Beauty and the Beast: The 'Othering' of Women by the Beauty Industry

By Gillian Schutte · 7 Aug 2012

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Picture: Cozy Wallet
Picture: Cozy Wallet

In the wake of the many global revolutionary rumblings over the past two years I have been pondering the prospect of a mass women’s revolt against the male-owned beauty industry that mostly diminishes women to mere objects and creates untold conflict in our psyches. This industry, along with the mainstream media, is premised on beautyism and has employed a very effective tool of  “othering” those who do not fit into the idealised picture of what is pleasing to the male gaze.

Beautyism is an assumption that physical appeal prevails knowledge, value, or anything personable. It is the inherent bias that bestows all sorts of unproved talents and privileges onto a person simply because she is beautiful. And none does this more successfully than the beauty industry.

Many modern women fail to recognise the beauty industry as a form of oppression because their mothers and fathers initiate them into this ethos of beautyism from a very young age.

They grow up within easy reach of the propaganda machinery - the partnership between the media and the beauty industry that normalises the manipulation of images designed intentionally to create an ideal that most cannot live up to. Thus they fail to make a conscious connection between these consistent feelings of failure and the amount of money they are prepared to spend to numb their feelings of inadequacy, as they strive to fit in. Most girls have been successfully “othered” by the time they reach their sixth birthday.

This “othering” is a tactic that is used in the marginalisation of many groups of people by the moneyed mainstream. These include the LGBTI sector, the poor, Muslims, and Blacks – and they are marginalised so that those doing the marginalisation can use them as a means to an end. An example is the demonization of Islam in order to push the imperialist oil grabbing agenda of the West.

But the “othering” of women is harder to spot because it has become an insidious and normalised reality for women from the onset and further entrenched when they receive their first blonde princess doll.

As women we receive the same messaging from our mothers, our peers, our employees and the media – a social mantra that consistently tells us that we are only worthwhile if heterosexual males find us beautiful or want to have s ex with us. We are taught to see ourselves as if through the eyes of this heterosexual man and never without the filters of cultural standards of beauty. For centuries, women have been subjected to this prescriptive and evaluating male gaze and have always continued to strive to measure up to rigorous beauty standards, which are often physically impossible and not always culturally apt.

Black women have constantly been “othered” according to the ideal white woman standard of beauty. Her hair is too crinkled therefore it needs to be straightened. Her skin is too dark and it needs to be lightened. Her body is too round, so she needs to go on a diet. All these “othering” tactics have forced her to become a virtual stranger to her own body and the feeling of not belonging can follow black women right into a successful career, motherhood and old age, notes feminist theorist, Patricia Hill Collins.

Furthermore the popular culture industry sets up pleasures and social privileges as things that are accessible to this beautiful woman ideal alone and this causes many women to feel worthless and not deserving of respect. These feelings of inadequacy disempower her in every field of her life. This is the oppressive and abusive face of an industry that strives for profits before mental health and has psychologically tortured real women in order to squeeze hard-earned pennies out of their purses and keep them obedient.

Of course, there have been pockets of feminists who have long since turned their backs on this delusional trap – but the majority of women continue to be slaves to this lie.

Surely we are ready to finally act on all the knowledge that these feminists have garnered over the years and at long last deconstruct this patriarchal capitalist construct that has forced women-kind into a fetishised mass of imperfect flesh with a compulsive propensity to spruce up in order to gain male approval. It is a form of power exerted over women that requires an equally powerful backlash from the feminine collective.

Feminist writer Sandra Bartky contends that no matter how hard women may try to please the male gaze, the admiration conferred on a sexy female body or a beautiful face fails to confer equality, social power, respect and dignity on women.

As hard as this may be for post-feminists to swallow, little has changed for women within the lasting legacy of patriarchy -- except that nowadays, a more sophisticated and modern version of power and control is exerted on women as newer and more insidious forms of domination replace older ones. It is now the growing power of popular culture that ensures that women aspire to an ideal standard of femininity. It is no longer about the feminine body’s duties and obligations or capacity to bear children as with past generations. The new gaze has shifted to women’s sexuality, more pointedly, its alleged heterosexuality and appearance.

The woman who obsessively monitors everything she eats and who preoccupies herself with her hair and make up all day, “has become a self-policing subject, a self committed to relentless self-surveillance”, contends Bartky, in a reference to Michel Foucault’s theory of self-surveillance famously known as the “panopticon” -- the prison which is seemingly unenclosed but provided with a central surveillance system that keeps you subjected to an evaluative gaze. We are aware of the controlling gaze and consequently groom ourselves for approval.

This plays out, as a form of obedience to patriarchy and the woman becomes “a body designed to please or to excite”. Television programmes such as Sex in the City and Generations undoubtedly exhibit this obedience even while presenting the female protagonists as liberated. Bartky cautions that the inevitable consequence of this submission becomes a commercial enslavement of all categories of women to a transcultural consumerist culture.

It is time that we women collectively shed this penitentiary-like phenomenon of the perpetual male gaze and say no more to capitalist and consumerist propaganda that insists that all women look, behave and consume in exactly the same way.

Undoubtedly a revolutionary epoch offers us the opportunity to halt this enslavement and for women to realize that they have been duped into believing that this status quo is normal rather than seeing it for the restrictive jail sentence that it is.

Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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Sally Berg
7 Aug

Beauty and the Beast

Thanks for another great article Gillian! I totally agree with all you have written but my greatest sadness is that I feel it has gone way beyond the objectifying of the female under the male gaze - what I now see is that it is often women competing against each other to 'beautify' themselves according to the rigours of the beauty industry. Women punishing themselves with trying to be hairless, odourless, smooth and polished like dolls, but that it is often self imposed tyranny to look 'better' than their sisters! The 'role' models presented in popular magazines are all air brushed anorexic looking women wearing 6 inch heels, this increases anxiety and gives a false picture of women - we are being duped and this is often perpetuated by women themselves by continuing to buy into that stereotype! Most of the men I know don't even KNOW what cellulite IS!! They prefer their women to be rounded and natural and earthy. So I feel it really is time for us all to take a stand against what advertising and media are presenting to us about 'how we must look' - they cultivate something SO unreal that it is totally unattainable - therefore we MUST keep buying their products to keep trying to reach this unattainable goal and ultimately lining their pockets. If possible choose to use natural organic beauty products. Eschew all the brand labels, they are full of harmful chemicals like parabens anyway and often test on animals - natural is best! Only by being more discerning consumers can we make a difference by boycotting all the dodgy products. If we concentrate more on cultivating and nurturing the beauty we all have inside ourselves, we will come into our power more and feel confident enough not to keep trying to compromise and change our appearance in accordance to the whims of the beauty industry. It is time for us all to shine sisters!

Respond to this comment

11 Aug

Beauty Industry

Couldn't agree more!

13 Aug


It is clear that the beauty industry is doing terrible damage to women both psychologically and physiologically (and financially too). And it is slowly but surely snaring men in its trap too. The amount of time that young men waste in gyms is amazing. But speaking as a straight man I do think that its not just mediated through the male gaze. Women are being made to compete with each other too. For instance most men are not attracted to women that are very thin yet this is the standard by which many women judge each other. In this case the gaze doing the job is not really a male gaze.

14 Aug

Whose Gaze?

Bartsky talks of the internalised patriarch - under whose gaze many women operate. This internalisation of this patriarchal scrutiny turns the woman into a self policing subject - in constant judgment of other women too.