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Beauty is the beast.

Two years ago I began mentoring BUILD Beauty, a new college club for female students on my campus. BUILD stands for Believe in yourself, Undo negative thinking, Inspire others, Live fully, and Dream. Damaging images of women in the media motivated the undergraduate founder to create a sisterhood to help young women find other ways of valuing and evaluating themselves.

Her impetus didn't surprise me. Strong feelings about this topic had already arisen in an assignment in my Fiction Writing class: a dramatic monologue form of the short-short story that I call the rant. The objective is to unleash a narrator to freely associate on any topic. The results are often hilarious, sometimes heart-rending. That semester, for several women, the rants were both. Their female narrators ranted about the ever-changing fit of jeans, the capriciousness of clothing trends, and the conspiracy of labels to inflate sizing to seduce even large women into seeing themselves as an elusive size six. Rants also explored the expectations of guys and dating. Most of all, students ranted about celebrities, beauty, and fashion magazines. Nothing, these young women concluded through their rant personae, would more quickly bring on a fit of hopelessness characterized by donning sweatpants, lying on the couch and devouring a pint of ice cream than reading several beauty magazines in a row.

Fashion designer Betsey Johnson is widely quoted as having said, "Girls don't dress for boys; they dress for themselves and each other. If girls dressed for boys, they'd walk around naked." Yet, hilariously and painfully evident in my students' rants was their view that fashion was the greatest contributor to unrealistic beauty expectations in both genders generally, and to women's self-loathing in particular. Theirs is not the first generation to feel so. In her 1972 Esquire essay, "A Few Words about Breasts," humor writer and eventual filmmaker Nora Ephron laments the rigid 1950's "intolerance of [fiat-chested] androgyny," a physical category she ambivalently claimed as her own. Ephron remembers a salient moment as a budding teen: "'I want to buy a bra,' I said to my mother one night. 'What for?' she said." Ephron's love affairs as a grown woman revolved around her A cup: "There were men who minded and let me know that they minded. There were men who did not mind. In any case, I always minded." Miscast in the era of actress Jane Russell's va-va-voom curves, Ephron's lifelong nagging fear of being flat-chested contrasts with the current era in which litheness is the reigning taste and tabula rasa of fashion.

No matter how one is shaped, fashion seems to say, the trend favors what one is not. Considering the markets supported by fashion and beauty industries, this is not surprising. Watching even one episode of Project Runway, the reality series about aspiring fashion designers, reveals unequivocally that the fashion industry is purveyed not by visionaries in service to customers, but by (predominantly male) designers for whom women are merely animate delivery systems for the creativity of the label. Indeed, designer Karl Lagerfeld once proclaimed, "The woman is the most perfect doll that I have dressed with delight and admiration." Never is this attitude so clear as in the episodes of Project Runway that challenge aspiring designers to create clothing for "real" (read: variously sized and shaped) women.

The BUILD club founder noted that fashion often makes women hate the way they look, while beauty and fitness magazines and the rest of contemporary culture make women feel guilty for falling prey to low self-image. In Fiction Writing class she had ranted about it, and in the club she hoped to address this. I agreed that recognizing negative images for the harm they cause was a positive step, but getting young women to dislike media together didn't sound like much of a club to me. There would need to be something more. In the conversations that followed, the concept of BUILD was born.


Problematic right away was how to create something positive without simply substituting one set of images for another. If the raft of Internet stories and self-help books are any indication, believing in oneself is easiest when visualizing what one wants to be. Immediately, the students went looking for role models in the media. But docs seeing oneself as Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge or country music superstar Taylor Swift inspire a college student to become a better version of herself? Social psychologists Penelope Lockwood and Ziva Kunda suggest not in their 1999 study, "Increasing the Salience of One's Best Selves Can Undermine Inspiration by Outstanding Role Models," in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: "Outstanding others provoked self-enhancement and inspiration when their achievements appeared attainable, but not when these achievements seemed beyond reach."

Undoing negative thinking is largely a task of replacing self-defeating narratives with supportive ones and of visualizing differently. It seemed there was no way for these young women to envision a future or evaluate their progress except through images. Learning to accept themselves as larger rather than thinner was important. Yet replacing the airbrushed, whippet-thin supermodel Kate Moss with the voluptuous excess of reality TV star Kim Kardashian does little to reduce the power of images in the first place.

The funny business here lies in attempting to convince people that these proliferated exaggerations represent real women, particularly everyday, teenage, and millennial women. "Realistic" portrayals of women in the media, be they actress Jamie Lee Curtis photographed without makeup and regretting her plastic surgeries or comedian/talk show host Ellen DeGeneres air-brushed and hawking cosmetics, still accrue social significance--value or devaluation--as visual signifiers. The issue is not so much the role models we choose but that persistent norming ourselves against shifting images of beauty can spiral into self-doubt. As feminist Naomi Wolf writes in the 2002 reissue of her 1991 best-selling The Beauty Myth: "Most urgently, women's identity must be premised upon our 'beauty' so that we will remain vulnerable to outside approval, carrying the vital sensitive organ of self-esteem exposed to the air."

Building a new future for women surely requires that negative imagery be recognized, addressed, and refashioned. Even so, what might be more important is to look away from images entirely. If these young women in my classes hope to construct a different world in which they are measured on the content of their characters, and if any measure is evaluative and comparative, then upon what basis do they measure? To whom and in what ways ought they compare themselves?


Jennifer Siebel Newsom's 2011 documentary Miss Representation illustrates that even when women operate in the same high-powered careers as men, these women's physical appearance is overly remarked upon by media and becomes an inescapable measure of their worth. After viewing the film, several students in the BUILD club asked me if I had experienced similar gender discriminatory and stereotyping behaviors and images in my profession. Was there still a glass ceiling? Did I feel pressure? There is, and I do. Salary gaps and service load differences are widely reported in the publications of higher education. Scott Jaschik wrote last September in "Smoking Gun on Sexism?" for Inside Higher about a study in which evaluations by scientists of hypothetical student applications for lab managers revealed significant gender discrimination by both sexes against women. If representing women truthfully were all that media needed to do to level inequality in professions, then the fact that a study like the one Jaschik summarizes was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ought to motivate significant change.

BUILD Beauty members were surprised to hear me answer that students sometimes evaluate me more by my appearance than my colleagues do. Not for nothing did a student once provide as the main feedback on the course evaluation: "You don't look good in orange." My peers assess most of all my teaching, publications, and service. Yet student appraisals include, "She wears a lot of sexy shoes," and "Why did you cut your hair?" No wonder. In "Another Look at the Effects of Appearance, Gender, and Job Type on Performance-Based Decisions," a 1996 study in Psychology of Women Quarterly, Lisa M. Drogosz and Paul E. Levy discovered that apparent physical attractiveness resulted in higher evaluations for both male and female employees. Tellingly, this study demonstrated that attractiveness corresponded to the raters' perceptions of masculinity or femininity. In the broadest sense, then, my students' comments reveal a societal expectation that evaluating women's appearance is essential, at least to the next generation, to evaluating their work. More specifically, such remarks indicate a student population deeply focused on physical details, often to the exclusion of all else.


I would argue that the problem extends beyond socialized gender expectations, however. There is another type of funny business going on: we inhabit a period in human history in which American imagery becomes the means by which we know ourselves. In his short treatise On Fear (see a 1994 collection), Indian philosopher and public speaker Jiddu Krishnamurti observes that fear is not a reaction to a real threat, the thickening of the blood and quickening of the pulse, the preparation of the body for fight or flight. Fear, he maintains, is a state of perpetual psychological comparison in which the self does not live in the present, but instead exists in a discursive state of mind ever comparing the present moment to the past and projecting from the present into the future. Fear, according to Krishnamurti, is entirely psychological. We may be perfectly healthy and content. We can be provided for according to most if not all of psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Yet we worry that we may not have enough tomorrow or that we are not as good now--not as thin, not as wealthy, not as happy, not as healthy--as we might have been.

Krishnamurti and best-selling author Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now, 1997) encourage an active presence of mind as the key to mental health and happiness. Yet images bombard us. "Anywhere the Eye Can See, It's Likely to See an Ad," ran the headline of an article by Louise Story in The New York Times in January 2007--some 5,000 per day for city dwellers. Substituting positive images for negative ones docs not eliminate the dilemma that we read ourselves through images, no matter the kind. This (mis) interpretation places us in a state of persistent psychological comparison that blinds us to what and who we are in our actual lived present by measuring us constantly against (virtual) others or against imaginings of what we once were or might become. These virtual others and our imagined selves are, to an increasing degree, as real as we are.


In our postmodern world, mass-produced representations tend to lose their origins so that "it is the map that engenders the territory" and the real is scarcely discernible, as philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard explains in his 1981 book Simulacra and Simulations. Greg Garrard's Ecocriticim (Routledge, 2004) succinctly glosses Baudrillard's four "phases of the image" as follows:

* It is the reflection of a basic reality.

* It masks and perverts a basic reality.

* It masks the absence of a basic reality.

* It bears no relation to any reality whatever; it is its own pure simulacrum.

A variety of U.S. media studies that scrutinize misrepresentation and stereotyping tend to focus on the first two stages. For instance, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media calls itself "the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence the need for gender balance, reducing stereotyping and creating a wide variety of female characters for entertainment targeting children 11 and under." While I wholeheartedly support these goals, the very existence of such centers assumes the primacy of media as the predominant measure and shaper of our lives. Many media studies operate from the assumption that aesthetic and other qualities conveyed by media agents provide a link to real women's lives. Yet, the far-reaching thesis by linguist and semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure states that the relationship between a sign and the real-world thing denoting it is arbitrary. Just as Saussure sees no natural relationship between a word and its referential object, it is a particularly funny sort of business indeed to base one's sense of social outrage on the perception of a causal relationship between the inherent properties of the object (in this case, perhaps, a woman) and the signs (media images of tall or short, fair or dark, thick or thin) that denote her. If we believe an image can mask and pervert reality, then we assume the image is capable of reflecting reality in the first place--and therein lies the trouble.

We get into an unending slippery slope, another type of funny business, in trying to reconcile images from media with notions of beauty as a basic reality. In "What Do Men Really Want?," a March 2012 article in Psychology Today, Eric Jaffe examines, among other predilections, the figure preference men have about women. Psychological research shows that sociocconomically advanced societies fancy slender women, whereas in tougher times or in more resource-distressed cultures, an inclination for larger bodies prevails, perhaps because size evinces more access to food and money. This is why changing media images to reflect a broad spectrum of lived experience and altering fashion to fit a greater variety of body types, although egalitarian and desirable, do not fundamentally empower us. Instead, we need to acknowledge that these images are simulacra.


The English Romantic poet John Keats tells us in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." But in today's popular culture, images rarely signify beyond themselves to any truth we might call beauty. They are their own reality. Witness the simulacra of social media and Internet memes and Second Life. Our sense of ourselves (our attractiveness, success, happiness) in actual, lived experience is very much molded by the images in these virtual worlds to which we compare ourselves, and which increasingly measure us. Changing the images doesn't change this fact, only the criteria.

In advising the BUILD group, I have come to focus less on questions of beauty and more on the question of what it means to live fully. I want to be present in the lives of others, including and especially my family, my community, and my students. The work of the club has been meaningful, even as creating new visions has led us circuitously around and around this funny business of representation.

I think back to that day in Fiction Writing class when several students read their rants aloud. They saw funny business, pure and simple, in some of what passes for beauty in our culture, and although they did not have alternative visions to offer, their rants exuberantly called out, Hey! Things are not quite what they seem! I would call it beauty that all of us, the young men as well as the young women and I, engaged actively in listening to each other in a moment of communion. I would call it the funniest of business that we whooped and laughed.

Amy Sage Webb (Emporia State University former chapter president) is professor of English and Roe R. Cross Distinguished Professor at ESU. She co-directs the creative writing program and has served as president of the faculty. Webb has edited and served on the boards of numerous journals and presses. She is a consulting pedagogy specialist for Antioch University Los Angeles and has directed the pedagogy forums for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Her poetry and fiction appear in literary journals, and her collection of stories, Save Your Own Life, was published by Woodley Memorial Press in 2012. Webb earned degrees from Ohio University (B.S. in journalism), Kansas State University (M.A. in English) and Arizona State University (M.F.A. in creative writing). Email her at
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Author:Webb, Amy Sage
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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