The Lasting Grip of the Beauty Myth


In 1991, author Naomi Wolf challenged an entire generation of women to throw off the oppressive bindings of what she called The Beauty Myth and likened to a torturing Iron Maiden.  The modern concept of beauty was constricting, like a religion, violent.  A new, third wave of feminism was necessary to break through the last major stronghold of patriarchy — psychological subjugation.  Wolf treats beauty as a new religion, comparing anti-wrinkle cream to holy oil and day spas to ancient purification rituals.  Sufferers of anorexia and bulimia are not mentally unwell; they are political prisoners within their own skin.  Medicine has turned against healthy women, surgically altering them beyond the point of recognition.  The world of institutional glamor in which Wolf lives resembles a military state in which women can be fired for being either too sexy or too frumpy.  It is a world that needs a dramatic revolution.  It is a world that needs feminism.

Not this Iron Maiden (whether or not you think they're torture to listen to)

Not this Iron Maiden (whether or not you think they’re torture to listen to)

Twenty-one years later (the span of nearly my entire life), where are we?  Do women still need feminism?  Have we overcome the Beauty Myth?

My short answer is: Of course!  Don’t be silly.  Do you remember my trip to the Connecticut Forum?  The four panelists (Michelle Bernard, Ashley Judd, Connie Schultz and Gloria Steinem) did a pretty good job analyzing the current state of women both in the United States and abroad, and they all concluded that feminism is still an essential.

I was thinking about The Beauty Myth when I noticed through that Ashley Judd may or may not be running for office in the future.  Through some hyperlink clicking, I arrived at an essay written by Judd last April in which she talks about beauty.  Based on her story, I think it is safe to say that the religion of beauty has not gone away.

Last March, Ashley Judd was sick.  So very sick.  Logically, her doctor put her on a medication that, as a reaction, caused her face to puff up a little bit.  And instead of asking Ashley Judd what was going on with her face, the internet mongrels went through a barrage of insults under the assumption that she had had plastic surgery.

The Iron Maiden jabs its blades into my generation differently than it did to Wolf’s.  The presence of airbrushing in the media has long been exposed (though it still happens regularly, at least people know on some level that those models don’t look like that).  I can think of enough subcultures in the US, especially within youth culture, that propose alternate visions of what looks “beautiful.”  But by no means does that change or challenge the Beauty Myth.  If anything, the problem has become more insidious.  People still get hired or fired based on their looks.  Women are still being raped and blamed for it.  Women (and increasingly men) are still struggling with anorexia, and plastic surgery is still going strong.  And on top of all that, we have the internet.

THIS is what they're talking about!

THIS is what they’re talking about!  Iron Maiden!

The internet is the big difference between 1991 and now.  Not only are people hyper-connected to social networking, but the internet offers a level of anonymity and mystery — and the hecklers love it.  Ashley Judd was attacked because of her looks on the internet.  And her accusers didn’t let their comments hide in the shadows of constant disapproval; they ripped her to shreds.  And they could do so because of the remove of the internet.  When you’re staring at a computer screen, it’s even harder to recognize the very real human within the photo.

Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth at the cusp of third wave feminism.  Now that the third wave has come and broke on the beach, and I’m talking with my professors about feminism with the addendum, “Well, if you really want to talk in waves…”, where are we?  And what do we make of this internet culture?  Beauty is still a religious cult forcing itself onto women and men in our society, regardless of age or ethnicity.  The ideal standards may have shifted over time, but the standard still exists (as if Plato himself were the secretary women).

But this doesn’t have to be the end of the story.  In 1991, Naomi Wolf challenged her audience to assume a new wave of feminism.  That challenge, that rallying cry, is still ringing.  And as more and more people break out of their own Iron Maidens, we could see great change.  Even on the internet.  I want to end this post with a comic from drawn by Randall Munroe, bemoaning the treatment of women on the web.  So enjoy!

You can get to Munroe's website here!

You can get to Munroe’s website here!


At Home

For you Bill Bryson fans out there, I have not yet read At Home, but the allusion is there.  From my understanding, Bryson’s book is about home life in Victorian England.  And since home life for American women in the 1950s was closely related to home life in the Victorian period, I figure I can borrow the title.

During World War II, women had been urged in droves to enter the workforce and take manufacturing jobs.  The war effort rested on the work of these “Rosies” who built airplanes, parachutes, weapons, ships, you name it.  They built it all.  And then the soldiers came home.

As soon as the soldiers began coming home, the propaganda ads started singing a different tune.  Instead of Katharine Hepburn telling women to go become scientists, advertisements started using female doctors to tell other women that their place was in the home.  After living through two emergencies in the 30s and the 40s, women were finally sent back into their homes.

While at home, women were expected to take up the roles of mother and homemaker.  Suburbia blossomed, and family structure became more and more uniform throughout the middle class.  Women were wives, mothers, cooks, housekeepers — everything that they had been during the height of the Victorian period, with just as much restriction in their clothing.

The Victorians are famous for corsets that morphed and deformed the torsos of women, but the corset came back into fashion in the 50s.  Breasts were a big deal; they had to be big and high and oddly pointy (a shape that breasts just aren’t).  Skirts and dresses fell at that awkward place about mid calf.  With the discovery of artificial pearl growth, pearls became less expensive and an important sign of status.  High heels were a must.

Because people could afford to live on one salary in the 50s, middle class wives didn’t need to work.  They were able to stay at home and be wives and mothers, if they so desired.  Of course, if the middle class wife wanted to be in the work force, that was nearly impossible.  Public opinion was staunchly against working women.  Mothers especially needed to be in the home.

But what about today?  I’d be quick to say that we are far removed from the Victorian mentality of separate spheres, but are we really beyond the societal push to keep mothers at home?  Recently, I read “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter.  Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, left her high-powered government job in DC in order to be at home with her teenaged son more often.  During the two years that she worked in DC, Slaughter’s son began getting in trouble in school, so Slaughter made the decision that she was more needed in her family than in her government.

Throughout the op ed, Slaughter debunks the belief that women today can “have it all” — the job, the spouse, the children, and some time to do something else on the side — and shows how women today aren’t that much better-off than we were in the 50s.  She goes through a sequence of half-truths about career life and family life, explaining how “it’s possible if you marry the right person” and “it’s possible if you sequence it right” are dangerous assumptions that largely don’t pan out for most women.  Women are no longer stuck in the home, but many women with children have to face the choice between advancing professionally and staying at a lower-level job in order to spend time with their children.

Whether or not our popular understanding of men’s roles and women’s roles have changed since the 50s, workday schedules and school schedules have not.  As life span and general health into old age increases, people have more years during which they can advance professionally, but promotions are still tracked on the same time frame that they were in the 50s.  Even though video conferencing technology and the internet make working from home highly possible and possibly more efficient, companies still value time spent in the office over time spent actually working.  Slaughter pegs these unchanged systems as key stumbling blocks for mothers advancing in the workplace.  She also challenges the current value system in the United States that puts professional advancement over the pursuit of happiness.  Even though our conscious minds are far from the ideology of women at home in the 50s, our work culture is still deeply rooted in that tradition.  It’s a tradition that needs to change before mothers and fathers can truly balance career life and family life without feeling like something is missing from one or the other.

Dear Women, Please Vote This Year

Last night, I attended a panel discussion on campus featuring four prominent professors and moderated by the provost on a few of the important issues in this year’s election (healthcare, the economy, morality in leadership).  The discussion itself was fun, and it was interesting to see gender and race divides so clearly (the two white male professors in almost constant opposition to the two minority female professors), but the overwhelming consensus between them was the importance of a voting decision.  Dr. Carol Awasu from Nyack College’s social work program encouraged audience members to vote.  If you are a woman, if you are a minority, if you don’t own property, she reminded the audience, you did not always have the right to vote, and so you should vote.  Vote, because people have died to secure the right for you.

Especially in this election, which is the most gender-divided election in recent history, everyone who is able to vote should be voting.  We owe it to our predecessors — to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to Susan B. Anthony, to Alice Paul — to vote.  I almost don’t care who you vote for, so long as you vote (of course, I want people to vote my way, but I’d rather a fair exercise of free will than a bunch of people voting against conscience).

Susan B. Anthony

I think that’s what those wonderful suffragists would want to see: a fair exercise of free will.  That’s what they were after in pursuing equal suffrage.  As for how they would vote if they were alive today — I feel like my fair guess would be for Obama, and here’s why:

1) Party Allegiance would be inverted, and thus they would vote on principles as opposed to party.  After the Civil War, women’s suffrage split into two different camps, one aligning itself with the liberal Republicans and the other working to garner support from the more conservative Democrats.  Lucy Stone stuck with the Republican party, and those who followed suit worked to tie female suffrage with freedman (those who had until recently been slaves) suffrage, but when that move proved to be unsuccessful, they willingly took a back-burner position to freedman suffrage.  Now that women have the vote, a Republican suffragist from the mid-nineteenth century would likely choose to vote for Obama because of his egalitarian appeal and his insistence that female policymakers are necessary for appropriate lawmaking.  Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, frustrated by the sexism in the Republican party, broke off from their abolitionist roots and pursued a women’s rights platform through the Democratic party.  The Democrats, for the most part, were uninterested, but Stanton and Anthony persisted in their hunt for political equality in more than just the vote.  Fair pay, property ownership and child custody were also a part of their branch of the suffrage movement.  Stanton and Anthony would be drawn to Obama because of the Democratic Platform’s position on women.  All of these women would also be horrified by comments about rape that have come out of the Republican party during this election cycle (I’m looking at you, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock).  Don’t worry, women; Obama doesn’t understand their comments, either.

Lucy Stone

2) The restriction of voting rights that this election cycle has seen are abhorrent and being repudiated by the Democratic party.  In case you’ve missed it, several state governments have either successfully or unsuccessfully been implementing new voter registration laws that require voters to have excessive and unnecessary amounts of identification in order to vote.  My home state of Pennsylvania is also guilty in this; I chose to register here in New York instead.  If Alice Paul were alive today, you can bet that she would be vocally opposing this from all sides, and as such, she would align herself with today’s Democratic party.  Voting rights are an important part of the Democratic position, and the legislators who are creating the new voter id laws have largely been Republican.  Think I’m inflating things?  Check out this surprisingly astute Sarah Silverman video on voter id laws (my apologies for the profanity, if you find profanity an issue):

3) Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; Republicans voted almost unanimously against it.  Look at the vote results from the Senate on the 2009 act.  Of the 61 senators that voted in favor of Lily Ledbetter, only two of them were Republicans; however, of the 36 senators that voted against it, all of them were Republicans.  On top of that, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did not support the Lily Ledbetter Act in 2009 and he would not have signed it.  Would Romney overturn it if he reaches office?  He says not, but early suffragists Anthony and Stanton would still be casting their vote with Obama because of this law.  Though Anthony’s faction of suffrage did grow toward favoring the white middle class, she made a few concerted efforts to mobilize working class women to demand suffrage and fair pay.  Toward the beginning of the film Iron Jawed Angels, the characters of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns advertise for suffrage amongst working class women, recruiting Ruza Wenclawska.  Wenclawska, a Polish immigrant who changed her name to Rose Winslow, began working as a mill girl at age eleven.  She would be voting for Obama.

Ruza Wenclawska, aka Rose Winslow

Ultimately, I think these women would encourage anyone on the fence about voting for either candidate to vote, no matter what.  But they would probably be voting for Barack Obama.

Where Did They Get the Sugar?

About four years ago, I learned about modern-day slavery.  I couldn’t believe it; weren’t there international laws preventing slavery or something?  I’ve looked it up; there are.  But of course that doesn’t matter to people who want to enslave other people.  Human rights — who cares?

I cared, so at the beginning of my senior year of high school, under the tutelage of my older sister, I converted to fair trade only for coffee and chocolate (yes, I gave up eating chocolate).  I learned what constituted slavery (force, fraud and coercion) and what fair trade really meant.  I learned about the sex trade, something that weighs on my heart and gives me the itch of anger.  I got posters with facts about the cocoa trade and Fairtrade International (one of the two main fair trade labeling organizations).  I became a minor connoisseur of fair trade chocolate brands.  My favorite is Divine Chocolate, which is endorsed by Freema Agymen from Doctor Who/Law & Order UK!  Another good brand is Endangered Species Chocolate — not only is their chocolate fairly traded, but they donate part of the proceeds of each product to relief efforts for endangered species around the world.  Each bar that you buy has a picture of an endangered animal on the outside of the wrapper, and on the inside there is a brief overview of the animal, how it became endangered, and what it means for the chocolate to be fair trade.

My sister Kaleigh has always been a huge inspiration for me in my fair trade endeavors.  Probably because she is much more awesome than I am (who has bought fairly traded clothing?).  I remember the joint excitement the last time we were in Portugal together when we stumbled across this sign:

Gelado, anyone?

So fair trade is a big deal for me, and it’s a big deal for the world.  Due to the nature of international trade, we don’t always know where our products are coming from.  When we remain ignorant as to origins, we don’t have to deal with the truth of production (production which often includes slave labor).  A great video series to watch that talks about workforce exploitation is The Story of Stuff.

But the concept of fair trade is not new, not new at all.

Last week, I read The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina by Gerda Lerner.  Sarah and Angelina Grimké were famous abolitionists and women’s rights advocates in the first half of the nineteenth century.  And they went fair trade.  Of course, the language that they use for the same concept is different; they call it “free.”  But the label makes sense for their context — slavery was a legal institution, so “free” products were those produced without slave labor.  Today, something “free trade” would be a part of the free market (and generally the free market incites people to exploit other people).

Sarah and Angelina Grimké

So Sarah and Angelina, as well as Angelina’s beau and eventual spouse Theodore Weld all converted to free-grown products.  Even when the initiative proved to be difficult and most of the other abolitionists abandoned it, the Grimké sisters and Theodore stuck to it.  At Theo and Nina’s wedding (because they are close, personal friends and I can call them Theo and Nina), everything that they wore and ate was free-grown.  Where they got the sugar for the cake, I don’t know.

The end of institutionalized slavery in the United States was a major accomplishment for human rights, but only the beginning of a struggle that in its various shades and nuances have come to define the modern world.

Ann Romney, Eliza Pinckney, and Republican Motherhood

In case you’re not following U.S. politics, right now is a special tetra-annual occasion.  It’s election season!  And with this current election, our two major political parties are doing everything that they can to convince you (the voting populous) that your vote belongs with them.

Talk of the town at the RNC last month was Ann Romney’s passionate speech about love.  Deeply embedded within this speech is Ann’s concept of motherhood and nation.  She says, “It’s the moms of this nation — single, married, widowed — who really hold this country together. We’re the mothers, we’re the wives, we’re the grandmothers, we’re the big sisters, we’re the little sisters, we’re the daughters.”  Ann acknowledges the work that women do to keep this nation running, especially mothers.

I saw someone wearing a red dress the other day, and in my head I called it “Ann Romney Red”

“As a mom of five boys, do we want to raise our children to be afraid of success?” She asks the audience.  “Do we send our children out in the world with the advice, ‘Try to do… okay?'”  The obvious answer is no.  Ann is reminding American women of a legacy of motherhood that instills entrepreneurial spirit and high morality into children.  Ann is hearkening back to Republican Motherhood.

The phrase “Republican Motherhood” started cropping up around the time of the American Revolution.  As the political and economic structures of the colonies shifted and became an independent nation, the expected roles of women changed with them.  And one of the newest ideas was that women, not men, are be responsible for the moral upbringing of their children, so therefore they should be educated in virtue.

Abigail Adams famously begged her husband to “remember the ladies” and reminded him that “all men would be tyrants if they could.”  Abigail’s outspoken desire for women’s rights led to the creation of schools and academies for women.  Education for women (maybe even some autonomy?), within the budding nation, could only lead to stronger and better-developed citizens as generations progressed.

One chief example of a Republican Mother is Eliza Pinckney.  Born Eliza Lucas, she was educated in England until her father George Lucas (yes) moved the family to Carolina.  However, George was a traveling man and a major in the British army who spent much of his time in the West Indies.  Eliza, at age seventeen, took control of the family plantation in Carolina and began coaching her brothers through school in England via letters.

I’m only 90% sure that this is really a picture of Eliza Pinckney

Eliza believed in rationality and logic.  She hated frivolity in anything, and thought men were easily carried away by violence.  She was an avid letter writer, and kept copies of everything that she sent out.  Logic and temperance, in everything, were essential to her being.  She applied these traits to herself, and she applied herself to her work on the plantations.  And her work changed Carolina’s entire economy.  Within a decade of her first experiments growing indigo, for example, indigo became one of the main crops to be produced in Carolina.

And when she and her husband Charles started having children, she worked to ensure that her sons and daughter followed into this mold.  Her sons Charles Cotesworth and Thomas became great Revolutionary War heros, embodying the spirit of the new republic.  But Eliza’s work to raise her children within her ideals was not forgotten.  President Washington took a tour of the South and spent a considerable amount of time with the Pinckney family at Hampton, the home of Eliza’s only daughter Harriott Horry.  When Eliza Pinckney died, President Washington was one of the pallbearers at her funeral.

A Republican Mother was not just a housewife; she was an educated woman whose duty it was to instill national values and patriotism into her children.  She taught them morality, temperance, and work ethic.  Though she did not have political rights directly, a Republican Mother was able to influence the political world of men greatly by the sheer force of her character.

So when Ann Romney appeals to the women of the United States as mothers who make America what it is, she is adding into the tradition of Republican Motherhood.

Watch Ann Romney’s speech at CBS News

Read the transcript of Ann Romney’s speech at NPR

Witch People

Salem. March 1692.  Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good, and Tituba the slave are accused of witchcraft.  Both Sarahs claimed innocence, but Tituba confessed that “the Devil came to me and bid me serve him” (Find my source here!).  All three women were arrested.  The accusers — Elizabeth Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam — were all under the age of twelve.

Salem Witch Trials, image borrowed politely from UMKC

After the three initial arrests in Salem, an epidemic of witchcraft trials flooded the town and surrounding region.  Even the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good was accused; her testimony taken as evidence against her.  All told, twenty women were executed in Salem for witchcraft.  (Check out this other site from the University of Missouri – Kansas City)

But if they had had microcredit loans, they might have been able to stave off accusation.

CBS News reported back in 2009 about modern-day witch hunts in remote regions of India.  At the time of reporting, five people had recently been hacked to death for allegedly “practicing sorcery.”  Between 2004 and 2009, over 150 people had been killed under allegations of practicing witchcraft.

Sociologist Soma Chaudhuri from Michigan State University studied witch hunts in India for seven months, and one thing has seemed to work to dissuade witch accusations: microcredit loans.

Microcredit Group. Photo by Soma Chaudhuri, borrowed politely from Yahoo! News

Women in rural parts of India can apply for a low-interest, collateral free microcredit loan (equal to about $18) to start their own businesses.  Once involved in the loan program, women join a support group of other women who have started businesses.  A group of mobilized women can protect others from allegations of witch hunts.  Check what Yahoo! News has to say:

In one case documented in Chaudhuri’s study, a woman was accused of causing disease in livestock. Group members gathered in a vigil around her home and the home of the accuser. They stated their case to the accuser’s wife, who intervened. The accuser’s husband ultimately recanted his accusation and asked forgiveness.

Chaudhuri then goes on to say that the women involved in microcredit groups are able to resist the tradition of witch hunts because “they believe in the ideals of the microcredit group – in women’s development, family development and gender equality.”

Both the accusations of witchcraft in seventeenth century Salem and in twenty-first century India stem from heightened superstition and gender inequality.  The microcredit group that Chaudhuri observed in India is bringing balance and equality into the mix.  As empowered business owners, these women are able to stop witch hunts before they escalate into the mass chaos that defined Salem in 1692.