Pursuit of prettiness


We’ve talked about this too many times before: women. Women and the way they look. Women and how they’re portrayed. They’re too skinny. They’re too fat. They’re too tall, too short, too naked, too childlike, too masculine, too feminine. And when we talk and talk about women and their muddled-up body image, we like to condemn “the media”.


While that might, in some respects, be true, it kind of doesn’t mean much anymore. When you blame “the media”, do you mean the kind coming from your smartphone, your tablet, your television, or your magazines? Is it user-produced media like Facebook or Twitter, or is it press-produced, like Vanity Fair or GQ?


Before we begin to define the apparently elusive term, let’s take a few steps back.

In 1963, Betty Freidan published The Feminine Mystique. Followed in the footsteps of the first-wave feminism that had been building for perhaps 30 years, the book railed against women’s position in the household with their aprons, dusters, and Maytag washers. In the ’70s, author Germain Greer published The Female Eunuch. Greer had a problem with Friedan’s idea of women succeeding by essentially being men. Greer wanted women to succeed by being women, not by emulating men. About 20 years later, author Naomi Wolf was still not happy. There weren’t as many aprons. There weren’t as many women acting like men. But there were a lot more eating disorders.


Throughout the three periods, one thing remained consistent. Advertising both reflected and circulated the three different ideas of what it was or is to be a woman. In the ’60s, there were washer ads depicting mothers showing their daughters how to wash. In the ’70s, there were antiperspirant ads featuring a female gymnast reminding the audience that something beautiful needn’t be fragile, but her words dripped with sexual connotation. Finally, in the ’90s and early 2000s, Calvin Klein released ad campaigns featuring childlike models in nothing but jeans.


In her book, Wolf describes consumer culture as “best supported by markets made up of sexual clones, men who want objects and women who want to be sexual objects”. Perhaps that’s too harsh; perhaps it’s not harsh enough. Perhaps it’s still a little simplistic. We know that our buying habits influence our perception of ourselves, and not just vice versa. We know, for example, that modern addictive shopping is primarily practised as a search for identity.


But the place we pick our desirables from is perhaps the most potent educational tool. Advertising appeals to our fundamental wants, like that of belonging. It’s a simple two-step process. Step one: create an insecurity. Step two: present a solution to the insecurity in the form of a product or service. Bad breath? Listerine. Big waist? Special K—and so on.


In the February issue of Fashion Magazine, Rani Sheen profiled Andrej Pejic. Andrej Pejic modelled women’s wear for Vogue Paris. Andrej Pejic walked the runway in a Jean Paul Gautier bridal gown. Andrej Pejic ranked 98th in For Him Magazine’s “100 Sexiest Women in the World 2011” list. Andrej Pejic is a man.


On the other hand, writer Nancy Etcoff disagrees with all of the above uneasiness about women’s image. In Survival of the Prettiest, Etcoff argues that the “pursuit of prettiness” is not something we’ve learned from “the media” (there it is again), but an adaptive trait. If this is true, one might still reply that perhaps although the media hasn’t told us that we have to look pretty, it’s told us what is pretty.


However, Etcoff argues that adaptive traits play an important role in that judgement. Features like facial symmetry usually indicate good health, and so the health of potential offspring. That one probably wasn’t a surprise. Other beauty stereotypes, such as the idea that men prefer blondes, have been addressed by University of California researchers, who suggest that the preference helps spot illness. Jaundice, anemia, and other maladies, they say, are more easily spotted in fairer-skinned people (like blondes), making it easy for our caveman ancestors to be sure of the health of a potential blonde mate. So maybe you shouldn’t get that tan.

“Ah,” some will pipe up, “but you can’t explain scary skinny models with evolution!” It has long been known that a high hip-to-waist ratio is key in an ideal mate. But it would be irrelevant if you take the approach that the fashion industry isn’t trying to market women as much as find walking coathangers: the thinner the model, the more of the dress the audience sees.


Anyway, maybe that was informative, or maybe you just got even more confused. If advertising techniques just happen to tap into an adaptive trait, does that mean we should fall for them? Probably not. We can distinguish between the products we buy, the ads we see, and our own image. Maybe if we stop blaming the media we can begin to make finer distinctions that can help heal a little of the trouble.