Now it’s my turn to apologize for a late response to your last letter! As you know, my life has been rather busy the past month with my applications for graduate school. However, I did want to take the time to get back with you and let you know that I was quite impacted by what you shared.
Two specific issues were raised for me that I want to respond to: the general lack of knowledge about women’s history and the oppressiveness of beauty ideals.
The Importance of Women’s History
Every time I learn more about women’s history—and realize how misrepresented and untold it is—I have a strong and mixed reaction of anger and sadness. When I listened to the NPR segment you recommended about the 1968 Miss America pageant, I was reminded that it is the sensational and titillating that gets media attention. So, instead of young women growing up learning about courageous feminist consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s, we get this false image of militant women burning their bras. Instead of understanding why the pageant was a symbol of oppression, we just keep buying into the same belief that a woman’s value lies in how she looks in a swimsuit and high heels. Because history was not told, we’ve completely missed the point of why women needed to protest that event!
In Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, she writes of the absolute necessity of women knowing the history of their foremothers. She is hopeful that the teaching of women’s history is expanding, and that such knowledge will have a significant impact on our consciousness. Ulrich writes, “If Gerda Lerner is right in claiming that the core of women’s oppression has been an inability to access their own history, then this explosion of resources may presage more lasting change” (226).
I am glad Ulrich is hopeful, but from my own experience, I know that I often felt as if the only way to learn women’s history was to take classes in “women’s studies” because we were still somehow left out of the story of “real” history. In my late twenties, I am only now learning about the details of the suffrage movement and discovering women who should be household names, like Lucy Burns and Alice Paul. Or, just recently, I was reading the book you sent me—The Feminist Papers —and I could not believe how little I knew of Margaret Sanger’s work to make birth control legal! I kept asking why I was just now hearing about such important events in history.
The Continued Cruelty of Beauty Ideals
In discussing the protest and the bra-burning myth surrounding the 1968 Miss America Pageant, you briefly mentioned we should talk more at length about the topic of beauty and fashion, too. I totally agree; it’s an important subject, especially for second-wave and third-wave feminists to be discussing together. I am going to just touch on it here and begin the conversation. There is so much to say on this topic!
Recently, I feel like I have been becoming more and more aware of how toxic it feels to live in a culture that dictates such a narrow and constricted ideal of feminine beauty. I am sure you have seen Jean Kilbourne’s work on the image of women in advertising? (I will link her site here. It is really worth taking the time to look through.) The media’s image of a woman is a version that is not even a human being anymore, but a mismatch of body parts and photoshop. The ads are communicating over and over (Kilbourne says the average person is exposed to 3000 ads a day!) that a woman’s value is placed in an eroticized version of herself.
There is an internalized oppression that plays out for women who have the means to “buy” the look, or who may not have the means but still are sold that image. Women spend so much time, energy, and money trying to sculpt themselves. False beauty standards drive our consumerism. We don’t ask about the effects of these industries on the earth, or where the products come from and what kinds of companies are selling us this image we are desperate to attain.
False beauty standards drive not only consumerism, but also a mess of insecurity and misplaced value. As a culture we lose the beauty of particularity—only certain bodies and faces and skin color become what is defined as beautiful. This obsession with “lookism,” as Mary Pipher calls it in Reviving Ophelia, keeps us from being reflective, acting as agents, and using our voices to address real, pressing issues in our world. It is an insane distraction.
Personally, I enjoy clothes; I like wearing clothes that reflect my personality or how I am feeling that day. I love scarves, earrings, skirts. I think clothes are artistic and expressive. But, obviously what I am arguing against is an obsession with a narrow, mass produced image of beauty. I am arguing against losing the person for an image.
I realize in many ways this particular beauty ideal I am describing is the product of a highly affluent culture with the time and the means to obsess on such things as thinness and the latest fad. I am complaining about the “oppressiveness” of the fashion industry making commodities of the female body while there are girls in the world who literally have to sell their bodies to eat or afford books for school. I just recently read about young girls in Kenya who sell sex just to afford to buy their sanitary napkins so they can stay in school while the are having their periods. (You can read more about that here.)
Obviously, the commodification of the female body is on a spectrum. As a middle-class, North American, white feminist, I should use a word like “oppression” very carefully. But, I still do believe there is a kind of internalized oppression that comes from living in a culture with such restricted beauty ideals, and that those “ideals” are profoundly harmful, though they affect different women in different ways.
I wish young girls in America would grow up learning about why feminists of the ’60s and ’70s had to do what they did, instead of being fed such false images. The protest of the 1968 Miss America Pageant is a perfect example: the true substance of the historical moment was traded for a media-created fabrication.