“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (de Beauvoir 1976, 267). When considering the prolific amount of advertisements inundating us with tips on how to obtain femininity and become the woman we want (or a man wants us) to be, this statement bears a ring of truth. Tania Modleski contends, “femininity in our culture is largely a male construct, a male “design,” and that this femininity is in fact a matter of external trappings, of roles and masquerade, without essence”(1988, 91). But who gave man the power to determine femininity or female beauty?
According to Simone de Beauvoir, it was Aristotle who first discussed what was wrong with woman: “The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities”(de Beauvoir, S. 1976, xvi) with St. Thomas following suit by referring to woman as an “imperfect man” (Ibid., xvi). Freud believed, “The discovery that she is castrated is a turning point in a girl’s growth” and is the only way a woman can reach “normal femininity” (Freud). Women have always been othered in order to maintain the hegemonic status quo.
In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan discussed the “problem that has no name” (1963, 19), which came about because of the “sense of dissatisfaction”(Friedan, B. 1963, 15) some women felt with their life of servitude to husband and children. They had been told, “they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity”(Ibid., 15) which of course was reliant on how they looked after their family, and their appearance. This left a lot of women feeling lonely, unable to talk about their discontent in fear of being ostracised.
For Naomi Wolf, magazines filled this fraternal gap, providing friendship and a forum for “woman-to-woman debate”(Wolf 1990, 72). However while providing this service, their primary reason for existence was to obtain “whatever the economy, their advertisers, and, during wartime, the government, needed at that moment from women” (ibid, 64). The 1950s saw magazines filled with advertisements for home appliances and cleaning products, but these have been replaced with adverts focusing on skin care and make-up: “So modern women’s magazines now centre on beauty work rather than housework” (ibid, 65). In a way, it was better for women when the focus was on the house.
The constant promotion of idealised beauty (or a particular version of beauty from a select few) contributes towards (or some might argue, is the major contributor to) the self-hatred that keeps the beauty, fashion and magazine industries alive. It makes perfect sense. In order to stimulate the need to consume the vast array of beautifying products available, women have to believe they are flawed. These “extreme contradictions between the positive and negative elements of the magazines’ message” (Wolf 1990, 70) are problematic because no matter how many empowering stories there might be in the publication, the underlying message is that women are just not good enough the way they are.
Naomi Wolf’s assertion that airbrushing “age off a woman’s face is to erase women’s identity, power, and history” (1990, 83) really made me think. I had never thought of it in the terms outlined by Wolf. As she states, the public outcry if “all positive images of blacks were routinely lightened” (Ibid., 83) would resonate throughout the media. However routinely changing a woman’s image is fine.
One might argue that airbrushing the image of one woman isn’t going to change the world. Firstly, the airbrushing happens a lot. Just leaf through the pages of a glossy magazine – any mature woman included, looks remarkably good for her age. Dalma Heyn admits, “retouching artists conspire to ‘help’ beautiful women look more beautiful; i.e., less their age” (quoted in Wolf 1990, 82). Secondly, it reflects on all women. The images represent what women are supposed to look like, so the “routine” airbrushing of age from a woman’s face promotes the message that older women should stay at home out of sight. (Kind of interesting for me living here in Dubai where you rarely see older Emirati women out in public.) To stay eternally young is a losing battle. Does anybody know anyone who thinks Joan Rivers looks attractive? Living in a world obsessed with being mutton dressed up as lamb is a testament to the fact we’ve lost our way.
Power comes from experience (okay, money too, but that also increases over time). Think of people who you think of as having power or authority – are their faces smooth, or do they have some lines? Power isn’t about being physically strong or rich; it’s about having the capacity to influence or being competent. This only comes through knowledge and experience. There’s a reason why so many leaders are older! We probably wouldn’t want a pretty, young thing heading our government. Politics might become nicer to watch, but without experience, the best decisions may not be made.
Airbrushing the history off a face connotes that what has gone before has no value. It belittles who that person has become; after all, we only become who we are because of our experiences. A face is the signpost of your background. Maori wear their moko with pride because it speaks of their whakapapa (ancestry) – the lines on a face have a similar meaning; they tell your personal, as opposed to your familial, ancestry.
Your face is the first thing other people see. Sure, we all can’t be supermodels, but surely that’s not the point. Your face should tell who you are, not be representative of a type. Maybe the “pressure from advertisers is endemic” (Tebbel 2000, 112) but setting up readers to believe they are inferior in order to please a client is obscene. Therefore I absolutely agree with Wolf, “To airbrush age off a woman’s face is to erase women’s identity, power, and history.” I see it as another way of maintaining patriarchy. If women can be persuaded we’re good enough the way we are, perhaps we won’t find the courage to succeed in male dominated fields.
Beauvoir, S. de. 1976, The Second Sex, ed. and trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: A.A Knopf.
Freiden, B. 1963, The Feminine Mystique, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, INC.
Modleski, T. 1988, ‘Femininity by design’, in The Women Who Know Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory / Tania Modleski. New York: Methuen, 1988. Chapter 6, pp 87-100, 134-136.
Tebbel, C. 2000. “Cosmetics/Magazine Industry: Periodical Pains,” in The Body Snatchers: How the Media Shapes Women. Sydney: Finch, 108-131.
Wolf, N. 1990, 'Culture', in The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are used Against Women. London: Vintage, 58-85.