Redefining Inspirational Beauty in a Consumer Culture
Harpreet S. Walia
“This is for my girls all around the world
Who have come across a man that don't respect your worth
Thinkin' all women should be seen, not heard
So what do we do girls?
Letting them know we're gonna stand our ground
So lift your hands high and wave'em proud
Take a deep breath and say it loud,
Never can, never will
Can't hold us down”
-"Can't Hold Us Down by Christina Aguilera & Lil Kim
The March for Women’s Lives, held on April 25, 2004, appears to have been a phenomenal success by breaking records as the largest march in history. Actresses, singers, community leaders and political activists energized a crowd of almost one million with fiery speeches, songs and slogans. One of the most interesting and revealing aspects about the march included the age demographics of the women that participated: over one-third were under the age of twenty-five. Gloria Steinem, in a moving speech, remarked that the face of feminism had changed, and that older generation of feminists, herself included, must recognize the new bodies and faces of America’s young women leaders. (Meanwhile young women in the crowd were wearing tight pink cropped shirts with the phrase, ‘This is what a feminist looks like.’) In fact, Steinem declared, “Let's never again hear about how there are no young activists. It's just that some of us older folks don't recognize the form in which they protest. We thought we had to cover up our bodies. They are saying rightly that they want to be nude and safe ... They don't all sound like issues of the past and they shouldn't" (Steinem quoted at Traister). This disconnect reflects the societal divides between second wave feminists and today’s generation Y. Instead of burning bras, young women today embrace lace lingerie and aim to go up a cup size. The idols of generation Y are not exactly feminist icons, but instead are pop divas, Madonna, Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera, who use their bodies to define sexual liberation. Today’s western culture is more appropriately a celebrity consumed culture where women’s success is achieved in the form of feminine ‘hotness.’ Although the intelligence factor does score some points, brains are by no means a prerequisite. Revealing clothing, bare midriffs, natural make-up, and hot bodies now define the look of young activism. If Britney, Christina or Madonna inspire more teenage and twenty something girls than Madeline Albright or Gloria Steinem, then we need to reexamine and redefine a new generation’s perceptions of beauty, sexuality and success.
Women and men created the beauty culture to manipulate other women (and more recently men) to consume more products in order to achieve unattainable perfection. As consumers, we have an extraordinary amount of purchasing power. This is illustrated historically in the rise of the cosmetic industry. Kathy Peiss maintains that, “women’s growing interest in beauty products coincided with their new sense of identity as consumers” (Peiss, 50). Thus, we need to fight fire with fire. In other words, we have to morph the icons of the beauty culture into inspirational figures. They need to make a statement, not just with their bodies, but also with their minds. As our sick obsession with the entertainment industry grows, it is crucial to channel this addiction into something socially progressive. Generation Y’s pop divas should have been at the women’s march. If Gloria Steinem remarked that feminism has taken both a new shape and an alternative form in generation Y, then the leaders of this generation (‘hot’ pop-queens) have taken a back seat. As author Rebecca Traister asks: Where were Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, or Hillary Duff or Beyonce Knowles?
Yes, one might ask how exactly these young women can influence any type of progressive change? The answer lies in the “wanna-bees” (Bordo, 99). Susan Bordo defines wanna-bees as the ‘hordes of middle-class pre-teen girls’ that idolize and mimic their entertainment divas (ibid). Madonna, with the consumerism of her wanna-bees during the 1980s and 1990s, created a new brand of female beauty and “rebellious sexuality.” Madonna dressed and danced provocatively while using her body to assert female desire. Today’s ‘wanna-bees’ imitate Madonna’s followers, Brittany Spears or Christina Aguilera. All three women aim to “demonstrate the possibility of a female heterosexuality that is independent of patriarchal control, a sexuality that defied rather than rejected the male gaze, teasing it with her own gaze, deliberately trashy and vulgar, challenging anyone to call her a whore, and ultimately not giving a damn how she might be judged” (Bordo 99). The problem with this logic (and the advantage to the wanna-bee consumer) is that they do care, to a certain extent, how they are judged. If they are perceived negatively by their wanna-bees, any consumer power that they once possessed is diminished. Yet women, time and time again, seem to be buying into Brittany or Madonna’s sexually liberating and limiting ideals of feminine sexuality, without even acknowledging their power as consumers.
I am not claiming that wanna-bees, or any other group of women are ‘cultural dopes’ (Davis, 79). Instead, they try to negotiate their own selves with the images that they see. It is not a balanced relationship, partly because the images are fed to women at such a young age. For example, the documentary Killing Us Softly reveals the influence that images have on members of Western society. One of the psychologist interviewed in the film, explains that something happens to young girls in adolescence. Comparing these girls to “canaries in the mines,” she shows the ways in which impossible standards of beauty are determining our self-worth. Images presented in the media are making us “lose sight of what we really look like” (Killing Us Softly). While young girls initially feel inspired to become astronauts, scientists or political figures, something happens when advertising, marketing, and imagery take hold of their consciousness. Eating disorders, insecurity, and negativity become influential forces. According to the film, more women want to lose weight/achieve physical beauty over any other personal or professional goal. Killing Us Softly illustrates how the relationships between beauty and achievement have transformed. Achievement is no longer about progressive ideals, but instead about physical beauty. The actresses and singers that inspire young women are not ‘ugly.’ They are thin, groomed, polished, disproportionately white, and what mainstream America considers beautiful. Most do not make any type of political statement. In fact, we know very little about our celebrities’ goals, political beliefs, or personalities. What do know is how much they weigh, their bra size, and their recent string of high profile love interests.
Earlier this quarter in one of my first journal entries, my gender studies professor posed this seemingly simple, but interestingly complex question: do we need to be hermits to resist marketing and cultural images? My answer is the ever problematic: maybe yes and maybe no. We will not escape the beauty culture. Although beauty consumption and brand marketing are forces that we should be able to control, they are far too tempting for us to resist. To put it succinctly, we enjoy beauty, both watching it and attaining it. Kathy Davis contends, “In recent years, awareness has grown among feminists that beauty cannot be seen simply in terms of male domination and female oppression. Given its connection with femininity, beauty is undeniably a source of gratification and pleasure for women as well” (Davis, 78).
As a result of this ‘pleasure,’ we need to negotiate our presence within the beauty culture. As we consume celebrities, idolize their success, and attempt to achieve their ‘look,’ we can also reconstruct these figures and the images they produce into inspirational models of beauty. How so? If we create celebrities, who help drive so much beauty marketing and advertising, by buying into their consuming images, then we can reinvent our idols through our consumer culture. We can derive substance from superficiality. They can still have hot bodies, and flat stomachs, but maybe Beyonce would serve a purpose if she put on her “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt and marched alongside her celebrity counterparts.
Furthermore, many argue that Madonna has been successful in reinventing her body and consumer image. Madonna states, “In pop music, people generally have one image. You get pigeon holed. I’m lucky enough to be able to change and still be accepted…play a part, change characters, looks, attitudes” (Bordo, 101). Madonna claims to be multi-dimensional, not just occupying one static role in pop culture. Yet, she does not stand for anything tangible. “Rebellious sexuality” does not mean marching for reproductive rights, nor does it mean supporting women in the workforce. Madonna wants to have substance beneath her influential image. In order for her to provide any type of ‘women’s lib’ benefits, Madonna and the most recent rave of teen entertainers must show the global community that beauty and achievement can be intertwined in a positive way. Beyonce will never be Senator Barbara Boxer, but Beyonce has a famous face that young women want (MTV pun intended). Why can’t Beyonce use her fame to endorse voting in the 2004 presidential election, rather than just the blonde highlights in the latest L’Oreal commercial?
While it may be naive to consider these celebrities as potential political figures, we need them to be something more than mere objects. Sarah Banet-Weiser claims, “the feminine body is considered both as a site for pleasure and an active thinking subject” (Banet-Weiser, 24). In a way, my ideas regarding celebrity culture are similar to the politics involved at the Miss America pageant. Pageant contestants attempt to negotiate their role as “showcases on display” with their role as political subjects (Banet-Weiser, 24). I argued earlier in the quarter that women competing in these pageants cannot fully negotiate issues of objectivity and subjectivity because they find pleasure and success in their ability to be looked at. I even stated that ‘spectators do not know how to justify their voyeuristic gaze in a more gender focused Western society.’ The end result of this uncertainty is the need to legitimize the pleasure by calling objects on display political subjects. In the context of these statements, it appears that my argument has contradictory elements. Can celebrities be both beautiful objects and political actors, even though pageant contestants (in my view) are unable to negotiate both? Yes, the difference is that celebrities are not competing for a crown. A celebrity’s fame transcends one night without the prospect of winning a crown. Championing for progressive ideals or a political shift is quite different from answering a question about ‘world peace.’ With this in mind, it is possible to see how the differences and similarities between celebrities and pageant contestants.
There is only one woman that I can name, who has negotiated mainstream ideals of beauty, celebrity fame, and success. Oprah Winfrey transcended and redrew the boundaries of female accomplishment. America, and the rest of the world, watched Oprah struggle with weight, food and exercise. She is not ashamed to admit that she still deals with body image and self esteem issues. Oprah may look like America’s Cinderella story, but she worked hard for her success. (Nor did any man make her a princess.) What Oprah did was promote awareness. She negotiates ‘real’ issues, including topics such as the controversy over statutory rape/felony laws, eating disorders (not just anorexia or bulimia/ also overeating), AIDS, and race relations, with celebrity chitchat on her show. Hence, she does not ignore nor dismiss the entertainment industry, because she is part of it. She uses her fame to promote support for poverty-stricken children in Africa, reading programs in rural areas of the South, and awareness for a whole host of issues. Even her book club has inspired more women to get out and read for their mind’s sakes.
I am certainly not Oprah’s biggest fan. Nonetheless, she has shed significant light on the beauty culture and the struggles that women, of all classes and races, face in attaining the normalcy of a white beauty ideal. For example, Kathy Davis reveals, “When we look at the pursuit of beauty as a normalizing discipline, it becomes clear that not all body transformations are the same. When Oprah Winfrey admitted on her show that all her life she has desperately longed to have ‘hair that swings from side to side’ when she shakes her head, she revealed the power of racial as well as gender normalization, normalization not only to “femininity,” but to the Caucasian standards of beauty that still dominate on television, in movies, in popular magazines” (Davis, 92). Oprah makes us think about the plaguing issues that confront Western society, something that celebrities today consciously forget to do. I did not understand the concept of ‘awareness’ as a way to approach the dilemma of the beauty culture. After examining Oprah’s negotiation within the culture, I have a much clearer grasp of inspirational beauty.
One might critique my analysis of Oprah, by claiming that she does not use her body in a sexual way. As a result, her interaction with the beauty culture does not apply to younger generations influenced by their pop divas. Maybe so. However, Oprah does appeal to a generation of women who aim to negotiate reality with the unattainable perfections of a sexualized female celebrity culture. Oprah uses her “body as a site for enacting power” (Lecture 5/12/2004). It is not the same kind of power that Brittany or Beyonce espouse, but it is an alternative form of empowerment. It is about taking positive control over your life and simply feeling good about yourself. “In contemporary Western culture, ‘feeling good’ about oneself is understood to be worth considerable effort because it makes us better workers, spouses, and citizens” (Gimlin, 90). In some ways, this statement holds considerable merit. It is not necessarily about being a sexual object, but about feeling healthy. Oprah and her ability to inspire millions of women reveal the power and success of marketing awareness to a celebrity consumed audience.
It is about taking small but significant steps to create a revolution for real women. We certainly need substantive change, and inspirational beauty. My ideas may seem cliché and contradictory, but the beauty culture is neither static nor one-dimensional. Oprah represents only one form of inspirational beauty, and, unfortunately, she is not the voice nor the face of generation Y. That is why the popular young celebrities featured on the pages of Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, and People, also need to channel their consumer power into progressive ideals. We cannot fight the beauty culture from the outside looking in. We must use the key players within the beauty culture to stand for something greater than superficial beauty.
For example, Christina Aguilera and Lil Kim are two very controversial singers that perform ‘sexually rebellious’ songs, revealing and advocating sexual liberation. Their song, Can’t Hold Me Down, outlines the beauty/sexuality dilemma that today’s young women face. Stating that men want “women to be seen and not heard,” the two singers encourage women to stand up and shout louder. The lyrics of the song do not imply that the singers discourage women not to be seen. On the contrary, in the video of the popular song, both women are wearing scant clothing and dancing provocatively. Rather, Christina Aguilera and Lil Kim summon young girls to “shout louder” to be heard. We, as feminists, daughters, consumers, and women need to listen to their message. We need to be aware of the new forms of influences in generation Y’s celebrity culture. Gloria Steinem was correct in her contention that “the form in which young women protest,” is unfamiliar to Second Wave feminism and an older generation of women. It is therefore vital to look carefully at the leaders of generation Y. As celebrity images govern Western culture, we must recreate and reinvent inspirational forms of beauty and activism through our consumer power. If consumers, celebrities and feminists redefine the boundaries of beauty and progressive issues and values, then the beauty culture can’t hold us down.
Traister, Rebecca. “Behind the Scenes at the March for Women’s Lives.” Salon 28 March 2004.