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Beauty Is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body

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Elayne A. Saltzberg and Joan C. Chrisler

Beauty Is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body

Women: A Feminist Perspective edited by Jo Freeman. Fifth Edition.

Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1995. 306-315.

Elayne Saltzberg (Daniels) was a postdoctoral clinical psychology fellow at Yale University School of Medicine. Her major interests include body image and eating disorders. She is an eating disorder specialist with a practice in Massachusetts.

Joan C. Chrisler is Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College. She is the author of From Menarche to Menopause: The Female Body in Feminist Therapy (2004) and co-editor of Arming Athena: Career Strategies for Women in Academe (1998) and Charting a New Course for Feminist Psychology (2002).

Saltzberg and Chrisler discuss the ideal of the perfect female body, one that varies across cultures; changes over time; and is impacted by racism, class prejudice, and ableism. Because it is a fluctuating ideal that women strive for and few are able to attain, failure and disappointment are inevitable. Striving to attain the ideal takes its toil on women in the form of physical pain, health problems, medical procedures, costs of beauty products, time and effort, and damaging psychological effects. They argue that there are detrimental consequences for women who fail to reach the ideal: being punished for social transgressions, fired from jobs for being too old and unattractive, and discrimination in hiring and promotion. Saltzberg and Chrisler advocate that women become more aware of the effects on their bodies and their lives of pursuing ideals of the perfect female body.

Ambrose Bierce (1958) once wrote, "To men a man is but a mind. Who cares what face he carries or what he wears? But woman's body is the woman." Despite the societal changes achieved since Bierce's time, his statement remains true. Since the height of the feminist movement in the early 1970s, women have spent more money than ever before on products and treatments designed to make them beautiful. Cosmetic sales have increased annually to reach $18 billion in 1987 ("Ignoring the economy. . . ," 1989), sales of women's clothing averaged $103 billion per month in 1990 (personal communication, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 1992), dieting has become a $30-billion-per-year industry (Stoffel, 1989), and women spent $1.2 billion on cosmetic surgery in 1990 (personal communication, American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, 1992). The importance of beauty has apparently increased even as women are reaching for personal freedoms and economic rights undreamed of by our grandmothers. The emphasis on beauty may be a way to hold onto a feminine image while shedding feminine roles.

Attractiveness is prerequisite for femininity but not for masculinity (Freedman, 1986). The word beauty always refers to the female body. Attractive male bodies are described as "handsome," a word derived from "hand" that refers as much to action as appearance (Freedman, 1986). Qualities of achieve¬ment and strength accompany the term handsome; such attributes are rarely employed in the description of attractive women and certainly do not accom¬pany the term beauty, which refers only to a decorative quality. Men are instru¬mental; women are ornamental.

Beauty is a most elusive commodity. Ideas of what is beautiful vary across cultures and change over time (Fallon, 1990). Beauty cannot be quantified or objectively measured; it is the result of the judgments of others. The concept is difficult to define, as it is equated with different, sometimes contradictory, ideas. When people are asked to define beauty, they tend to mention abstract, personal qualities rather than external, quantifiable ones (Freedman, 1986; Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986).The beholder's perceptions and cognitions influence the degree of attractiveness at least as much as do the qualities of the beheld.

Because beauty is an ideal, an absolute, such as truth and goodness, the pursuit of it does not require justification (Herman & Polivy, 1983). An ideal, by definition, can be met by only a minority of those who strive for it. If too many women are able to meet the beauty standards of a particular time and place, then those standards must change in order to maintain their extraordinary nature. The value of beauty standards depends on their being special and unusual and is one of the reasons why the ideal changes over time. When images of beauty change, female bodies are expected to change, too. Different aspects of the female body and varying images of each body part are modified to meet the constantly fluctuating ideal (Freedman, 1986). The ideal is always that which is most difficult to achieve and most unnatural in a given time period. Because these ideals are nearly impossible to achieve, failure and disappointment are inevitable (Freedman, 1988).

Although people have been decorating their bodies since prehistoric times, the Chinese may have been the first to develop the concept that the female body can and should be altered from its natural state. The practice of foot binding clearly illustrates the objectification of parts of the female body as well as the demands placed on women to conform to beauty ideals. The custom called for the binding of the feet of five-year-old girls so that as they grew, their toes became permanently twisted under their arches and would actually shrink in size. The big toe remained untouched. The more tightly bound the feet, the more petite they became and the more attractive they were con¬sidered to be (Freedman, 1986; Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986; Lakoff & Scherr, 1984). The painful custom of foot binding finally ended in the twentieth century after women had endured over one thousand years of torture for beauty's sake (Brain, 1979).

In the sixteenth century, European women bound themselves into corsets of whalebone and hardened canvas. A piece of metal or wood ran down the front to flatten the breasts and abdomen. This garment made it impossible to bend at the waist and difficult to breathe. A farthingale, which was typically worn over the corset, held women's skirts out from their bodies. It consisted of bent wood held together with tapes and made such simple activities as sitting nearly impossible. Queen Catherine of France introduced waist binding with a tortuous invention consisting of iron bands that minimized the size of the waist to the ideal measurement of thirteen inches (Baker, 1984). In the seventeenth century, the waist was still laced, but breasts were once again stylish, and fashions were designed



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