Sheila Jeffreys' Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West was a revelation to me - and a shocking one at that. I need to make my own views clear before I start. I do not wear make up; I do not wear a bra; I do not remove any body hair and I would never have cosmetic surgery. I'm not militant about it I just don't see why I should. I am way past the age when I feel I need to impress anyone. I can do dressed up as well an anyone - but I rarely do because there's no need to. I won't wear shoes with heels because I put comfort above everything. I do like to look neat and tidy and clean - but that is far as I go towards meeting cultural expectations.
So I was prepared to be convinced by Sheila Jeffrey's arguments before I started reading. The book is well written and probably aimed at the academic audience rather than the general reader. There is an excellent bibliography and index and a great deal of - lesser known - research is cited. Her basic premise is that much of the fashion and cosmetic world is controlled by men - both gay and heterosexual - many of whom appear to be motivated by misogyny. She examines the fashion shows of various designers - almost exclusively male and gay - and suggests that many of their creations seek to objectify women. She highlights the way models are expected to appear close to naked on the catwalk and shows how much fashion in the early 2000s echoed bondage and fetish clothes - most of which would be unwearable in real life.
Jeffreys covers some of the same ground as Natasha Walter in Living Dolls and Nina Power in One Dimensional Woman. Women as sex objects for the delight of men and women as consumer keeping Western economies alive. Jeffreys argues that the fight for women's rights was not intended to force women into expensive and time consuming beauty routines. Yes if that's how the individual wants to live their life but are many of us just following convention because the ostracism we expect if we don't conform is too difficult to bear?
I was particularly shocked by her analysis of the similarities between wearing stiletto heeled shoes and the damage they do to the feet and the Chinese practice of foot binding. Women in the West have surgery on their feet so that they can fit into shoes with pointed toes. Then there are bunions and hammer toes both frequently caused by fashion shoes. Why would anyone think that wearing shoes which damage your feet is an admirable thing?
The chapter on cosmetic surgery was also frightening - breast enlargement, lipsosuction, labiaplasty, face lifts etc etc. Why do we do it? Why does anyone risk their lives in order to conform to a manufactured ideal of beauty? Why are women so worried about how their genitals appear that they would willingly subject themselves to surgical intervention? To say they do it willingly does not make in any better than Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) which is illegal in the Western World. They are doing it to conform to the ideal as represented in pornographic films and to please the men in their lives. If someone else forces you into it - FMG - then it is wrong; if you decide to subject yourself to it - labiaplasty - then that's legal and acceptable and encouraged. There is a very fine line between the two in my opinion.
There is always a danger that any criticism of such practices comes over as anti male but that is not my intention or the author's intention. The book is not written in emotive language - and is all the more effective because of it - but it does highlight the way women themselves enforce beauty routines on each other - 'you'll never get a man if you don't alter your body'. So in effect the whole aim of cosmetics, fashion and cosmetic surgery is aimed at keeping women attractive to men - however you choose to justify it.
The author also examines the transsexual/transvestite scene and shows that most men who are involved in it are attracted because dressing up as women or becoming women - the subordinate sex - fulfils their masochistic tendencies. If women were not subordinate to men - still - the men would not be attracted to it. My feeling is this might be a little far fetched but I can follow the logic of it. I would agree that women's liberation still has a long way to go. When women no longer hate their bodies and consider that all shapes and sizes are acceptable and that it is possible to leave the house without makeup and wearing comfortable clothes and shoes then we will have greater liberation than we have now. Women should not need to put on a mask and fancy dress in order to be noticed in the real world.
Shocking stuff and well worth reading.