Magazine article The American Prospect

American Beauty

Magazine article The American Prospect

American Beauty

Article excerpt

When I was in law school in the early 1970s and professors were struggling with the honorific "Ms.,"" one of my male classmates used to chide me and several other women for "distracting" him with our presence. We were irritated, not flattered, by his flirtations--intent on being taken seriously as lawyers or, at least, as law students. Looking back, we may seem a bit like stereotypically humorless, uptight feminists. (Now I feel almost sorry for the guy.) But in 1972 the professions were only beginning to admit women in large numbers, and federal law had just recently prohibited sex discrimination in higher education. We were sensitive to suggestions that law school was no place for a good-looking woman.

We've progressed, I guess. Today, considering the babes who practice law on TV, it sometimes seems that law school is no place for a homely woman. Once, feminists dreamed that sexual equality would free women from the dictates of fashion and the mandate to be beautiful. But that was before the rise of bimbo feminism, which heralded tube tops and tiny skirts as symbols of sexual liberation rather than vulnerability--as if women had been oppressed not by employment discrimination or sexual violence but by sensible shoes.

Of course, for most feminist movements, there's a feminist counter-movement. Bimbo feminists have had to contend with neo-Victorians, who would have accused my distracted law-school classmate of harassment. But if puritanism is tenacious, it's a lot less alluring than permissiveness or the fantasy of physical perfection; sexual correctness has declined, while the girls on Sex and the City are ascendant. Feminists who once anticipated a time when looking good and marrying well would not be the pinnacles of achievement for women have been successful by half: It's no longer necessary to marry at all.

Why did beauty strengthen its hold on women while traditional gender roles were weakening? Some blame backlash, the usual suspect, which has an arguable influence both on media images of women and on the fashion industry. But it's a mistake to attribute feminism's failures to some cultural conspiracy against equality; the most effective backlash to feminism often comes from within, reflecting femininity's power over women. After all these years, I'm no longer surprised to find highly accomplished women still battling insecurities about their looks. Recently, the pressures to be beautiful have intensified because the possibilities of being beautiful have increased.

Plastic surgery has been democratized and transformed into a multibillion-dollar industry. (You can bid for it on the Web.) Its market is expanding to include men, but the industry continues to rely primarily on women, who were responsible for 89 percent of all procedures performed in 1999. Cosmetic procedures have risen a reported 275 percent in the past decade. In 1999 alone, they numbered more than a million. According to USA Today, these included 231,000 liposuctions, 167,000 breast augmentations, 142,000 eyelid surgeries, 73,000 face-lifts, and 55,000 tummy-tucks. Florida has the highest rate of cosmetic procedures per capita. (There's probably a direct correlation between the number of procedures and the number of beaches in any state. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.