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.