Unreal standards of beauty undermine women's lives. They also divorce men from a sensual and connected sensuality. The publication of Naomi Wolf's book The Beauty Myth several years ago was an important moment for the women's movement. Wolf pulled together many women's insights and feelings about beauty and shaped them into a powerful and persuasive account.
The Beauty Myth shows that the gains of feminism, which through the 1960s and 70s had freed women to some degree from previous economic and social constraints, are now being undermined by the beauty myth. The beauty myth has taken over the work of social coercion that myths about motherhood, domesticity, chastity and passivity, no longer can manage.
Wolf uses a wealth of eye-opening findings to detail how unreal standards and definitions of beauty, propagated by male-owned commercial and media cultures, undermine women's self-esteem; lead women to be come competitive and divided; are used as a means of workplace discrimination; and lead women to destroy their health and lives through eating disorders.
In the final chapter, "Beyond the beauty myth," Wolf exhorts women, to embrace a definition of beauty based on a love of, and joy in, women's real bodies; to embrace an active sexuality based on playfulness and self confidence; and to come out of scared isolation to reject the lies and fear sold by the beauty myth.
The Beauty Myth is a life-changing book for women, and potentially for men. But positive responses to the book from men have been scarce.
One common response is, "But it's the same for men now." Indeed, the middle-class gay scene is dominated by a commercial culture which attributes sexiness to only a limited number of stereotyped versions of beauty. Notions of what is good-looking in a man, whether gay or straight, are moving away from a rugged or straight-up simplicity, and towards a manicured perfectionism that requires time, attention, and most importantly money.
As Wolf points out, "Advertising has begun to portray the male body in a beauty myth of its own. As this imagery focuses more closely on male sexuality, it will undermine the sexual self-esteem of men in general."
Men, women and children are all preyed upon by advertisers. They tear and rip at our self-esteem, encouraging us into a mad race to look more beautiful and prettier than each other. They convince us that we must become no more than objects for each other's gaze or commodities for consumption.
They persuade us to diet, work out and buy the products that will turn us into the cropped and air-brushed two-dimensional images of the commercial media. Consumer capitalism clearly plays an anti-human role in propagating the beauty myth.
But men and women have different experiences of the beauty myth, because it is structured as much by patriarchy as it is by capitalism.
Women are objectified more often and more intensely than men. Our society encourages women to think of beauty and pretty as fundamental to their identity, whereas its importance is still minor for men's. But the difference is not just one of degree.
When a woman is objectified by a man or men, or when she thinks of and presents herself as an object for a male gaze, this occurs in a society with a specific power structure and culture. Men hold all institutional and economic power, including the power to hire and fire women on the basis of their appearance, and the economic power to threaten a female partner with being dumped for a more attractive model if she does not look after her appearance.
Women are told they must always look sexually attractive, but women are told they were asking for it when they are sexually assaulted or harassed. When a woman makes herself into a sexually attractive object, it brings her approval at the same time as it puts her in potential danger. This is one sense in which we live in a rape culture.
Unless they have been in prison, men cannot understand what it is like for a woman when she feels herself to be an object for a male gaze, because we cannot or do not experience it with the same deep sense of powerlessness and danger. Women hear contempt and threat in wolf-whistles, while men may find them demeaning, or confusing at worst, if directed at them by women.
The beauty myth keeps women powerless and men powerful. It does this at the same time as it dehumanizes us all, making us all increasingly aware of ourselves as objects.
Part of the challenge for men who want to share power equally with women and with each other is to understand our complicity in the perpetuation of the beauty myth. Another is to understand how much we have to gain from freeing ourselves from the myth.
Because of the beauty myth, men miss out on having relations with real people rather than concepts in our heads. We miss out on sensuality, and the pleasures of a sexuality based on something other than unreal visual expectations. We are blinded to the beauty of spontaneous human life, and the beauty of unselfconscious sexual joy passing across a partner's face.
While objectification is our fundamental way of relating to each other, we remain located inside ourselves. We make no real connection with others, and we continue to live in a fantasy world isolated from what others are feeling and thinking.
Naomi Wolf writes of liberating women's sexuality from the beauty myth. Perhaps the best way men, particularly straight men, can help is by liberating our own.
Isn't there a direct relationship between: the way we, as men, view other people's bodies, and the way our own sexual responses are structured? Our sexuality and our relationship to our bodies have been trained by peer pressure and pornographic culture. Men's sexuality is performance-oriented and penis-focused. Our bodies become weapons, and our gaze becomes a sighting device, honing in on attractive targets.
If men's sexuality was based on touch, sensuality and a spiritual connection with our partners, would it matter so much whether they fitted the shapes in advertising, pornography or Baywatch? Such images can only be sold to us while our own sexualities are structured in that limited way.
Getting over the beauty myth will mean discovering the rest of our bodies, and thinking of our entire bodies as sensitive receptors of other people's touch and attention, irrespective of what those people look like. This could be confronting at first: to feel our bodies in a different way, to feel trust and to open ourselves up to a real acknowledgement of the subjectivity of the person we are with.
It may be frightening to release ourselves, to get over our fear of different feelings and different looks. But aren't the greatest sexual moments always the moments of letting go?
Questions for men: How do we look at women? How does our gaze affect the lives of the women around us? What assumptions, projections and attitudes towards women do the ways we look reflect? Do our comments on the appearance of women around us put pressure on them to look, or want to look, a certain way?
Read more: http://www.lifetips.top/beauty/how-to-be-pretty/