Book Review: Beauty and Misogyny

by Richard Connally

The Victorian Dress Reform Movement, the 1968 protests against the Miss America pageant, the recent South Korean “Take off the Corset” movement: Beauty practices have always been a subject of feminist discontent. But surprisingly little has been written on the subject. That was, until Sheila Jeffreys‘ book Beauty and Misogyny hit the shelfs in 2005. With women revolting against the strict beauty standards in South Korea, the book is finding a renewed interest more than ten years after its original release. The individual practices may have changed since the book was first published, or they may differ in South Korea from the western context Jeffreys was writing about. Yet her general argument remains relevant to this day: beauty practices such as makeup, wearing high heels and cosmetic surgeries harm women. Jeffreys argues that these beauty practices fall in the category of harmful cultural practices, a concept used in UN literature in reference to female genital mutilation, lip stretching, or force feeding of girls in Mauritania. That western beauty practices are always missing from this list is seen by Jeffreys as a western bias.

Beauty as a Harmful Cultural Practice

In the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the signatories have agreed to “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.” Throughout the book, Jeffreys lays out the case that western beauty practices fit the description of practices that ought to be eliminated under the convention.

The advantage of the UN approach which Jeffreys adopts is that it does not rely on arbitrary notions of choice or coercion. Whether women claim their participation in these practices to be voluntary, is not relevant for Jeffreys as to whether they should be considered harmful to individual women, or women as a class. While she discusses the health risks involved in many beauty practices, she also notes that “[h]arm to women’s status as equal citizens is less easy to measure but is a likely result of all cultural practices based on women’s subordination.”

That beauty practices are indeed a form of subordination is laid out in a discussion of men’s masochistic cross-dressing fantasies and the industry that has sprung up to cater the man that entertain these fantasies. One example from this industry that Jeffreys discusses is a website that offers its male customers the experience of being degraded by having a dominatrix force lipstick on them: “The fact that lipstick wearing is deliciously ‘humiliating’ for men makes it clear that lipstick represents, for them, women’s inferior status. Lipstick does not elevate the status of women, unless they are in the sex industry as dominants, but symbolizes subordination.”

The Pornification of Women

Jeffreys leads the popularisation of beauty practices back to the spread of pornography since the “sexual revolution” and its influence on the fashion industry and popular culture. Jeffrey has long argued that the sexual revolution has done little to benefit women, but that its main beneficiary has been the international sex industry. The sex industry has played a key role in propagating the societal expectation that women should undergo beauty practices: “The women in pornography have their bodies transformed to suit the fetishistic interests of the male consumers. They have breast implants, as well as other forms of cosmetic surgery, Brazilian waxing and labiaplasty.”

One of the beauty practices that Jeffreys discusses in detail is the wearing of high heel shoes. High heels are completely impractical as footwear, since they cause pain, and can lead to injury and permanent deformity. That they nonetheless continue to be worn requires an explanation. The answer that Jeffreys gives us is that they cater to men’s foot and shoe fetishes. In Woman Hating Andrea Dworkin, one of the few feminist writers providing extensive analysis on beauty practices before Jeffreys, compares high heels to the ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding. For a time period of a thousand years, a significant number of women and girls in China had their feet crippled in a painful practice known as “binding” to fit the dominant beauty ideal. Men’s worship of the crippled feet was cult-like, with myths being perpetuated about foot-binding impacting the woman’s vagina, which supposedly increased the sexual pleasure of men during intercourse. The practice became less prevalent during the early 20th century due to the work of feminist campaigners and was outlawed and eradicated immediately after the Chinese Revolution.

Beauty and Misogyny remains the most complete discussion of how western beauty practices harm women. By adopting the framework of harmful cultural practices, Jeffreys avoids the faults of many liberal approaches to feminism that advocate for neoliberal notions of consumer choice over the liberation of women from subordination. Other interesting reads on the topic are Evelyn Reed’s The Woman Question and the Marxist Method in Cosmetics, Fashions and the Exploitation of Women and Andrea Dworkin’s classic Woman Hating.