The aspect of the beauty is important in every woman’s life irrespective of her age. This aspect of the woman and beauty has gone beyond expectation, as women seek for more and more ways to be beautiful and tend to imitate the portraits of women publicized in adverts, films, televisions, and claimed to be the perfect and ideal beauty. Due to this fact, most women have ended up being prisoners of the beauty myth, and prisoners of the trappings of the beauty, like make up, clothing, corsets, and hair dyes among others. The beauty myth prison is not new, and a number of scholars have traced its roots to the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. This paper discusses whether the women in the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century were prisoners of the beauty according to the views of different authors.
The Beauty Myth and Women of the 18th to Mid 19th Century
According to Wollstonecraft (34) the imprisonment of women by beauty has gone so deep without even the realization of the female nature to the extent that the woman can miss very important assignment if, in any case, she feels she is not beautiful enough. This idea of the beauty myth can be traced back to the Garden of Eden at the very beginning of the human history, when Eve was deceived and ate the forbidden fruit. She was attracted by the beauty of fruit and the perception that it would make her wise, beautiful, and knowledgeable.
Wollstonecraft (36) argues that the beauty myth and prison might have originated from the women of the 18th to the mid-19th centuries, during the industrial and feminism revolutions, when they started making some money, however, did not know how to use it. Other scholars, on the other hand, have refuted this claim arguing that women in this era were chaste, modest, pure, and majorly preoccupied with child bearing and home-keeping, rather than beauty. These scholars argue that the beauty myth is a twentieth century phenomenon that has arisen due to fashion and the advertising revolution, which has intentionally used women.
Wollstonecraft (57) reckons that the term ‘beauty myth’ was coined by Wolf when she was describing the modern day social control against women. She describes this social control as an obsession with the physical perfection that imprisons the woman in a never ending spiral of self consciousness, hope, and self hatred. This usually manifests itself when the woman tries very hard to reach the impossible definition and perception of what the society calls ‘flawless beauty’. In this respect, Wollstonecraft (36) defines the beauty myth as the false presentation of an ideal woman by the media, which have worked to split women apart from their true selves and each other. This splitting has left them divided and powerless objects of aesthetic contemplation. The beauty myth tends to imprison women in a world of cosmetics dependence, where they try to apply all the cosmetics they ever know of, in order to achieve the society’s level of ideal beauty, which is never attainable in the real sense.
Wollstonecraft (36) asserts that the prison of the beauty myth could have probably been born in the 19th century, probably around1959 by the introduction of Barbie; the ultimate expression of the society’s ideal woman. This author further asserts that if Barbie were a real woman, then she would probably be having a forty-two inch bust, a twenty-nine inch waist, and a thirty-three inch hips. During this time period, the image of Barbie had a startling impact on a countless number of women. Even though, nobody ever taught these women to believe that Barbie was perfect, they all started imitating her, striving to achieve a forty-two inch bust, thirty three-inch hips, and a twenty-nine inch waist. Ultimately, women in the nineteenth century started imitating what was portrayed in the magazines, movies, televisions, and other images, and within the popular culture it was claimed to be an ideal woman.
Wollstonecraft (46) argues that the beauty myth is not only about appearance, but it spreads into all areas of the woman’s life. For example, it places a law that women who often conform to standards of the beauty have a higher chance of receiving promotion in the work place. This aspect was more evident in the 1960s, when the industrial revolution began to take its course and women started working in companies and not in their homes. The more presentable and beautiful women were the ones getting the jobs and promotions.
Furthermore, in the 19th century, the beauty myth dictated that women in the public eye or those actively involved in politics are ‘too ugly for attention’ or ‘too pretty to be taken seriously’. In addition, this myth also links beauty with sex, and fuelled the assertion that the beautiful women enjoy sex and are sexually desirable. According to Wollstonecraft (46), all these were experienced in the nineteenth century, proving the assumption that women in the eighteenth to mid nineteenth century were prisoners of the beauty.
Moreover, the advertising and modeling industry emerged and boomed at the onset of the nineteenth century. Wollstonecraft (46) asserts that, at her time, a supermodel, Twiggy by name, became the first borderline anorexic role model for women. From this time onwards, women were displayed more and more in adverts, in films, on television, and just about everywhere. The false alternative images of the women that were portrayed in the media became a picture of an ideal woman, and most women began imitating it. Since then, women had been cultured into a system where they ought to please others but not themselves. In this respect, women were supposed to dress up in an ideal way as the society dictated through the images in the media.
In following this false alternative of being sexual or serious that the media were portraying, many women of the working class began to pursue cosmetic appearances as a substitute for cultural assertiveness in the never ending quest for social approval. Wollstonecraft (46) claims that this approval is achieved in accordance to the aesthetic norms created by men who had a desire to posses the virtuous beauty of the woman’s external appearance but not her internal spirituality. The beauty myth, in essence, permeated the media, culture, work, sexuality, economics, dietary habits and even the law to become an ultimately fictive totalitarian tool of social control of women by the male power elite. This tool has been used by men to dominate, deceive, exploit, and enslave the woman in the capitalist industrial society, and hence, there is no doubt that women, at these early times, also were prisoners of the beauty.
Alcott (6) and Burwell (12), contrary to Wollstonecraft’s assumptions, argue that the women of the 18th to mid-19th century were never and could never be prisoners of the beauty. Alcott (6) argues that women in this time and era were rather prisoners of the capitalist patriarchy, in which they were required to take care of their young ones, and keep houses. Despite Wollstonecraft’s assertions that the beauty myth started with women in the nineteenth century, she affirms that the period preceding the mid 1800s saw no mass production of images. In this time, images of women were strictly guarded by the church, and in this respect, the idea of the beauty myth was unknown.
According to Burwell (12), the women in this time were required to be shrewd, strong, and fertile, and not necessarily beautiful or pretty. In this time, the marriage market did not focus much on beauty but rather on the ability of a woman to raise a family. Beauty was not a prerequisite for successful marriages, and, therefore, did not imprison women nor dictate their lifestyle. They were instead required to abide by norms of chastity, or their reputation would be ruined and they would be claimed to unfit for marriage.
As the industrial revolution progressed, families got smaller as the middle class expanded, shifting capitalism from domesticity to cosmopolitanism. Wollstonecraft (46) asserts that it is during this time when advertising was created. The birth of advertising marked the beginning of the contemporary beauty myth. According to Burwell (12), at the onset of the 19th century, the glory that was initially heaped on chaste and virginal women was now heaped on women, who perfected the art of home making and subsequently to the beautiful ones.
Alcott (1) notes that her brother had suggested her that she could go nurse the soldiers in the Battle of Fredericksburg during the Civil war, in the 1800s. Alcott calls these soldiers, whom she is taking care of, her “boys” assuming that she had occupied a maternal role. This shows that women, in this time, were rather preoccupied by nurturing and taking care of their families as opposed to beauty. Beauty was never a major requirement as long as a woman had an ability to nurture and take care of her home. This is supported by Alcott (13), criticism of the hospital doctors who treated the patients as interesting problems to be solved and left the caring aspect to the female nurses. The woman in the eighteenth century perceived herself more like a care giver and a nurse, just like in Alcott’s role of taking care of the wounded soldiers.
According to Burwell (25), the woman of the 1890s could not work or travel unprotected by their men folk. Women were totally reliant on men or their husbands and were not imprisoned by beauty, as it was presumed. Rather their role and preoccupation was to love, honor and obey their husband as it had been stipulated in their marriage vows. In this time, place of the woman in the family was secondary to her husband, who was perceived as the head of the household and a moral leader of the family. The major duties of the woman were to take care of her husband and properly bring up her children. These duties were considered to be crucial cornerstones of this era’s social stability, and every woman from her birth was trained to embrace this duty when she comes of age. Any woman, who fell short of these requirements, received harsh criticism.
In respect to Burwell, stereotypes of two sexual roles were available to women in this time; chaste, pure domestic angel, or a fallen woman. The chaste and pure role of the woman involved duties, like taking care of the home and bearing children. Despite putting an emphasis on creating and maintaining a family, women in this era were expected to have a complete lack of sexual desire and not to experience sexual pleasure. Sex was endured only for the purposes of creation, and women were perceived as walking wombs. The prostitutes and women, who had sexual contact out of wedlock, were viewed as the fallen women, a social evil, and outcasts, simply because they represented a model of female sexuality outside of the male control. In this respect, they became the antithesis of the chaste and submissive wife.
The ideal woman now became the one who knew how to raise children, cook for her family, make clothing, and keep a pristine home, and not necessarily had to be the beautiful one. Burwell asserts that this was the major occupation of women in this time, as they tried to ensure they fall into this ideal bracket, and in this respect, they were prisoners of the domestic chores in their private homes rather than of the beauty (25).
According to Wollstonecraft (46), the early 1960s saw the beginning of enlightenment in women, as the number of feminists arose to oppose this trapping of women in domestic chores. These feminists argued that the working woman of the 1940s went to work for their country during the World War II, but the 1960s woman is frowned up and trapped in menial domestic duties. Due to this revolution, women were liberated from their prisons in their private homes and started working outside of their homes in large numbers. According to this author’s opinion, during this period, women were to be prepared by education to occupy and fully function in their role as companions to men. The lack of educational empowerment in the woman would lead to the inhibition of the progress, of knowledge and virtue.
During this time, women were degraded to a simple object of pity or contempt, and were required to be of good reputation. In addition, majority of the girls and young women were subjected into vanity, passivity, and credulity by the lack of physical and mental stimulus, and by the constant insistence on the requirement to please men. Women were perceived to be the charming adornments in the household. Wollstonecraft (46) asserts that they were further perceived as sentimental, foolish, gentle, domestic brutes, whose fondness of pleasure had replaced ambition. In this respect, beauty had no place in their lives, but rather a constant need to please others. Wollstonecraft (46) argue that the roles and educations of women did them more harm than good, and, in this respect, she urged for reforms that would avail broader and deeper learning opportunities for women.
In conclusion, the 18th century to mid-19th century woman was not a prisoner of the beauty. Rather, a female was a prisoner of the household chores, and duties of procreation and bearing of children. Women, at this era, could not be prisoners of the beauty since the audio or video media to dispel this myth were not in place in this time, and the strict regulation of the church and the strong patriarchal authority could not allow female be beautiful. Additionally, women in the 18th century to mid-19th century were chaste, modest, pure, and majorly preoccupied with child bearing and home-keeping rather than beauty.