The Harbinger of Doom, or NOT!

This is where we were at in my last post:

“Now, I hate to be the harbinger of doom (I’m talking to all you younger ladies out there as well), but all women, every single one of us, must face this scenario sooner or later. As we age the popular media gradually villainizes and de-sexualizes us, and eventually completely removes us from view. By eliminating our visibility they take away our voice. Without a voice we have no power. Our problem is stated.”Should we wait to do something about this until it reaches crisis point? No. Come on ladies, we need to look at it now!”

How then, do we, as women, address this impending pandemic postmodern crisis, especially when it is rooted so deeply in the foundations of our patriarchal/consumer capitalist culture?

Well, I think we’ll have to look a bit closer at why the media depicts women in such a disempowering way, to understand it. Maybe then we’ll be able to envisage a workable solution.

We’ll start with patriarchy, which has commodified the female body. Luce Irigaray outlines the process in her book This Sex Which Is Not One, where she explains that society constructs men as producer-subjects and women as the objects of exchange. The more attractive the woman is, the greater her value in the sexual economy.

Then, how is attractiveness defined and who decides this? Well, I’ve got my eye on the consumer-capitalist hegemony (corporations, adverting agencies etc.). They have set up a template for female attractiveness that consists of a set of attributes which disempower most women to some extent, but it has had the most serious effect on post-menopausal women, who have been relegated to the margins of our visual field.

Consumerism is driven by desire, and we all know that desire is a response to the feeling of perceived lack. Advertisers have long known that in order to create desire for their products, they need only generate a feeling of deficiency in people and then position their products to alleviate the mass mirage of inadequacy (which they set up). Professor Mike Featherstone explains that in consumer culture the body is the quintessential expression of self and, for a woman in particular, the physical state of her body acts as visible proof of her worth. Disturbing? Yeah, at least, but I think the most distressing part of this distortion is the current narrowly-defined template for female beauty.

Susan Sontag asserts that men are judged by two standards of physical attractiveness, the boy and the man, whereas women are judged by only one, the girl. You’ll probably agree with me that the prototype of the ideal postmodern female is a tall, skinny teenager with a smooth, unblemished complexion, long luxurious hair, curly-long eyelashes and pouty lips. We are constantly barraged with images of these sexy child-women. These are the devices advertisers employ to keep us in a constant state of anxiety about our physical appearance, so that we ‘need’ to purchase more and more products to restore our flawed bodies to an imagined state of perfection. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf claims that this rigid model of female beauty is like an ‘iron maiden’ torture device, spawned as a backlash to feminism in order to limit women’s power by disrupting their internal sense of themselves.  Wolf asserts that this male-controlled ‘beauty myth’ acts to silence women. But we will not be silenced!

Regardless of their age, women in the West are compelled to measure themselves against this artificial representation of femininity that is, in its rare embodiment, extraordinarily ephemeral. But when our reproductive years are over, it seems that our femininity licence expires and our graduated exile from the sexual economy begins. Menopause is frequently experienced as a descent into loneliness, isolation and abject self-loathing.

“There is some sort of culturally pervasive idea that post-menopausal women are no longer female.” (Sociology of Later Life)

Almost everywhere we, post-menopausal, women look we are slapped in the face by images of svelte, statuesque child-women castigating us for not being a facsimile of their photoshopped perfection. Every glance in the mirror reminds us of how far we have strayed from the ideal image of femininity; the femininity that previously defined us and told us who we were and how we were to be. Is it any wonder that so many post-menopausal women suffer from a loss of identity? Seriously, how can we help being indoctrinated by these images, when they are ubiquitous and endlessly revolving around us?

The age of forty seems to be the demarcation point for our decline; at least that’s when I began to notice time and its insidious effects. In our thirties we are still fertile, and we feel as young as we always did, only sexier, but virtually as soon as we hit the peri-menopausal years, we are confronted with rejection. The first and most ruthless rejection is the censure we perform every day when we look in the mirror. If we see a wrinkle, we try to pat it away with deep action day cream with nanosomes of pro-retinol A. If we feel a slight bulge over the top of our pants, we run down to the gym and fork out eight hundred bucks for a membership. If we spy some grey hairs in our still-luxuriant mop, off to the pharmacy we trot, for a packet of hair dye, or if we can afford it, to that funky hair salon downtown, where we could be up to four hundred dollars out of pocket, for one hair-do. We will go to almost any lengths to stave off the aging scourge, because if we don’t make an attempt to meet the ideal beauty standard, the ‘other’ rejection (I am referring to our rejection by other parties) might be more than we are able to bare.

Then, some time after fifty, when we’re absolutely post-menopausal, ‘other’ rejection is almost inevitable and although the degree of ‘other’ rejection we are to expect varies according to circumstances, it forms a multifarious array of humiliations, ranging from being ignored and talked down to by sales people, to being derided and ridiculed on the radio by punky little DJs, to being ostracized from cool third wave feminist sites, because we’re not “young feminists,” to being physically abused or attacked, because we look like the weakest target.

Obviously appearance is everything in our Western culture, and the older we get, the less attractive we become, and the less love we deserve. I know this because Nike told me so. Remember that TV commercial for Nike and Foot Locker that proclaimed boldly, “You’ve got to be young and beautiful if you want to be loved.”  Is there any wonder, we women are terrified of aging? Although you may be one of the awesome few who are steely enough to have not succumbed to the multitude of constant and relentless messages like Nike’s, there are millions of women in the West who have, and are now afraid enough of aging to outlay money, and loads of it:

“Innumerable ads reinforce-and prey on-women’s fear of aging…

Seeking to forestall the inevitable, women spend an estimated $20 billion worldwide every year on skin-care products that promise to eliminate wrinkles and retard aging.”  ~Michael Jacobson               

I really hate to think that as long as there is capitalism, there will be images of willowy child-women hurled at us by advertisers and the media, harassing us into a state of distress about how we look, causing our men (and ourselves) to compare us to that impossibly perfect, almost inhuman stereotype. Should we just ignore it and hope it will go away? Hell no! We need to actively work on resolving this problem, ladies.

Okay, so we’re going to instigate change. Where do we start?

Well, we need to work on helping older women to reject their imposed invisibility and to step back into the public sphere. We also need to re-feminise the image of the older woman, which will instil it with power, and finally, we need to re-invest the public sphere (particularly the popular media), with these images.

Cheryl Dolby is a Virginia artist who has embraced her aging. She gives this advice to women:

“Think about allowing your wrinkles to act as a voice to proclaim and reclaim your power. What if our image of beauty changed and we revered wrinkles? What an interesting new world this would be.” 

Now, as much as I love this notion, I just can’t see anything like it happening in the near future. Men are turned on by smooth, firm skin, and I have noticed that the older men get, the less discerning they are about who is in the skin, as long as it’s young and supple. I am also aware that any and all of the older women in the public eye have been artificially de-aged to some extent. This being said, how can we achieve the wonderful state of cultural maturity that Cheryl Dolby proposes?

Well, artists have already brought this major social injustice into the public eye, but has there been any significant change? The answer to that question is an obvious and resounding, No! What options do we, women have, then? I suppose we could force ourselves to stop caring about being sexually desirable, but is that fair? A lot of women love sex and we want to feel that we are sexy to our men; I know I do, after all, it’s as natural as breathing.

The only answer I can see is to elicit a change in the aesthetic for physical beauty, by attempting to amalgamate the spiritual, the emotional, the mental and the historical with the physical, for a beauty that is all of what a woman is, not just the shallowness of her exterior form.  

Joanna Frueh suggests that we can achieve this through art, and I would agree that artists, theorists and producers of cultural critique are our all important advance guard, shouting the message out to the trend-setters and progressives, which is the indispensable first step in social action. However, this social injustice emerged from the proliferation of images in our society, and not just in the public sphere, either. These images are truly ubiquitous, they are in newspapers, magazines, on television, in films, on billboards, stickers, signs, brochures, children’s toys, books, phone aps, all over the internet and they’re even plastered over busses and other public vehicles. Advertising in all forms, fashion, news, film, photography, games, and art; these are the images that we must change. Take away the privileged position of the willowy child-woman in our popular media and put her back where she belongs, in her niche demographic! We older women have power in numbers, we must populate the popular media. We must dazzle the popular media with our myriad of appearances; our beauty must shine from every shape, size, color, contour and curve. We must believe that we are sexy and we must show the world that we are sexy, and that we are HERE! We must not let them relegate us to the margins of society for another minute!

Now, it sounds awesome, and it is, but it’s not going to be easy. To do this we must take our fair share of control in the production and dissemination of images. We must use our power in numbers and take control of our share of the massive social media networks. We must take media jobs, and work on changing policy. We must educate our girls to understand that this is all important for them as well, because youth is fleeting and we are living longer, so being an older woman is something they will have to live with for a long time. We must write it in articles, blogs, letters to editors, petitions, short stories, novels, plays, scripts, academic papers. We must take pictures, make films, paint, draw, sew, sculpt, fabricate, build. We must talk about it with our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, our friends, our acquaintances, our bosses, our subordinates. Shout it out loud and clear to the world. We are here and we are gorgeous! We will not be invisible any longer!

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8 Comments

  1. Posted February 16, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Cat,

    I can understand your resentment, but I think you are choosing the wrong targets, and some of your arguments are unconvincing.

    I won’t go over all of them.

    “The more attractive the woman is, the greater her value in the sexual economy.”

    Well, yes. That is true of a man too. And of a vehicle. And of a house. And of a football player. Big deal.

    “Then, how is attractiveness defined and who decides this? Well, I’ve got my eye on the consumer-capitalist hegemony (corporations, adverting agencies etc.). They have set up a template for female attractiveness that consists of a set of attributes which disempower most women to some extent, but it has had the most serious effect on post-menopausal women, who have been relegated to the margins of our visual field.”

    I don’t really know where to start on this one! So many conflations, so many non sequiturs.

    It is nonsensical to blame corporations (capitalist or otherwise) for the fact that younger, more attractive, women have more success with men. If there is someone to blame, blame the men: good luck with that.

    The main quibble I have is this. Your argument goes something like this. “I am less attractive than 20 years (or, I have less success on the dating scene), and someone is to blame.”

    That seems to be your complaint, in a nutshell. In that shortened form, do you see how prepostorous it sounds?

    Would you have any sympathy for an athlete who complained about his worsening performances, post 30 years old? Or any empathy with a writer whose latest novels were not as successful as his first?

    I suspect that someone in Japan has the same problems as you. As did someone in Ancient Egypt (no corporations there!), or in the jungles of Borneo (I’m pretty sure the older Ms Orang Utang does not attract mates the way the younger Miss OU does).

    • Posted February 16, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

      Hello Smiley,

      First of all, thanks for reading my post, there’s not much more a blogger can ask for than that… Oh, except maybe, some closer reading, accurate analysis and factual quoting, because when this is done maybe at least a modicum of understanding can be gleaned from the effort we bloggers put in to getting their facts straight.

      Okay, let me address the issues you have with my post.

      1. MY (DECONTEXTUALIZED) STATEMENT:

      “The more attractive the woman is, the greater her value in the sexual economy.”

      YOUR BEEF: Well, yes. That is true of a man too. And of a vehicle. And of a house. And of a football player. Big deal.

      1. MY RESPONSE: I’ll have to re-contextualize the sentence to help you understand:

      “We’ll start with patriarchy, which has commodified the female body. Luce Irigaray outlines the process in her book “This Sex Which Is Not One”, where she explains that society constructs men as producer-subjects and women as the objects of exchange. The more attractive the woman is, the greater her value in the sexual economy.”

      So, first of all, this is not my original idea (I wish), but Luce Irigaray’s (if you don’t know who she is, just google her). Let me illucidate that statement for you:

      Patriarchy has commodified the female body. Luce Irigaray outlines this process in her book “This Sex Which Is Not One.” [1] She argues that society constructs men as producer-subjects and women as the objects of exchange, and that all significant relations in society happen as exchanges between men (from which women are excluded, except of course, in their role as commodity). So, while women perform as commodity-objects, ensuring social exchange without participating as subjects, men stand outside the exchange and are exempt from exploitation. Irigaray contends that, to take part in society the female body must submit itself to a ‘specularization’ (which means that we become what men want us to be by being mirror-like, reflecting their mental image of us back at them, thus confirming their picture), which converts it into a standardized exchangeable object. This is why the parameters of femininity, including female attractiveness, are defined by men, not women.[2] Women’s value in this system lies only in their relationship (or use) to men, and the most desirable women form a minority, which creates competition. Women’s use-value is linked to their fertility. When a girl enters puberty she becomes fertile; her ability to bear children is a valuable and marketable commodity. In traditional cultures the patriarchal head would market his daughter, but in the West, at this point in time, women can market themselves. The more attractive the woman is, the greater her value in the sexual economy.

      [1] Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter
      and Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

      [2] Allen, Dennis W. “Making Over Masculinity: A Queer “I” for the Straight Guy” Genders Online Journal. 44. (2006).
      27 April, 2007

      I wouldn’t argue with you that a house or car has an aesthetic quality as part of its attractiveness value, and a man too, but I would argue that the aesthetic quality of each is not the determining factor in its attractiveness, nor its value (isn’t that football player valued for, and judged on his football-playing ability?). BUT IT IS FOR A WOMAN. If you don’t believe me, try reading:

      Featherstone, Hepworth, Turner, eds. The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory. London: Sage, 1991. 170-196.

      http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/sandra-hawken-diaz/modern-feminism_b_2680401.html?ir=Women

      Gallagher, Margaret. “Women, Media And Democratic Society: In Pursuit Of Rights And Freedoms. United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW). Beirut, Lebanon. November 2002. 5 June 2007

      Goldstein, Diane E. “‘When Ovaries Retire’: Contrasting Women’s Experiences with Feminist and Medical Models of Menopause.” Health. London: Sage, 2000.
      5 June 2007

      Harvey, David. “Time-space compression and the rise of modernism as a cultural force.” The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989. 260-83.

      Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter
      and Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

      Jacobson, M. “Sexism and sexuality in Advertising.” Marketing Madness. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995. 74-87.

      Sontag, S. “The double standard of aging.” Saturday Review of Literature. (1972). Teuscher, Ursina and Christopher. “Reconsidering the double standard of aging: effects of gender and sexual orientation on facial attractiveness ratings.” 5 June 2007

      Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. London: Charro & Windus, 1990.

      Braidotti, Rosi. “Cyberfeminism with a Difference.” July 3, 1996. Utrecht Women’s Studies. 6 June 2007

      2. MY STATEMENT:

      “Then, how is attractiveness defined and who decides this? Well, I’ve got my eye on the consumer-capitalist hegemony (corporations, adverting agencies etc.). They have set up a template for female attractiveness that consists of a set of attributes which disempower most women to some extent, but it has had the most serious effect on post-menopausal women, who have been relegated to the margins of our visual field.”

      2.(a) YOUR BEEF: I don’t really know where to start on this one! So many conflations, so many non sequiturs.

      2.(a) MY RESPONSE: “So many conflations, so many non sequiturs.” If you’re going to make that accusation, you had damn well better be specific.

      2.(b) YOUR BEEF: “It is nonsensical to blame corporations (capitalist or otherwise) for the fact that younger, more attractive, women have more success with men. If there is someone to blame, blame the men: good luck with that.”

      2.(b) MY RESPONSE: We are all culturally programmed. In our consumer capitalist culture (or would you argue that we don’t live in a consumer capitalist culture?), we have been programmed by the consumer capitalist hegemony. Let me give you a little history:

      It all started with the industrial capitalist project to conquer space with new technologies, such as the telegraph, railways, steam shipping and the printing press, in the second half of the nineteenth.[1] Once space was conquered, time was thought to be more influential than space in economic life. This spilled over into social theory, which also privileged time over space.[2] Time became a commodity, so the next logical step was for the passing of time to be thought of as the ‘spending’ of time. There was no great leap then, to arrive at the notion of ageing as the spending of time also; think of the phrase “mis-spent youth.” Life-years were counted, phases of life were segregated (such as childhood and old-age) and theories were developed to address them (then came stereotypes, critiques and misinformation).

      Space was conquered, time was commodified, and mass production was set in motion. So began consumer capitalism. In his article, The Body in Consumer Culture, Professor Mike Featherstone of Nottingham Trent University states that, “mass consumption has been referred to as the necessary ‘other’ of mass production” and he goes on to explain that American business leaders in the 1920s needed new markets for their rapidly expanding capacity for mass production; they needed new/more consumers. Consumerism is driven by desire, and desire is a response to the feeling of perceived lack. Advertisers were quick to recognise that in order to create desire for their products, they needed only to generate a feeling of deficiency in people and then position their products to alleviate the mass illusion of inadequacy they had created. Featherstone argues that advertising is responsible for causing people to become so “emotionally vulnerable” that they continuously scrutinize themselves for physical flaws, which are no longer considered to be natural. In consumer culture the body is the quintessential expression of self and, for a woman in particular, the physical state of her body acts as visible proof of her worth.

      [1] [2] Harvey, David. “Time-space compression and the rise of modernism as a cultural force.” The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989. 260-83.

      2.[c] YOUR BEEF: “If there is someone to blame, blame the men: good luck with that.”

      2.[C] MY RESPONSE: I have already stated that PATRIARCHY is part of the problem. Read my response to your first BEEF.

      3. I’m going to address this BEEF as one complete entity, because it is here that you give yourself away as a man (or a severely subjugated female), and that you exemplify my argument so beautifully.

      3. YOUR BEEF:

      “The main quibble I have is this. Your argument goes something like this. “I am less attractive than 20 years (or, I have less success on the dating scene), and someone is to blame.”

      That seems to be your complaint, in a nutshell. In that shortened form, do you see how prepostorous it sounds?

      Would you have any sympathy for an athlete who complained about his worsening performances, post 30 years old? Or any empathy with a writer whose latest novels were not as successful as his first?

      I suspect that someone in Japan has the same problems as you. As did someone in Ancient Egypt (no corporations there!), or in the jungles of Borneo (I’m pretty sure the older Ms Orang Utang does not attract mates the way the younger Miss OU does).”

      MY RESPONSE: My main complaint is not that,”Oh damn, I’m less attractive than I was 20 years ago, I think I’ll go slap some blame onto something for it. Oooh yeah, men and capitalists.”

      You’ve got it all wrong…

      My main complaint is this:

      1. Females are judged first and foremost by their physical attributes.
      2. All females are disempowered by distorted and unreal representations of women promulgated by the media.
      3. The majority of media representations of women are sexually driven, and work to propagate patriarchal dominancy. Again, read:

      Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter
      and Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

      Jacobson, M. “Sexism and sexuality in Advertising.” Marketing Madness. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995. 74-87.

      Sontag, S. “The double standard of aging.” Saturday Review of Literature. (1972). Teuscher, Ursina and Christopher. “Reconsidering the double standard of aging: effects of gender and sexual orientation on facial attractiveness ratings.” 5 June 2007

      Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. London: Charro & Windus, 1990.

      And finally…

      4. Media representations of all people, but most of all post-menopausal women, are not demographically equitably representative.

      So, Mr Smiley, your little rant misinterpreting my writing as a vain lament over not being able to attract a man, illustrates my very point. Women are judged by how attractive they are to men, and men believe that this is all women care about, the media promotes this notion, and women themselves (of all ages), buy into it.

      Of course, we all want to be physically attractive to our mates, men and women, but it is only women to whom being physically attractive to men (in order to participate in the sexual economy), is the ‘prime directive’. Not only do we want to be valued for a myriad of attributes, other than just our physical bodies, but we want the media to represent us how we actually are, not as some object from a male sexual fantasy.

      It’s a sick, sad world we live in, and that is why we need to work hard at changing it. My rant defines one of the things that needs to be changed.

      If you want to accuse me of triviality again, you had better get your facts straight…

      • Posted February 17, 2013 at 2:38 am | Permalink

        Cat,

        Well, thanks for the reading list. Will get round to it later!

        Interestingly, you make no comment about the orang-utangs of Borneo. Never mind.

        I don’t I have a beef – only comments. But back to your replies. I’ll concentrate on the condensed version.

        1. Females are judged first and foremost by their physical attributes.

        Yes and no. If yes, then so what? So are men, and no one complains about it. Men just accept it and get on with their life.

        2. All females are disempowered by distorted and unreal representations of women promulgated by the media.

        Nope. (Representation of men in the media is also distorted, and, again, no one complains. Not many 5’2 models, right? And George Clooney is everywhre – I’m sure it is because of his intelligence and niceness and generosity.)

        3. The majority of media representations of women are sexually driven, and work to propagate patriarchal dominancy.

        Not sure about that. I guess that you would argue that ANY representation of women works to propagate patriarchal dominancy. I’m sure I’ve seen those kinds of comment about Hilary Clinton, Condi Rice, etc. The sexual side seems irrelevant.

        Got to run. More replies later maybe.

  2. Posted February 18, 2013 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    Smiley: 1. Females are judged first and foremost by their physical attributes.

    Yes and no. If yes, then so what? So are men, and no one complains about it. Men just accept it and get on with their life.

    Actually, to believe that men are judged by their physical attractiveness first, foremost, and to the same degree that women are is utter bullshit. In American society men seem to be judged first and foremost by accomplishments and mastery of things: athleticism, intelligence, or financial savvy tend to be the accomplishments most valued in men.

    As to the “so what” to women being first and foremost valued for their attractiveness (or men being valued in the same way for these other things, if we were to throw a “so what”? at that) well, I suppose the obvious answer is that to assign human beings worth based on something subjective and inactive is sort of fucked. Beyond that, a “so what” suggests a contentment with the status quo. It suggests that nothing needs to be re-thought, that nothing is unfair, that no one is getting the short and of the stick…

    I’d say it’s most likely that people would take interest in reading blogs that promote social justice movements such as feminism precisely because they see things in society that could be changed for the better. Or because they’re against said movement and like to troll. But then again, I’m not the one who answered Cat’s thoughts with a “so what”.

    • Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Jenny. I guess I shouldn’t respond to trolls, but it’s hard not to… :)

    • Posted February 21, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      Jenny,

      Let me reply, and expand on my comment.

      Speaking as a man, I am very aware of how much physical attractiveness is important. For both sexes. Men are fully aware that being physically attractive will give them a head start in the ‘seeking a mate’ stakes. It is a tautology, of course: attractiveness is defined by how attractive one is!

      I cannot say if men are judged more or less than women on their physical attributes. You claim that “athleticism, intelligence, or financial savvy tend to be the accomplishments most valued in men”. Financial savvy, yes (but that implies that (many) women are attacted to money – I’m not sure that is something one wants to hear on this site).

      Where is ‘physical beauty’ in your list? Claiming that it does not count flies in the face of the evidence. Men will tell you – from experience – that the handsome guy will get the girl more often and more easily than the intelligent one. If you don’t believe me, carry out a quick poll amongst your (male) friends.

      That being so, I fail to see where the scandal lies. If financial savvy is valued, why should height, a square jaw and straight teeth be dismissed as superficial, or unworthy?

      I happen not to be physically attractive. I regard that as a fact of life. And I get on with my life. (And if I had to choose between adding 20 points of IQ of a nicer physique, I’d take the physique. And so would most men.)

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