Book Review || Beauty and Misogyny by Sheila Jeffreys

If you, as a woman, believe you have a choice regarding your beauty practices every day, your makeup applications, your hair dye, your manicures and pedicures, think again... And Beauty and Misogyny by Sheila Jeffreys is just the book to help you think.

Jeffreys takes a hard look at the 'natural' aspirations of women and reveals their source to be male domination and male fetishism. Although it is through other women we learn these beauty practices, this merely conceals the reasons that we engage in beauty practices at all. We may even think we are wearing makeup for other women, but this is how we cope as the subordinate sex of our species - by creating subordinates within our own gender - by shaming women for not wearing makeup, for example - and creating a community of survival against oppression.

Connections are made between beauty practices and prostitution, with examples of how certain so-called 'female' indulgences originated from the world of prostitution. She says that in the ancient Middle East, lipstick marked a prostitute as being willing to perform oral sex, because of the similarity between the lipstick and colour and the appearance of the vulva. Indeed, makeup used to be called paint and was employed only by theatricalists and prostitutes - it was a mask indicating either the suspension of disbelief required in theatre or one's subordinate sexual status as a prostitute.

Parallels are drawn between how many women today cannot leave their homes without their faces on - without putting on their mask - and how women of some religions don veils to protect themselves from scorn, to feel more secure. It is this parallel that shares an origin in the requirements of men and how they need to see 'beautiful' women all around them. Women are not appreciated - either in private or public - without adhering to beauty practices.

Wikimedia Commons\C.H. Graves
A time-honoured example of such practices is foot-binding. In China, not at all too far away in the past, small feet were a requirement for finding and securing a good marriage, especially in the higher, wealthier echelons of society. And I'm not talking about a UK size 4 or 5; I'm talking about feet only 7cm long. Of course, this was the ideal, called a Golden Lotus. A slightly 'bigger' foot was called a Silver Lotus.

In order for a woman to have such small feet, a child about two years old (only half a year older than Emma), was taken to a professional foot binder (mothers were not the best people to do the job, as they had too much sympathy and tended not to bind their daughters' feet tightly enough). The binder would soak the child's feet in warm water to soften them before proceeding to break the bones, bending the little toes under and arching the sole of the foot, completing the job by tightly binding the child's feet into the desired shape and 'shoe'.

Often the bones in the feet would never heal, but the girls were encouraged to walk around despite the pain so the foot would retain its shape.

Although the tradition is certainly fiercely defended in some quarters, and many accuse women of being at fault, Jeffreys suggests that it is because of the fetishisation of women by men, and the subsequent fetishisation of the pain the woman with the smallest feet went through that this was done for men's pleasure. Jeffreys says that some men took it so far that they would masturbate with the arches of the women's feet, would soak the bandages in hot water and drink the soup, or fondle and drink from the tiny shoes.

Although this practice and its uglier cousin Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) are mostly banned, Jeffreys sees no reason why Western beauty practices should not fall under the same banner of harmful cultural practices. After all, some make-up is filled with toxic substances that are absorbed into our skin every day. Some women alternately binge and starve to maintain a false idea of the perfect physique. Women risk their ankles to totter unsteadily on high heels so their bums poke out like baboons on heat.

Some beauty practices have also arose from pornography - that genre that has solidified woman as sexual object, merely in existence to please the male. Such things as long manicured nails and hairlessness are the 'natural' beauty practices women adhere to today because we have been made to believe - and the men in our lives have been made to believe - this is what is sexy and 'natural' for a woman.

I would hazard to guess that few women would reject the requests of their male partners when it comes to something the latter believes is sexy. If we don't indulge in those required beauty practices, we are told we will never have a man, or we fear our lovers will reject us outright. Look at Lolo Ferrari: a woman so bent on pleasing her husband that she allowed him to rename her 'Tit'.

Wikimedia Commons\Srotoys
Practices of pornography and prostitution have made their way into fashion as well. Jeffreys says the origin of this is the sadomasochism of the majority of homosexual designers. She says SM for them is about creating a new subordinate self, as they have been mostly outcast from homogenous masculinity. And women, the natural subordinate to the male, are the canvas upon which they express themselves: high heels that are painful to walk in and things like tattoos and piercings have their origins in practices of self-harm and self-mutilation for the calling of beauty.

I think Jeffreys is very hard on the gay community, but she is clear that Western beauty practices have nothing to do with femininity and everything to do with masculinity and malestream fetish. Jeffreys' book is filled with historical anecdotes and personal opinions, and is dotted throughout with valuable references to theorists who support her theory that all beauty practices should be disallowed.

Her book is an excellent, frank, and informative overview if one wishes to learn more about patriarchy, fetishism, sadomasochism, male domination, and female subordination.


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