Intercultural studies 

ANG 160 Fall 2005

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Feminine Beauty

When I first started this assignment, my paper was to be a hard-line critique of social conformity around the notion of feminine beauty. My intention was to point out negative aspects of grooming such as waxing, wearing high-heeled shoes, dieting most of the year, getting surgery, and so on.

            My readings confirmed that there are many constraining and painful aspects to feminine beauty (and I should know, being a woman myself!), but I have also discovered the origins of certain treatments, items of clothing, and practices throughout history. It proved to be very interesting. For instance, did you know that, thousands of years ago, women would apply mud to their skin to clean it and repel insects? Examples like this gave me a different perspective on the purpose of personal hygiene. Feminine grooming has always been a group experience. In ancient feudal societies, servants hurried around their leading lady to dress her up in the morning. When the commoners would return to their homes and social groups, they would compare themselves according to hair colour, complexion, and physical features. They would also try to imitate the leading classes’ physical appearances and fashions.

            Nowadays, the trend is to visit a beauty salon for two reasons. The first is an appointment with an aesthetician who will provide a particular treatment (facial, pedicure, manicure, etc.). The second is a contact with other clients who also want to look and feel good when they walk out of there. In my opinion, these are very positive motivations to conform to a model of beauty. Even though I do visit salons sometimes, I must admit that I had to be drawn in over the course of a few years. I am not convinced that I would ever use the entire range of services offered to me.

            The first definition of conformity that I have found is stated by Kiesler and Kiesler as “a change in behaviour or belief toward a group as a result of real or imagined group pressure” (2). In this case, women are feeling the pressure to conform to a specific model. Each historical period will see its changes in feminine behaviour. Numerous transformations of female clothing and grooming items have taken place over time. A few examples that illustrate these changes are corsets, hairstyles, and products used.

                        The pressure felt by women to comply with the beauty ‘standard’ of their time is real. The canons of beauty were (and still are) dictated by powerful and influential members of the group, and even by men sometimes! There are also specific reasons why women comply to such models: to be able to achieve a common goal, to be appreciated, to maintain one’s existing relationships, and to fulfill the need for correctness (Kiesler and Kiesler, 41-44).

These days, as far as salons are concerned, they are the places where ‘beauty therapy’ is provided (Black, 101). According to Black’s vision of conformity, salon visits may begin in a woman’s life because “of a negotiation between what I have called self-view, world view and appropriateness” (43). In other words, the potential client is debating with herself whether or not she fits the description of a person who does consume that kind of service. She is also trying to find reasons to justify the use of such treatments.

Speaking of descriptions, women have a tendency to stereotype clients and employees of beauty salons, which often explains why the first visit gets postponed. Just as Robert Miles compares ‘imagined’ and ‘experienced’ members of other ethnic groups, there seems to be an ‘imagined’ and ‘experienced’ therapist and client in the beauty industry. Once a woman overcomes her preconceptions and enters a salon for the first time, she is able to observe employees at work with their clients. Both are human beings just like her. The underlying goal is to feel better. The client-therapist relationship develops from the very first appointment, which brings confidence in the fact that the service is necessary.

Despite the positive turn that beauty appears to have taken in recent years, I am concerned with the growing number of people, especially women, selecting drastic measures like plastic surgery and Botox injections in order to attain ‘eternal youth.’ At the other end of this spectrum, very young girls, of ten years or less, adopt behaviours and practices we used to see in women in their twenties or thirties. I do hope that we, as a gender group, will find a way to moderate these extreme views by putting greater emphasis upon feeling good and accepting ourselves and each other.

Works cited:

 

Black, Paula. The Beauty Industry : Gender, Culture, Pleasure. New York and

            London : Routledge, 2004.

Kiesler, Charles A., Kiesler, Sara B. Conformity. Reading, MA : Addison-Wesley,

            1969.

Leroy, Geneviève. Vivian, Muguette. Histoire de la beauté Féminine à travers les

            Ages. Paris : Acropole, 1989.

Miles, Robert. Racism. New York and London: Routledge, 1989. 11-40. 

Perrot, Philippe. Le Travail des apparences ou les Transformations du corps féminin

            XVIIIe-XIXe siècle. Paris : Seuil, 1984.