Each year, American women spend millions (and maybe billions) on beauty products. This number does not include the amount spent on clothing, diet programs, fitness club memberships, and a variety of other efforts to make the body beautiful. Also, using money as a metric does not account for the amount of time and energy (physical and mental) devoted to the quest for beauty. Often such efforts are quite painful. Just watch an episode of Sex and the City or ask any woman who has ever had a Brazilian wax. In short, women go to great lengths to live up to cultural standards of beauty. But why?
The answer seems obvious, right? Women want to look good. It doesn't take a PhD in Psychology to know this. But why do they want to look good? An evolutionary perspective (and commonsense) provides some answers. The marketplace for mate selection in the service of genetic replication and gene survival is competitive and thus, it is in a woman's best interest to do everything she can to appear to be a desirable mate. In other words, if there is a lot of competition to land a good man, and men value beauty (as indicators of reproductive fitness and desirable genes), then the beauty arms race is perhaps inevitable. This perspective certainly makes sense, but it does not seem to offer a complete picture regarding what is considered beautiful, and importantly, what is considered unattractive and unladylike.
Research spearheaded by Dr. Jamie Goldenberg at the University of South Florida offers a very interesting additional perspective. This research suggests that humans are very uncomfortable with the realization that they are biological animals and thus go to great lengths to disguise their creatureliness. Being an animal is a problem because animals are part of the natural order. They are born, struggle to survive, and ultimately die for reasons that cannot often be predicted or controlled. Being an animal living in a cruel natural world is not problematic if you are unaware of this predicament (ignorance is bliss), but humans are highly intelligent and are thus aware of the reality of biological existence. Other animals are of course spared this enlightenment. Understandably then, we (humans) are not prepared to resign ourselves to the fate of other creatures. We want to be more than mortal. We want to be special. This means we go to great lengths to camouflage our animal nature. Just look at our standard grooming rituals. And think about the prospect of not bothering with haircuts, shaving or deodorant.
So now back to women. According to Dr. Goldenberg, all people want to deny their animal nature because it is psychologically threatening, but women are particularly motivated to do so because they have more creaturely features that need camouflaged. For example, women menstruate, bear children, and breastfeed. Such things remind us that we as a species are not so different from other animals. In other words, it takes extra effort to divorce the female body from its creaturely nature. A growing body of empirical research supports this perspective. For example, anthropological studies of historical and contemporary cultural traditions reveal that societies have long enacted norms and rules that seek to control the female creatureliness problem. Take for example the many civilizations that require women to live in menstruation huts separate from the rest of the community during their menstrual periods.
Laboratory experiments further support this position. When people are presented with stimuli that remind them of their physical vulnerabilities (e.g., disease and death) or their similarities to other animals, they respond with increased dislike and avoidance of breastfeeding women, increased dislike of pregnant women, and increased dislike of women who dropped a tampon in front of them. Further, studies show that giving people reasons to believe they are not merely animals (e.g., philosophical or religious arguments that people are special and distinct) provides psychological comfort and reduces the need to react defensively in situations that make the female body seem creaturely. In short, women sometimes remind us that we are animals, and we don't like it.
This research has branched out into a number of interesting directions and has helped answer complex questions such as: Why is sex so highly regulated? Why do women often fail to comply with recommended health screenings (e.g., mammograms)? Why is the female body so often objectified? And why do men aggress against sexually alluring women? This research has also inspired studies focused on other topics such as prejudice against the elderly, fear of nature, and cruelty towards animals.
In sum, one of the driving forces (but not the only) behind culturally-defined beautification strivings appears to be the desire to deny our animal nature. The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker perhaps summed it up best in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death when he wrote:
"Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature...He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature, as the Renaissance thinkers knew. Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages knew, man is a worm and food for worms."
Goldenberg, J. L., & Roberts, T. A. (2004). The beast within the beauty: An existential perspective on the objectification and condemnation of women. In J. Greenberg, S. L., Koole, and T. Pyszczynski (Eds.), Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology (pp. 71-85). New York: Guilford Press.
Goldenberg, J. L. (2005). The body stripped down: An existential account of ambivalence toward the physical body. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 224-228.