Battling Against Our Bodies:


Patriarchy and the Construction of Feminine Beauty


By Carrie Hansen


Leicester University September 1988


Battling Against Our Bodies:


Patriarchy and the Construction of Feminine Beauty



            This article is about young heterosexual women and their bodies, the clothes they wear, the makeup they apply and the beauty routines they perform, based on a small scale intensive study of twelve young women from black and white ethnic groups in the Leicester area.

            From this data we attempt to make the following arguments:

i) That the ideals of beauty to which they aspired are social constructions.

ii) That concepts such as 'nature' and 'comfort' are modified to encompass the socially constructed ideals of feminine beauty and are revealed as contradictions in the women's descriptions of what they do.

iii) That the process of striving towards these ideals involves effort, anxiety and in some cases even desperation.

iv) That there seems to be more anxiety, effort, contrivance and artifice among working class respondents, though there are substantial similarities between working and middle class subgroups.

v) That rather than facilitating the expression of women's individuality and personality, fashion and beauty act to constrain and suppress women.

vi) That this assists the continuation of male dominance and the present form of heterosexual relations. To understand women's activities regarding fashion and beauty we have to take account of their subordinate, objectified position in society.

Battling against our bodies: Patriarchy and the construction of feminine beauty:



            This article is about young women and their attitude towards their bodies. We aim to look at their reasoning and rationale for the way they present themselves, and to link this with aspects of men's dominance in society.

            If we read magazines like 'Cosmopolitan', books like 'Joan Collins beauty book' (Collins, 1980) or 'The Good Looks Book' (Stoppard, 1980) the impression given is that women's physical appearance is a matter of individualistic self presentation. The products and practices which women may draw upon to increase their 'beauty' are chosen freely as part of a pleasurable process of self enhancement. There's academic backing for this view in the form of Argyle (1975) in 'Bodily Communication', where he argues that women and men choose how to present themselves so as to communicate something about themselves, for example 'status' and 'group membership'. Argyle does not problematise his belief that 'for women at least, sexual attractiveness is one of the most important aspects of appearance.' (p. 338). Moreover, within Argyle's work, and in psychology in general there is a pervasive individualism and an assumption that much of our appearance is 'voluntary'. For example 'attractiveness, like other aspects of appearance, can to a large degree, be regarded as  a sphere of non verbal communication which is under voluntary control' (Argyle, 1975, p. 339). Whereas this assumption of voluntariness has been regularly challenged by feminist writers (most recently Wolf, 1990) who indicate the feelings of compulsion and necessity surrounding the issue of appearance, we need to investigate further the extent to which women's appearance has been chosen for them rather than being self determined.

            The liberal discourse of self determination is often found alongside the belief that women are the more decorative and physically appealing gender. Whereas there are attempts to describe this as natural and inevitable our position corresponds more closely to that of Coward (1984) who argues that in rendering women the more aesthetic sex men also render them the subordinate sex. Our concern here is to lay out some of the aspects of what it feels like to be part of that aesthetic and subordinate sex and how this is accomplished. We recognize Game's (1991) point that the experience of femininity will not be the same for everyone, but we shall attempt to draw out some common themes.

            Several authors have attempted to describe how far women's appearance has been modified in different societies throughout history. Daly (1979) describes for example footbinding and female circumcision, whereas Lurie (1982) discusses the restrictive codes governing clothes and other adornments which women of different classes and cultures have worn through the ages. Lurie suggests that a significant part of women's experience of their bodies and their lives has been as decorative status symbols for men.

            These authors have generally made the assumption that male power will affect women's lives and that a society's representations of women (in the media or popular aesthetics) will tend to pressurise women and thus affect their attitudes and even modify their experience of their bodies.

            This article will investigate these assumptions, by examining how women respond to the pressure to pursue an impossible and shifting ideal of feminine beauty. We treat feminine beauty as a cultural construct. We do not believe that it is determined largely by biological properties or that male female differences in the beautification process arise from predetermined biological sex differences. We shall argue that the fact and aesthetics of feminine beauty are specifically contrived and maintained in support of patriarchal dominance.

Notes towards the definition of perspective.

            This paper is broadly informed by a socialist-feminist perspective, which explicitly invites us to consider the links between women's beauty routines and their subjugated position in society. Our politics do not necessarily prejudice the outcome of the study. Indeed, our attempt to make them explicit  derives from our belief, elegantly stated by Willis (1980) that “There is no truly untheoretical way to 'see' an 'object'. The object is only perceived and understood through an internal organisation of data, mediated by conceptual constructs and ways of Seeing the world.” (Willis, 1980, p. 90)

            Our perspective invites us to look beyond questions of individual attitudes and behaviour and explore the links between these and a social order which we believe to be intensely patriarchal. Women's beauty routines and experience is best understood in terms of how it fits in with their subjugated position within society. We have focused on beauty routines because we believe them to be qualitatively different from the self improvement routines practiced by men. We are critical of the pervasive notion that women's cosmetic routines are an enhancement of their natural beauty or part of any enjoyable or innocent expression of their individuality. Also, we are critical of the symbolic interactionist perspective (Goffman, 1959; 1968) concerned with the management of self presentation, or the self display of the anomalous, 'stigmatised' individual. This perspective does not fully get behind the response of mainstream society to 'stigma' and sees stigma as applying to unique individuals, rather than whole groups of people such as women. Goffman is also largely concerned with the self presentation of men. Whereas 'Gender advertisements' (1979) dealt with both sexes, it was concerned with advertising rather than the self presentation of people in their everyday lives. In dealing with women we need to modify the focus to include an account of their social position.

Method and discovery

            We don't have a single testable hypothesis. Rather, we conceive of this as an exploratory exercise concerned with women's own accounts. In addition to our predominant interpretive framework of gender divisions we have attempted some tentative interpretations in terms of social class. Women in a misogynist culture may share many of their experiences, but one of the most conspicuous ways in which their experiences and life chances differ is in terms of a constellation of privileges and inequalities which are usually condensed into the term 'class'. Our comparisons and conclusions are tentative, but it is nevertheless important to consider the interactions of sex inequalities with other divisions within our society, as it is our impression that the dominant conception of beauty and attractive femininity is anglocentric, youthful and middle class.

            The data collection for this study was done as part of a final year undergraduate project in the Sociology Department of Leicester University. Initially three young women from a local comprehensive school were interviewed to establish the best format for the investigation, formulating questions about their lifestyles, fashion, beauty and makeup. All three were white and aged 15. These three initial interviews were conducted with the cooperation of the school in the school library. Then twelve interviews were conducted with women aged between 17 and 19. Six of these subsequent interviews were conducted with women aged from 17 to 19 from a local sixth form college, and three of the remainder were recruited via a council funded women's centre in Leicester. This women's centre yielded three interviews with young white women aged from 17 - 19 and the final three were accomplished by approaching the 18 year old daughter of a neighbour and two of her friends, all three of whom were black. Women from the 6th form college were approached informally and interviewed in a mutually convenient private location. A total of fourteen approaches led to the completion of six successful interviews. There were many women of Asian parentage at the college but they disproportionately did not wish to be interviewed or did not turn up at the agreed time. Therefore all six respondents here were white.

            Class was judged primarily from the occupation of the father and mother, but also from the women's own occupations. We emphasised family occupations because of the likely influence of these on the participants' socialisation. Rather than invoke the complexity of the Market Research Society's A, B, C1, C2, D & E system we have made a simpler dichotomous distinction between working and middle class origins. Most mothers were housewives or in part time manual or clerical work. Therefore this method of classification caused problems only where apparently middle class women's mothers were reported to be doing a manual job and in the case of two women whose mothers were single parents.

            The interviews lasted a minimum of two and a half hours and were conducted by the first author (Hansen). The circumstances were deliberately kept informal and where possible refreshments were offered. Some notes were taken and with the participants' permission the sessions were tape recorded and transcribed. The aim was to simulate conversation yet cover predetermined topics, to share experience and build rapport as well as extract knowledge, in a participative manner, rather than the traditional voyeurism of social science (Currie and Kazi, 1987). In some cases two friends were interviewed together to give them confidence and to try to generate more frank dialogue. Oakley (1979) observed that when women research women there will always be an element of participant observation. Whereas a standard questionnaire might ensure direct comparability of results, even the most elementary facts of the 'beautification' process are not easily told in this way. Some of the issues like the time spent on shopping or on makeup routines and spending patterns could be established with standard questions but the more important aspects such as the women's attitudes toward what they do and the reasons and beliefs about why they do it requires more closely tailored probing than can easily be predicted at the questionnaire design stage.

            The loose structure of the interview also served as a limit to the discussion. Our informal experience suggests that there are many women who suffer a 'secret grief' about their bodies. We both have friends who self mutilate. We know women who sometimes burst into tears before they go out, or who cannot bear to look at themselves naked, or who will not eat in public in case people think they're 'making a pig of themselves', women who abuse laxatives or who will induce vomiting after eating. Very few of these people have come to the attention of mental health professionals and indeed don't want to. As the interviews were not conducted in any kind of therapeutic context it was not advisable to do anything which would lead to this kind of issue being raised. Equally it was felt that the issues of sexual desire and menstruation should not be raised. We are conscious of an ethical issue which is not mentioned in formal codes of ethics, but is nevertheless important. We are appropriating fragments of people's lives and experience and displaying them to a wider audience. Given the relatively intimate nature of our investigation, and that women are discriminated against, defined and observed by men we should remember the ethics of what we do and be conscious of the erosion of privacy which our study represents.

Results of the pilot study

            A number of striking points emerged from the three pilot interviews. Although these women aged about 15, did not have much money to spend they spent a lot of time on shopping, more so than the 17 - 19 year olds included in the later part of the study. They readily admitted to owning uncomfortable clothing. They also candidly admitted that for example tight jeans and high heels were 'worth the pain', again more so than the older participants, who were reluctant to admit that their tight clothing and heels were uncomfortable at all. Indeed the older participants particularly the middle class ones were manifestly against the principle of suffering to look good. The one middle class and two working class 15 year olds were on diets and apparently dissatisfied with their bodies. For example:

C.H.: 'Given unlimited amounts of money what lengths would you go to to look good?'

Pupil 1: 'Face lift, tummy tucks, fat removed from my legs and thighs and...I'm not sure about my nose, yes a nose job.'

Or the following:

Pupil 3: 'I'd rather be thinner, like a model...a fashion model of course, not a fat page three girl, and tall, but I wouldn't like to be too tall, you look bad with boys, it's weird being the tallest.'

These quotes illustrate two themes that emerged strongly in the later discussions. First, the unashamedly surgical ambitions many women had towards their bodies. Second, the very particular body type which was aspired to particularly by the middle class women. Like pupil 3 (assessed as middle class) many spoke of wanting to look tall: 'aloof and untouchable', 'a Vogue fashion model look'; 'like Gerry Hall'. The three pupils readily named people they'd like to look like: 'Daphne from "Neighbours"' 'Samantha Fox'; 'Christie Brinkley', whereas the older group seemed far more concerned to put across the view that they did not want to look like someone else. However the rest of the dialogue revealed that they were just as keen to not look like they did.

            Pupil 3 was concerned not to look like a 'Saff' - someone from the Saffron Lane Housing estate who, according to her, wears tight jeans and scuffed high heeled shoes. The difference between her own preferences in clothes and makeup and her description of a 'Saff'  was in the quality of her clothes, not as a result of totally different style rules. Perhaps the college students were better at expressing a more liberal version of the pressures they were under. For example:

C.H.: 'How do you decide what you're going to wear?

Pupil 3: 'Well if a boy said he didn't like it then I wouldn't wear it.'

Respondent 9 (Student): 'I don't care what people think of my clothes, I presume people agree with my assessment of myself.'

But later -

'I hate going shopping with my boyfriend, I never get to buy anything I like, he says "Oh that wouldn't suit you" and that's that.'

Results of the main study.

            In this section we shall present information from the twelve women aged 17 - 19. We will document the time, effort and money which goes into the women's self-presentation. We wish to draw attention to the contradiction which we feel exists between the popular images of female beautification as enjoyable, effortless and glamorous and the reality which we aim to present. We also want to enable discussion of body image in this context.

            Our interest in body image is connected with the issue of where the women feel their worth as a person lies and the extent to which this relates to how they perceive their bodies and the relationship of this with their self esteem.

            Finally we shall consider the question of eating habits and sketch the contradiction between the 'health' allegedly contingent on dieting and the way the women described restricting their food intake.

            i) Income and expenditure. Results were difficult to compare as the women lived with their families and different arrangements for the purchase of clothes and sundries existed in different households. In addition there is the question of what items may be borrowed off mothers, sisters and friends. Moreover the different desires and needs of the women, which seemed to cleave along class lines, correspond to the different lives they lead. All the middle class women were given money by their parents, anything from a minimum of 10 pounds a week. Half of these women's parents bought some of their clothes, usually more expensive items like coats and shoes, and in one case, all of her clothes, and covered their basic financial needs. Four women in this group had Saturday jobs. Incomes thus ranged from 10 to 41 pounds a week.

            In the working class sample approximately two thirds of their income after the payment of bills and 'keep' was spent on clothes and makeup. Working class parents didn't make any financial contributions to their daughters, and in four cases although they had as low an income as some of the middle class respondents they had to buy all of their clothes themselves. Whereas the gross income of working class respondents tended to be higher, after these expenses had been met, the weekly amounts available for discretionary spending tended to be rather lower, at around the 10 pound mark, than the 10 to 41 pounds which could be spent weekly, largely at the discretion of the middle class group.

            As our sample lived at home, we cannot easily see what hardships women would undergo in order to spend money on their appearance - in economic terms the 'opportunity cost' of their purchases.

            Overall, it seems as if both middle and working class parts of the sample spent about the same proportion of their income on clothes and the working class women spent marginally more on makeup.

            ii) Shopping. The responses to the question 'Who do you shop with?' revealed two consistent themes. First, the most regular shopping companions were other women like sisters, girlfriends and mothers. Second there was a strong opposition to shopping with men or boyfriends. Regarding this second point, the women's rationales were interesting:

Respondent 3: "Men get bored...they make it really boring."

Respondent 4: "They make sarky comments...they muck about."

Respondent 10: "It's not embarrassing, but they say they don't mind then look sort of lost."

Respondent 6: "They don't take it seriously, they crack jokes."

One women held a more ambivalent attitude:

Respondent 12: "It's O.K. shopping with men but if they're wealthy you feel pressured into buying something more expensive...certain expectations are placed on me."

            This brings out two further themes. First the high value placed on the company of women who can be trusted not to 'make sarky comments' and secondly the anxiety caused by a male shopping companion. The women were very sensitive to men's 'boredom' in this area, and the possibility that they would violate the closely guarded code of shopping etiquette. Also, possibly women felt guilty about the disorientation of the male shopping companion. McRobbie (1978) notes that women are often expected to endure the neglect of male companions, yet here we have women's solicitous concern about mens' possible boredom.

            When asked 'Who makes the decisions regarding what you will buy?' the replies resoundingly echoed the individualistic emphasis of magazines - 'I do'; 'Me'; 'It has to be your own choice or you  wouldn't wear it' and 'It's my own choice'. However, some ambivalence was later introduced into the picture:

Respondent 3: "If he said something was horrible, I couldn't buy it."

Speaking of her boyfriend -

Respondent 6: "I tell him about what I like, see what he thinks but it doesn't really affect me that much."

            When asked more bluntly "Do you dress for others, if so whom?" replies varied a great deal but hinted at the possible veto a boyfriend could exercise. For example:

Respondent 1: "I don't think about what my parents feel. My boyfriend never complains but he doesn't compliment either. He wouldn't say 'God, you need to lose weight'. He likes what I like, he's never specific about compliments, just 'you look nice today' or 'that doesn't suit you'."

Respondent 12: "I don't dress for men, for women if anyone, but initially for myself, it's not competitive. I want to feel I look as good as other women, I rarely dress for men."

            Although saying it's not competitive and not for men there is a residue of competitiveness with respondent 12, in that she feels she wants to look 'as good as' other women.

            iii) Clothes, shoes and comfort. Within the confines of what the clothing industry produces for women there appear to be style rules differentiating the two groups. These differences were not simply about the cost and quality of the clothes and as a way of indicating higher class. These style rules favoured the middle class women in that they were more concerned to wear clothes that might genuinely be called comfortable, particularly in terms of everyday clothes, but for evening wear the prevalence of high heels was roughly similar for both groups.

            In the women's discourse about what they wear we have some curious contradictions. Some of those who professed a commitment to comfort and utility in clothes revealed other orientations to clothing elsewhere in the discussion. For example respondent 10: (speaking of shoes).

Respondent 10: "...pointed toes will crush my toes. Clothes have to be comfortable."


" long as it was comfortable I'd wear almost anything."

But later she presented a very different story:

Respondent 10: "Shoes when they're new take weeks of agony to wear in, when I wear jeans and a bra I feel really strapped in. I had one pair, I couldn't breath in them - in an effort to look thin I just end up looking fatter and have to undo a button after dinner."

Respondent 11 expressed similar views, and interestingly

displayed a similar contradiction:

Respondent 11: "I wouldn't wear clothes that aren't versatile and comfortable."


"People look ridiculous in tight clothes, I always wear clothes I'm comfortable in or I wouldn't be comfortable with myself. I'd keep pulling at my clothes.."

But she prefers not to shop with her mother because:

"She makes such a fuss. Like a few weeks ago I wanted to buy a dress with a sort of pencil skirt. and she says (imitated voice) 'You can't wear that you won't be able to walk'."

            In counterposing the quotes from these women we are not trying to make them appear ridiculous or suggest that they do not know their own minds. Rather, it is our intention to expose the contradictions of fashion, whereby the general manifest position of comfort and convenience is contradicted by the specific clothes that people describe themselves as wearing. Moreover, it is as if there is no public way of protesting against fashion, because the overriding commonsense of only wearing what is comfortable blots out the interstices of grief and discomfort which our respondents sometimes inhabit.

            These contradictions were particularly noticeable when it came to shoes. If asked outright whether they wear anything which was uncomfortable respondents denied that they did, yet also admitted to wearing things like pencil skirts and high heels. Regarding high heels, respondents willingly related tales of humiliation and pain, tripping up and getting stilettoes caught in drain covers. Also, problems like ingrowing toenails, corns, blisters and cuts from shoes seemed commonplace. If anything this damage was more widely reported  by working class respondents. Perhaps this is to do with middle class women wearing high heels less. It might also be to do with differences which we did not consider at the time like access to transport, different kinds of shoes for different occasions, or even different subcultures of complaint among the two group of women - perhaps a middle class stiff upper lip.

            It is particularly salient that the word comfort does not seem to refer to bodily sensations but seems to have been colonised by the 'fashion system '. Perhaps comfort is not solely about physical sensations but about a sort of mental 'comfort', that is, being comfortable in the knowledge that one can withstand other people's judgemental scrutiny. Bartky (1990) draws explicit parallels with Foucault's (1979) idea of power being exercised over people because they feel they're under observation, as in Jeremy Bentham's now famous panopticon. Knowing they may be observed at any time, women take on the task of policing themselves. John Berger (1972) proposed that men look and women watch themselves being looked at. The comfort might be a comfort in being a suitable 'object and most particularly an object of vision' (Berger, 1972, p. 46). The kind of contradictions surrounding comfort were also visible when respondents were asked about makeup and beauty routines.

            iv) Makeup, cosmetic and body products and procedures. Many respondents professed that they wanted to look 'natural'. It seems as if the words 'nature' and 'natural' were subject to ideological modification like the word 'comfort'. In their makeup and overall 'look' most of the women wanted to be 'natural'. One implied the belief in the following way:

Q: "What's your daily beauty routine like?"

Respondent 3: "Daily? Probably only eyeliner or mascara, so not like actual eye makeup; I don't wear enough for it to notice."

            Many saw the actual process of making up as a similarly 'natural' process which had to be both effortless and almost motiveless.

Respondent 10: "I'm so used to it, (making up) it just comes naturally, just two minutes in the morning."

Subsequently, it was revealed that her morning beauty routine was closer to 20 minutes.

Respondent 6: "I'd never walk out of the house during the day without a bit, its just a habit."

Respondent 6 was one of the heavier makeup users in the sample, judging by her responses.

Respondent 1: "I enjoy wearing makeup, it helps you get into night clubs."

            The dubious concept of nature was much more prominent with respect to body hair which was considered 'undesirable', 'unnatural' and 'unfeminine'. Respondent 5 for example shaved her legs "as often as they needed it" (suggesting need resided in the legs rather than in her mind or in the ideologies of beauty) because "In shorts, you'd have horribly stubbly legs". But stubble appears in the aftermath of shaving. Spotting CH's own hairy legs she added "It's OK if it's really light hair but mine would be really hairy". She also discussed when she started shaving her legs: "I suppose it started at school - you want to look really feminine, I did it because everyone else did, that's the only reason" - again almost occluding her own role in the process.

            An explanation for why she shaved her legs was provided however by respondent 12.

Respondent 12: "I don't like my legs feeling hairy, I don't like leg hair. I know it's only conditioning, foreign women don't bother but when you're used to it [having none] it just looks really abnormal." Thus, in this respondent's view leg shaving is local to the British Isles, and she proposes a psychological mechanism by which the process is inculcated - 'conditioning' - but nevertheless the tendency to shave her legs supervenes lest abnormality occur. Normal and its sometimes unspoken antonym abnormal are powerful categories in the discourse of magazines (Knight, 1989).

            Respondent 5's shaving her legs because they would be "really hairy otherwise" recollects Dale Spender's (1985) hypothesis about why women are thought of as the talkative gender when in the situations where studies have been conducted men talk more. Spender argues that women are not being compared to men but to silence, a more 'appropriate' state for women. Similarly Respondent 5 is not comparing herself with other women or with men, but with hairlessness - again a more 'appropriate' or 'feminine' state.

            Most women who plucked their eyebrows did so to remove 'stragglers' - those unruly hairs which, it is implied have strayed from their natural position; the perfect arch above the eye. Respondent 1 summed up this hijacked version of 'natural' when C.H. asked what she meant by the term.

Respondent 1: "Someone who doesn't have to wear makeup to look better, who is naturally presentable, has a tidy appearance, someone without spots." Notice that this version of natural doesn't specify a gender, but involves presentableness and the absence of blemishes. It doesn't necessarily seem to be about femininity or beauty.

            However, natural seems to mean conforming with the ideal effortlessly, without the artifice of makeup. Perhaps so the 20 minutes in the morning is compressed into 'just a couple of minutes' (respondent 10 above). Or so that the makeup is applied so as to look as if you haven't any on (Respondent 3).

            If women who can adhere to the standards of feminine beauty without makeup are called 'natural' then this implies that the women in this sample must consider themselves 'unnatural'. Moreover, it is almost as if naturalness has to be striven for and achieved through a struggle against the ungainly and unsightly forms to which one's body might revert if vigilance is relaxed. Nature here is rather like the mediaeval vision of the garden of Eden - cultivated and controlled (Inglehart, 1977). The chaos of spots, fat and 'unwanted hair' - the real nature of bodies - might reemerge through the weak spots in this constructed, cultivated nature.

            v) Needs. In the same way that we have indicated contradictions in the ideas of nature and comfort, some further ideas or themes with ideological connotations are apparent in the women's talk. We shall deal with two examples of this, namely the themes of 'need' and 'hygiene'.

            To deal first with need, it was remarkable how women described their beauty practices as necessary. Respondent 5, who shaved her legs "whenever they need it" also stated "I don't need to wear heels - I'm too tall anyway". Respondent 10 said of clothes shopping "If I go at the last minute and need something for the night I'll just grab anything, wear it once and never again, I just had to have something." She also has to wear makeup to cover "spots and blemishes". On armpit hair she reports: "It's OK if it's covered up or else it's gorilla-ish, anyway women are expected to shave."

            The nature of these apparent needs tempts us to consider the Marxist concept of false needs as a way of understanding the phenomena here, as these needs do not originate in the triad of food, water and shelter necessary to sustain life. The concept of false needs in Marxist economics applies to needs arising from the requirements of production (exchange value) rather than the use value. At first glance it seems very much against women's interests to adorn and transform themselves in this way. However, in a patriarchal society where rewards can be contingent on conforming to an aesthetic ideal and status depends on the man you can attract it can be in women's material and social interests to conform. Indeed there seems to be some degree of insecurity about not conforming. Whereas we do not have any pithy quotes which sum up the situation of not conforming, we may perhaps speculate as to what nonconformity might mean. It might imply subhumanness (hairy legs are 'gorilla-ish'), or might imply a kind of self inflicted female to male transexualism. It might also imply lesbianism or be associated with someone who has failed as a woman and can attract no male partner.

            It seems as if femininity is something to achieve, not a biological given like masculinity. Aside from men's behaviour during shopping, the women did not problematise and agonise over the nature of masculinity in the same way that they agonised over themselves. It seems likely that this self admonishment is different from any such activity that men do to themselves. The insightful joke about men suffering from penis envy apart, men may fantasize about power and competence or securing the admiration of (female) others. Or participate in peculiar rituals with other men (Horsfield, 1991). Yet this is not quite the same as the self chastising shame (Bartky, 1990) which is specific to women. To be a woman is to be beautiful and to not be beautiful is to be somehow unfeminine or unwomanly. The makeup and beauty routines may be the mark of femininity, and might also be the mark of heterosexuality, normality or acceptability.

            vi) Hygiene. A popular rationale for the beauty routines to which respondents subjected themselves was to render the body clean. Removing body hair was important in this case. For example one woman was so concerned about the existence of underarm hair that she referred to its removal as 'de-lousing'. Armpits could only be hygienic if you shaved them. Left to themselves, the implication was, they could never be clean. This corresponds to the work of Douglas (1966) who argues that women tend to view their bodies as essentially polluted. She also argues that “Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organise the environment.” (Douglas, 1966, p. 2)

Shorter (1982) argues that women's bodies have throughout history been regarded as essentially unclean by men. This is particularly so at the time of menstruation and pregnancy. It is tempting to see the women's pursuit of hygiene as an aspect of this historical sediment of negative 'common sense' (Gramsci, 1971) surrounding cleanliness and women. Ussher (1989) dissects out and explodes some of the myths surrounding puberty, menstruation and menopause in women, particularly the associations between these phenomena and illness and dirt. In the same way, it appears that there are powerful myths linking the beautifcation process with hygiene.

            vii) Body image and the primacy of appearance. Finally, in the last two sections we would like to consider briefly the issues of body image and dieting. The women whose quotes we have presented here do not live unproblematically in their bodies. The beauty routines they engaged in are evidence of some form of objectification. Participants felt highly self conscious, as indicated by their responses to the question of how they felt about communal changing rooms:

Respondent 3: "I feel self-conscious, I think Oh my God! people are looking. I don't mind if I'm with a friend, but I always feel like people are looking."

Respondent 2: "I'm more self confident if I'm with someone else. If I'm on my own I won't change, I feel too self conscious."

Respondent 12 felt self conscious in many other situations:

Respondent 12: "When I go to town I get eyed up by middle aged men."

Moreover, she infers that their inspection has some

distinctive qualities:

Respondent 12: "Older men study [look more carefully?] women more, they wouldn't go for a woman just because she's good looking, they'd give you more of a chance."

            It seems as if the women's self consciousness is connected with the judgemental scrutiny they felt themselves to be under. Also, they looked at other women themselves. For example, consider the following answers to the question 'Do you look at other women when using communal changing rooms?'

Respondent 12: "Yes I do. I look at what they're trying on. I assume everyone is looking at me. I compare my shape and theirs, figures, and think, why do I bother? or I'm not that bad. It's a sneaky look really, it's competitive. If you're with a friend you talk to each other [they might say] 'She looks awful in that'"

Respondent 3: "I always get stuck next to the tall, slim blonde. You know, the stereotype of what men like."

            Presumably Respondent 3 is complaining about the comparison between herself and how she sees the other person. Berger (1972 p. 46) suggests that in this sense women have internalised a little of what they perceive the male surveyor to be. It is as if the women perceive some hierarchy of attractiveness and are trying to fit in with this. The term 'competition' was mentioned twice in this regard. If women are in competition however, this does not mean that they control the rules of the game or the standards by which they feel they are judged.

            Freedman (1988) says women become preoccupied with how they look to other people because they are studied intently by others, mostly men. Okley (1980) suggests that women feel uncomfortable because all through their childhood they are discouraged from unselfconsciously enjoying their bodies.

            The hard work which respondents put into their appearance does not seem to pay off as suggested in beauty product advertising literature. Respondents were not usually satisfied with the results. One woman who claimed she 'enjoyed' putting on makeup later revealed that when her beauty routine is completed she felt 'Well relieved, it's a drag.'

            Beauty and fashion promise a great deal. It was obvious from the respondents that they create the very insecurities they profess to cure. Makeup was not used to enhance appearance but to drag their appearance toward some threshold of acceptability and femininity. The women also saw their bodies as unhygienic, their legs 'unshapely' without high heels. Our culture involves contradictions for women. On the one hand they are supposed to be the fair sex and on the other their beauty needs enhancing. The feelings of the women in this study about their bodies seem to be informed by their living within this contradiction. When asked 'What is it about your appearance which has the most impact?' 11 out of 12 began by saying something negative:

Respondent 10: "My figure. I'm really bothered about my stomach and face. I think they're fat half the time, I think I've got a complex about them. I'm worse about my face than my hair, my hair is just there. Parents are just being kind when they say you look good."

Respondent 9: "My thighs could be improved, I'm getting fat very quickly. My waist, bum and thighs annoy me most. They're not how I want them to be."

            Five women broke their bodies down into parts to be criticised separately. One went from top to toe with a negative word about each part. The most self-critical were asked if they saw anything positive about their bodies. There were some grudging replies along the lines of:

Respondent 5: "I suppose my eyes are alright."

Respondent 3: "I'm told I've got a good figure by my friends"

            In the latter case the 'good figure' was not presented de re - as real, but de dicto - as the opinion of her friends. There were a number of other comments which indicated that the women's images of their bodies were more than just poor, they viewed themselves as grotesque - "My legs are like treetrunks", "My feet are deformed" "My nose is hideous".

            If these women were so dissatisfied with their bodies it seems reasonable to ask what it was they were aiming for. The three women interviewed at the comprehensive school were willing to identify particular media stars or more general types of women which they'd like to look like. The other 12 women were not so easily drawn on what they'd like to look like, apart from the mention of the 'tall, cool aloof type' some admired. Orbach (1986, p70) suggests that ideals of feminine beauty are ever changing. However, the ideal of slimness seems to be persistent and pervasive, figuring prominently in many of our respondents feelings about their bodies, as we shall see when discussing diets.

            viii) Food, fasting and faintness. Given that our respondents had so much dissatisfaction with their bodies, it is not surprising that many of them were either on diets or had attempted to diet. This finding is not peculiar to our study (see Hill, Rodgers & Blundell, 1989). Much research in the 1960s in the US indicated that 'high school girls' were widely dissatisfied with their bodies, with about 30% dieting on the day of the survey and 70-80% being dissatisfied with their bodies even though only 15% were judged to be overweight (Dwyer, Feldman, Seltzer and Mayer, 1969; 1970; Huenemann, Shapiro, Hampton and Mitchell, 1966; 1968). Jacobovits, Halstead, Kelley, Roe & Young (1977) found 75% of their sample of US college women on a diet or trying to control their eating in order to lose weight. More recently Wardle & Beales (1986) surveyed 12-16 year old girls and found substantial motivation to diet, with even the 12 year olds wanting to weigh less despite being of average or below average weight.

            In investigating the role dieting plays in the life of the women in our sample it was striking that the women's mothers were often said to play a key role. For example:

Respondent 10: "Mum always encourages me [to diet] because she tried [to lose weight] herself so many times and never quite managed it."

Respondent 8: "Sometimes I get really annoyed with mum. Like if I'm pigging out on chocolate or something she says 'watch your figure' or 'you'll be complaining when Jeff [her boyfriend] goes on about Di." [Her slimmer friend.]

She later said of her mother:

"She's the one who tell me to go on them. She doesn't want to see me get fat, it's not good for you being obese she's just trying to (CH: 'Trying to?') help, in a way, but it's bloody annoying sometimes."

            The involvement of mothers in dieting doesn't indicate that women are the agents of their own predicament. Daly (1979) has argued that the footbinding and genital mutilation practices of some cultures, while done to women by women, sustain the dominance of men over women and are part of a divide and rule strategy. Women who encourage their daughters to diet are not gratuitously imposing ascetic regimes on their offspring but perhaps do so in recognition of the way women are judged in terms of their appearance and their conformity with current aesthetic norms. In doing this, women are simply fulfilling their role as socialisers (Freedman, 1988). Perhaps they sense that 'good looks' are difficult to do without.

            The subject of diets reveal two more significant contradictions, rather like the one we have documented between 'comfort' and foot damage with shoes. The first contradiction involves whether the women actually dieted and the second concerns the health aspect of dieting and slimness.

            Respondents seemed reluctant to admit dieting. However, it was clear that many of them restricted their food intake:

Respondent 2: "No, I'm never on a diet really (CH: Really?) Well, I stay on them for a day and get fed up, maybe it would last a couple of days but I'm never on one really." 

When asked where she got her information on dieting she said:

"Nowhere, I don't go on real diets, I just try and cut down on fatty foods so it's not a diet as such."

Most respondents emphasised that they had not been on 'proper'

diets, for example:

Respondent 10: "I'd never go on a proper diet, just a calorie controlled one, I'd just live on fruit and veg."

            Thus, a diet seems to be a different concept for the women than simply restricting food intake in order to lose weight. A 'diet' appears to be something with a proper name like the 'Cambridge' or the 'F Plan' diet. Hence, saying that one is 'not really' on a diet is compatible with deliberately restricting one's food intake.

            The second contradiction relates to health. The women regularly stated that they dieted in order to be healthy, rather than to be slimmer or more attractive.

Respondent 8: "I feel really guilty about not being more fit and healthy...I need a healthy diet - salad and veg...if I ate a lot of cake and stodge I'd feel unhealthy in myself."

Ros Coward (1984) notes that contemporary exhortations to diet emphasise the feelings of wellbeing that are supposed to come from being slim. This was echoed among respondents:

Respondent 7: "It makes me feel better about myself, if I like the way I look I'll feel happier generally. Looking good contributes to your state of mind."

Yet many of the women spoke of denying themselves food for days, or in one case "till I feel really faint" and the guilt they feel giving in to hunger, which is very different from the euphoria which is supposed to be contingent on slimness.

            The current Western cultural obsession with 'slimness bordering on emaciation' (Bartky, 1990, p. 66) has been well documented. Coward (1984) notes another aspect to this ideology, whereby it is emphasised that the right attitude and healthy living are subordinate to a grander aim - that we should look better. Our respondents' dieting causes distress yet they say that it is somehow healthy. The ideology of the sound mind in the healthy body in this context becomes a cruel joke. Women must feel happy about themselves which in turn will make them more physically attractive. But where should the woman begin? Should she strive to make her 'ugly' body conform to current standards of physical attractiveness so as to be happier, or should she smile through her inner anguish in the hope that it will beautify her?



 aim to present. We also want to enable discussion of body image in this context.

     Our interest in body image is conne


            This paper has suggested two themes. First, that beauty is an artifice, achievement or accomplishment which involves much effort and indeed desperation on the part of those who perform its rituals. Second, we want to emphasise the contradictions which run through our respondents talk about their efforts to make themselves acceptable to the judgemental scrutiny of (male) others and suggest that these tensions and contradictions arise from the ideologies to which women are subject.

            Women are not innately predisposed to adornment. This could not explain the minutiae of this practice, nor its prevalence, nor its manifestation in the technologies of the twentieth century (aerosols, leg waxing kits, the technology of makeup), nor can any nativist theory easily explain the surgical ambitions of some respondents toward their bodies.

            It is only by examining respondents' accounts in relation to the position women occupy in society - their reduced economic power, their position as objects of men's judgemental scrutiny - that we can do justice to the richness, variety and political nature of the women's plight.

            Women's self esteem seems to be closely related to their feelings about their bodies. Orbach (1986) points out that such feelings can vary by the day or even by the hour. Thus one's self image may be very precarious and one may perform a desperate firefighting quest for beauty.

            The beliefs and activities of the women interviewed here seem to hinge on an underlying ideological assumption that they should be the 'fair sex'. They are guided by this ideology not to compare themselves with men (who don't need to be so attractive) but to the women whose looks do conform to the prevailing norms of beauty. The fact that they can't achieve these norms effortlessly and naturally prompts them to be secretive about their diets, to hide their razors and depilatory creams, to believe that the uncomfortable clothes are indeed comfortable, to believe that they can walk better in high heels. This may also be why many of them didn't like shopping with boyfriends or applying makeup in front of them.

            The beauty books (which often bear the name of some great beauty like Joan Collins (1980)or Jane Fonda (1987)) and magazines do not readily admit to the possibility that one can be permanently dissatisfied with one's body. A little effort on the right diet, makeup routine or hairstyle will bring instant delight. The emphasis is on looking good and therefore feeling good. Yet this is somehow transformed into the desperation, anxiety and surgical ambitions of the respondents quoted here. Perhaps it is simply the flipside of looking good - feeling good; looking ugly - feeling dreadful. Perhaps also it is to do with the coercive power of the ideals of beauty.

            Keeping women in this position, maintaining their anxieties and dissatisfactions preserves the existing social order. Women are told that looking good will change your life, give you confidence, get you that job, get you the desirable partner. A lack of the beauty essential for a better life contains its own reason for the shortfall women experience. The women in this study were let down by their own beauty routines which they then pursued more vigourously still rather than abandoning. The answer to all your problems, it is implied, is to get lovely, to change your body, not the patriarchal society which causes the experience.

            This ideology is imposed subtly. Daly (1979) argues that the barbarities which women have inflicted on each other such as genital mutilation and footbinding do not indicate that women are oppressing one another. In societies where these practices happen the economic, social and political power is held by men. Likewise, if women in this society encourage one another to diet, or write magazine articles and books about beauty for other women to follow this does not mean that male power and domination has no role in this process. The practice, the achievement, of femininity in our society helps to sustain women as objects, consumers, passive, self doubting, self obsessed individuals and helps to prevent them emerging as agents for change.


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