Ever since Cleopatra splashed henna across her eyelids, beauty has become synonymous with sex, women and ultimately, power. Celebrities and royalty alike are subject to constant debate over their appearance and now if we choose, we can mould ourselves to reflect their image. This postmodern era has provided us with the concept of plastic bodies – we can mould ourselves like clay to fit any shape we like, or so we are promised. Just where do these images and ideals stem from? Here, I provide a quick history of pivotal moments in the construction of beauty.
The notion of beauty itself has been debated since the times of Plato and the classical civilizations. Although we heavily associate the beauty ideals with women, it is interesting to discover that these ideals were originally bound to men! Plato claimed that the male was the most perfect creature on earth and believed that their physiques represented ‘heavenly love on earth’. We even find that beauty pageants were first set up in Ancient Rome – and these were women free zones! Men competed against each other while (surprise surprise!) women were relegated to the kitchen at home. It is important to note here however that although the beauty ideals were at first consigned to men – they were also created by men and that means that they are subject to the male, patriarchal gaze.
Aristotle also contributed to our understanding of beauty through his belief that physical appearance represented innate character – thus suggesting that the beautiful were good, and the ugly were downright evil. This is a belief that we see echoed today through those unsightly villains in our films, soap operas and popular crime series. If, as Cicero remarked, the face is ‘the mirror to the soul’ – what of those who do not conform to beauty ideals?
Fast forward to the 17th Century and such prejudiced attitudes to beauty still prevailed. It became the disposition of the church to see beautiful women as inherently evil, perilous and representative of the downfall of man. Women were accused of luring men to sin and of course, it was during this period that we see the ‘Gendercide’ of the witch trials taking place. By and large, the majority of those accused were women. There are numerous examples in mythology and popular culture of beautiful women who apparently lure men to sin including:
- The sirens of Greek mythology who enchanted sailors through their beauty and voices which ultimately led them to their deaths by shipwreck or drowning.
- The story of Pandora who through her beauty and weakness of character unleashed all the troubles of mankind.
- The woman as ‘femme fatale’ is a character often used within popular culture and can be seen in films such as Kill Bill, The Black Dahlia and The Maltese Falcon among many others.
In the early 20th century, beauty was still being used to undermine the progression of women and this was most evident during WW2. Women were beginning to occupy roles that were previously held by men. The government even began to offer minimal childcare and household assistance. However, women were still being reminded by leading cosmetic companies that they had to look their best despite their duties. Cosmetic adverts often depicted women in traditionally male careers surrounded by calls to ‘look their best’ and keep their ‘loveliness in tact’. As the male workforce returned to the country, the women returned to their cocooned lives in the home – taking their new-found dedication to beauty with them. An over-reliance on make-up to provide female unity and strength had failed to prepare the women psychologically or emotionally to defend their right to work.
In the 1960s, feminists protested that the Miss America Beauty pageant was little more than a cattle market which degraded and dehumanised women. This is where the origins of the ‘bra-burning feminist’ myth stem from. Protesters set up a bin and threw in objects that they deemed oppressive to women – this included lingerie. They also crowned a sheep Miss America and chanted, ‘We are not beautiful! We are not ugly! We are angry!’. The pageant exists today and is broadcast to over 2 billion people around the world.
The Beauty industry has not collapsed under the heavy criticism of feminist activists but has instead permeated the female psyche deeper than ever before. In all areas of life, women are now expected to look their best. A 21st century Christmas cosmetic campaign marketed a list of resolutions aimed at women. Top priority at resolution number one was, ‘I will not leave the house without make-up on’. The industry is now worth billions of pounds and profits increase year upon year. In addition, Naomi Wolf has written about the Professional Beauty Qualification (PBQ) which now requires women to double up as mannequins as well as employees in the labour market. The PBQ is purported to be an unspoken set of rules which discriminate against women and maintain a subservient and docile female workforce.
Plastic surgery has increased in the 21st century as surgeons prey on women’s insecurities. Make-up is now not considered the last stop in the pursuit of beauty. Women book into cosmetic clinics in their hoards, undergoing potentially life-threatening procedures. A new procedure of the 21st century is known as the ‘skin peel’ or ‘Chemabrasion’ whereby women literally burn the skin off their faces to make way for a new look. In the early 18th century, Kitty Fisher was one of the first women to die of lead poisoning from the toxic content of her makeup on her face. Today the death toll from the beauty ideals continues to increase as a result of plastic surgery, with one recent victim being 23 year old Briton Joy Williams. Williams died after undergoing buttock augmentation surgery in Thailand – a country where the cosmetic industry is booming with over £2 billion in profit made in 2013.
Throughout history, we can see that ‘beauty’ has been used as a tool to influence sales targets and to rake in profit from women’s insecurities. However, women should be seen not as mannequins, but as sources of real transformation and achievement. From suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst to civil rights activist Rosa Parks – these women imprinted their achievements and not their bodies into the books of history. To ensure a fairer future for women, we must teach our daughters that true beauty does indeed lie within – and not at the bottom of a make-up bag.
Jennah is a Sociology graduate from the city of Salford and gained a First class award for her dissertation in “Beauty in the Postmodern era”. First time motherhood has nourished her sociological imagination and she is savouring every moment with her baby girl.