Beauty and the Backlash

Against the Current, No. 43, March/April 1993

Sharon Feldman

TWO CHAPTERS IN Susan Faludi’s book that deal specifically with the beauty and clothing industry and how the backlash has been an integral part of each. “Dressing the Dolls: The Fashion Backlash” and “Beauty and the Backlash” are filled with powerful examples of how the industry has manipulated women through the press and advertising. The goal: keeping women in their place. The reason: money and control.

Faludi points to surveys by the Kinsey Institute to explain that U.S. women have more negative feelings about their bodies than women in any other culture studied. Given that negativity, it’s not surprising shopping is our culture’s number one hobby.

Advertisements assure us that we can become someone valued. Shopping is our hobby: we can become what we buy. The ads expropriated even the rhetoric of feminism to encourage women to “choose” and “validate” ourselves. And if we fail, it is our fault. We are not diligent, we are not worthy of being loved, being protected, being valued.

During the ’80s, Faludi reminds us, the Victorian period was “In.” This was the mechanism by which we were pulled back from the edge.

“During the late Victorian era, the beauty industry glorified a cult of invalidism—and profited from it by promoting near-toxic potions that induced a chalky visage. The wasting away look helped in part to unleash the nation’s first dieting mania and the emergency of anorexia in young women.” (303)

In times of backlash, the standard of beauty converges with the social campaign against the wayward woman. It is a traditional morality: “porcelain and unblemished exterior” becomes proof of a woman’s “internal purity, obedience, and restraint.” She is nature “tamed”—as manicured as “the grounds of a gentleman’s estate.”

Perhaps this seems far out? But then, remember the statistics about breast implants—fully 80% of the 150000 women who annually underwent surgery did so -because they wanted their breasts enlarged. If we haven’t “turned out right” we can still change our appearance through painful and expensive surgery. Faludi quotes Laurie Rothey, assistant to the mannequin sculptor Robert Filoso, and a model, “It’s the only way you can get jobs because big breasts are all the [modeling) agencies are hiring now….” (200)

In fact, the illusion industry used a medical model in order to sell its products, and the medical industry used its expertise to reinforce the illusion:

“Beauty became medicalized as its lab-coated army of promoters, and real doctors, prescribed physician-endorsed potions, injections for the skin, chemical “treatments” for the hair, plastic surgery for virtually every inch of the torso …. Gynecologists and obstetricians frustrated with a sluggish birthrate and skyrocketing malpractice premiums traded their forceps for liposuction scrapers. Hospitals facing revenue shortfalls opened cosmetic-surgery divisions and sponsored extreme and costly liquid-protein diet programs.” (3)3)

From Vogue to Time, the media assisted the doctors with dozens of stories urging women to have a variety of surgical operations, from liposuction to breast expansion “Go curvy,” exhorted Mademoiselle. “Add a bit above the waist.” To emphasize how easy the whole process would be, the author claimed a woman can “go back to work in five days, and to aerobics in six weeks.”

Even Ms. saw plastic surgery away of “reinventing” yourself—a strategy for women who “dare to take control of their lives.”

But my favorite is the Ladies’ Home Journal feature of three generations of women who have “taken control’ of their appearance by taking to the operating table: the grandmother had a $5,000 face lift, the mother a $3,000 breast implant, and the daughter, a $4,000 nose job. As the mother explained, “I decided that feeling good about my body was worth the risk” (218)

To hype sales, a department store’s cosmetic department became a stylish sanitarium. Sales clerks wore the white of a hospital uniform, and treatments came in packages with medicinal-sounding names. For instance, Clarin’s $92 “Biological lightener’ came with a rack lined with test-tube-shaped “ampoules.”

The beauty merchants had to develop a sales approach to end a decade of flat-to-declining sales and the growing number of discount unisex salons. Their marketing strategy women are “liberated” enough to choose bondage, “choosing corsets to please themselves, not their men.” As the man behind the Victoria Secret promotion explained it: “We had this whole pitch … that the woman bought this very romantic and sexy lingerie to feel good about herself; and the effect it had on a man was secondary. It allowed us to sell these garments without seeming sexist.” (191)

In 1982 Revlon retired the series of Charlie ads that depicted an independent woman, replacing her with a woman seeking marriage and a family. Sales hadn’t declined, but Revlon’s managers “sensed” that Charlie’s time had passed. Faludi quotes a Revlon executive: “We had gone a little too far with the whole women’s liberation thing …. There’s a need now for a woman to be less striving.” After all, the American woman has come so far, “she doesn’t have to be so assertive anymore. She can be more womanly.” (205)

And so “demure and alabaster brides soon proliferated in perfume ads, displacing the self-confident single women.” In 1985, Estee Lauder unveiled Beautiful, the fragrance “for all your beautiful moments.” But the only moment allowed was a wedding day. Faludi contrasts this magazine campaign with a “Significant Moments” campaign Omega watches launched for men during the same period. On one magazine page the bride might lower her veil, while on the next page, in the Omega ad, he raises his fist to celebrate “the pure joy of victory.” (207)

There seemed to be a rather narrow range of women’s images: brides who turn into expectant mothers or prepubescent girls. “In praise of woman,’ the 1989 ad slogan for Lord & Taylor’s perfume Krizia, revealed a preschooler dressed in Victorian clothes, her eyes cast demurely downward. Another perfume ad—picturing a ladylike five-year old—whispered ‘You’re a wholesome woman from the very beginning.” (207)

Is there ever rebellion? In the spring of 1988 there was—and it nearly decimated the fashion industry. The media has dubbed it the “sticker shock rebellion’ or the “fashion revolt’ After another season of minis and bubble skirts, and a 40% hike in apparel, quarterly retail earnings fell by 50%, or even 75%. Women just weren’t buying. Faludi recounts how department stores, where clothing accounts for 75% of the total sales, lost millions of dollars in profit. But by the second quarter of 1988, the stores backed off from the frills, and regained their market.

But for all the images of youth and innocence, the reality is that the population is aging. And so, much of the cosmetics industry exploits women’s fears of aging. Often these ads emphasize the stress of the high-achieving business executive. A 1988 Nivea skin cream ad—in which a business-suited woman with briefcase rushes to a child at a daycare center—asks ‘Is your face paying the price of success?’ Mademoiselle warns “The impact of work stress … can play havoc with your complexion,” causing “a bad case of dandruff,” “an eventual loss of hair,” but worst of all, a weight gain.

Faludi concludes:

“In ad after ad, the beauty industry hammered home its version of the backlash thesis: women’s professional progress had downgraded their looks; equality had created worry lines and cellulite. This message was barely updated from a century earlier, when the late Victorian beauty press had warned women that their quest for higher education and employment was causing ‘a general lapse of attractiveness’ and ‘spoiling complexions.’” (20)

The manipulation of women’s self-esteem to conform to the icon of beauty is a formula that continues. Perhaps the most superficial of all the cultural institutions participating in the backlash, the beauty industry’s impact on women is perhaps the most intimately destructive.

Anti-wrinkle treatment exposed women to carcinogens. Acid face peels burned their skins. Silicone injections left women faced with autoimmune disorders and inflammatory reactions the Food and Drug Administration is just beginning to review. Liposuction has caused severe complications, infections, and even some deaths.

How did the model of the Victorian lady exacerbate an epidemic of eating disorders? We cannot even begin to measure. But the decade did reinforce the notion that women do not find happiness because we are not attractive enough.

These two chapters demonstrate in a very concrete way how women have been exploited, manipulated and dehumanized by the whims of the beauty/ fashion industry under capitalism. The examples create an outrage that can lead to change. Susan Faludi has given us a chance to dialogue and make that change possible.

March-April 1993, ATC 43