Female bodies are and have nearly always been subject to control by men, and often by other women too. As if scared of women’s power, throughout the centuries, from America to Afghanistan, society has tried to mandate how women should appear, dress, and how much flesh they should or should not display.
Whatever the standard that is deemed acceptable for the time may depend on a lot, fashion trends, religion, a country’s culture, the mood of the era, even politics. Nevertheless, there is one universal constant that women’s appearances have always remained subject to and that has remained uniform throughout the ages – male approval.
The cultural codes that underpin what we find both acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to how women look have been hardwired into us by a deeply patriarchal system.
No wonder these “beauty norms” so conveniently line up with male desires. Whatever the male objective has been in any culture at the time, whether to repress women’s sexuality in the case of Saudi Arabia, or to hyper-feminize it in our Western Society, the beauty norms of any patriarchal culture always reflect male aims for women.
When chastity, purity, and fertile looking, plump flaxen haired maidens were sought after by the men in medieval times, as a way to self-actualize themselves as brave, God fearing knights, women were pressured to conform to these ideals and display modesty, purity, and fecundity in their outward appearance and dress.
When masculinity was threatened with the newfound independence many women enjoyed during the second world war, when, despite the turmoil of the times they enjoyed previously unheard of freedoms with many earning a wage for the first time, the repressive fifties demanded female bodies return to exaggerated and un-threatening hyper-femininity with cinched waist silhouettes, and painted starlet glamour.
In Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, where religion is a dominant force, women are forced to cover up their bodies, heads, and faces, lest they tempt men and dishonor their families.
And now, in our Western society, where opportunities for women in education and the workplace have never been so plentiful, society lashes back at women by mandating they starve themselves to the point of death to compensate for all the extra space they are seen to be demanding.
Running through it all still, and always, the overriding force remains the male gaze, which under patriarchy consistently gets to dictate cultural standards according to men’s desires.
And in the Western world, women frequently do men’s dirty work for them, enforcing and policing other women, and chastising them, lest they step out of line and dare to display an un-groomed bush or stray grey hair. In other patriarchal cultures like Saudi Arabia, women police other women too, reporting them lest their Burqa be too sheer, or too short, lest they be out in public without male accompaniment.
Of course, it’s incredibly tempting for women to do this as a survival technique, because by carrying out men’s dirty work for them, they win some small shred of male approval.
The patriarchy does like its handmaidens though it will ever respect them.
Although in countries like England and the USA, Western women are not beaten, imprisoned or publicly lashed if they do not comply with the dress code deemed acceptable by the ruling class -men- women are going along with the madness for fear of stigmatization, ridicule, body-shaming, humiliation, and exclusion from public society.
The psychic cosh is just as overwhelming as the physical one.
Although forcing appearance mandates on anyone could clearly never be right, it wouldn’t be nearly so bad if women were happy performing their prescribed “femininity role”- but the plain truth is they aren’t.
The things women do to their bodies in the name of beauty are not a choice as Liberal Feminism postures but a survival technique, that must be performed to escape ridicule, judgement, and humiliation.
The irony being or course, is that even when women do comply by performing these rituals they still cannot escape the judging eye, a woman can never be too beautiful, too perfect, too thin.
Nearly every woman feels dissatisfied with the way she looks, feels under pressure to be thinner, prettier, less hairy, more scented, to have bigger boobs, smaller boobs, a larger derriere, a smaller waist.
Assaulted by the mainstream media, who frequently shares a bed with that other bogey man, capitalist commerce, women are bombarded with all sorts of impossible and invented images of idealized women that in reality do not represent most women’s bodies at all.
The fashion industry, run by gay men and their handmaidens, who for obvious reasons, have their own personal ideals and muses, send stick thin, starved, boy-hipped models down the catwalk in overpriced garments made from sweatshop labor.
Fashion doesn’t even bother to conceal its scorn of its primary customer – women, with many prominent designers frequently refusing to make samples for the catwalk in anything above a dress size 6,and refusing to sell anything over a dress size 10.
To add insult to injury, the latest trend is to send male born models dressed as girls to walk the female catwalk shows. Models, such as the unnaturally beautiful Andreja Pejic widely praised as “looking better than the real thing” by the fashion crowd.
The real thing being biological women of course, and the message doesn’t need spelling out, the misogyny is obvious.
Yet a lot of women let this industry which is so blatantly contemptuous of them, of their sex, their bodies, their personhood, dictate to them what they should wear, and worse still, lower their self esteem when they don’t look like a prepubescent boy in it.
It’s astounding, that in this day and age, an industry whose patrons are predominantly women, does not have more female designers and is largely controlled by men, yet of the handful of women designers there are their attitudes are not much better.
Even the respected designer Stella McCartney, widely praised for her stance against cruelty to animals, and her acknowledgement of the problem of anorexia on the catwalk, still regularly sends women to walk the runways who look like they would benefit from a good feeding.
To compound the problem, stripper culture has become the new normal aesthetic as sported by celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Amber Rose, and the like, and it frequently gives women both complimentary and conflicting messages to the one the fashion industry sends.
Influenced by the porn industry, stripper culture seeks to amplify women’s discomfort with their own bodies by making them think their hips are not wide enough, their backsides too flat, their breasts and lips not pumped with enough collagen or silicone.
The cosmetics industry takes a big piece of the pie, making billions every year off of the back of women’s misery, and now the cosmetic surgery wants a literal slice of the action too, carving up female bodies for profit.
Promising everything but the truth – an unnatural appearance and permanent scarring – cosmetic surgeons ply their trade in the back of the same glossy magazines whose sole reason for being is to lower women’s self-esteem enough to make them want to spend.
This fits perfectly in with male objectives, yet now it does not even need to be overseen by men as it has become such a perfectly oiled machine it can run quite well on its own account with its little worker drones, aka women, who can be made miserable enough to supply the hive with plenty of honey, or hard cash.
But make no mistake, it is men who are the main benefactors of all this female body dsymorphia, from the CEO’s of mega-conglomerate cosmetics companies, to the group of lads in the pub who eagerly ogle the next batch of painted dolls who come tottering through the doors like lambs to the slaughter.
Now women are in a double bind, named and shamed as vacuous and vain when they comply and offer their bodies up to be primped, plucked, waxed, and buffed to an unnatural shine, and decried as ugly, fat, hideous, or unnatural, when they refuse.
Men, meanwhile sit there, at the top of the pile, all too ready to discard as irrelevant any woman who does not please whatever gets their sexual juices flowing. What gets their rev up, is usually any woman that can preserve the illusion of exaggerated femininity, as it allows insecure males to feel more masculine than in reality they are.
Masculine of course is a bullshit construct comprising a set of traits that in reality, anyone can possess, but that sort of thinking is not allowed under patriarchy, as it disturbs the illusion that only “men” can be “masculine”.
This is dangerous to the status quo as masculinity is considered to be superior, while femininity has been relegated to second class status, which is why they work so hard to force women to adopt it, so they can ensure women remain – second class citizens.
Of course, this feeling masculine is almost as mandatory for males as to be feminine is for females, the difference being of course that for centuries men have willingly concocted their own prisons, while women didn’t have any choice in the matter for fear of being ostracized, shunned, beaten, imprisoned, or worse
Now though, for the first time in history, and though society much resents the fact, women do have a little more say, though by no means no complete say over their compliance in the grotesque beauty dance.
If female people united together reject the plethora of snake oil creams, sweatshop garments, and slicing and dicing, you can bet that capitalism being subject to whatever is profitable would quickly switch to offering up something else.
Perhaps it might be garments women would actually find useful, clothes that could be worn without the natural female body having to be starved of all flesh?
However, the dance is not likely to stop anytime soon because the subtle message underlying the beauty, diet, and fashion industries is the message that to not buy, i.e. comply, is to be undesirable to men.
Women, having been inculcated since birth to appear desirable and pleasing to men above all else, lose all resolve and open their purses, spending thousands each year on unnecessary creams, lotions, treatments, and surgeries, that very often do nothing to improve their appearance and even harm it.
The beauty standards dictated to women regarding what is desirable are always male standards, whether they be the waif like, boyish figures heralded by the fashion industry or the exaggerated barbie doll proportions of the porn industry.
Everything from body hair to body fat is subject to male approval. Whatever the current collective consensus of men decides is desirable, you can bet will become the standard by which women measure themselves.
When Baywatch style breasts were what nearly every man decided he wanted in his bed, hundreds of thousands of women flocked to the cosmetic surgeon in order to obtain the perfect aka fake, Pamela Anderson style physique.
Now, it’s common to find comments left on porn sites by males critiquing women’s breasts, often shaming and ridiculing fake breasts that look obviously fake while simultaneously complaining about natural breasts that are “saggy like spaniel ears” or “flat like a schoolgirl’s”.
The point is, women have never set the beauty standard for themselves, much less decried the fact that there are any standards mandating how we should look at all. Always, the lens is male, even when the viewer is female, for typically we judge women on how attractive they will be to men, no matter whether we are man or woman ourselves.
And anytime anyone dares to question why there are so many societal limitations on women’s appearances, but none for men, they are hushed up with fake reassurances that “it’s what women want” or they “wouldn’t be doing it to themselves”.
Is it what women want?
Do women want to be made to feel they are not good enough, that they are never young enough, thin enough, pretty enough?
Do they really want to feel that their natural bodies are abhorrent and repulsive, that the hair that grows on their thighs and legs is so disgusting it must be regularly stripped away?
Do they too, want to feel that as they get older, they are irrelevant, society having no use for a woman at all, once she has stopped complying with the beauty standards.
Would any sane person want this?
I think not. In fact, it’s against any natural instinct we have as humans to want to subject ourselves to such subordination, such limitation, and such control.
It might not be so bad, if men too, were forced to conform to an equally narrow set of standards that dictated how they must look how broad their shoulders must be, how muscular their thighs.
Yet no such standards really exist, and though obviously, anyone deemed to be “conventionally” attractive gets more attention, including men, males are not penalized for not being aesthetically pleasing. Instead men are free to be old, bald, fat, saggy, and grey haired, and we do not demand their removal from our screens or criticize them on social media when they are these things.
Women too once again are complicit, albeit unwillingly, as we are brainwashed into thinking our wants, our desires don’t matter. And so, women don’t demand males live up to the muscled hunk of their late night fantasies, or the butch lesbian of their dreams, but instead rush to placate male egos by pretending that an old, fat, bald man is just as desirable as as handsome, chisel jawed heartthrob.
And all the while, women are being silently robbed of something arguably even more precious than self-respect – time – with grooming rituals that force them to spend endless hours plucking, tweezing, creaming, and straightening.
Energy too, is stolen from women, the hours spent shopping, the years spent fretting over their attractiveness, not to mention the slump in energy the body manifests whenever there is the serious deficit of calories advocated by most modern diets.
Between them, the fashion, beauty, and diet industries collectively rob women of their money, energy, and time, scattering their energies so effectively it’s a wonder women manage to achieve anything at all.
These industries shatter women’s self -esteem, tantalizing them with the promise of a pat on the head, by a male hand of course, if they buy. Then, they snatch hope away by continually brandishing images of stick thin supermodels, and now even boys who can beat them at their own game, so hated are natal females. This all works wonderfully to reinforce the message that to be born biologically female is to never be good enough, that a natural woman is simply not good enough.
And the constant, endless conveyor belt of plucked and buffed, waxed and carved, passive dolls, carries on, with women sometimes too spent by hours devoted to grooming, or too battered by society’s hatred of their natural state to resist.
But resist women must, for resistance and a resetting of the beauty norms is where true revolution begins, and is a key stone to lay if women’s liberation is the goal, as it should be.
If only 30% of females stopped mandating how other female bodied people should look we would see a vast change in public attitudes to female bodied appearances.
Imagine if that number of people, over a quarter of the population, stopped pushing the fact that natural hair on natural female bodies is repulsive?
If it wasn’t automatically considered so abhorrent by everyone, everywhere in our Western culture, I have no doubt that some women at least, would cease to perform this time consuming ritual.
If there wasn’t such a broad consensus on women’s appearances from the handmaiden’s of the patriarchy, and if more than an tiny, courageous, handful spoke out against the ludicrous beauty norms, we could go a long way to altering what was deemed pleasing and acceptable for the female form.
Imagine how things might be if that 30% grew to 51%? In a society like this every woman’s body would quickly be deemed to be acceptable because female bodies would now set standards for themselves.
Men’s attitudes would swiftly follow, whether they liked this or not, since men cannot live without women.
But in this brave new world, where female people embraced and demanded appreciation for all types of women’s bodies, men would be forced to appreciate women in their natural glory, once the primped, plucked barbie doll was no longer being so regularly served up.
Most would like it too, after a while, because straight men have always been attracted to women, even in times before we had the dubious blessing of cosmetic surgery, L’oreal, and Size Zero.
The truth is, controlling women’s appearances is not even about desire, though if it were it would still be heinously wrong and completely unacceptable.
It is a convenient way to control women themselves, which is what it is all about of course, since female bodied independence, liberation, and autonomy is a truly scary thing to males.
“If you can’t win an argument with a woman, just call them fat” said one delightful Daily Mail commentator, discussing how to handle women with another, yep you’ve guessed it man.
Says it all really.
Appearance is the psychic cosh which is used constantly against female bodies to hold back female minds. Just like the prospect of having Santa deliver us a sack of coal was used to make us behave when we wee younger.
If we comply with the beauty standards when we don’t want to it is because we are scared of receiving a sack of coal, aka public humiliation.
Yet the cheap plastic and saccharine sweet momentary distraction of the toys we’ve been bribed with for good behavior can never be sufficient to distract us from our right to be fully dimensional, free people, unbound to express and manifest our energy however we wish, whether that be shaven headed in jeans and a T-shirt or a full hipped and lush size eighteen in a mini skirt and heels.
Appearance and the way it’s presented is strongly linked to personhood, by reclaiming our right to express, look, and be how we want, and by giving other female bodied people permission to do the same we will take an important step towards changing societal attitudes regarding the appearance of women.