Alexander Lynn

Jul 24, 2017

6 min read

Beauty for Sale

Female Body Image

Yolanda Lynn

What is the history of the problem?

To discern the history of the issue of female body image, one must discover its origins in commodity production, in the market economy, that is in the capitalist economic system. If we are to chart the chronology of beauty as a commodity in the origins of the capitalist system, then, first, it is clear that this economic system has been around for some 600 years. Capitalism has been the dominant economic system in the world for no more 400 years. (HistoryWorld.com, 2014).

The viewpoint that beauty as a commodity has been an issue “from time immemorial” or, in other words, that female body image for sale has been an issue of the entire history of humanity cannot be substantiated. In fact, the beauty of women has been linked exclusively to external features since the rise of photography in Europe, the production of magazines, and the rise of cinema and television in Europe and the United States. The particular external features which have been extolled and sold as the prototype of physical beauty — that is “white” (Western European), thin, tall, blonde hair and blue eyes — have been with us for less than 150 years (Penny, 2011).

As one analyst has proffered, the foundation stone historical event which generated the notion of European as beautiful and all others on a continuum away from “white” as less beautiful, is in the origin of “Western racial ideology [which] penetrated the whole world and especially the African societies during the Atlantic Slave Trade and European colonialism in Africa” (Tembo, 2010). Indeed, indigenous concepts of beauty the world over were never linked to the quantity “whiteness,” nor have they been tied to merely physical/external images. Indigenous concepts of beauty have always been indivisibly connected to internal considerations such as soul, character, and spirit (Davis, 2014).

Just as the development of the ideology of racism was prefigured by the development of slavery as a central economic feature of capitalist development in Europe and the United States, so too can the development of the images of female body as “beauty for sale” be traced to an economic source: According to Webster (2007),

By presenting an ideal look which is difficult to achieve and maintain the cosmetic and diet product industries are assured of growth and profits. It is estimated that the diet industry alone is worth $100 million (U.S.) a year. This is a lot of money and certainly worth their while to continue to foster emaciated women as being the norm (Webster).

Webster continues this line of thought by pointing out that women who are insecure about their bodies are more likely to purchase “beauty products,” new clothes, take more diet pills or buy other diet supplies. Webster says that women who are exposed to images of thin, young, air-brushed female bodies are more likely to experience depression, and loss of self-esteem, and are more likely to develop unhealthy eating habits. “The level of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are increasing rapidly every year. It is estimated that around 15 per cent of women and 1 percent of men have eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia or binge-eating some time in their life” (Webster).

How serious is the problem?

The problem is serious. Girls and women today feel so much pressure to reach an ideal that cannot be met that they are literally committing suicide, either by the installment plan of dangerously unhealthy dieting or by simply taking their lives due to despair. Naomi Wolf, author of a book entitled The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, explains that, “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one” (Wolf,2002) By this logic, not only do “beauty industry” businesses make money by promoting an unachievable ideal, but in addition male supremacist culture is provided with an image which creates a sense of dependence and weakness in women. After all, a woman who is half-starved so that she can impress a man, is a woman who is literally physically dependent upon others to stay alive. In this construct present day patriarchy and capitalism are coincident.

How do media images of women’s beauty affect young women? It makes them sad. Because they want to look like the images they see on TV.

When White American and European analysts are studied, the focus is on size and shape, while women of the other 84% of the world’s people focus on the racism associated with female body image for sale. As one young African American women recently pointed out:

“They are White images. If the model in the magazine is Black she is posing as an animal. If the model is White, she’ll be wearing some kind of floral print. But a Black model has to have some kind of leopard image on the print. When they pose, the Black model is showing her nails as if they are claws.”

Just as “thin and weak” sells as part of the dynamic of patriarchy (male supremacy) and the for-profit economy, so too is the effect of these images born of the coincidence of white supremacy and capitalism. According to Tembo, “it affects African Americans in the worst way as their experience with slavery may have been so total that they may have internalized this false and anachronistic racial ideology.” But the racism cuts in at least two directions for women of Color. They are perceived as “curvy,” with larger breasts and hips than White women. In this connection, the “thin as beautiful,” has a counterpart in of-Color, particularly African American communities, where “large is beautiful” can be just as much a stereotype of beauty, and just as false as the White/thin image.

One African American woman testified to the following: “Fat girls call themselves ‘curvy,’ even while they are ‘big’ to an unhealthy degree. It’s a problem. There is a concomitant reaction/reverberation in of-Color communities where, on one hand, women have different body shapes than White women, and on the other hand, these same women feel equally compelled to objectify themselves by obsessing about a particular shape and size being the ideal shape, even if it is not that of the dominant culture. One of my White friends was anorexic, her hair was falling out, her skin started turning colors, and one day she passed out. One of her friends (clearly a White girl) told her, ‘you seem to be gaining weight.’ I am 140 pounds and I feel fine. My friend is 110 pounds and she is crying everyday because she thinks she is over-weight. I’m waiting for the day when I meet an anorexic Black girl.”

How serious is the problem? It is very serious. As Penny insists, “Modern culture is obsessed with controlling women’s bodies. Our societies are saturated with images of unreal, idealized female beauty whilst real female bodies and the women who inhabit them are alienated from their own personal and political potential. Under modern capitalism, women are both consumers and consumed” (2011). Women are subject to and subject themselves to a constant bombardment of messages that say “we are not good enough, we don’t look right, and the only way we can look right is if we spend a lot of money working at it.” As has been pointed out earlier, the ideal body image ultimately cannot be bought because it is physically unattainable for most women — and this is a profit-making proposition for the ‘beauty industry.’ On the other hand, real human beauty is not a mere physical attribute that can be bought and sold. Real human beauty is an internal, spiritual issue. The problem is very serious when so many women can be separated from their own inherent physical and spiritual health.

References

Davis, Patricia Anne. (2014). “Walking in beauty.” https://nativeamericanconcepts.wordpress.com/walking-in-beauty/

HistoryWorld.com. (2014). “History of Capitalism.” http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/plaintexthistories.asp?historyid=aa49

Penny, Lauri. (2011). Meat market: Female flesh under capitalism. Zero Press.

Tembo, Mwizenge. (2010). The Rediscovery of the beautiful woman in African societies. http://people.bridgewater.edu/~mtembo/menu/articles/AfricanBeautyRevisedMarch162010.pdf,

Webster, Irana. (2007). “Media and influence on women’s body image.” http://www.articlesbase.com/wellness-articles/media-and-influence-on-womens-body-image232698.html?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=ab_paid_12&gclid=CIGVnd-VyrwCFURnOgodQR0AUw

Wolf, Naomi. (2002). The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. NewYork: Harper Perennial