28 February 2014

Beauté Fatale

Source: tumblr

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

In our society, I feel like the question of beauty, and working to meet and keep a certain beauty standard is an excuse both to buy more stuff and to avoid thinking more critically and develop ourselves as mindful consumers. It is not the only one of course, but, especially for women, it feels like a bone thrown to them so they can spend their time and energy trying to be beautiful rather than thriving in more "serious", traditionally male fields, like politics or science for example.

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

The second issue I'd like to point out here, maybe as a consequence to the first, is that women give way too much importance to beauty in their own life.

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

These two points above may be a lot of food for thought already, but there is something I'd like to point out before concluding this post: what place should we give to beauty, fashion and other "frivolous" topics in our life?

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
Beauty Redefined

Mona Chollet, Beauté Fatale, les nouveaux visages d'une aliénation féminine (French only)
Jean-Marie Buissou (dir.), Esthétiques du Quotidien au Japon (French only)


  1. On a slightly related note, I was raised to understand that beauty is skin deep and doesn't really matter. My mom (who is a mathematician) always encouraged me to focus on a career and an education. Problem is that while I was raised that way, society definitely focuses on a woman's appearance more than a man's. I dress conservatively, and I can't tell you how often I've had men tell me to show a little more skin. I used to be platinum blonde (I like the way I look better as a blonde) but recently went back to being a brunette and I've found that people listen and take me more seriously at work.
    I wish other people would focus less on what I look like, but I know that I will always take care of how I look because it makes me feel better and I find it fun. But then I always wonder how much of that is really how I feel, and how much "it makes me feel better" is programmed into me by society.

    1. That's a very good point. I have also been educated to believe that caring about looks is superficial. I also believe my mother has never really enjoyed taking care of herself because of her countryside catholic background, which viewed it as self-indulgent. But I'm wondering if that kind of "taboo" around body and beauty-related self indulgence doesn't create another problem - that of not knowing and accepting our body.

      It is true though, that society's emphasis on a woman's looks is very visible. I frequent quite masculine circles, both at work (video game company) and on my personal time (I play board games and role playing games, mostly with male players), and I remember being either hit on, or subject to discussions about my body.

      At the time, I found it difficult to find a balance between dressing elegantly/well enough to feel good with my own style, but to not be "too feminine" in order to still be taken seriously and avoid getting too much "attraction" over how I looked. And I was never model material, so I can't imagine how it must be for tall and slim women. Wait, actually, there IS a TED talk by a model about that: https://new.ted.com/talks/cameron_russell_looks_aren_t_everything_believe_me_i_m_a_model

  2. Thanks so much for this post and also for pointing me towards the Beauty Redefined Blog. This is really thought-provoking. I agree that it is all a matter of balance. And I think every woman should define her own beauty standards instead of blindly following where the media try to take us. The question is what makes me feel good about myself/my body and what do I only do to conform with other people's standards? It's something I want to find out for myself.
    Thanks again for bringing this topic up.

    1. Thanks for the appreciation note! It is true that it's quite difficult to figure out our own beauty standards when we are surrounded by a certain image of beauty. We probably end up with a biased vision of our own body and very influenced tastes. I'm glad to have introduced you to Beauty Redefined, I really like that site, the initiative behind it and the articles they write :)

  3. I've found it very difficult to balance this as a woman precisely because of the relentless focus on women's looks. There is a basic human desire to look good, like pretty things etc, but it has been completely twisted in the current capitalist-patriarchy.

    But how do you manage to manicure your nails while playing videogames?! Does MassEffect have very long cutscenes? ;)

    1. Yes, I agree that it is a difficult balance to find, especially in the business world, at least for me. How to find a balance between being elegant, well-groomed and put together enough to fit in the corporate world and look serious, but on the other hand not look too "sophisticated" as to be judged on our body or considered shallow? It is complicated because it feels like women are asked to look good, but not too much at the same time. Maybe that's where this whole "looks natural but is really very calculated" trend comes from (whatever the real name of that trend is)

      Haha I have a special technique for manicuring while playing video games. It is a good way to let each layer of nail polish dry while I go through action scenes. And Mass Effect is indeed a story-driven game with a lot of narrative portions in-between fighting scenes. There is a lot of loading time too, unfortunately, but it helps with manicures :)

  4. I used to get really stressed out about being soignée because 1. I'm hard-headed and I didn't feel like dressing up just to "fit in," 2. being overweight/slightly outside the most common sizes and cuts made me feel left out of current trends. Why bother trying to look good? This was me all throughout college and for a few years afterward when I felt adrift in my career/life path.

    How I've made peace with the demands of beauty for women is to play the game mindfully. I'm much more open now to learning about fashion/makeup/etc. if only to learn to give the impression that I am capable and professional. Humans make all sorts of judgments. I'm in that phase of my life where "dress for the job you want, not the job you have" is a driving factor. The main goal is how to get people to think I deserve that promotion. I won't complain if the side effect is that my self-image improves as a result of me gussying up.

    Obviously it's not just about looks, I still have to work hard. But I feel like perception is an important factor and by Jove I'd be a fool not to that part under my belt if all I have to do is put lipstick on.

    1. I like your idea of "playing the game mindfully". As an individual, we can't change the emphasis society puts on women's looks - at least on the short term - but we can change the way we play the game as a woman.

      Maybe you're right, and a good solution is, instead of letting our energy and self esteem being eaten away by beauty considerations, understanding how it works, and mastering the "tools" well enough to send out the image we want through our looks to make the most of it.

      The "dress for the job you want and not the job you have" can be extended to other criteria of life I believe - "dress like the person you want to be". I know that my self esteem healing process has been catalysed by my changing my style and tuning it to match who I wanted to be.

      It still unsettles me how important it is to "look" the part though, but I think we are in a society that focuses a lot on appearances and external image and material social symbols, for women and men alike.

  5. A beautiful article with some interesting insights. It remains hard though, to find this balance, as society at once rewards the beautiful and scorns those preoccupied with beauty. Which is why I find it especially important that women 'stick together', so to speak. We can change alot by changing ourselves. After all, I know that I myself also often judge people (especially women) based on their appearances (too fat or too beautiful, too sloppy or too polished etc.). Therefore I know it is a difficult and probably life-long challenge to postpone judgment and refrain from harsh comments altogether. Also, when you can be kinder to others you can perhaps become kinder to yourself.

    1. I definitely think so too, anon!

    2. I agree as well. A big part of the social pressure around beauty is linked to comments and judgements from our peers - and from other women, a lot. Maybe one first step for each of us would be indeed to judge each other less harshly and support each other better.

      I think judging ourselves less harshly, and reclaiming our self confidence, is also a good starting point for change, as you may feel less like criticizing others when you feel better in your own skin. At least, that's what I have noticed in personal experience.

  6. This is a really interesting topic for me also, as someone who loves beauty/dressing but also thrives in a corporate environment. In my experience, I've actually found that turning up to work elegantly dressed, with polished hair and makeup has been very beneficial to my career, rather than compromising my position and being looked down to as a woman.

    When I feel that I look good I'm far more confident in myself and this translates into being more motivated in achieving good standards at work. I also find that I'm respected by clients more - my theory is that they trust that someone who pays attention to details such as personal appearance will extend that attention to their work also. I also think that asserting yourself subtly through appearance helps convey to others that you aren't someone to be pushed around and should be taken seriously.

    1. I guess that's where the "dress for the job you want" expression comes from. I agree with you that the way we look has an influence on what people think of us, man or woman. A polished, elegant look surely has a positive influence both on ourselves and our confidence, and on the other persons' first impressions. I think this is a consideration both men and women have, especially in the corporate world. I always remember my father wearing impeccable suits to work.

      I personally believe there is nothing wrong in wanting to look polished and enjoying matters of beauty/style, I think the problem starts when a search for perfect physical appearance drains a lot of time, energy and money, away from other pursuits.