Feminist therapist Susie Orbach says our society is in the grip of a unique "beauty terror" — we've become so obsessed with perfecting our bodies that we're making ourselves sick. But is this really new?
Orbach, author of Fat Is a Feminist Issue, writes in New Scientist,
Until very recently, we took our bodies for granted. We hoped we would be blessed with good health and, especially if we are female, good looks. Those who saw their body as their temple, or became magnificent athletes or iconic beauties, were the exception: we didn't expect to be like them.
But now "the notion of the empowered consumer, along with the workings of the diet, pharmaceutical, food, cosametic surgery and style industries, and the affordability and availability of their products have made us view our bodies as something we can and should perfect." Orbach cites extreme makeover shows, cosmetic surgery, baby heels, and amputee fetishes as examples of this new obsession with perfection. We agree that baby heels are a sign of the apocalypse, but amputee fetishism is really more about sexuality than beauty. And while boob jobs haven't been around forever, tattooing, piercing, and more severe modifications like neck lengthening are quite old.
So are standards of beauty. While it's always been easier for rich people to conform to these standards — in part because they frequently set them — far from true that average people have historically ignored their attractiveness. Makeup, for instance, is as old as the Ice Age, and enjoyed widespread, cross-class popularity in Regency England as well as post-WWI America.
Casting our obsession with beauty as a recent phenomenon muddles the issue — it pathologizes the age-old human interest in adornment. But Orbach does identify a more serious problem: "the homogeneous visual culture promoted by industries that depend on the breeding of body insecurity." Before the advent of mass culture, your tribe or city-state or kingdom might have been ideal of beauty, which might be constricting its own way, but now multinationals like Unilever can promote a worldwide ideal of bodily perfection that's arguably more damaging. Not only does the global-beauty complex reduce "body variety" and privilege one racial and ethnic makeup over others — it's also far more pervasive than anything present in the Ice Age. Luckily, women also have more education and economic power than at any other time in history, and thus more ability to fight back against standards of beauty we don't like. The problem isn't that women never used to care about beauty — or even that we shouldn't. It's that, as messages about beauty get more numerous, standards of beauty get narrower — and we don't have to stand for it.
Why do we need bras for babies? [New Scientist]