VISA RAVINDRAN The Hindu Magazine Sunday, Nov 17, 2002
Mary Pijher, author of Reviving Ophelia, uses "Hamlet's" Ophelia — who was mentally sound till she fell in love but then grows confused, depressed and finally kills herself because she is torn between her father's expectations of her and her lover's — as a metaphor for what happens to many girls in early adolescence. "They become confused by others' expectations of them and their true selves are lost." The delirious celebration of beauty and the body and the tendency to keep women constantly captive in a state of "becoming beautiful" at great expense of time and money, is a direct contradiction of all the gains of the women's movement.
The ridiculous procession of anorexic, semi-nude bodies on the ramp, all with the same comic gait of gambolling, knock-kneed colts is yet another societal ritual from where Generation Next sometimes picks its impossible role models. The tyranny of the slim body has lead to physical and psychological trauma and death and one can imagine how recent discoveries like hormone infusion — which "sort of simulates a fake meal, fooling the brain into thinking it has already eaten" — and an American company's weight-reducing device — implanted near the nerves in the stomach wall to send electric shocks as an alternative to stomach-stapling — can be misused. Even health news is a lot about building the perfect body or toning muscles to perfection rather than achieving true well-being. Good grooming and healthy bodies are goals to achieve but they are given undue importance to the detriment of self-esteem and the realisation of one's true potential.
Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique) in the 1960s, and Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) in 1990, have brilliantly explored the myths surrounding beauty, female obsession with outward appearance and the factors contributing to it, in which they have included insightful analyses of the role of women's magazines and advertisements in keeping women avid consumers. Friedan demonstrated that advertisers made a "religion of domesticity" to make women buy domestic gadgets and now, "the Beauty Myth in its modern form, arose to take the place of the Feminine Mystique, to save magazines and advertisers from the economic fallout of the women's revolution," is one of the points of departure from which Naomi Wolf moves to build her case that, now, beauty takes the place of domesticity and replaces the myths of motherhood, domesticity, chastity and passivity which are no longer able to keep women controlled in society, and quotes Germaine Greer describing the Stereotype — "To her belongs all that is beautiful, even the very word beauty itself ... she is a doll ... I'm sick of the masquerade."
"Behaviour that is essential for economic reasons is transformed into a social virtue," says John Kenneth Galbraith, explaining the reasons behind trapping women in the Feminine Mystique. Before the Industrial Revolution, when cottage industries thrived and the family was a productive unit, women's work complemented men's and "work skills, economic shrewdness, physical strength and fertility" were important requisites, argues Wolf, and "beauty as we understand it was not for ordinary women, a serious issue in the marriage marketplace" till the Industrial Revolution created literate, idle women, family sizes shrank, the middle class expanded and capitalism exploited women to keep them submissive, first by enforced domesticity and then by the beauty myth. She goes so far as to argue that every time women won rights or liberties for themselves, patriarchy resorted to devising new ways of controlling them. "To paraphrase Friedan," says Naomi Wolf, "why is it never said that the really crucial function that women serve as aspiring beauties is to buy more things for the body? 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."
The Channel 4 website traces 100 years of make-up, with its slyly tongue-in-cheek L'Oreal-like title "Because You're Worth It". In the early 1900s, suffragettes wore red lipstick as a mark of defiance as they struggled to win the vote, and when Selfridge's decided to sell powder and rogue openly it pleased the women but not the men; in the 1940s (wartime), make-up was seen as an affordable morale-booster and instant feminiser, red lipstick as defying hardship by maintaining appearances; then denouncing make-up became a feminist statement with the publication of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch and the backlash against the concept of prettying oneself to please men; moving to the materialism of the 1980s and expertly-groomed trophy-wives but paradoxically, around the same time, ecological values also emphasise avoiding cruelty to animals and using natural ingredients. But into the 21st Century, the obsession is at fever-pitch. As the population ages, anti-ageing creams, cosmetic surgery, quickfix treatments like collagen implants and "Botox" anti-wrinkle injections that can be taken over a lunch break vie with facial skinpeels and electric wave therapy.
Makeup, they say, generates more money than armament sales. The exploitation of the willing consumer will increase with expanding markets and increasing choice. But when magazines catering to widely-differing readerships project expensive clothes, holidays and lifestyles to keep the beauty myth alive in a developing country — whose priorities should be different and value scales not so skewed by commercial propaganda, they are perpetuating a grave disproportion, widening the rift between the haves and the have-nots. What is worse in the pursuit of outward perfection emphasis is placed on the fleeting and the ephemeral to the detriment of self-confidence and the realisation of true individual potential. As Wolf says, "over the ruined barricades" of the women's movement, "a revolution has come upon us and changed everything in its path; enough time has passed since then for babies to have grown into women, but there still remains a final right not fully claimed." It is a secret "underlife poisoning our freedom". Because women continue to be vulnerable to outside approval instead of banking on their inner resources. Surely, there are greater crusades in life than fighting acne in adolescence and wrinkles in old age.