The First Impression

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The Beauty Myth in the 21st Century

Narrow constructions of beauty constrict women.

Those who know me would likely describe me as fairly “low maintenance” when it comes to my appearance (let’s face it, you don’t get nominated for What Not to Wear if you are very into your physical appearance). And yet, for someone who is fairly low key about appearance, I have found myself spending an inordinate amount of time on beauty maintenance to retain a professional appearance—hair, nails, hair removal—it seems like when I am not at work or on the yoga mat, I am running from one appointment to another for basic grooming, just to look, “presentable” for work.

Which leads me to fear that the Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf wrote about in 1999 is still alive and well in the 21st century. In fact, if anything, I would argue that the ubiquity of media today has enhanced the relentless pursuit of physical perfection for women, perhaps magnifying the effects Wolf was so critical about in her groundbreaking book.

For those of you unfamiliar with Wolf’s work, the notion of the beauty myth is the idea that the institutional pressures on women to conform to a beauty ideal that is largely unattainable represents a more modern form of oppression that undermines equality between the sexes. Moreover, the beauty myth largely enables the continued objectification of women. Indeed, the continued fusion of physical attraction with femininity enables women to be objectified by media and other cultural institutions. Morrison (2014) writes:

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Every media platform plays a role in equating a women's worth to that of her body parts. It is witnessed each day in magazines, TV commercials and programming, movies, talk shows, online, in classrooms -- the list is endless. We are completely immersed in a culture that condones the objectification of women all the time! And when we allow it to happen, or at the very least when we tolerate its existence, we continue to give it our stamp of approval. (Para 3)

It is apparent that notions of femininity, however evolved they have become in this century, nonetheless place a heavy emphasis on physical attraction as one of the defining characteristics. What’s a woman to do if she wants to be accepted at work, or thrive at a job interview, but also doesn’t want to conform to the beauty ideal that has been imposed on her since birth? If she chooses not to conform to this standard of beauty, she may be met with social rejection or harsh criticism (or, in my case, be nominated for a “makeover” show), or even be passed over for a position in favor of another, perhaps more “professional” applicant.

This is where I experience dissonance, particularly within the professional realm. While in my personal life I am happy to run errands in my yoga gear without makeup on, or with my hair messily thrown together in a bun, a certain semblance of professionalism is associated with appearance. While this is true for both sexes, I find that women still carry a heavier burden to dress and groom “appropriately” in a professional capacity, and it is a fine line that is hard to draw. How much money and time must we spend on our appearance just to be taken seriously, and when does the cycle end? The more I become accustomed to my hair and nails looking a certain way for work, the more pressure I feel to invest time and money on these pursuits.

I welcome reader comments on how to navigate this challenge. It is hard not to feel like a sell-out to feminist principles who is enslaved by the ever persistent and insidious beauty myth. And yet, by most accounts, I remain a “low-maintenance” gal when it comes to appearance. Which makes me gasp to think, then what does it feel like for those who work in a more explicit profession where physical appearance does matter, and how much higher must we be driven to strive in the relentless pursuit of physical perfection?

Morrison, B. (2014). A not- so-super societal standard. Huffington Post: Blogs. Retrieved on May 14, 2014 from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/beth-morrison/a-not-so-super-societ... .

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2014

 

Azadeh Aalai, PhD, is a Tenure-Track, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queensborough Community College in New York.

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