After the debate around Dove's Real Beauty marketing campaign, I kept thinking about the debate of beauty, body image, society's standards and its consequences on women's well-being and self esteem. After reading further articles and books, here are a few more thoughts on body issues, self esteem and the beauty myth.
In my opinion, Dove's campaign raised two questions: does this Real Beauty campaign really help women accept their body the way it is? And doesn't such a campaign still enforce the fact that women should care about their beauty in order to be happy?
My opinion on the Dove case in particular is simple: yes, it does enforce the idea that women should care about being pretty - but they are a for-profit beauty company, so we can only expect so much from them. On the other hand, I like the idea that, no matter their motives, they question the beauty standards and create debate outside of their campaign's channels.
I think it does raise the very interesting question of the place of beauty, both for women in our society, but also for our self esteem as individuals. In my opinion, there are two major issues with women and beauty in our society - which Mona Chollet puts very well in her book "Beauté Fatale: les nouveaux visages d'une aliénation féminine" .
Beauty is Used as a Tool by the Consumerist Society
As Mona Chollet puts it, "Fashion and beauty are a way to lull women into thinking they have acquired everything in terms of women's rights and can go celebrate it by going shopping." But actually, it makes them stay at their place, caring more about physical appearance than making a career, earning as much money as men, making a real difference in various fields of activity.
Think about it, since the 60's, women have gained freedom from their husbands by being able to study, work and earn money themselves, and freedom of their bodies by being able to use various contraceptive methods to choose when to become a mother. These two major advancements should have opened great paths for women to become famous politicians, scientists, researchers, or whatever field they choose.
But let's be honest, I think there is still a major gap between men and women in most fields, but, even worse, women are reminded of their place by using remarks on their looks. There have been several occurences of this in French politics, when there was a debate about Cécile Duflot showing up wearing a dress at the Assembly, or about Rachida Dati's rings. Mona Chollet also mentions actresses, and how Scarlett Johansson made a scandal at an interview because her male actor partner was asked questions about his role and his character, whereas she was asked about her beauty routine and diet.
In these cases, beauty, and physical attributes in general, are used as a tool to keep women from emerging in other, more important fields, and make sure they remain at their place, despite the possibilities they have gained these past decades.
Women Give a Disproportionate Importance to Beauty
I'm sure many women could accomplish so much more with their life if they were not busy counting calories or saving for a designer bag... The testimony from Lindsay and Lexie Kite, founders of Beauty Redefined, are a striking example of how body image, and spending time and energy to fit into a beauty standard, can stop us from being successful at anything else - competitive swimming, in that particular example.
And this is not only about the actual time and money they spend planning, buying, or dieting. It is the very fact that, by granting so much importance to beauty, it becomes a defining criteria of their identity, which results in an incredible psychologic fragility. What can be the consequences of evlauating our self worth based on how close our body is to a certain beauty standard? The way some celebrities deal with aging is significant proof of that psychological fragility.
Both Mona Chollet and the Beauty Redefined girls assimilate that as an objectification of our own body. In other words, by focusing so much on how our body looks, we objectify ourselves by reducing our value as a human being to what we look like. Are a hairstyle or a bag reliable criteria of a woman's self worth? Wouldn't this objectification make these women forget that they exist outside of their looks?
Conclusion: On Demonizing Beauty and Fashion Related Topics
I'm afraid this post makes me look like some high brow intellectual who looks down on fashion and beauty and dismisses these subjects as frivolous and unworthy, but I don't. Actually, I think it is quite misogynistic to discard these themes as frivolous and 'brainless'. It actually fuels the idea that topics which are culturally more feminine, such as sensuality or body related topics are worth less than more "serious" abstract topics.
Mona Chollet points out that some feminists tend to reject any of these topics, so they are not considered futile, but I think, on the contrary, that we should give to these topics the imoprtance they deserve. I think the current society has rendered most of these topics futile indeed, if you remember my post about how fashion magazine spoke about Mad Men or Hunger Games. But I also think that, instead of going to the other extreme and shun these subjects completely, out of shame or something, we could on the contrary give them their substance and depth back. If you ever heard about Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book, I find it a striking piece of literature, written in Japan a thousand years ago, about many subjects one could consider "feminine", including beauty, elegance, the contemplation of season, the courting of men...
As many other topics in life, I believe it is a question of balance. Taking care of our own body, putting together elegant outfits, choosing the right accessory, appearing put together, soignée as we say in French, can be a source of pleasure and contentment.
But I also believe it is only satisfying as long as our body image and quest for beauty doesn't become a major focus of our life, that drains our energy, and keeps us from accomplishing many other projects. We receive a lot of pressure from the "system", from films, series, advertisments, remarks from men or women around us, and I think we should be aware of that pressure and fight it by growing as a human being in other fields, and learn to define ourselves beyond our looks.
Sources and Reads
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
Eve Ensler, The Good Body
Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book
Mona Chollet, Beauté Fatale, les nouveaux visages d'une aliénation féminine (French only)
Jean-Marie Buissou (dir.), Esthétiques du Quotidien au Japon (French only)