Female Beautification: a choice or an obligation?

By Shoak Alhussami, MA Student

January 25, 2019

Concepts of beauty, especially those regarding individuals, shift over time and across cultures. Whether it is the slender body of Ancient Egypt or the plumper, more curvaceous figure of Victorian England, however, the culture of each era has always assigned a beauty ideal to which many women aspire. This fluctuation in the signification of beauty seems to be a proof that the only way a society has ever treated or viewed its women has been as bodies, or more precisely, objects to be altered and decorated. The whole purpose of a woman’s being in our societies then is one of a sexual nature, i.e., she exists to gratify the sexual needs and desires of others through a dictated external image: her body.

Feminism has been trying to liberate women of the feminized concepts of female beauty, and it sometimes succeeded. For example, because of feminist endeavors, women gradually ditched the restricting 16th century corset which lasted for over 300 years. But the fact remains that the fashion industry still managed to replace that tool of physical torture by another, albeit less unhealthy and more comfortable– the bra, which many of us wear to this day. So, what drives women, despite the growing awareness spread by feminism, to define ourselves in line with a given ideal?

A number of factors – societal, cultural and psychological – contribute to that drive. First, we want to avoid the ostracization brought upon by disobeying the strict norms of behavior and appearance placed on women by the patriarchal society. Seeking a high status within the prevailing social order, ranging from landing a decent job to receiving a handsome salary, is another incentive for conformity. In other words, beauty is used by businesses to assess women professionally, disregarding our intellectual and professional capacities. Some of the cultural factors, on the other hand, are mass media and the fashion industry, two patriarchal institutions which rely on creating and intensifying body insecurities among women. Women’s magazines of the ‘90s, for instance, were geared towards spreading thin ideals. The fashion industry too assumes an authoritative role over women’s bodies, determining their shapes and sizes. When companies design size-two clothes while the average woman wears a 14, they impose a pre-set measurement into which the buyer must fit instead of them accommodating their standards to all sizes. Finally, there are the psychological reasons which include (1) socialization of women to adopt certain feminine beauty standards resulting in internalizing an image of femininity through which we perceive ourselves and other females, and (2) a boost to self-confidence and self-esteem (ironically though, beautification feeds the very insecurities one is attempting to shed).

Looking at those reasons behind conformance, one might think that women are completely helpless, governed by circumstances and cannot resist beauty regimes; we are devoid of free will and are unable to “choose” better. But there is a diametrically opposed view, one which regards women as autonomous decision makers and free agents capable of navigating a range of choices even if the prevailing ones are socially and culturally mediated. Agency advocates reject the label ‘victim’ because they believe it fixes women in the stereotypical position of vulnerability, which is a valid criticism, but the problem is that they hold women accountable for our seemingly free choices in adopting beauty ideals. This act of victim-blaming further accuses the conformer of supporting patriarchy since standards of beauty are in-essence male-centric.

Going back to the question posed in the title, it is difficult to select one or the other view to answer it. It isn’t a clear-cut, black-or-white argument. Maybe a healthier, and more comprehensive approach would involve both opinions, i.e. we do make choices and govern our own lives, but this doesn’t and shouldn’t eliminate the fact that we are still culturally, socially, and psychologically conditioned. Equally important is the obligation that feminists owe not only to respect women’s “choices” when refraining from taking action and/or appearing to be participating in their own oppression, but also to work towards changing the circumstances that shape those choices.