An Economy of Beauty: The Beauty System in Edith Wharton's "The Looking Glass" and "Permanent Wave."

By Inness, Sherrie A. | Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

An Economy of Beauty: The Beauty System in Edith Wharton's "The Looking Glass" and "Permanent Wave."


Inness, Sherrie A., Studies in Short Fiction


The construction of feminine beauty is a prominent concern in Edith Wharton's fiction. We all remember Lily Bart's regarding her beauty, in The House of Mirth, as "the raw material of conquest" (40), while Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country is even more calculating about manipulating her beauty to gain power, prestige, and money. Even Undine's name--her father names her for the hair-waving lotion that was the first step in his commercial success--reveals that it is often impossible to separate Wharton's female characters from the beauty system that has helped to construct them. Thus, a closer study of Wharton's depiction of beauty can help both to elucidate a crucial theme in her literary works as well as to explain how women are constructed by ideological assumptions about the nature of feminine beauty. Wharton's fiction explores the complicated relationship between women and beauty, examining how such factors as age, class, and socioeconomic status can alter how a woman is envisioned, as beautiful or as not beautiful. Such factors also influence how much agency the "beauty system," as it is called by Dean and Juliet Flower MacCannell, offers to a particular woman; to understand more fully the complexities of the construction of beauty, it is essential to examine the lives of women from different class, age, and economic levels in order to avoid the superficial assumption that beauty is always perceived in the same way by all women. This paper will focus on two of Wharton's short stories, "Permanent Wave" and "The Looking Glass," because they clearly show the different perceptions of beauty, women of various backgrounds have; but before turning to these stories, it would be helpful to examine in some detail how the beauty system operates in the twentieth-century United States. It is essential to recognize the socially-constructed nature of beauty if we are to understand Wharton's analysis of the beauty system.

In their essay, "The Beauty System" (1987), the MacCannells discuss the pervasive nature of feminine beauty ideology in our society. Although they analyze late twentieth-century, U.S. culture, their theoretical framework is also applicable to the early twentieth century. The MacCannells focus on "an enormous complex of cultural practices that can be called the feminine beauty, system" (208). "There is no other cultural complex in modern society which touches upon individual behavior," the MacCannells argue, "that is as rigorously conceived and executed, total, and minutely policed by collective observation and moral authority, than are feminine beauty, standards" (208). It is exactly the enormity and totality of this system that makes it so difficult to map. The mass media, advertisements, the countless businesses (hair salons, beauty parlors, cosmetic manufacturers, the clothing industry, plastic surgeons, beauty spas) that are based upon perpetuating certain stereotypes of feminine beauty, the men who whistle at a woman wearing a thigh-high black leather mini-skirt, high heels, and a low-cut blouse--these are only a few of the many elements that work full-time to perpetuate ideas about what is and what is not acceptable feminine beauty.

The economy of beauty is everywhere, and it is impossible for any woman to escape. The MacCannells suggest that a young girl has a choice when confronted with the beauty system: "She can accept herself as she is, or she can enter the beauty system, motivated by a belief in her own deficiencies as the taken-for-granted baseline condition justifying the numerous and often bizarre operations deployed against her body" (214). This argument, however, suggests that there is an outside and an inside to this cultural complex, and that a woman can step outside of beauty ideology to construct her own subjectivity. Instead, I view the beauty system as such an omnipresent entity that no woman can escape its dictates. Although a female might decide to give up some of the markers of stereotypical feminine beauty (for instance, she could avoid makeup, shun haute couture, and give little attention to a glamorous personal presentation), she would still be creating her subjectivity in relationship to the beauty system.

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