Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Beauty Dilemma

That day, one of my younger colleagues wore a pair of earrings, which made her face bright and beautiful, and she looked quite pretty and we, that is, all the female teachers, appreciated this. Meanwhile, one of our senior male colleagues made comments about her ‘so provocative’ get up. “What is the difference between ‘beautiful’ and ‘provocative?’ ” I asked that older teacher. And he replied, “Whatever it may be argued, but a teacher should keep herself away from any fashion.” I laughed and told him that “I wish if Betty Friedan were here, she could see how similar her ideas are with yours.” Certainly my old colleague doesn’t know who Betty Friedan is, so he considered it as a complement to him!

Betty Friedan (1921) was a leading figure in the "second wave" of the U.S. Women's Movement and is mostly known for her book The Feminine Mystique, which is considered as a succeeding effort of Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Simone’s great comment “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman” made her successor feminists so much influenced that the total attitude of second wave feminists changed. Simone wrote The Second Sex in 1949. In French, Le Deuxième Sexe. Jonathan Cape first translated it into English and it came to America in 1953. In that book, Simone wrote that patriarchy always attempts to trap a woman into an impossible ideal by denying the individuality and situation of all different kinds of women. Patriarchy tries to impose an authentic false aura of ‘womanhood’ in them.

In 1963, ten years after The Second Sex was published in America, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published. In this book, the author described the social pressures on women to be ‘beautiful’ as an example of a patriarchal society's conspiracy against them. She explained that to serve women as good consumers of the thousands of products and services, the fashion industry consciously manipulates its portrayal of women. Although Friedan's book focused primarily on advertising's images of women as housewives, in later periods, radical feminists focused on advertising’s use of sexual implication and feminine attraction to sell products, and the term ‘sex object’ was coined and became part of the English-speaking vocabulary.

The advertising industry was blamed, and there were protests against the cosmetic and fashion industries. Women were asked by these feminists to give up cosmetics and fashions. In 1968, a group of women picketing the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City tossed their bras in the garbage getting instant media coverage and hence, the term "bra-burners" entered the media vocabulary as a pejorative for feminists.

Then came Naomi Wolf and Ariel Levy with their books The Beauty Myth (1991) and Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005) respectively. Both the books are considered to be successors to The Feminine Mystique, where like Friedan, the writers argue that to make a woman interested in fashion and beauty culture is purely political and also a part of the process to maintain the patriarchal system. Naomi Wolf argues, in The Beauty Myth that American culture’s images of beauty -- found on television, in advertisements, women's magazines, and pornography -- are detrimental to women and are a weapon used to make women feel badly about themselves. In Ariel Levy’s book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, she states that there are two types of feminists: ‘lipstick feminists’ and ‘loophole women.’ According to Levy, lipstick feminists believe, for example, that stripping is empowering and that putting on a show to attract men (be it through makeup, clothing, or girl-on-girl gyration) is not contrary to the goals and ideals of feminism. These feminists sometimes exaggerated in their essays by adding overstated and false facts. These can be observed from few excerpts of Wolf’s book:

“A century ago, normal female activity, especially the kind that would lead women into power, was classified as ugly and sick. If a woman read too much, her uterus would 'atrophy.' If she kept on reading, her reproductive system would collapse and, according to the medical commentary of the day, 'we should have before us a repulsive and useless hybrid'...Participation in modernity, education and employment was portrayed as making Victorian women ill...Victorians protested women's higher education by fervidly imagining the damage it would do to their reproductive organs...and it was taken for granted that 'the education of women would sterilize them' and make them sexually unattractive: 'When a women displays scientific interest, then there is something out of order in her sexuality.”

Wolf was against the feminine idea of getting slim by just going on a diet to lose weight in order to make one’s fitness in beauty competitions. She claimed this tendency may create diseases like Anorexia and Bulimia. These are eating disorders. Wolf falsified facts in her said book, quoting “The American Anorexia and Bulimia Association” [reports] that “anorexia and bulimia strike one million American women every year...Each year 150,000 American women die of anorexia.” Later, Gloria Marie Steinem, a feminist journalist quoted the same facts in her book Revolution from Within (1992) which supported these facts. But after publication of The Beauty Myth, the president of the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association denied the fact. In a 1985 newsletter, the association hadn't referred to deaths at all, but rather to anorexia sufferers, a state prone to subjective assessment. In 1988, the National Center for Health Statistics reported 67 deaths from anorexia, and its Division of Vital Statistics reported 54 deaths in 1991. The figures used by these feminists for anorexia deaths are 2,238 and 2,777 percent greater than that found by any serious scientific source!

Many times western feminists, especially the second wave feminists, adopted these fanatics, falsified, or wrong determinations to challenge the patriarchal hegemony of the “sex/gender system.” Simone’s ideas made the feminists of the second wave keep themselves away from the masculine world. They refused to make themselves instruments (objects) towards masculine sexual pleasure and even kept themselves away from heterosexuality. We find the feminists of that time were either bisexual or lesbians. The result was that many women who generally supported feminism were not prepared to fully accept the ideological underpinnings proposed by these radicals and socialist feminists. Linda Scott, a pop singer feminist admits in her book Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism that feminism had suffered a lot because of its views on beauty and fashion.

Fashion is a barometer of cultural changes. It not only embraces clothing, but also accessories, jewelry, hairstyles, beauty, and body art. What we wear and how and when we wear it provides others with a shorthand to subtly read the surface of a social situation. Fashion is a form of non-verbal communication to indicate occupation, rank, gender, sexual availability, locality, class, wealth, and group affiliation. Fashion is a form of free speech. It is the best form of iconography we have to express individual identity. Popular personalities are known to us by their fashion.

For example, Mahatma Gandhi’s short ‘dhoti,’ bare body, round spectacles, and long stick is sufficient to make his iconography. Further, we can easily associate icons with Karl Marx for his thick beard, Abraham Lincoln for his attire, and Indira Gandhi for her short hair. In fact, cartoonists routinely use the individual fashion of a personality as a part of their iconography.

For centuries, the authority (state, society, or religion) tended to grip its control over individuals on the use of fashion. Emperor Napoleon stopped the import of English textiles and he revived the local fabric industry so that fine fabrics like tulle and batiste could be made there. To make women buy more material, he forbade them to wear the same dress more than once to court. During the Emergency in 1970, Indira Gandhi imposed a ban against the wearing of ‘bell bottom pants’ by girls and the keeping long ‘hippie hair’ by boys. Police were authorized to cut the pants and hairs of the students. I remember my father bought two ‘saris’ for me, though I was not comfortable with this long-wear style. The orthodox semi socio-political parties now run their schools in India, where they impose a dress code not only for students but also for teachers as well. In my state of Orissa and in other states also, the government has imposed dress codes for students. In Judaism and Islam, they have a written dress code in their Holy books. In many religions, though there are no written codes, a magnificent nonverbal practice has been traditionally continuing.

The authorities always show a reluctant attitude for any change in the system of fashion. Socially, there is a great difference between taboo and fashion. Every society prescribed fashions for different genders and the modification in these items are considered as fashion, but the use of the other gender’s item is called ‘taboo.’ Hence society considers cross-dressing as a taboo, not as a fashion.

Indian readers will remember that once, the orthodox Muslim Mullahs raised their objection on the wearing of short pants to Sania Mirza, an international tennis player. Ironically, she was asked to wear traditional Muslim dresses while playing tennis.

But history shows us that with the change of time, these taboos are sometimes also changed to fashion. In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, when trousers were first introduced for women instead of traditional skirts, The New York Times pointed out the trend as “A Curious Disease” in its editorial and wrote: women in trousers needed treatment in “the best conducted hospitals for the insane” ( see: The NY Times May 27, 1876 p.6 ).But after Second World War, trousers became the mass uniform for ladies. Trousers may have been begun to be worn during WW II as many women went to work in ammunitions and other factories there to help the war effort and due to the unavailability of men.
In the early 1980s, fashion designers tried to create a groundswell of skirt-wearing men in the previously skirt-phobic regions of the West, but the fashion never caught on with the public. So, we can’t say that the ‘market’ (which includes advertising) does not decide the trend of fashions but it is the consumer who decides what to adopt or what not to adopt.

Sometimes institutions or authorities introduce this cross-dressing as a new fashion to society. The woman empowerment policy of government in India made trouser and shirt as a mass uniform for the women members in the police and home guards. The leftist Maoist-Leninist Political Party, popularly known as Naxal in India, prepared their own comrades for guerilla warfare and they introduced trousers and shirts for its women fighters. Nobody asked the authenticity or peculiarity of these fashions or are these not counted as the cross-dressing?
In the third wave or post-modern era of feminism, some feminists came forward with their Avant-garde idea to save feminism in America. The long tradition of denying feminine mystique was again put on trial and the issue of personal appearance has been used repeatedly as an instrument of power and control within the women’s movement, reinforcing biases of class, education, and ethnicity. These Avant-garde feminists pointed out that people in every culture and throughout history have groomed and decorated themselves, and for a complex variety of reasons, not just sexual attraction.

The eighties saw a group of “American feminists” come forward to counter the ideas of The Beauty Myth and its followers. Lois Banner's American Beauty (1983), Rita Freedman's Beauty Bound (1985), and Valerie Steele's Fashion and Eroticism (1985) were some landmarks, which opposed the radical and social feminist’s idea that beauty and fashion subjugate over the power of women. They argued that the use of fashion and beauty products evolved as a rejection of the Victorian prohibition on sensual expression and that it is absurd to blame fashion, as such, for turning women into sexual objects as men and women look differently and do different things. Rather than considering beauty products as symbols of oppression, these new feminists urged the pragmatic recognition that beauty is one of the few paths to power that women have whether they be producing or consuming. For example, nearly all the founders of major cosmetics companies in America were women: Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein, Estée Lauder, Dorothy Gray, and others.

In India, feminism does not have such variances in dimension as in America. Here, still feminists show their neutral attitude for fashion and beauty. Rather the anti-feminists or misogyny attitudes try to get a control over feminine fashion and beauty culture. But there is a strange similarity in the attitude of Western social and radical feminists of the second wave and the patriarchal society of India as far as the sexual objectification of women is concerned. Both of them believe women have often been valued mainly for their physical attributes. Here in our country, the ‘izzat’ (prestige or pride) of a family means a lot and it is always associated with the ‘chastity’ of female members of the family. If a boy falls in love with a girl, the boy’s family does not have to care for the loss of their ‘izzat,’ but on the other hand the girl’s family feels they have lost their ‘izzat,’ when a daughter falls in love with a boy. So the ‘authority’ of a family often shows too much concern about the fashion, get up, and behavior of the female members of their family. The restrictions are enforced and different behaviourial codes are created. Though the ‘head of the family’ requires the female members of the family to obey that behavioural code, the male members of that same family may show excess affiliation towards the female of other families who are prone to fashion or beauty make ups.

But the contradictory fact is, still ‘beauty parlours’ are brooding up in small to smaller urban areas and even if in semi-urban villages. The tribal girls, who were supposed to adopt ‘natural’ get up, are also showing their fascination for stylish haircuts or in using cosmetics. The ‘fashion’ is not restricted to any age group and we can see all age groups (16-60) show their interest in beauty culture. Today, beauty parlours are not limited to just female customers; they have added male customers as well. Still reluctant attitudes have prevailed in society regarding feminine fashion.

Actually in our subcontinent, we are living with a great paradoxical confusion. The patriarchal restrictions differ with variance of caste, class, and even vary from region to region. In rural areas, the restrictions are more than in urban areas. In comparison to urban areas, those in the Metro (big cities) areas are more liberal. The liberal attitudes again depend on literacy also. So, in such a mixed and confused state, it is difficult to generalize any statement. But above all, it is true that still in India, the grip of patriarchy is very much present and most masculine groups, irrespective of caste, creed, class, region, or language, would not prefer to see that their ‘izzats’ (women in their families) are enjoying complete freedom like them.


  1. Dear Dr. Sarojini,
    Your article on Women's dress and fashion is enlightening and interesting. You have analysed well the history of patriarchal restriction on women's dress and behaviour, aided by literature. Your summing up, "it is true that still in India, the grip of patriarchy is very much present and most masculine groups, irrespective of caste, creed, class, region, or language, would not prefer to see that their ‘izzats’ (women in their families) are enjoying complete freedom like them" should open the eyes of 'superior' and tyrranical men.
    Prof. K. V. Dominic

  2. The 'beautiful' when put up as 'provocative' does not surprise most of us. I fully agree with you that still we encounter reluctant attitudes towards feminine fashion and unfortunately the line drawn for women for her appearance is by both the sexes.
    - Rajni

  3. Very interesting. More so, totally informative for anyone interested in the feminist movement.

  4. India, today is like a combination of many countries. Women of big cities like Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore cant identify themselves with this dilemma of 'beautiful vs provocative'anymore..for them, there are more choices than women in small cities or villages. For women like us, who have lived both the lives, this is very much transparent. We become provocative when we look beautiful, attempts to undermine the beauty is respected as descency. Who has the authority to decide about the definite dress codes for men and women ? Which law does justify a code to deny young girls to wear jeans and pants in colleges? We are a secular country, so who has the power to decide different dress codes for men and women? When state itself becomes a party to it, then can we call it a democracy? Patriarchy still has a strong hold in Indian way of thinking,living , in each level and unfortunately thats not the only reason for women's objectification. We, women are no less responsible for women's overall deprivation. Raising the voice against patriachy is the very first step that we should all begin with, with our next generation of women hopefully following us with more concrete steps. Western feminsim has moved on and its more open, liberal and continuosly evolving. I'm very hopeful that our Indian men and women would change their mind sets and women would be set free to release their excess baggage of family honour. This is a good and informative article. Thanks..

  5. Thanks for such a historical review of the feminism and fashion in your well-researched blog. Enjoyed reading it very much. Rolland Barthe has also written extensively on the mythology of contemporary culture, including fashion, from post-structuralist point. The fact is that by 2010, men and women are getting fully commodified and used as mere objects or pegs by the greedy ruthless fashion industry to promote the funky fashion called sexy by media. It is an inversion of human values and deification of the inanimate things.It is happening in every sector. Everybody is reified in mass society.Only money is sacred. This is anti-humanist and alarming development for any society.
    ---Sunil Sharma

  6. In late 19th century the constitution of America described citizens as "male". Women's rights movement began with the movement to end slavery. Even though women eventually won the right to vote in the early part of the 20th century it was not till 1964 Momentous civil's rights act that finally equal opportunity for women was won along with the civil rights of african americans.
    If America's history of recognizing women is merely 36 years old, then countries like India where "izzat" is an excuse for murder and being a woman is considered a do the math how long it will take for India to afford equal rights to women..

  7. Thought provoking article,written on fashion.

  8. Interesting subject,Dr.Sarojini. It's a sensible approach that you have done regarding this concept. Admirations !!

    Jean Paul

  9. Anonymous6:53 AM

    Dear Sarojini
    Wonderful article, wonderful observation nicely portrayed by you as a research article.
    But if feminism is such a burning issue till now then what about woman terrorists, filmstars who are so libearted in their life styles their drs codes and politicians and so many eminent personalities CEOs in great componies? does this dress issue bother them? Then why can not a woman just go beyond all this and try to be herself as best as she can.. and I have seen society and men also accpet them when they become real powr. is not it? mamata nani

  10. Congratulations!
    You are one of the 25 eminent Indian women!!!
    I do read your blog. I keep on downloading what is good for me

    Wish you all the best

    J Kaval

  11. Dear Sarojini,

    This is Sujatha Gopal from Hyderabad. I have been closely following your writings for a while now. Yesterday when I read The Dark Abode I was speechless.... this mail is a result of that. It depicts wonderfully the turmoil of Indian woman ... love is equated to sex and the woman keeps wanting for love and physical gratification. The story is bold enough and I guess will hit well with the malayalam readers. Unfortunately I can not say the same about Telugu readers. Happy writing.

  12. Whatever your senior colleague comments about beautifulness and provocations, I think it is wide spread, you will find people who think a teacher should be live like a saint, fashion is burlesque, it don’t compatible with learned people , instead it is a need of gross people.
    It is very difficult to define provocative and beautifulness, usually every fashion is provocative at beginning, and when people used to it than they think it is fashion. Defining code for schools, hospitals, or any organization should not be objectionable. We have to obey certain rules and regulation when at work or in educational institute, if dress code is included it does not matter; it is objectionable if it applied in private life.
    I have never heard the name of Betty Friedan, so maybe I feel compliment, if you comments about me, some time ignorance is also beneficial.
    The last paragraph “Actually in our subcontinent, we are living with a great paradoxical confusion ………………………………………………….. Would not prefer to see that their ‘izzats’ (women in their families) are enjoying complete freedom like them.”
    Of your Blog is very important.
    In my opinion it applies to the whole world, not only for subcontinent. Some ethical standards, like stealing, dishonesty, Hypocrisy etc are universal truth. They cannot change with the passage of time and place.
    But where beautifulness turns into provocations, liberal turns into fundamentalist and as a whole how men and women should passed their life is always relative not absolute.
    You will find tribal areas where women passes their life in home, if someone dare to go out with his wife with all accessories, like HIJAB or BURQA, he think he is liberal and his tribal folks are fundamentalist.
    But on contrary a large people in west who think that wearing clothes is unnecessary, if you have something why should hide it from other people. But they can’t exercise it in presence of fundamentalist who wear clothes. So they go to nude beaches, where women, men, children and all family members passed time without dress.
    Many years back, a British engineer stunned my friend by a revelation, (who work with him) that in home his whole family live without dress, only we wear dress (JUST TO AVOID THE PERSICUTIONS BY FUNDAMENTALISTS) when we go out or some guest came to our home.
    I don’t understand what is precisely mean “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman” by Simone De Beauvoir. But I can assume that she means Men convert women according to their need. How men convert a women not women convert a men according to her need. Their no deference between men and women ability at all except one thing, men is powerful than women. If a wrestling or any competition is held between men and women which require muscular power than we can say men will easily beat women. But any other competition women and men have equal ability,
    By this physical power men forced to women to become according to their need.
    I think the core issue is the slavery of women, if she is librated in real; sense, then if she adopt a fashion, it will not be to amuse her powerful partner men. I think at this point men are also requiring fashion to amuse his equal partner. Fashion becomes miserable if anyone forced to adopt it as it is the requirement of others.
    अगर ग़ॊर से देखा जाए तो एक माहोल पॆदा होजा ता हॆ, आदमी पर दबाओ होता हॆ के वो अपनी बीवी को दबा कर रखॆ इस में आदमी के घर की ऒरतें भी शामिल होती हॆं. जो आदमी अपनी बीवी को दबा कर नाहीं रखते वोह नामर्द केहलाते हॆं.ऒरतों से ऎसा बरताओ किया जाता हॆ जॆसे कोई भॆन्स पाली हुई हॆ.
    ये भी एक गलत फ़ॆहमी हॆ के मर्द सॆक्स को enjoy करते हें.एक बेजान जिस्म से कोई सॆक्स या ऒर कोई ज़िन्दगी का लुत्फ़ कोई किया उठा सकता हॆ. भेंस के साथ ज़िनदगी गुज़रने का किया फ़ाएदा.
    ऒरतों को इनसान समझना चाहिये अगर मरदों को जीने का मज़ा लेना हॆ.

  13. Anonymous12:26 PM

    How Feminism hurts women and men:
    "The Price of Equality"

    How men respond to Feminism:

  14. Reading your blog on beauty and provocation, I am very pleased to find you listing up the historical discussion of those feminists that picked up the issue that actually changed womens lives and influenced the society. Nowadays we in Europe have a sort of backlash, where men describe their sufferings and wine. But not willing to pick up the chance and change also.

  15. Thank you for this thought stimulating essay. You made me think about how patriarchy belief systems alway try to connect female beauty and sexuality as if they are automatically the same thing.

  16. yes this happens a lot all around
    in my young days, if some boys playing with girls would be called gals..we must see that both masculine and feminine can be contextual and are in all human beings.

  17. A well written article. I would research further any statistics given by the National Center for Health and the Division of Vital Statistics. I believe their reports are vastly different from the facts in many cases. You are free to call my statement "women's intuition".