The inexplicable magnetism of female beauty has not come inconsequentially. The societal pressure that is bestowed upon women from the moment they come into this world to appear beautiful and excite pleasure to the onlooker has become an integrated part of what it means to be a woman. Margaret Atwood, the famous Canadian writer who tinted her literary writings with feminist perspectives was one of the women who broke the silence about the internalized male dominance that concerns women’s bodies and notions of beauty: “You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur” (Atwood, 1998). (1) This quote by Margaret Atwood illustrates that almost every woman carries within herself the voice of a man who whispers to her the beauty archetype that is a cultural construct, and they hear this whispering the moment they turn to peer at themselves and their bare bodies in the mirror. But the pressure of beauty is not only based on the desires of the male gender. The beauty industry and the need for money persuade women that their appearance will never be good enough.
Fong W. Margaret Atwood in the Early 80s. [Digital Photograph]. The Guardian. (1)
Indeed, through centuries women have been inhabiting a world that is culturally shaped by the created condition of beauty, the beauty that society molds for them. From the Victorian Age when women were expected to wear corsets to realign their bodies into an hourglass figure till the 21st century, women have never ceased to constitute victims of beauty standards. Especially during World War II, when the use of make-up had become the characteristic of self-empowerment and feminine identity, women were withdrawn into the consumer culture that promoted capitalism which led to the financial development of cosmetic industries (Ferradino, 2017). (2) Moreover, make-up led many women to seek the desperately desired image of a movie star, as was the image of Marilyn Monroe. Such a situation begot the illusion that cosmetically adorned women belonged to an upper social class (2). Women could climb the social ladder; not through their mental and intellectual qualifications but by conforming to the rules of the female aesthetics. The anxiety to appear desirable deflected women’s attention away from important social issues and imprisoned them in the safety of the socially constructed concept of beauty. Hence, the beauty industries gained immense popularity and power in the post-war era, and such power was soon yielded in an imperceptive yet impactful manner to serve men’s personal and political purposes (2). It was at that time that the female body started being represented as a heavily sexualized object obtaining a performative role for the voyeuristic pleasure of the male gender. Movies and advertisements have started to present the female prototype of the ideal woman that infiltrated into the female psyche, and this has continued ever since.
Bachrach, E. (1956). Of none is the grandeur and servitude of stardom visited more brutally than on the sex symbols. Owing their fame to their bodies, they seldom escape the indignity of being thought of as a piece of flesh." - Alexander Walker. Vintage Everyday. (2)
The model for the ideal woman places the female body in great peril as it separates specific body parts and celebrates their beauty in a sexual manner that encourages objectification. Red parted lips, blonde voluminous hair unfolding about like a waterfall onto bare round shoulders, lean long legs stretching on a pair of high heels are some of the characteristics that have marked the constructed
female beauty in culture. The products and accessories that women utilize to embellish their appearances such as expensive jewelry, stockings, and high heels have become commodities of worship and awe that lead to divine female beauty and capturing of male attention. For that reason, it comes as no surprise when people begin to develop what Karl Marx names “commodity fetishism” meaning that "the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men's own labor as objective characteristics of the products of labor themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things.” (Felluga, 2011). (3) In other words, beauty products and accessories are normalized, and they have become intrinsic to women’s identity. Therefore, the boundary between the fetishized objects and the female body becomes blurry. Experiencing themselves through the eyes of men and the media, women adopt a distorted vision of the self and their body and cultivate what Fredrickson and Roberts call self-objectification (Szymanski et al., 2011). (4) The redefinition of an ideal female by men and media can lead to detrimental effects on the psychology of women. This has propelled many feminist writers to break the pattern of the deeply ingrained misogynistic practices with the intention to shed light upon the dark crevices of cultural hegemony that has pressured women to abide by a certain model of aesthetics.
Alexander R. Audre Lorde. [Digital Photograph]. Poetry Foundation. (3)
Audre Lorde, a writer and a strong advocate of female rights and equality, was one of the few writers who took an active role in breaking female stereotypes and raising awareness about the political practices against women (Poetry Foundation). (5) Born in 1934 in New York City to West Indian Immigrant parents, Audre Lorde as a Black, queer woman poet wrote about the female experience with a hint of change and revolution (5) Her poem “Good Mirrors are not Cheap” written in 1970, portrays exactly the pressure of women to comply with the socially constructed notion of beauty and shows how the reflection of the self in the mirror can be distorted by cultural tactics:
"It is a waste of time hating a mirror or its reflection instead of stopping the hand that makes glass with distortions slight enough to pass unnoticed ....
and the fault in a mirror slaps back becoming what you think is the shape of your error" (Lorde, 1970)
In these lines of "Good Mirrors are not Cheap", Audre Lorde creates a powerful metaphor of the mirrors as the society that reproduces portraitures of the self into ambiguous, deformed pieces. The narrator in the poem attempts to illustrate the deceitful nature of the culturally constructed mirrors expressing that if you choose to believe the figure that reflects back in the mirror, you will choose blindness to your unique individualization and believe that the error in the mirror’s reflection is your shape, your developing body. Moreover, the last stanza of the poem is of primary importance:
"Because at the same time down the street a glassmaker is grinning turning out new mirrors that lie selling us new clowns at cut rate."
The narration of the poem highlights that the “glassmaker” basks in the pleasure of making distorted mirrors, mirrors that provide false images of the self. That is because Audre Lorde attempts to awake women to the beauty propaganda that society promotes in order to keep them in stagnation, fighting for male validation while oppressing them as a social group from meddling with politics and power.
To conclude, one of the multifaceted experiences of being a woman involves the pressure to appear as a pleasing and sexually arousing being in a very limited and prescribed type of way that reduces the female individuality to scripted behavioral patterns and imposes a specific way of body physique. The medium of writing has been one of the many ways that women have attempted to unmute their voices and take control of their own bodies which have transformed into objects for men and society to play with. Beauty standards and over-sexualization is a female battle that we, women, will not abandon unless we retrieve the authority of the bodies that belong to us.
Atwood, Margaret. (1998). The Robber Bride. Anchor.
Ferradino, F. (2017, Oct 26). The American Dream: Understanding the Charismatic Capitalism of the Beauty Industry. (s4648749) [ Master Thesis, Radboud University Nijmegen]. https://theses.ubn.ru.nl/bitstream/handle/123456789/7556/Ferradino%2C_F._1.pdf?sequence=1
Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Marx: On Fetishism.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. 2011. Purdue U. Accessed on 19/10/2021. https://cla.purdue.edu/academic/english/theory/marxism/modules/marxfetishism.html
Dawn M. Szymanski, Lauren B. Moffitt, and Erika R. Carr. (2011). Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research. The Counseling Psychologist 39(1) 6–38. DOI: 10.1177/0011000010378402.
Poetry Foundation. Audre Lorde 1934- 1992. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/audre-lorde
Lorde, Audre. (1982). Chosen Poems- Old and New. W.W. Norton & Company.
Fong W. Margaret Atwood in the Early 80s. [Digital Photograph]. The Guardian.
Bachrach, E. (1956). Of none is the grandeur and servitude of stardom visited more brutally than on the sex symbols. Owing their fame to their bodies, they seldom escape the indignity of being thought of as a piece of flesh." - Alexander Walker. Vintage Everyday.
Alexander R. Audre Lorde. [Digital Photograph]. Poetry Foundation.