Beauty: An Excerpt from Barbara G. Walker’s Belief & Unbelief

Last week the Dalai Lama made headlines by saying, “That female must be attractive, otherwise it is not much use.” Leaving aside whether he was joking, whether statements like this are okay even if they are meant in jest, etc., the underlying issue of the weight society places on women’s physical appearance has been with us for a long time. Noted feminist author Barbara G. Walker dealt with this in her thoughtful essay “Beauty,” which appears in her Belief & Unbelief collection published by Humanist Press earlier this year. No matter what you think about the Dalai Lama or his comments, her essay (and all the others in her book) is worth considering.


By Barbara G. Walker
Excerpted from Belief & Unbelief, Humanist Press (2015)

An intensely patriarchal society tends to cripple women with many paradoxes. For example, when men control all sources of money, women can’t live without male support, which they must win by “feminine wiles” because they have no other power. At the same time, feminine wiles are viewed as sly and underhanded, if not devilish. Sexuality is women’s sole permitted economic tool, whether as wives, mistresses or prostitutes; and sex is considered a necessary evil, the carrier of original sin, an eternal snare for men, who pretend to be helpless in its grip.

“A man’s right to confer judgment on any woman’s beauty while remaining himself unjudged is beyond scrutiny because it is thought of as God-given.” Women must make themselves attractive to the opposite sex, while men in general are thought to be less coerced.

In regard to the sinfulness of sex, men never seem to inquire, if God meant to forbid it, why would he have made it enjoyable? Does God then deliberately toy with humans, loading them with temptations and then watching them succumb, so he can have the cruel satisfaction of punishing them? But the alleged problem of sexual attraction is never blamed on God; it is blamed on women, who are actually its victims more often than not.

It is perhaps notable that women’s fashions tend to make them even more helpless, perhaps to insure that they can’t run away if attacked. For many centuries, upper-class Chinese women had their feet brutally deformed by binding, starting at the age of five. The operation caused years of almost unendurable suffering and sometimes fatal infections or other complications, but when successful it crippled women so they could hardly walk and it was impossible for them to run at all. Men were taught to be highly sexually stimulated by the spectacle of those pitiful stubs of feet at the ends of women’s legs.

In my freshman year of college, I attended a prom weekend at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. I took just one pair of shoes: the then-popular “baby doll” pumps with four-inch spike heels and paper-thin soles. After a full weekend of dances and sightseeing walks on the cobblestoned streets of Annapolis, my ankles were puffed like sausages, and the balls of my feet were purple with broken blood vessels. It took more than a week for me to walk again without hobbling. I threw those shoes away and never again wore high heels; but this experience made me acutely conscious of the agonies that those Chinese women must have suffered, not to mention generations of European women who stuffed their feet into too-small shoes because tiny feet were admired by men, with results like bunions, corns, and bone spurs. But spike heels have not gone out of fashion even today; they are still considered “sexy,” perhaps because men subconsciously realize that no woman wearing them can escape by running.

The tiny waist was another “sexy” characteristic that became popular enough to put women into breath-stopping corsets, which made them prone to fainting, and huge multiple skirts, in which no one could ever hope to run. Under the layers of skirts, however, their genitals were uncovered, so in theory they could offer little impediment to rape. When the “Bloomer Girls” first introduced a version of underpants, they were ridiculed and called immoral.

It is interesting that women were expected to conform to minority standards in order to be thought beautiful. In former times when food was often scarce and people tended to be skinny, fat meant affluence and fertility, and was considered a prerequisite for female beauty, as demonstrated by the Rubens-type nudes and the pleasingly plump Goddess figures of antiquity. Nowadays, food is plentiful and so fat is a fashion crime. Modern women often go to extreme lengths to conform to fashion standards of thinness: annual thousands of expensive tummy tucks, surgical stomach ligatures, extreme diets, and anorexia are among the results.

Young girls are indoctrinated into impossible beauty standards for their adult bodies by dolls such as Barbie and her numerous imitators, allegedly “teen figures” with tiny waists, large breasts without nipples, disproportionately long thin legs, and feet almost as small as those of the crippled Chinese women. A real woman with the proportions of Barbie would have a 38-inch bust, an 18-inch waist, legs almost twice as long as her torso, and about the same shoe size as a four-year-old child. How many Barbie-admiring girls have grown up to acquire breast implants, face lifts, skin peels, nose jobs, and other unnecessary surgeries that cater to the billons-of-dollars-a-year beauty industry?

Then there are the cosmetics, among the most profitable of commercial products. The cosmetic industry is a massive con, “a sweetly disguised form of commercial robbery” with profit margins of over 50 percent on a revenues of $20 billion worldwide. Cosmetics are considered de rigueur for every woman regardless of age or social status. Our culture has little girls yearning to put on lipstick when they are hardly out of diapers, teenagers snubbing their contemporaries who neglect to paint their eyelids with shadow, and old women caking their wrinkles with pasty makeup in a fruitless attempt to look younger. Native American women, by contrast, used to look forward to their first acquisition of wrinkles, because wrinkles stood for the onset of cronehood as the season of their mature wisdom.

How much time does the average American woman waste in doing her makeup before she feels able to go out and face strangers on the street? The cosmetics industry profits enormously from the feelings of inferiority imposed on women in regard to their looks. Even female characters in sci-fi movies, presumably from a far more enlightened future time, never appear without eye shadow and lipstick.

Popular women’s magazines and other publications are used to set the standards of fashion as well as providing outlets for advertising. During World War II, when female labor was needed in factories, stories and articles in magazines glorified a muscular and competent Rosie the Riveter and touted the virtues of women who went to work for the war effort, to “free” (a euphemism indeed) men for the battlefield.

Later, when the surviving heroes returned home, suddenly the magazines were full of the joys of domesticity and the defeminizing effects of outside careers for women. What real woman, they asked, would want to trade husband-and-children for competition with men in the tough cutthroat world of business? Such a woman would be a dragon, a harpy, a robot, or a dried-up prune devoid of sexual attractiveness. She would deserve to be unhappy.

Happiness meant becoming the lifelong unpaid servant of a man, and the devoted mother of “his” children. The old, slightly contemptuous term “housewife” was suddenly transformed into a more euphemistic “homemaker,” a combination of cook, waitress, nursemaid, mistress, companion, laundress, chauffeur, hostess, decorator, housekeeper, valet, messenger, and general assistant to a husband. A “working mother,” on the other hand, was one who left her home unattended and went elsewhere to earn some money, the implication being that she somehow failed in her more natural duties.

Women’s magazines seldom encouraged any kind of independent thought among their readers, but devoted their pages to cookie-cutter stereotypes that often gave women impossibly frivolous views of themselves. Women’s minds were presumed to focus on narrow and personal subjects; they could not be interested in history, science, business, philosophy, or “good” literature full of five-syllable words.

The happy housewife was viewed as a good manager and a thrifty budget-keeper, but also a bit of a charming airhead who couldn’t quite comprehend a checkbook. Wifely extravagance was not entirely reprehensible if it created insatiable desires for consumer goods; after all, the magazines served the advertisers, not the readers. Also contradictory is the fact that such magazines even today feature at least one weight-loss article per issue, along with recipes for Chocolate Caramel Pecan Nougat Pie and Mocha Ice Cream Fudge Cake.

Even more contradictory are the articles on clothes, hairstyles, and makeup, which change every year to keep the consumer buying. Naturally, the advertisers would have no use for a woman benighted enough to ignore fashion and eschew the hair salon. Makeup is the subject of at least one article per issue, its colors and applications being constantly revised. The cumulative message is that your normal unretouched appearance is never acceptable. But perhaps the silliest contradiction of all was the glorification of the Natural Look, which was to be artificially achieved.

It is said over and over that women must “fear” their tiny facial lines, their first gray hairs, the appearance of upper-arm flab, and other indications of aging. Men may grow older, but women should try to stop the life cycle about the age of thirty. Menopause is usually regarded as pathological. In addition to obsessive daily self-criticism in matters of appearance, women are also supposed to constantly assess their own sexual allure, lovability quotient, and psychological fitness according to standards provided by a wide assortment of experts in the business of telling women what’s wrong with them. The total message of patriarchal society to women, delivered in dozens of different ways in many different contexts, is “you’re not good enough the way you are; you must become better, and you need us to make it so.”

On consideration, women’s magazines serve women badly. Their slick appearance, eye-catching colors, and saccharine format lure women into the implication that women’s world is always frivolous and unimportant compared to the serious doings of men, and women must defer to men’s tastes if they are to consider themselves worthy of attention. Most of all, they are reminded that hefty amounts of money, time, and effort must be spent on trying to make themselves beautiful.

Of course human beings have always done strange things to their bodies in order to conform to cultural standards of appearance: scarification, piercings, neck elongations, tattoos, the strange enlargements of earlobes and lips practiced by certain African tribes. We never tire of messing with our looks. But patriarchal societies are notorious for insisting that women, much more than men, must look different from the way nature intends them to look; they must “improve” in order to attract the men on whom their livelihood depends, even when the so-called improvement is a deformity, and perhaps especially when it causes unnecessary suffering. Patriarchies prefer that women be unnatural, unsuccessful, uneducated, undefended, and unresisting–but never unattractive. After all, God put them here to seduce men into sin.