Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West

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Routledge, 2005 - Family & Relationships - 206 pages
3 Reviews

Should western beauty practices, ranging from lipstick to labiaplasty, be included within the United Nations understandings of harmful traditional/cultural practices? By examining the role of common beauty practices in damaging the health of women, creating sexual difference, and enforcing female deference, this book argues that they should.

In the 1970s feminists criticized pervasive beauty regimes such as dieting and depilation, but some 'new' feminists argue that beauty practices are no longer oppressive now that women can 'choose' them. However, in the last two decades the brutality of western beauty practices seems to have become much more severe, requiring the breaking of skin, spilling of blood and rearrangement or amputation of body parts. Beauty and Misogyny seeks to make sense of why beauty practices are not only just as persistent, but in many ways more extreme. It examines the pervasive use of makeup, the misogyny of fashion and high-heeled shoes, and looks at the role of pornography in the creation of increasingly popular beauty practices such as breast implants, genital waxing and surgical alteration of the labia. It looks at the cosmetic surgery and body piercing/cutting industries as being forms of self-mutilation by proxy, in which the surgeons and piercers serve as proxies to harm women's bodies, and concludes by considering how a culture of resistance to these practices can be created.

This essential work will appeal to students and teachers of feminist psychology, gender studies, cultural studies, and feminist sociology at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and to anyone with an interest in feminism, women and beauty, and women's health.

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The previous two reviewers here clearly demonstrate their lack of comprehension and/or cursory reading of the book. Jeffreys does not "blame" the cultural phenomenon of misogyny on men -- rather, she is saying that while men may *benefit* from misogynistic cultural practices, they may not necessarily be implicated directly as the sole "cause". The level of misogyny we see in society (I will refer specifically to North America here) is a cultural influence -- so while women indeed have agency and are able to make choices for themselves, we cannot ignore the very real fact that their decisions are influenced by the gendered "desirability" standards in their environment around them. They may have the agency to make choices for themselves, but that doesn't entail that those choices are made in a cultural vacuum where certain choices aren't more culturally valued than others. Take female genital mutilation as an example: some girls and women "choose" to have this done to them. Yet, I'd hardly argue it was a "free" choice, considering that marriage in cultures which practice FGM is crucial for the economic survival of women, and hence anything that would be deemed to make them less attractive as marriage partners would be avoided.
Refuting the example of one reviewer here, Jeffreys in no way argued that corsets (and high heels and the like) are a "conspiracy by men against women". She merely notes that it is one out of a plethora of manifestations of cultural misogyny. Indeed, the reviewer's argument is inane because he/she does not question *why* the hips on a woman would need to be emphasized in the first place, at the cost of the woman's personal comfort and mobility. The reason is that restrictive clothing like corsets and high heels make a woman "more attractive" in the eyes of a misogynistic culture which eroticizes the image of women in pain/suffering. It is not so much a conspiracy against women by a board of men, as much as it is harmful cultural norms which dictate the standards of female attractiveness.
Men -- both historically and at present -- were/are not nearly subjected to the same level of invasive, uncomfortable, and harmful dictates as are women. This does not imply that men have constructed this harmful ideal for women, however. There are many more variables at play, and marginalized groups can indeed oppress others in their same group.
Jeffreys has written an illuminating book which speaks unapologetically about the trials and tribulations women in North America still face in the attempt to live up to the misogynistic ideals of female desirability. This is a much-needed academic examination, and her lucid outlay and presentation of her arguments make this book commendable. A great read!

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In this book, the author seems to show a fairly repetitive way of arguing, which starts with a somewhat valid (cultural) observation, or one about gender roles. Then she speculates on them, and draws a conclusion, which ties into the overarching argument.
The conclusions she ties to the observations however, are ussually quite far fetched and can't be supported by facts, or even by a plausible hypothesis. Often they end up being extremely outlandish.
She consistently ignores explanations that do not fit within her prejudices. The corset for instance incurs her wrath as a tool of oppression of women, and only as that. The fact that these contraptions change a woman's figure to emphasize the hips for instance (as anyone regardless of gender will be able to notice), and people will/may have invented them at least in part because of that, is conveniently ignored and replaced with the mono-explanation that it's a conspiracy by all men.
To name another example, at one point she argues basically, that fashion as a whole ('the fashion industry'), is a conspiracy by homosexual men, who hate women, because they fancy men. It's not just the degree to which such an astounding statement is untrue, but also the sheer bigotry Jeffreys displays casually throughout the book, that really struck me.
The author also consistently treats women like mere objects who have no choice, according to how the book reasons. From what they eat to having plastic surgery, it is all dictated by men and by culture, and apparently what women want doesn't even enter the equation in this book.
The idea that women have a mind of their own, not only contribute to culture, but are by many sociologists even regarded as the main creators and carriers of culture, even more so than men, is apparently not something that was worth writing down in this book. Even the most basic of knowledge about culture, namely that cultures are different, western cultures included, and can change over time, is not found in this book. It is dangerously misinforming as a result.
If one is looking for a serious book about cultural practises, or even looking for legitimate feminist literature, then my advice would be to look elsewhere.

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About the author (2005)

Sheila Jeffreys is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Melbourne where she teaches sexual politics, international feminist politics and lesbian and gay politics. She is the author of 5 books on the history and politics of sexuality, and has been active in feminist and lesbian feminist politics since 1973.

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