Beauty As A Tool of Repression


We are all slaves to the indicators of "fashion trends," even those who profess to be relatively independent of them. We think we have the "handle" on how to control. our lives, but, in the end, it is the dictates of "trend" that truly determine our actions.

American women are especially vicitmized by the vagaries of fashion, since the looks industry thrives on the insecurities ever-present in the male-female relationship, the looker/lookee quality inherent in the male female dichotomy. Because at least a part of male-female interaction is based on the projected internal conflicts of each indivivdual, as he (or she) seeks to understand his own faulty perception of reality, the defensive-ness, inferiority complexes, and social anxieties produced by each unique individual's concern about being "too different" results in a boon for the fashion industry.

But this is not the only "reinforcer" (to us a Skinnerian psychological term) for the fashion industry in our society. Looks hits at both sexes, and forces an almost cultural divide between men and women, boys and girls, in the area of dress and accessories most of the time. Only in very recent decades has there been much let-up on this point in modern historical times. The '60s saw the unisex look first take-off as a fashion icon, but even that was based on the insecurities inherent in the male-female dichotomy. Equally important, was the male's perception that he had to cope with the new-found freedom to examine traditional "masculine" issues, such as "limited" wars in various locales, and their real necessity and value. War had never before been questioned publicly, so this was a major change in male behavior. The fact that foreign policy planners high in governments around the world increasingly re-thought various limited conflicts and even sometimes engaged in policy reversals that included troop withdrawals from active conflicts, was a phenomenon seldom seen in world history.

To cope with that behavior change, the male sought to adapt a new "look" in his own styles. Longer hair, the use of shoulder handbags, shinier glasses, and even necklaces, became more fashionable for men. As women increasingly engaged in traditionally "male" pursuits in the '70s in the wake of the newly-awakened women's movement, even more "merging" of the sexes' looks occurred. More and more women dressed more casually, less overtly feminine, as time went on.

However, by the 1980s, a major effort was underway to reign in this variation from traditional norms. Tough talk about high-tech nuclear weaponry won the Cold War, as the Reagan Administration in the US and the Thatcher Government in Britain sought to assert Western dominance over various areas around the globe. Reagan'a attempt to have the male image associated with Western victory over the USSR in the Cold War mass broadcast and brainwashed in the mind-stream of a mass viewing audience, including a new generation, was highly-successful.

As a result, the '80s generations produced phrases like "it's a guy thing". Macho seemed to reassert in some areas, although with a more modest and more tender and more limited goal. Nevetheless, the net effect was an increase in women's social anxieties, with a resultant return to more consciousness about such issues as breast size, body shape, weight, and "how I look in what I wear." Women also increasingly were under pressure to conform to old-fashioned social norms about "family values" as both liberal and conservative politicians of both parties began to pursue Big Money contributions. Along with the latter contrbutions came a rhetoric that included phrases helpful to at least one sizable segment of Big Money: Big Fashion--or perhaps even more inclusive, "Big Looks"; that is, the fashion, cosmetic, movie, television, advertising, and general "glamour" industry.

And since the traditionally glamourous woman requires the traditional "macho" man as her companion, it stood to reason that males were reinforced 'backward", away from their own earlier variants from traditional behavior. Instead of the new-found value of the female for her many potential dimensions as both domestic wife and career-holder, as well as the array of new social norms women had discovered (that had previously tended to make the "more interesting" to many men), men now felt pressure to start to again "look" at women, to value the surface, rather than the substance.

Economic changes further reinforced Big Looks. As the wealthier segments regained more and more wealth, and the middle class increasingly went bust and grew smaller, power shifted increasingly into ever more conservative hands. Cosmetic sugeries on women grew by leaps and bounds, and concern over "being there for the children" fell increasingly to women.

One of the most ominous original sources that anticipated this "Reaction" was Kate Millet. Writing in her famous book Sexual Politics, Millett anticipated and reviewed past instances when "Revolutions" for women had deteriorated into "Rebellions" that had within them the seeds for the subsequent "Reaction." As leaders of the women's movement increasingly became media icons, just as the media fell under increasing pressure from the Powers that Be in Big Money (including Big Looks), those iconic women's leaders became voices for Reaction--role models who said all the right things to turn the movement around, to change its focus, to water it down.

Relatively harmless men and male patterns became the focus of attack, rather than the more serious enemy, who was ignored. Dichotomies in pay and treatment on the job fell second the voluminous concerns about "relationship issues" in the male-female paradigm. This pattern, already anticipated by Millett in her neo-Marxist assessment of women's history, was affirmed by Susan Faludi in 1991's Backlash. Faludi has noted all the vagaries that Millett had found in past women's Rebellions that became Reactions. The only criticism that is given voice, is that which comes from the Right. No criticism from Left or Progressive voices is heard in the mass media.

Among the voices silenced, was Ms., as Faludi notes. Along with the failure of Ms. came the increasing defection of women's leaders to various anti-feminist positions. The only position they seemed ready to hold, was equal pay for equal work--at least in principle. But it is clear that this holding of position occurred only because they were supported in that view by the millions of women then holding jobs around teh US. No longer could those women be silenced. They were an identified consumer, with an independent market. It is that market which today threatens traditional capitalist systems as never before. It remains to be seen whether it will be allowed to survive.

Works cited:

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Crown, 1991. 200-226: "Beauty and the Backlash". Important note: "American women, according to surveys by the Kinsey Institute, have more negative opinions about their bodies than women in any other cultural studied..."(202). Other notes: no study of the physical and medical safety of silicon implants has ever been done. Weight loss clinics have a 95% failure rate. Liposuction is extremely dangerous and would be challenged as malpractice but for its huge corporate backers. Silicon implants have been strongly tied to cancer in dozens of medical studies. Diet pills have been pulled from the market after "massive use" was found to be causing health problems, with a regularity that is alarming. New ones appear daily, but, given the pattern we've seen in the past, one must wonder how long any one of them will remain on the market. Similarly, alarming statistics exist suggesting a strong correlation between breast, uterine and ovarian cancers and the use of aerosol insecticides and female anti-perspirants (as opposed to female deodorants, which are extremely hard to find on department and grocery store shelves).

Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. New York: Doubleday, 1970. 141-4. References to how the female beauty ideal was touted in the "art" of a few years ago, a seemingly strong and healthy, but totally passive, female image being the "ideal" to male artists.

Steinem, Gloria. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. New York: Stein and Day, 1983. Steinem is also noting in her book on Marilyn Monroe the high anxiety caused to women by the idea of "growing old" and how this manifested in Monroe's suicide once she'd hit forty. Those of us who starved to hear more from her on these subjects were destined to permanent frustrations, as she either chose to leave or was forced from one media outlet after another.

Ms. Magazine: in its "original" version, Ms. was somewhat hostile, but had some realistic things to say about the negatives in the male-female relationship. Its domination by lesbians, however, on balance hurt the cause of feminism, as it came to be associated with lesbianism more than was justified. There was nothing "inherently lesbian" about the advocacy of feminism, yet this association helped weaken the movement. Nevertheless, it is also true that I learned a lot from the early Ms., and Faludi (cited above) is right when she suggests that the "new" Ms. is a sell-out, washed-out version of the magazine that no longer takes a strong feminist position. In those early issues, Ms. first helped me to realize the nuttiness of America's post-World War II obsession with macho "world policeman" role. With our own cities in ruins, we embark overseas to "save" other cultures--cultures far more ancient than our own. More importantly, the destructive effects of the classic male and female roles was revealed repeatedly, including medical and psychological and even economic damages done. stop the brainwashing


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