Culturally imposed images of both male and female beauty have existed as long as cultures have existed. However, cultures from the distant past to the present have focused primarily on a feminine ideal.
Ancient Greece is one culture that made its cultural images explicit with the many statues of gods and goddesses. The gods and goddesses of many cultures expressed the very best and worst human qualities in terms of behavior and attitudes. They also expressed images of physical beauty.
The ideal image of female beauty changes from one time period to another and from one culture to another. What all of these cultures and periods have in common is that most if not all of them had standards of beauty for women and both men and women in these cultures tended to accept those standards.
Changing Ideals of Feminine Beauty
We need only go back to the Renaissance to the paintings and statuary of the masters to see a different feminine ideal from today. Women tended to be more full-bodied. Thin was definitely not in.
This changed over several generations to ideals of beauty that took advantage of new technologies. The corset brought with it the idea of a very thin waistline. Women were crushed into these torture garments to the point of often fainting from lack of oxygen. Other undergarments focused on other areas of the female anatomy. Dresses began to bow out creating exaggerated derrières.
In other cultures certain aspects of the female figure were targeted. In China, the binding of girls’ feet to produce dainty feet was practiced for centuries if not millennia. It is likely being practiced in some parts of China to this day.
Women would not be oppressed by any of these changes in ideals or standards of feminine beauty if they had agreed to them. They are oppressive because they were imposed on women. Someone other than women decided what women should look like. That leaves men as the perpetrators.
It may not be known for certain where the practices of some older cultures originated. Did men always determine the standard of feminine beauty? It is possible. In Africa, women would expand their lips and extend their necks. Men and women would pierce their faces and bodies with bones.
It is likely that even those participating in these kinds of body-image rituals do not know their origin. But when a culture has been doing things the same way for a long enough time, the women involved in these practices do not feel oppressed because they are in agreement with the standard of beauty.
This is the danger in the U.S. today. The standards of beauty in America may have come from the invention of photography and later with movies and television. Before these technologies, the only way you could see someone, aside from in person, was through a painting or sculpture. With the advent of photography, many different people could see a fairly accurate representation of you.
It was said and is repeated to this day that TV puts 10 pounds on you. Women may have begun losing weight for TV and the movies. The real oppression may have come from the designers of women’s clothing (mostly men).
It is hard to say why these designers made the decision they did. Perhaps it was just to save on material. In any case, they decided that thinner models showed off their clothes in a more positive light. Although many celebrity females are moving toward being too thin, even anorexic, it is the norm in modeling.
When we look at what is happening to little girls in our culture today it is frightening. The Barbie doll has sticks for arms and legs. Girls are dieting at younger and younger ages. Anorexia and bulimia have not gone away.
The psychology of oppression works when you are able to convince women that thinner really is more beautiful. When a woman looks at herself in the mirror and decides she needs to lose some weight, she doesn’t know she is being oppressed. She has already accepted this artificial standard of beauty.
When a young girl is surrounded by images of beauty that are unrealistic and even false, she has few defenses against them. Without a concerted effort to fight against these images, girls will grow up to accept these distorted images as real and natural and will have to deal with all of the anxiety and depression of not meeting the ideal.
And as long as there is money to be made on cosmetics and plastic surgery, there isn’t a lot of incentive in the culture to make changes. Our female celebrities not only spend hours getting made up but have professionals doing it for them. On top of that, you have the ability of photo software to remove blemishes and selectively slim down any body part they want.
Until men and women get together and put on a new feminist push against these false and sometimes deadly cultural images, the oppression will continue. What individual women can do is not buy into the hype and allow themselves to be themselves in body, mind, and spirit. This takes a lot of courage in this culture.
Men must stop looking at women superficially and seek out their inner beauty, which will last long after any physical beauty is gone. We need to stop being so superficially image-conscious in all areas of our lives and we will be a lot happier.