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Feminine Appearance

The doll is the girls special plaything; this shows

her instinctive bent towards her lifes work. The art
of pleasing finds its physical basis in personal
adornmentHere is a little girl busy all day with her
doll; she is always changing its clothes, dressing and
undressing it, trying new combinations of trimmings
well or ill-matched in this endless occupation time
flies unheeded, the hours slip away unnoticed, even
meals are forgottenShe is more eager for adornment
than for food. But she is dressing her doll, not
herself, you will say. Just soas yet she herself is
nothing, she is engrossed in her doll and all her
coquetry is devoted to it. This will not always be so;
in due time she will be her own doll.

J J Rousseau, Emile, 1762, translated by B Foxley

(Everyman 1911), pp. 330-331.

Taught from their infancy that beauty is a womans

scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and,
roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its

M Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of

Woman, 1792, (Norton 1988/1975), 44.

The idea that women are obsessed with their appearances has

a very long history, and has played an important role in

arguments made by feminists and non-feminists alike.

Rousseau argued in 1762 that women and girls were naturally

inclined to focus their energies almost exclusively on

adornment, and that this was due to their natural desire to

make themselves pleasing to men. He used this as part of

his justification for the very different lives he thought

men and women should lead. For Rousseau,

A womans education must therefore be planned in

relation to man. To be pleasing in his sight, to win
his respect and love, to train him in childhood, to
tend him in manhood, to counsel and console, to make
his life pleasant and happy, these are the duties of
woman for all time, and this is what she should be
taught while she is still young. (328)
Rousseau used the idea that women are obsessed with their

appearance in support of his claim that women's lives

should revolve around pleasing men. Wollstonecraft

responded to this by arguing that the only reason women

become obsessed with appearance is that they are forced to

do so. They are not given any other occupations as girls,

and they are told that their success in life depends upon

their ability to please men, especially through their

beauty. She considered this extremely damaging to women,

both physically and intellectually, and held that women

should be liberated from this by giving them a fuller

education and more opportunities in life.

Surprisingly, the issues that concerned Rousseau and

Wollstonecraft over two centuries ago are still every bit

as relevant today. Although few would agree with Rousseau

that women's lives should revolve around pleasing men, many

(even some feminists) would agree with him that the desire

to adorn oneself comes more naturally to women than to men.

And many feminists would agree with Wollstonecraft that the

pressures placed upon women to be beautiful have damaging

effects upon them. Indeed, rejection of these pressures has

been important enough to feminismor at least to popular

perceptions of feminismthat it plays a role in the

standard stereotype of a feminist as a woman who wears

mens clothes, eschews makeup, burns her bras, and rejects

adornment and attractiveness of any sort. This stereotype

also holds that feminists criticise any woman who does


[Anti-feminist quotation here]

However, the reality is more complicated than the

stereotypeas reality usually is. While many feminists do

find much to criticise in current norms of feminine

appearance, they themselves are generally far from the

stereotype described above. Bra-burning was always a myth,1

and most feminists (today, at least) would strongly reject

any attempt to impose a new, feminist ideal of what women

should look like. Some feminists even embrace current

ideals of feminine appearance and hold that doing so is a

feminist act. In this chapter, we will examine a wide range

of feminist views regarding norms of feminine appearance.

Norms of Appearance

I will be using the phrase "norms of feminine appearance"

to refer to the standards of appearance that women are

expected to live up to. By "norms of feminine appearance"

I do not mean the way that it is normal for women to

appear. Rather, I mean the standards that women feel they

should be living up to. The exact content of these norms

changes rapidly and drastically over time. By the time you

read this, the norms that I describe may well be outdated

in certain respects; in fact, the rapidly changing nature

of ideals for feminine appearance is one of the problems

that they pose. Even a woman who manages to live up to them

is likely to find a few months later that she is no longer

Deborah Rhode, Media Images/Feminist Issues, in M
Fineman and M McCluskey, Feminism, Media, and the Law.
(Oxford 1997.)
succeeding. Nonetheless, I will attempt to give a few

examples of norms of feminine appearance, and their effects

on women.


Womens bodies have always had extensive requirements

imposed on them, although these requirements have varied a

great deal with time and locationranging from famously

generous Rubenesque proportions to the heroin-chic of the

1990s. At the moment I write this, it is considered

desirable for women to have large breasts and slim hips.

As Carol Tavris (The Mismeasure of Woman, 32-33) has

pointed out, this is a particularly difficult ideal for

most women to live up to: in general, if you diet enough to

have the slim hips, your breasts will not be large. Living

up to the ideal fully will often require surgeryeither

liposuction for the hips or breast enlargement. Ideals of

other times, though, are just as unnatural for many women.

The simple reason is that women naturally come in a wide

variety of sizes. Any one ideal will guarantee that large

numbers of women will have to behave quite unnaturally if

they are to meet it.

The pressure to attain the culturally desirable body plays

a very important role in the lives of most women today. It

is a cultural commonplace that women are obsessed with

dieting. Statistics bear this out. According to Naomi Wolf,

on any day 25 percent of women are on diets, with 50

percent finishing, breaking, or starting one.2 We see this

even in new products, like Samsungs A400 mobile phone for

women. What makes it suited for women is that (aside from

its makeup-mirror look), it includes a calorie counter and

fatness calculator.3 Constant dieting is not a healthy

way of life. Worse yet, feminists like Susan Bordo4 have

drawn connections between the rather standard phenomenon of

dieting and the non-standard but increasingly common

diseases of anorexia and bulimia. (I need current

statistics here.) Anorexia has a fatality rate of up to

19%.5 While anorexia is far from fully understood and is

almost certainly caused by more than just cultural

pressure, it would be very surprising if constant pressure

to be thin did not play a major role in causing this

condition. It would be a remarkable coincidence if anorexia

This statistic is from The Beauty Myth. The study cited is
from 1985. I am seeking more recent statistics, but dont
have them yet.
Caramel Quin, Girly Phones,,
/0,9439,181463_183871,00.html, consulted on 14 May 2002.
Bordo, Unbearable Weight.
Estimates vary. The 19% figure is from Wolf, 182.
just happened to be so much more common in women than men,

and that women also happened to face so much more pressure

than men to be thin. At its worst, then, attempting to

achieve a body of a certain sort in order to be attractive

has caused women to starve themselves to death.

Many women also engage in plastic surgery in order to

obtain the currently desirable body. Liposuction to remove

fat and breast enlargement are the most popular operations.

In 2001, over 300,000 women had liposuction and over 200,

000 had breast augmentation. In each case, the number of

women having the surgical procedure done more than doubled

over the five-year period 1997-2001.6 The desire for

surgery of this sort is strong enough to overcome the high

cost (averaging, in 1999, $1700 for liposuction and $3800

for tummy tucks7), which is not paid by health insurance,

and the risk of complications.


At our age, most of us are more concerned with

American Society for Plastic Surgery,
Kiplingers Personal finance MagazinePlastic Surgery:
Plain Truths, April 1999.
mastering the art of walking in stiletto heels, than
fending off wrinkles. But just because we cant see
them, doesnt mean theyre not lurking in our
lifestyles, waiting to make an appearance.
Cosmopolitan October 2001, 291.

Women are expected to keep themselves wrinkle-free for as

long as possible, and to conceal any wrinkles that they may

acquire. Images of women in magazines are carefully

airbrushed to remove wrinkles in order to conceal all signs

of aging. One editor of two womens magazines writes, By

now readers have no idea what a real womans 60-year-old

face looks like in print because its made to look 45.

Worse, 60-year-old readers look in the mirror and think

they look too old, because theyre comparing themselves to

some retouched face smiling back at them from a magazine.

(Wolf 83)

Wrinkle-free skin is of course impossible in reality,

beyond a certain age. But the pressure to postpone or

conceal wrinkles is great. Women will go to great lengths

to achieve these goals. Fairly harmlessly, Arlene Dahls

1965 Always Ask a Man suggests a range of wrinkle-

preventing exercises, including the following.

To strengthen cheek muscles and maintain youthful

facial contours: keeping upper and lower teeth
slightly apart, make a large, round O with your mouth.
Hold position for a count of 5. Then force mouth back
into a wide grin (teeth still parted) and say aagh.
Hold for count of 5. Repeat five times.
Dahl 56.
Wrinkle-prevention is still a popular concern: a friend of

mine was recently given (un-irnoically) a 25th birthday

present of Oil of Olay, and the shelves of wrinkle

prevention creams in any chemists will attest to the fact

that this was not some bizarre aberration (except possibly

in terms of social skills). Still, trying to prevent

wrinkles via exercises and creams seems a pretty harmless

waste of time (though, perhaps, a less harmless waste of

money). Substantially more harmfully, plastic surgery to

maintain a youthful appearance has become increasingly

popular. One popular surgery to remove wrinkles is a face

peel, described by one who underwent the procedure in the

following words.

Essentially, it is no different from a second-degree

burn[It] makes you go brown and crispy, then a scab
forms and drops off[it] takes several hours because
it is so poisonous and you cant risk getting it into
the bloodstream. (Wolf 256)

Most recently, botox injectionswhich involve injections of

botulinum toxin (a toxin produced by the organism which

causes botulism)have become extremely popular. These

injections hide wrinkles because they paralyse facial

muscles. There were 1.6 million botox injection procedures

performed in the United States in 2001, a 2356% increase in

the 5 years since 1997.8 [Quote]

Wrinkles in men are often considered a mark of character,

and are even taken to be attractive. In women, however,

wrinkles are to be avoided at all costs. Aside from the

very real price (financial, psychological, and physical) of

efforts to conceal wrinkles, there is an important message

carried by this double-standard. Bartky notes that the

face of the ideally feminine woman must never display the

marks of character, wisdom, and experience that we so

admire in men. (Bartky, 73) Instead, women must try to

look as youthful as possible. The very youthful are

ignorant and in need of protection from older, wiser, and

more powerful people. The image of women as powerless,

ignorant, and in need of protection is surely not one that

most women would endorse. Nonetheless, they expend a great

deal of effort attempting to take on an appearance which is

associated with these traits.

American Society for Plastic Surgery,

Natural doesnt equal no makeup. The seasons low-

key look still requires some effort and a few perfect
Cosmopolitan October 2001, page 269.

Freedom from wrinkles is not the only demand made on

womens faces. Women also spend enormous amounts of time,

energy, and money trying to achieve the right appearance

for their faceseven if the current look is natural.

Trying to achieve the right appearance can be

particularly demanding, as we will see, for those who are

not white, as many of the ideals are ones that are far more

natural for white women.

Exactly what hairstyles and what sorts of makeup are

desired changes dramatically across times and places. But

not making an effort is almost always unacceptable.

Students are less likely to wear makeup and have

elaborately styled hair than non-students, but this changes

when they go out at nightand changes even more when they

enter the full-time workforce. The workplace demands for

women to conform to norms of appearance regarding makeup

and hair can sometimes be extremely explicit. In many

cases, women are given detailed instructions on how they

must look in order to keep their jobsinstructions of a

sort that are not given to men. Wolf (41) cites a manager

working for the John Lewis Partnership in the UK who was

told by her superior that he was happy with her work, but

that she needed some improvement from the neck up. Wolf

explains that the manager wanted her to wear what she

called a mask of makeup, and to bleach and tease her

hair. It is, as Wolf notes, very difficult to imagine a

male manager being given instructions of this sort.9

We have already noted the fact that plastic surgery is used

to conceal signs of aging. It is also used simply to obtain

beautiful faces, as these are culturally defined.

Importantly, understandings of what is beautiful are not

racially neutral. All too often, the feminine ideals that

are applied to all women are based on the ideal features

for Anglo-Saxons, leading to a very disturbing racist

element in views as to what appearance is desirable.

Jewish women demand reductions of their noses so as to

Its worth noting that men are often expected to adhere to
dress codes in the workplace (suits, uniforms, casual
Fridays, etc). The difference is that there are not many
expectations beyond these rather basic dress codes. For
women, the expectations are often both more specific and
more demanding.
be able to pass as one of their Aryan sisters who
form the dominant ethnic group [] Adolescent Asian
girls [] bring in pictures of Elizabeth Taylor and of
Japanese movie actresses (whose faces have already
been reconstructed) demand the Westernizing of their
own eyes and the creation of higher noses in hopes of
a better job and marital prospects.

Kathryn Pauly Morgan, Women and the Knife:

Cosmetic Surgery and the Colonozation of Womens
Bodies. In Rose Weitz, The Politics of Womens
Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior, OUP
1998, p. 155.

Eugenia Kaw notes that the Asian women who have eyelid

surgery which makes their eyes look more Western are

reluctant to describe what they are doing in these terms.

Instead, they will describe that their eyes as looking

unpleasantly "slanted" or sleepy, and say that they want

their eyes to look more open. Often, they will report

that they had difficulty properly applying eye makeup.

(Its worth noting that this last comment assumes that a

way of applying makeup which is appropriate to Westerners

must be the proper way.) Kaw argues that the descriptions

of these women give of what their reasons for surgery show

them to have internalized negative stereotypes of Asians,

and that the result of this is a desire to rid themselves

of Asian features. She further notes that Asian-Americans

are more likely than any other ethnic group (including

whites) to have cosmetic surgery.10

Those considering plastic surgery are encouraged to do so

by plastic surgeons who present perfectly normal facial

features as inadequate. As Kaw notes, there are worryingly

racist overtones in writings like the following, from a

1990 textbook.

However, given an appreciation of the physical

diversity of the Asian population, certain features do
form a distinct basis for surgical interventionThese
facial features typically include the upper eyelid,
characterized by an absent or poorly defined superior
palpebral foldand a flattened nose with poor lobular
John A. McCurdy, Cosmetic Surgery of the
Asian Face, NY: Thieme Publications 1990,
p.1. (Cited in Eugenia Kaw, Medicalization
of Racial Features: Asian-American Women and
Cosmetic Surgery, in Weitz.)

Eyelid surgery, which is the most popular cosmetic surgery

among Asian-American women, is the third most popular form

E Kaw, Opening faces: The politics of Cosmetic Surgery
and Asian American Women. In M Crawford and R Unger, In
Our Words: Readings on the Psychology of Women and Gender.
NY: McGrawHill 1997, 55-73.
of plastic surgery overall in America. In 2001, over

200,000 women underwent eyelid surgery, an increase of 51%

since 1997.11 Eyelid surgery costs $1000 to $3,000, and

carries risks of bleeding and hematoma , hemorrhage

and formation of a gaping wound.12

Beautiful faces, then, are sought by any means necessary:

if makeup will not suffice, then surgery, however painful

or potentially hazardous, must be undergone in order to

achieve the ideal. Later in this chapter, we will be

looking carefully at the forces which cause women to

undertake such extreme measures.


Womens clothing, of course, differs a great deal from one

time and place to another. At some times and places they

have been seriously damaging to women's bodies: obvious

cases of the past include such as extremes as corsets,

which caused damage to internal organs. [REF] Of course,

modern fashion is not this extreme. But it can still pose

problems. Womens clothes are far more likely than mens to

restrict movementsitting comfortably in miniskirts and

Sayoc 1974 (162-166), cited in Kaw.
walking fast in long tight skirts is very difficult. And

women still suffer foot problems from decades of forcing

their feet into high-heeled and/or pointy shoes (REFS,

details), oras in the North of Englandshiver in February

while wearing skimpy dresses at night.

Shockingly, even the more extreme examples of damaging

clothing demands have not disappeared. In 1989, in Maureeen

Murphy and Eileen Davidson v. Stakis Leisure, Ltd., a group

of waitresses in the United Kingdom filed suit after being

required to wear corseted, low-cut uniforms which fit so

tightly that they made the women bleed. No such

uncomfortable uniforms were required of waiters, and the

restaurant admitted that the change was imposed on the

women as a sexual draw for male customers (Wolf 40). The

waitresses lost the suit, as the court thought their

complaint was too trivial to consider.

The financial cost of the clothing women are expected to

wear may also be considerable. Womens clothes are almost

always more expensive and less durable than mens. [REF]

Moreover, women are expected to own a far greater variety

of outfits. Wolf notes that employment contracts for

highly-paid professional women (unlike those for similar

men) earmark a portion of their salaries for clothing and

beauty treatments. Even in less well-paid occupations, the

demand to dress well, and to have a variety of outfits, is

much heavier for women than for men. This means that women

will have to spend significantly more of their income on

clothing than men do, in order to keep their jobs, and will

thus have less money to spend on other items, or to save

for the future. [Insert current stats.]


Women are expected to keep close track of the way that they

move their bodies. In general, womens movements are

tightly constrained. Where men take large steps, women

take smaller ones, and women hold their arms closer to

their bodies and sit so as to make themselves as small as

possible. The postures women adopt in conversationkeeping

their legs close together and not taking up space, nodding

deferentially and smiling a great dealare exactly those

which subordinates adopt when talking to those in power.

The feminine way of carrying oneself and moving ones body,

then, is exactly the same as that which signals


Women's typical body language, a language of relative

tension and constriction, is understood to be a

language of subordination when it is enacted by men in
male status hierarchies. In groups of men, those with
higher status typically assume looser and more relaxed
posture: the boss lounges comfortably behind a desk
while the applicant sits tense and rigid on the edge
of his seat [] What is announced in the comportment
of superiors is confidence and ease [. . . ] women
tend to set to and stand with legs, feet, and knees
close or touching. . . One thing is clear: woman's
body language speaks eloquently, though silently, of
her subordinate status in a hierarchy of gender.
(Bartky 74)

The fact that women move in a way similar to subordinate

may help to convey a powerful unconscious message that

women are indeed subordinate, and may help to undermine

women and diminish their authority in their interactions

with men. It also seems to carry, as Bartky notes, an

important symbolic message of subordination.


Women who do not manage to live up to norms of feminine

appearance sometimes face discrimination. Wolf argues that

discrimination on the basis of appearance has played an

important role in holding women back in the workplace. This

sort of discrimination has been legally permitted even when

discrimination on the basis of sex has not been. To see how

it could be allowed, consider again the standard legal

understanding of sex discrimination. On this understanding,

it is discriminatory to take sex into account in hiring and

promotion decisions unless it is a relevant qualification

for a job. In general, it is considered legitimate to take

some qualification into account if it is relevant for the

job. If one can argue, then, that a particular physical

appearance is a relevant qualification for a job, it is

legitimate in the eyes of the law to take physical

appearance into account in hiring and promotion decisions.

While it is no longer legal to make employment-related

decisions on the basis of sex, it remains perfectly legal

to do so on the basis of appearance if appearance is

relevant to the job. Increasingly, employers have argued

that appearance is relevantwhen it comes to women.

In 1983, a 36-year old television anchorwoman (newsreader),

Christine Craft, was dismissed for being too old, too

Wolf seems to suggest that appearance-based
discrimination is more legally acceptable than sex-based
discrimination, but this doesnt really seem right. By her
own admission, decisions based on either appearance or sex
are only legitimate if the trait in question can be shown
to be relevant to the job. It may, however, be easier to
argue that appearance is relevant to a job than that sex
unattractive, and not deferential enough to men. She sued

on grounds of sex discrimination, but lost. (Wolf 35-37.)

Ann Hopkins, a successful accountant, was turned down for a

partnership because she needed to learn to " walk more

femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely",

and "wear makeup". (38-39)14 These cases on their own

suggests that women could avoid discrimination on the basis

of appearance if they lived up to our societys norms of

feminine appearance (and behaviour). In itself, this would

be problematic enough.

Wolf argues, however, that women cannot even avoid

appearance-related discrimination in this way. A

policewoman, Nancy Fahdl, was fired for looking "too much

like a lady" and a woman in a supervisory position at

Bendix Corporation was fired because it was ruled

"inappropriate for a supervisor' of women to dress like 'a

woman'". (Wolf 39) In some cases, then, women lose their

Hopkins sued for sex discrimination and won. The court
found that her employer had judged her behaviour by
reference to a sex stereotype. She might not have won,
presumably, if the employer had not been so explicit in the
claims that she was not feminine enough. (See Hopkins v.
Price-Waterhouse: 741 F. 2d 1163; S. Ct. 1775; Price
Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 288.) The sex stereotype
understanding of sex discrimination is discussed in more
detail in the chapter on sexual harassment (pages ??).
jobs for not looking feminine enough, while in others they

lose their jobs for looking too feminine. Even if women

wanted to conform perfectly to the image desired, they

would have great difficulty in knowing which image was

appropriateuntil they were chastised or forced into a

different one.


Make this Beauty Resolution now: I hereby resolve to be

more attractive!
Arlene Dahl, page 23.

Arlene Dahl doesnt give the above instructions to just

some of her readersshe thinks each and every reader should

make this resolution. This is striking: it means she

assumes that absolutely every woman who reads her book (it

is very clearly directed at women)no matter how attractive

she already looksneeds to be more attractive. This seems

laughable today, and my students generally find it very

funny. However, nearly every womens magazine at the

newsagents features on its cover weight-loss plans, hair

improvement strategies, ideas for concealing figure flaws,

routes to perfect skin, and he like. The assumption that

all womens looks are in need of improvement seems to be

alive and well.

A very important aspect of the norms of feminine appearance

is the message that they convey to those attempting to live

up to them. Perhaps the most important message conveyed by

norms of feminine appearance is that women, as they

naturally are, are simply not good enough. Women are told

that they should "at least make an effort"; many feel that

they should not leave the house without some makeup (or, as

some say, putting their face on); and women who no longer

adhere to standard beauty regimes are accused of "letting

themselves go". The message of all this is that there is

something inherently inadequate about women's natural

appearance. And since appearance is taken to be such an

important aspect of a woman's life, this inadequacy takes

on great significance.

Self-Policing Subjects

Unsurprisingly, all of this has an effect on womens

psyches. Sandra Bartky has offered a particularly

interesting analysis of the effects of these pressures on

womens minds.15 Her analysis is based on Michel Foucaults

Bartky, Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of
Patriarchal Power, in Bartky, Femininity and Domination.
discussion of the Panopticon,16 a model prison proposed by

the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). This prison

would consist of a central watchtower surrounded on all

sides by cells with windows that were lit from behind. The

inmates in these cells would know that they might be

watched at any time by the guards in the watchtower, but

they would never know at any particular time whether they

were in fact being watched. If they were being watched,

anything they did would be seen, and the prisoners would be

aware of this factwhether or not they were actually being

watched. Bentham considered this to be an ideal prison

arrangement because, he thought, the prisoners would have

to constantly behave as though they were being watchedfor

fear that they might be. They would, then, become self-

policing, because the knowledge that they might be watched

would cause them to engage only in actions which are

acceptable to their watchers.

Bartky argues that women, like the inmates in the

Panopticon, are self-policing. Women, according to Bartky,

constantly think of themselves as potentially being

observed and judged. So, she argues, they constantly watch

Routledge 1990.
Foucault, Discipline and Punish. NY: Vintage Books 1979.
themselves for any deviation from acceptable standards of

appearance. This causes them to exist somewhat at a

distance from themselves, always watching, judging, and

critiquing. Self-policing, Bartky argues, renders womenin

a very important respectunfree. Every waking moment of

every day, women must make sure that their appearance

conforms to acceptable standards:

The woman who checks her makeup half a dozen times a

day to see if her foundation has caked or her mascara
run, who worries that the wind or rain may spoil her
hairdo, who looks frequently to see if her stockings
have bagged at the ankle, or who, feeling fat,
monitors everything she eats, has become, just as
surely as the inmate of the Panopticon, a self-
policing subject, a self committed to a relentless
self-surveillance. (80)

Or, as Arlene Dahl approvingly put it in her 1965 advice

manual for women (7).

Each woman has an audience (hopefully, male!), and

must live up to the image she wants to project. She
should present her best self at all times. (You never
know whos looking.)
Dahl actually takes this requirement to go beyond the

waking hours of the day, discussing what colour lipstick

women should wear to bed, and worrying that the curlers

women must wear to bed are aesthetically displeasing. (She

helpfully designed and marketed a boudoir cap to conceal

curlers and thus deal with the problem.)17

Arlene Dahls advice, of course, probably seems dated

surely no such advice would be given today, you may think.

But, flipping through the pages of Cosmopolitan, one might

wonder how much times really have changed. The following

comes from an article from February 2001 entitled, You,

but sexier 18-showoff positions to flatter your figure in

bed." A sample suggestion:

While in the missionary position, the flesh on your

stomach falls back and to the sides, making your
stomach look flatter. But be warned: one false move
like rolling over onto your side or bending doubleand
any little rolls of fat will be magnified.
(Cosmopolitan February 2001.)
If articles like this are any indication, it seems Bartkys

notion of women as critically self-policing is still

relevant today.

Dahl, 112, 171.
The source of the pressure

Bartky argues that women view themselves as constantly

under critical observation.

They go to extreme lengths to live up to what they take to

be expected of them, and often even damage themselves in

the process. But why do women do this? Why would anyone,

let alone such a large group of people, put themselves

through all of this? What is the source of the pressure on

women? The answer to this question has an impact on the

assignment of blame for the situation, and also on the

sorts of solutions one might propose. Feminist writers

have identified many sources of pressure.

Media, Advertisers

Naomi Wolf locates the most important source of pressure on

women in the media, especially in the form of womens

magazines. These magazines are indeed filled with articles

that cater to women who are insecure about their

appearance. A sample issue of Cosmopolitan from October

2001 [Im going to find an example other than Cosmo, for

varietyhavent done this yet] contained articles entitled:

Is stress making you fat?

Pretty damn glam! Step-by-step guide to changing your

hair typefrom fine to full, curly to straight

Stop the clock: invest in the future of your skin

Some of them, as we saw earlier, may even induce

insecurities women would not otherwise have had: how many

of would even have thought about concealing figure flaws

while having sex before reading Cosmopolitans article?

Wolf doesnt, however, blame the magazine editors

themselves. Indeed, she notes that they are often feminist

women who certainly do not want to make women insecure or

to contribute in any way to their subordination. Glamours

editor in chief, Ruth Whitney, describes her publication as

a mainstream feminist magazine.18 Julia Hanigsberg writes,

Womens magazines have covered most of the critical

feminist issues of recent years. All have emphasized
that women who are battered are never at fault, that
the glass ceiling should be fought, that women should
earn equal pay for equal work, that no means no,
that women have a right to fight unwelcome sexual
advances, that men should be equal participants in
housework and childcare responsibilities, and that the
criminal and judicial systems are prejudiced against
rape victims.
Hanigsberg, 74-75.

With feminists running the womens magazines, and promoting

J Hanigsberg, Glamour Law: Feminism through the Looking
Glass of Popular Womens Magazines, in M Fineman and M
McCluskey, Feminism, Media, and the Law (Oxford 1997), 73.
awareness of feminist issues, how does it also happen that

womens magazines are so filled with articles and images

that seem to promote womens insecurities? We can get a

clue toward answering this question by taking a close look

at Cosmopolitans May 2002 issue. This issue has a cover

story entitled Banish Your Body Hang-Ups, surely a good

sign for those who want to fight womens negative body

images. The article consists of interviews with women and

their partners, in which women explain what they hate about

their bodies and their partners explain why they actually

love those very things. Again, this sounds goodand it is.

But, unfortunately, the page about a woman who thinks her

hair is too wild and thick is faced by an adervtisement

featuring a model with perfectly smooth hair; the page

about women who think their bottoms are too large is faced

by an ad with a model in a corset; and the page about women

who find their noses too large is faced by an ad with a

model with a small nose, half hidden by her hair. The body-

positive message of the article is constantly undermined by

the messages of the advertisements facing the article. This

serves as a nice illustration for what seems to take place:

editors may want to improve womens self image, but

advertisers, as well see, wont let always them.

Magazines cannot survive without advertising. And

advertisers have found that inducing insecurities in

people convincing them that they need to improve

themselves through purchasingis a very effective

technique.19 There is a great deal of money to be made from

womens appearance-related insecurities. (Stats)

Advertisers, then, do not want women to be secure about

themselves. They also exercise enormous control over the

magazines in which they advertise. Advertisers not only

place advertisements designed to make women insecure enough

to buy their products, but they also make content-related

demands of the magazines in which they advertise. Magazines

have lost accounts for featuring women on their covers who

were not wearing enough makeup, or for articles praising

the beauty of gray hair. (Wolf 81) Advertisers will

sometimes even insist that certain sorts of stories must

run next to their advertisements. They want articles on

makeup to accompany their makeup ads, articles on hair care

to accompany their hair product ads, and so on. Gloria

Steinem noted that it is very difficult to convince

advertisers that women look at ads for shampoo without

accompanying articles on how to wash their hair, just as

See, for example, J Kilbourne, Cant Buy My Love,
Touchstone 2000.
men look at ads for shaving products without articles on

how to shave. (Wolf 81.) Whatever the women running the

magazines may want, then, if they wish their magazines to

survive they must do what advertisers want them to doand

advertisers want insecure women who will spend a fortune on

their products. Even Ms magazine, founded as an explicitly

feminist magazine, was forced to accept advertisements

which undermined its message to such an extent thatwhen Ms

finally gave up on advertising revenue altogetherit

featured these ads as examples of some of the most

destructive images of women.


This view is often seen as insulting to women, portraying

them as easily-manipulated dupes of advertisers. [REF] If

this objection claims simply that it is insulting to view

women as affected by advertising, it is surely wrong. To

say that women are affected by advertising is simply to say

that they are human. Advertising has an impact on all of

us, which is why companies spend so much time, money, and

effort on it. So there is nothing insulting about saying

that women are affected by advertising. But a different

version of this objection is more specific, and more

plausible: it holds that the sort of power Wolf would

attribute to advertisers is simply too much. Advertising

might well play some role in inducing or perpetuating

womens insecurities, but surely not such a large role as

Wolf would claim. It is still difficult to imagine, for

example, that advertising alone could make women go to such

extremes that, for example, they cause their own deaths due

to anorexia. This is a lot of power to attribute to the

media, and a lot of malleability to attribute to women.

Another worry is that Wolfs explanation just doesnt ring

true psychologically to many women. Many women feel the

desires for makeup, jewelry, clothes, and a particular sort

of body, to be much more internal to them than it seems to

be on Wolfs story. They think it really is part of them to

want these things, and that they are not simply being

manipulated by outside forces. Moreover, they enjoy

shopping, trying on clothes, and putting on makeup. They

dont feel that they only do these things because they are

forced, or manipulated, into doing so.

Pressure from within

Sandra Bartky takes seriously the fact that women genuinely

endorse the norms of feminine appearance that they try to

live up to, and often take pleasure in the effort to do so.

In addition, she does not try to pick out some particular

grouplike advertisers or corporationson which to lay the

blame. According to Bartky, the pressure comes everyone

and yet no one in particular (75). Most importantly, the

pressure comes, in her view, from women themselves. On this

account, there is a good reason for womens feeling that

they themselves want to live up to beauty ideals, and that

this not simply something demanded of them by purely

external forces. The reason that women feel this, according

to Bartky, is that it is true. Women pressure themselves,

and one another, to adhere to norms of feminine appearance,

and to live up to what are actually impossible standards

for most. No one group can be isolated out for blame. The

culture as a whole is implicated, including women

themselves, as they are shaped by this culture, and as they

shape other women. As Bartky notes, some of the most

powerful forces can be the most casual: comments like if

you lost weight youd be really beautiful, or you must

have been gorgeous when you were young; exposure to

constant images of unnaturally thin women on television;

the fact that other women, no fatter than oneself (perhaps

even thinner), hate the fatness of their bodies and

obsess about their weight.

Bartky, then, accepts that women genuinely enjoy clothes

and makeup and styling their hair. But, she says, the

satisfaction that women experience from conforming to

feminine norms is what she calls a repressive

satisfactionone which is due to the fact that they have

satisfied needs which are, in some sense, not really

theirs. The need to look a particular way, according to

Bartky, is a false need that has been imposed upon women

from outside. Once it is there, however, the desire to

satisfy it comes from within. And the satisfaction women

get from successfully meeting this need is a genuine

satisfaction. However, Bartky thinks, it would be better to

get rid of this sort of satisfaction, and to replace it

with one which does not depend on the meeting of false and

destructive needssuch as the need to have a body just like

the model on the cover of Cosmopolitan. She argues that

womens obsession with appearance is unhealthy, because

women are obsessed both with their appearance and with the

idea that their appearance is inadequate. She claims that

womens current state of mind is commonly one of

infatuation with an inferiorized body(40). Rather than

making women feel good about themselves, then, all the

attention devoted to their appearance only serves to

reinforce each womans idea of her own inadequacy. Susan

Bordo describes the combination of enjoyment and inadequacy


I love shopping for makeup with my friendsWomen bond

over shared makeup, shared beauty tips. Its fun. Too
often, though, our bond is over shared painover bad
skin, bad hair, bad legs. Theres always that
constant judgment and evaluationnot only by actual,
living men but by an ever-present, watchful cultural
gaze which always has its eye on our thighsno matter
how much else we accomplish.
Bordo, The Male Body 217.

This situation is made worse by the fact that women, as

well as men, view excessive concern with ones appearance

as self-indulgent: women are ridiculed and dismissed for

the triviality of their interest in such trivial things

as clothes and makeup (Bartky 73). So, at the same time

that women feel they must work hard to conform to feminine

ideals, they think that the time and effort they devote to

doing this is wasted on a trivial and unworthy activity.

The pleasure women get from time, effort and money spent on

their appearances is mitigated not only by physical and

psychological damage they may do themselves, but also by

their own view that such efforts are completely unworthy.

What does Bartky propose instead? She calls for what she

terms a non-repressive narcissism (42). Bartky strongly

rejects the idea that caring about ones appearance is

always destructive. (It is actually nearly impossible to

find contemporary feminists endorsing such claims, contrary

to the popular image of feminists views on female beauty.)

Bartky thinks that feminists should instead embrace

feminine beauty, but in a new way. She thinks it is vitally

important to see the beauty in a wider range of bodies than

we do today. Rather than viewing their bodies as

inadequate, Bartky would like women to take real pleasure

in their bodies and appearances, and make free choices

about how they would like to adorn and modify them. What

Bartky wants to eliminate is a culture in which women feel

such loathing for their bodies that they starve themselves

and feel the need to spend vast amounts of money on makeup,

clothes, and surgery in order to achieve a very particular,

unrealistic ideal.

Mens Role

Rousseau took it for granted that all the effort women (and

even girls) devoted to their appearance was for men. Arlene

Dahl certainly thought it should be. Bartky also takes men

to play an important role. She writes:

A panoptical male connoisseur resides within the

consciousness of most women: they stand perpetually
before his gaze and under his judgmentwomen know for
whom this game is played: they know that a pretty
young woman is likelier to become a flight attendant
than a plain one and that a well-preserved older woman
has a better chance of hanging onto her husband than
one who has let herself go. (72)
This seems to me by far the weakest portion of Bartky's

analysis. Bartky has acknowledged that women experience

the desire to live up to feminine norms as one that comes

from within them. She has acknowledged that the pressure

to adhere to these norms may come from anyone in society.

If women as well as men demand that other women adhere to

these norms, and if women do not see themselves as

tailoring their appearance to please men, why should men be

singled out in the way that Bartky does?20

It becomes even less plausible to take women's appearance

as constructed for men when we consider that, apparently,

men's desires for womens appearances are very different

from the ideals that women themselves try to live up to.

Women consistently want to be far thinner than men want

women to be, for example. [Ref.] This does not, however,

decisively show Bartky to be wrong. Women's efforts may be

Im not suggesting that men play no role. Rahter, Im
questioning the privileged place that Bartky assigns them.
directed at pleasing men even if women are wrong about what

would please men. Nonetheless, on Bartkys account women

view their appearance-related desires as genuinely their

own, and the pressures exerted on women to live up to

societys ideals come from everyone and no one. If men

dont even want women to live up to these ideals, it is

hard to see in what sense all of this effort is for men.

It may well have been so in Arlene Dahls time, or in

Rousseaus, but Bartky has given a compelling description

of contemporary womens situationand there is little room

in this description for the idea that women are trying to

please men any more than they are trying to please

themselves, or other women, or simply to succeed in life.

Not all feminists think that criticizing current norms of

feminine appearance is the right approach. Below, I discuss

some worries about feminists criticisms of current norms.

Economic power as the real issue

Natasha Walter argues that the only reason feminists see

feminine adornment, decoration, and appearance as degrading

to women is that women lack economic power.

When men indulge their narcissism in ceremonial dress

the curling wigs of judges, the bright livery of the
Horse Guards, the purple dresses of bishops, the stiff
shirts of empire builders at dinnertheir peculiar
costumes are seen as badges of power. Unless our
costume actually stops us doing somethingas the
crinolines of 19th century fashion slowed women down
we should not attribute some mysterious, individual
life to it. Narcissism by the ruling group will
always be seen as powerful, narcissism by subordinates
as demeaning. (Walter 85)
Adornment and decoration themselves, Walter argues, are not

inherently degrading or subordinating. Feminists should

work, then, to change the economic power dynamics of

society. Once that is done, feminine adornment will no

longer appear to be a problem.

This analysis is compelling, as far as it goes. We do take

the adornment of the powerful to be a sign of their power.

This is some indication that it is not adornment itself

which feminists should be objecting to. The problem with

Walter's argument is that it is not adornment itself that

feminists are objecting to. Walter is right that feminists

should only worry about fashions and expectations that

slow women down. But what Bartky and Wolf have argued is

that there are many current fashions and norms which slow

women down a great deal. So, by Walters on lights, we

should be concerned about them.

Choice and pleasure

Most feminists have a profound commitment to the idea that

women should be free to choose the sorts of lives that they

want to live. Yet feminists who critique norms of

appearance and those who live up to them seem to be doing

something at odds with this commitment. "Do whatever you

want, " they seem to be saying, " as long as it doesn't

involve dieting and wearing mascara". Because this seems

inconsistent with valuing freedom, some argue that

feminists have no business whatsoever critiquing womens

appearance-related desires. Instead, feminists should

accept the choices that women actually make. Womens

clothes, hair, makeup, and even surgery should be treated

simply as expressions of individual women's creative

impulses and personality. They are free choices, often even

playful ones. Janet Radcliffe Richards and Natasha Walter

argue that feminists who criticise norms of feminine

appearance neglect the real pleasure women take in clothes,

makeup, jewelry, and weight-loss. Women find this genuinely

enjoyable, they argue, and spend many of their happiest

hours shopping for clothes and makeup.

Feminists frequently write as if women's relation to

their bodies is invariably tortured and full of self
loathing. But this is not the only, or even the main
truth about that relation. If you watch women in
shops, holding dresses up to their bodies and dreaming
in the mirrors; if you watch them reading fashion
magazines, flicking idly through the pages until, with
an indrawn breath, they laugh out, "look at that! Look
at that blue, that's the blue I want. . ." . . . you
know that there is a real, fresh, happy sensuality
about women's feeling for self-decoration that can
never be expunged. (Walter 86-87)
Walter and Richards might argue that Bartkys term,

repressive satisfaction is an insulting way to describe

the very real pleasure women take in their appearance.

Women themselves report this pleasure as non-destructive

and the needs they are satisfying as real ones, coming from

within them. Bartkys perspective requires that we

reinterpret everything they say as stemming from an

internalisation of self-destructive needs imposed by their

culture. This can easily be seen as condescending:

respecting women requires instead recognizing that women

can take a genuine and non-destructive pleasure in wearing

high heels and lipstick. A black woman describes her

decision to wear coloured contact lenses in the following


What's the fuss? When I put on my blue lenses, it

makes me feel good. It makes me feel sexy, different,

the other woman, so to speak, which is like fun.
Bordo 251.

Redescribing this womans decision in terms of repressive

needs certainly seems condescending: it means not taking

seriously her own report of why she does what she does.21 If

she says that she is just having fun, how can anyone else

legitimately disagree? According to this line of thought,

appearance-related desires are pleasurable expressions of

individual choice, and therefore immune from critique.


There is much to this line of thought. Women can and do

take real pleasure in their appearance, and this pleasure

is, of course, not always a self-destructive one. We should

not deny this, and should not criticize women who get such

enjoyment. But does that mean that writers like Bartky and

Wolf should just pack up and go home? Does it mean that

there is no room for any further discussion? Susan Bordo

argues powerfully that it does not.22 Bordo points out that

the rhetoric of individual choice begins to ring hollow

It is worth looking again at Kaws description of Asian
womens eyelid surgeries with this thought in mind. Kaw is
confident of her claim that the womens actions are based
on their internalization of destructive stereotypes, but
the women themselves would not agree.
Bordo, Material Girl, in Unbearable Weight.
when we consider the homogeneity of the free, playful

choices that women make. For example, she remarks that

black women often describe hair-straightening as simply a

matter of individual preference, to which no political

significance should be attributed. They each just like

hair that swings from side to side, as Oprah Winfrey put

it.23 But in 1989, 68% of Essence magazine readers polled

straightened their hair either chemically or with a hot


Bordo notes that advertisements often use the rhetoric of

freedom and choice: An Evian ad asks, " if you could choose

your own body, on which would you choose?" A Nike ad

maintains that "the body you have is the body you

inherited, but you must decide what to do with it." Bordo

points out, though, that these ads, which speak of choice,

are accompanied by pictures only of a certain sort of body

in great shape, with perfect faces and hair that swings.

When they suggest choosing the sort of body you want, Bordo

argues, they dont really mean it. Bordo does not deny the

enjoyment women get from their appearance. But she thinks

she can recognize this enjoyment, while also remarking on

Bordo 255
Bordo 254.
reasons for worry.

Putting on makeup, styling hair, and so forth are

conceived of only as free play, fun, a matter of
creative expression. This they surely are. But they
also experienced by many women as necessary before
they will show themselves to the world, even on a
quick trip to the corner mailbox. (REF)

Even if women genuinely get pleasure from the appearance-

related choices that they make, there is still room,

writers like Bordo would argue, for criticizing the narrow

range of choices that are deemed acceptable. Surely choices

would be even freer, and more playful, if there were not

such a small assortment of body shapes and looks viewed as

desirable. If women were not constantly bombarded with

images of thin, wrinkle-free women, with large breasts,

they might be able to take more pleasure in their own

bodies, rather than spending large amounts of time and

money, and perhaps damaging their health, in an effort to

change them. This would not mean that they did not take

pleasure in their appearance, or that they had lost all

sense of fun and playfulness. It should go without saying

that a woman can enjoy clothes and makeup without loathing

her body.

Another way to see the continued relevance of critiques

like Bartkys and Bordos is to suppose that there came to

be a fashion in 21st century America for adult female foot-

binding, and 90 percent of women had their feet bound,

rendering it difficult to walk and causing permanent

damage. Imagine also these women report that they

genuinely wanted this, and found it enjoyable. The fact

that women report their experience in this way would not

keep us from worrying about the fashion, and its effectsor

from criticizing it. And that seems the right reaction.

The fact that something is freely chosen and gives

enjoyment does not mean that all discussion and critique

must cease.

Choice, rationality, and empowerment

A slightly different response focuses on the rationality of

women who choose to alter their appearances, even by

radical routes such as cosmetic surgery. Feminist

discussions of such alteration often give the impression

that the women who have such surgery are acting

irrationally, under some kind of compulsion, and that they

would stop doing this if only they were freed from the

tyranny of advertising and internalized unattainable

standards.25 But, Kathy Davis has argued, women's decisions

to alter their appearances should perhaps be understood in

a very different way. Women who attempt to live up to norms

of feminine appearance may be doing so very knowingly,

cynically, and intelligently. Davis suggests that women who

invest in even the most dangerous and expensive surgical

procedures the medical world has to offer often know

exactly what they are doing. Her interviews with such women

show that often they view the norms that they are trying to

live up to as bad or even ridiculous, but to have chosen

surgery as a solution to the problem posed by the existence

of these norms. For women who find themselves in a culture

that imposes upon them destructive norms, one solution

would be to reject these norms. But this solution brings

with it a price. It may impede their job advancement or

pose difficulties in their romantic lives, and it may even

prove psychologically impossible. Another solution, Davis

suggests, is to do whatever it takes to meet these norms,

and then to enjoy the benefits of one can gain from doing

so. Knowingly and consciously living up to feminine norms,

It is important to note that writers like Wolf and Bartky
do not explicitly endorse such views of women. Nonetheless,
their focus on the self-destructive aspects of womens
appearance-related behaviour might leave one with the
impression that they take it to be irrational.
then, can be a way for women to gain power rather than a

way of being rendered powerless. There need be nothing

irrational in such a decision.

Davis makes important points. Women who engage in plastic

surgery should not be viewed as mindless dupes who

capitulates to societal pressures and advertising.

However, if Davis is right about the rationality of their

decisions and the empowerment that come from their surgical

procedures, this is all the more reason to critique the

society which makes such decisions rational and empowering.

If plastic surgery is important to success in life, many

women will be doomed to the failure. After all, the vast

majority of women cannot afford plastic surgery.

Recognising the rationality of those who engage in plastic

surgery, then, does not diminish the need for criticizing

norms of feminine appearance. Davis herself recognizes

this. Still, she provides a much needed corrective by

emphasizing the rationality of what may appear to be purely

self-destructive decisions.

Pressures on Men

A final criticism is that pressure to conform to current

norms of appearances is not just a problem for women. Men

have, of course, always been expected to wear particular

styles of clothing, or to have particular hairstyles. But

in recent years, the expectations have grown. Men's

magazines have proliferated a few of them nearly as filled

as women's magazines with stories on how to get the perfect

body, and what clothes to wear. Men's makeup has in recent

years become a boom for the cosmetic industry. Male

appearance-related insecurity is growing. According to a

1994 survey, three of mens top six desires for themselves

were to be attractive to women, sexy, and good-

looking. Moreover, conformist pressures on men are, in

some ways, at least as strong as they are on women. It is

far more acceptable for women to wear traditionally male

attire, like trouser suits, than for men to wear

traditionally female attire, like skirts. Just as women are

expected to move, sit, and stand in delicate, feminine

ways, men are expected to use their bodies in masculine

waysand men who fail to use their bodies in gender-

appropriate ways will suffer social sanctions just as women

will. (This sort of conformist pressure should come as no

shock to the feminist critic of norms of feminine

behaviour: after all, this criticism involved comparing the

way women move with the way men move. If womens movements

have been socially conditioned, surely mens have too.) So,

this argument goes, feminists are making an enormous

mistake in thinking that there is anything special about

the pressures on women.26

There are many ways to respond to this argument. One is to

point out that the socially acceptable ways for men to

dress and move from are ones that convey power, while the

socially acceptable ways for women to dress and both are

ones that convey subordination. Men, on the contrary, are

meant to convey power through authoritative movements and

manners, and muscular physiques. The fact that there are

restrictions on both men and women, and then, may be less

important than the nature of these restrictions. Next, one

might note that women are far more likely than men to be

the victims of appearance related discrimination or to

damage their health by constant dieting. (REFS) The

pressures on women, then, seem (at least so far) to have a

much more damaging effect than the pressures on men. All

these reasons are good ones for feminists to take a

particular interest in norms of feminine appearance and in

the effects of these norms.

For an example of this sort of argument, see Walter.
But it is important also to acknowledge that the

appearance-related demands on men are indeed well worth

discussing. Acknowledging this, however, does nothing to

undermine the importance norms of appearance for women.

The fact that men, too, are increasingly subject to the

sorts of pressures that women have traditionally faced

should not be cheering to anyone. If both men and women

are now self-surveiling subjects, this signals not a

desirable gender equity, but a very sad state of affairs.

The criticisms feminists have developed of feminine norms

of appearance should perhaps be applied as well to

masculine norms of appearance. If anything, the fact that

such norms are now beginning to pressure both women and men

only demonstrates the urgency and importance of criticizing

them. Susan Bordo has done pioneering work on norms of

feminine appearance, and she has now turned her attention

to masculine appearance. In The Male Body, she writes,

If someone had told me in 1977 that n 1997 men would

comprise over a quarter of cosmetic-surgery pateients,
I would have been astounded. I never dreamed that
equality would move in the direction of men worrying
more about their looks rather than women worrying
less. I first suspected that something major was going
on when the guys in my gender classes stopped yawning
and passing snide notes when we discussed body issues,

and instead began to protest when the women talked as
though they were the only ones oppressed by
standards of beauty. (217-218)

The increasing pressure on men to conform to unattainable

standards of beauty is far from a sign of progress: it is,

instead, a sign that the problem has grown. The work

feminists have done on the pressures that women face is

now, to a growing degree, applicable to men as well. Caring

about ones appearance can be a fine thing, and freely

experimenting with ways of altering it can be enjoyable.

But all too often this is not at all what women, or even

men, are doing. Increasingly, we can all be seen as

devoting ourselves to the adornment of our prisons.