, it is no longer the case that women are only seeking to please external influences. Sandra Lee Bartky compares how women look and police themselves like the inmates in the Panopticon. The Panopticon is a prison model built on the idea that the inmate will regulate their own behaviour as they feel as if they are always being watched by the guard in the central tower which supposedly can see all cells at once due to their 360º circular layout. Women have internalised the male gaze and feel, as Foucault writes about the inmate, ‘a sense of conscious and permanent visibility’ and because of this they act in obedience to the patriarchy. In this way, the patriarchy acts to keep women facing the mirror instead of the world.
In the seemingly hopeless battle against this hypnotic beast who calls itself ‘beauty’, there is hope. Naomi Wolf states that women need a ‘new way to see’. We need to take every image in the media with a pinch of salt, remembering the ways in which things are overly edited into illusions of perfection and that celebrities, models, and even our friends use filters, apps, lighting and angles to present themselves and their own personal brand meticulously online. We must not compare our real selves to our own or any other created self. Renee Engeln advises that in order to cure our beauty sick culture, we must think of our bodies as function over form. It is too easy to forget that we are all deeply complex and interesting human beings when all we focus on is our outer shell.
In an attempt to heal from my own beauty sickness, I have written a letter to my body, P.T.O to read.
I just wanted to say that I’m sorry.
I'm sorry that I hurt you.
I’m sorry I denied you food.
I’m sorry I denied you energy.
I’m sorry I hated you so much.
I’m sorry you’re all I focused on.
I’m sorry I tried to make you sick.
I’m sorry for the horrible words I say to you.
I’m sorry I did anything in my power to escape you.
I’m sorry I malnourished you so you would become smaller.
I’m sorry I poked and prodded at you, telling you to change.
I’m sorry all I wanted was for you to shrink, to be less.
I’m sorry people took your power away from you.
I’m sorry they wanted to hurt you, to use you.
I’m sorry I let them.
I’m sorry they made you afraid.
I’m sorry I felt disgusted by you afterwards.
I’m sorry I was embarrassed of how you looked.
I’m sorry I felt such intense shame at the sight of you.
I’m sorry that I didn’t realise what I could’ve lost.
I’m sorry I never felt at home within you.
I’ve spent so long fighting you. I’m learning to accept you and treat you better.
Thank you for being healthy.
Thank you for being safe.
Thank you for being warm.
Thank you for nourishing me.
Thank you for healing yourself.
Thank you for keeping me alive.
Thank you for allowing me to rest.
Thank you for keeping me out of danger.
Thank you for not changing into what I thought I wanted.
Thank you for enduring the pain that others inflicted on you.
Thank you for having eyes, which allow me to see the beautiful things in this world.
Thank you for giving me ears so I can dance to music and hear my loved ones’ voices.
Thank you for having strong legs and feet, to carry me to places I want to go. Thank you for having hands, which I can touch the world and create with.
Thank you for having a nose and mouth, to taste and smell things with.
Thank you for choosing to live.
All my love,
Barber, K., 2018. Jenny Saville Paintings, Bio, Ideas. [online] The Art Story. Available at: <https://www.theartstory.org/artist/saville-jenny/#:~:text=Regarding%20this%20early%20work%2C%20Saville,have%20long%20dominated%20Western%20art.> [Accessed 6 April 2021].
Bartky, Sandra Lee, 1997. "Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power" from Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury (eds.), Writing on the body: Female embodiment and feminist theory pp.129-154, New York: Columbia University Press.
Beauvoir, S., 1997. The Second Sex. London: Vintage.
Berger, J., 1972. Ways of seeing. London: BBC and Penguin.
Engeln, R., 2017. How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. USA: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Foucault, M., 1979, Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books.
Orbach, S., 2016. Fat is a Feminist Issue. London: Arrow. First published in Great Britain in 1998 by Arrow Books.
Paul, K., 2018. More than 200,000 teens had plastic surgery last year, and social media had a lot to do with it. [online] MarketWatch. Available at: <https://www.marketwatch.com/story/should-you-let-your-teenager-get-plastic-surgery-2018-08-29> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
Walter, N., 2011. Living Dolls. London: Virago.
Warr, T. and Jones, A., 2012. The Artist's Body. London: Phaidon.
Wolf, N., 1991. The Beauty Myth. London: Vintage Books.
1. Jenny Saville, Branded, 1992, oil on canvas, 84 x 72in,
2. Orlan, Omnipresence, 1993, Sandra Gering Gallery, New York
 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex. (London: Vintage, 1997), p.29  John Berger, Ways of seeing. (London: BBC and Penguin, 1972), p.47  John Berger, Ways of seeing, p.47  Renee Engeln, Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. (USA: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2017), p.31  Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth. (London: Vintage Books, 1991), p.66  Karen Barber, Jenny Saville Paintings, Bio, Ideas, The Art Story (2018) <https://www.theartstory.org/artist/saville-jenny/#:~:text=Regarding%20this%20early%20work%2C%20Saville,have%20long%20dominated%20Western%20art.> [Accessed 6 April 2021].  Warr, T. and Jones, A., The Artist's Body. (London: Phaidon, 2012), p.68  Warr, T. and Jones, A., The Artist's Body, p.185  Kari Paul, More than 200,000 teens had plastic surgery last year, and social media had a lot to do with it. MarketWatch (2018) <https://www.marketwatch.com/story/should-you-let-your-teenager-get-plastic-surgery-2018-08-29> [Accessed 11 April 2021].  Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue. (London: Arrow Books, 2016), p.viii  Natasha Walter, Living Dolls. (London: Virago, 2011), p.66  Natasha Walter, Living Dolls, p.72  Natasha Walter, Living Dolls, p.124  Sandra Lee Bartky, "Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power" from Writing on the body: Female embodiment and feminist theory, eds. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp.147-149  Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage, 1979), p.201  Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, p.19  Renee Engeln, Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, p.350