By Olivia Comstock
John Berger in his famous television program Ways of Seeing said that, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” This quote summarizes the problem of the male gaze and how it has influenced our culture. The intersection between the male gaze and the beauty industry has created a systemic expectation that women need to be beautiful in order to be successful, to have love, to have sex, and to be happy. This pits women against other women, men, and themselves, dividing them and alienating them. This is not about being confident, radiant, and beautiful on your own terms. Instead, this is about a systemic problem that women need solidarity with each other to overcome and destroy this expectation of beauty.
The beauty industry industrializes the male gaze through advertisements. Historically, women in paintings were depicted to please men. Their body is front facing, but they are not making eye contact, they are weak, and they are there to be looked at. Today, in advertisements, women are portrayed in this same way, even though the ads for makeup, clothes, perfume, skincare, and lingerie are directed at women. They are put in sexual, submissive positions, such as an open mouth or arched back. The person viewing the ad is forced to see the subject in it with the male gaze because of how they are presented. This causes women to internalize the male gaze because they become conditioned to looking at other women this way in advertisements. Then women think that they too must present themselves this way to have beauty and if they have beauty, then they will have the success, love, sex, and happiness that the women in the ads are enjoying. The beauty industry uses these advertisements to offer women a way to supposedly take control over her appearance, her desirability as an object, and by extension her life. However, this only serves to make her unhappier and more unsatisfied with her appearance.
In our culture, beauty is also tied to sex because of the sexual nature of the advertisements. This is a false connection because beauty is not a predecessor for sexual attraction. Additionally, because beauty today is tied to extreme youth, sexuality is not naturally connected to these young models. The women considered beautiful are often too thin or too young to be able to reproduce or have a libido. Overall, this means women must be beautiful to be considered worthy of straight male sexual desires. If a woman is too beautiful, then she is worried that she is only liked for her beauty. If a woman is not beautiful, then she is worried that she will not be wanted. Instead, people find others beautiful not because of what makeup they are wearing or whether or not they have wrinkles but because they have grown to love them. Their personality is embodied in how they look, and so for friends and lovers, this is all that they can see – the radiance of understanding and time spent together. However, this thought is not what sells products, so advertisements convince women they need to but certain things in order to present as desirable.
The standard today for beauty is something that does not even exist in real life, it is an ideal. The women portrayed in the advertisements are not real, they are underweight, airbrushed, and usually have received cosmetic surgery. Even women who see themselves as progressive, liberal, and feminist still fall prey to this. Usually, the more successful a woman is in her career and the richer she is, the more she is put at risk for this oppressive force – and it is an oppressive force. Women are expected to be beautiful in order to be successful. The rise of rights and opportunities for women is paralleled with a rise in oppressive beauty standards. Now women not only have to have merit and skill to get a job, but they also need to be attractive in the right way. They must have it all.
In order to overcome this, women need to stand together in solidarity. The beauty industry causes women to tear other women down because of jealously of how they look or superiority that they look better. We need to define a new standard of beauty, one that is not tied to buying products and male desire. Instead, this standard will be based on support, friendship, love, knowledge, wisdom, and radiance. We need to value our own beauty from within and value other women’s beauty through support and sincere compliments. By valuing ourselves without any of the traits, makeup, surgery, skincare, or treatments that the beauty industry is selling, we are prioritizing camaraderie and character without sacrificing the feeling of being beautiful. Think about a moment when you felt truly beautiful. I bet it was not when you were all primped and primed, but rather when you felt true understanding or happiness with another person. This is the feeling that needs to be captured and it can be, if that is what we focus on. By saying we do not need anything they are selling us to feel fulfilled – this is the ultimate way to take power away from the multi-billion dollar beauty industry.