One thing that has always amused me about certain cultural “truths” is how there is often nothing true at all about them. I remember interviewing many people—young and old, male and female, gay and straight—in the 1990s about their conceptions of beauty using the model of 1970’s beauty standards and iconography from the US television program, Charlie’s Angels. I was surprised to learn that the majority of my subjects found that they deemed the most beautiful “angel” to be Kate Jackson, not Jaclyn Smith nor Farrah Fawcett as most every popular magazine at the time maintained. This paradigm made me think about the power of media to inform political and cultural messages despite this underbelly of grassroots truths.
Why does media have such a big impact on our ideas of beauty such that a generation went out to spend its money on Farrah Fawcett posters to the tune of making it the biggest-selling poster of all time? And how is it that media, to include new media today, can influence a generation to commodify the self?
Naomi Wolf’s best-selling book, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (1990), develops a theory of the “beauty myth” whereby Wolf contends: “Just as the beauty myth did not really care what women looked like as long as women felt ugly, we must see that it does not matter in the least what women look like as long as we feel beautiful.” Posing a challenge to second-wave feminism which claims that standards of beauty are patriarchal imperatives which oppress women, Wolf’s book contends that beauty is the “last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact,” maintaining that beauty is something women can hook into in order to empower themselves. The bigger problem, however, reverts back to mass media: Who decides what is beautiful and do women have any agency under either feminist model?
This is where communications theory enters stage left and theories emanating from over fifty years ago, still hold true: It’s the media, stupid! From Marshall McLuhan’s work on media whereby he concludes, “All advertising advertises advertising” to contemporary anthropology, we have veritable proof today that media creates and nurtures social constructs and even seeds the roots for personal anxieties. While countless businesses thrive as a result of these anxieties creating part of our beauty-obsessed culture and the beauty market, the jury is out as to whether a woman putting on face cream is selling out to “the patriarchy” as many feminists contend, or if she is simply moisturizing her skin.
Where the beauty myth becomes dicy however is where beauty products are marketed to appease notions of “race” and sexual desire that are quite damaging. African woman and women of African origin around the planet were (and still are) sold hair-straightening products throughout the past century to sell black women on western ideals of beauty, a fact well-documented by scholars like Kobena Mercer, Emma Dabiri, and Cheryl Thompson. Even within popular culture, this topic is widely discussed, such as Jeff Stilson’s 2009, Good Hair, produced by and starring Chris Rock. In this documentary, Rock explores how African-American women have perceived their hair and styled it in relation to historical and current aesthetic industries available to black women and widely represented by the media. In addition, hair discrimination is in full-force in the US and the UK, yet despite this political reality and knowledge, many women still value eating and paying rent over lengthy court battles. Now that New York City and California have effected legislation banning hair discrimination, we can only hope that such discriminatory practices are ending. Still, the marketing of this beauty myth has incredibly-deep social and economic drivers and we must wonder how much of this is generated by market economies and mass media.
Ahmed Helmy, CEO of Rush Brush, is one of many entrepreneurs in the beauty industry who markets products to women which involve changing the texture and color of their hair. He views his involvement in the beauty industry as serving a market that demands such products and not that which creates the demand. He tells me, “Our products are designed around working women who have hectic schedules. We are invested in women’s freedom by reducing the time they take to get ready to leave the home each day.” So here you have it—chicken meets egg. Which is it: Does the marketing of beauty products drive the demand for them, or does the demand come first with the market following?
When you turn to social medical research, however, another story is told. In “Television, Disordered Eating, and Young Women in Fiji: Negotiating Body Image and Identity during Rapid Social Change,” Anne E. Becker MD, PhD, SM, a Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard University reports on her study which began in 1995, three months after satellites began beaming television signals to a province of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu. Before the introduction of television to this region, eating disorders were unheard of and she and her colleagues conducted surveys on Fijian secondary schools girls which reflected this fact. But once television was introduced to the island, Becker and her colleagues discovered when they conducted the survey a second time, three years later in 1998, the results were remarkably different. Of the 65 respondents with a mean age of 16.9, 15 percent reported that they had induced vomiting to control their weight compared with 3 percent in the 1995 survey. And 29 percent scored quite high on an eating-disorder risk assessment compared with 13 percent three years before.
The reality is that even skin lightening products, prevalent within most communities throughout the world and aimed specifically at females are still selling their wares. The beauty myth that lighter skin is “better” is even propounded by companies that are black-owned and managed because cultural myths are extremely hard to break down. A 2016 study on female Sudanese college students shows how respondents, although aware the dangers of skin lightening products, 74.4% of the women surveyed attributed their reasons for using these products to: “lighten dark spots and remove acne (57.1%); because white skin is more attractive than black skin (34.3%); to attract men (33.8%); to look pretty/fashionable (28.9%); because women with white skin are treated better than women with dark skin (28.2%); and to gain self-confidence (26.9%).”
But let’s face it, one of the biggest inventions today is that of whiteness. Many companies peddle in the myth of white skin beginning with the very company that created the concept of the “flesh” tone crayon, Crayola. And for those of you who are thinking, “But Crayola came out with a multicultural line,” let’s take a closer look at this specific product. Indeed, Crayola marketed multicultural crayons, whose colors span the range of a more realistic skin range. No longer is “flesh” color meant to mean “white people,” but now we have all the colors of flesh, with two mainstays that ought to have been discarded from the get-go: black and white. As I tell my children, “Nobody is black or white, we are all brown—some people are light light brown and others are very dark and most of the planet is somewhere in between.” Why Crayola felt the need to include the lawn jockey color referents of old only serves to remind us how toxically engrained color is to our cultural and now digital imaginary of skin color. Even Crayolaacknowledged the absence of using the term “flesh” in its commemorative packaging of the formerly name crayon years later. So, we have to wonder why terms like “white” and “black” are perpetuated when we can clearly see how the beauty market sustains such ideals as it persistently advertises products so female consumers can all “look like” a specific ethnic group that is simply a lighter shade of brown. It’s almost as if racism and sexism were real.
As new media and technology attempt to address aesthetic bias, racism, and sexism, we are not seeing an abatement of these social problems. Though we are witnessing the rise of public awareness of racism and sexism, this has generally come in the form of self-congratulatory Instagram posts which call out the self for racism or sexism, with many still bewildered why feminists protest chemistry sets “for girls” decked out in pink. We need to demand that media messages directed at girls and women no longer pander to social tropes that either push us toward marriage or the fictional role of a princess. What if we dare imagine a world where neither is a desired option?
While some would like to believe that it’s not that women and girls are specifically oppressed by the hierarchy of gender, or that pink doesn’t “hurt anyone,” these individuals need only to examine the many studies that show the striking relationship between how media addresses the bodies and lives of females and how these very subjects reactively perceive themselves. Women and girls are crushed by gender from birth given that the ways we are taught to see ourselves are always and uniquely framed in terms of how we esthetically present ourselves to a preconceived and completely imaginary social role which is almost entirely transmitted to us through the media.