Beauty Myths

Late last month, Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, came out against a proposal for a 5 percent tax on cosmetic surgery to help offset the cost of health-care reform. Speaking to The New York Times, O'Neill argued that for some women, plastic surgery can be an economic necessity. "They have to find work," she said. "And they are going for Botox or going for eye work, because the fact is we live in a society that punishes women for getting older."

O'Neill's stance was dispiriting, a sign of capitulation to unfair and unattainable beauty standards. But as a summation of where women stand at the end of the decade, it wasn't unrealistic. More than four decades after the famous feminist protests at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, few remain under the illusion that they can escape our culture's ever more exacting physical ideals. Shortly after the Times piece, a story reported what many women already know: "Women who advance most at work, studies agree, are more attractive, thinner, taller and have a more youthful appearance than their female colleagues who are promoted less often." The ultimate example of this was Sarah Palin, whose beauty seemed to be her primary qualification for the vice-presidential nomination.

Thinking about what the last year and the last decade has meant for American women, I kept coming back to the increasingly cruel physical scrutiny that they're subject to. Impossible beauty standards seem like a subconscious cultural reaction against women's growing power. It's fine for women to do everything men do -- as long as they stay skinny, sexy, young, and soignée at the same time. The surveillance culture of the Internet and the tabloids sends a message to all women that to let oneself go for even a moment is to open oneself up to a psychotic Greek chorus of abuse. Even as our politics get a little bit better for women, the broader public climate grows more unforgiving by the day.

During the last decade, women in the United States have made some real gains in power and visibility. Hillary Clinton was the first serious female presidential candidate, and if her appointment as secretary of state wasn't a milestone, that in itself is a positive sign -- we're so used to seeing women in that position that it's no longer remarkable. Similarly, the fact that the secretary of homeland security is a woman isn't seen as a big deal. That's a huge improvement over the days when Janet Reno was ceaselessly mocked in her role as attorney general. There aren't enough women in Congress, but there are more than ever before -- 17 in the Senate and 74 in the House. Women are the majority of law school and medical school students. And while male unemployment is hardly a feminist triumph, it's nevertheless true that the effects of the recession are creating a female-majority work force.

And yet in the last 10 years, this growing clout has been accompanied by increasingly punishing standards of physical acceptability. Models get skinnier and images of models are photoshopped to be skinnier still. Cheap celebrity magazines now have "body editors" who chronicle the weight fluctuations, however minute, of both famous women and those who are just vaguely recognizable. The New York-centric gossip site Gawker dissects female authors' book-jacket photos. The Huffington Post famously intersperses its lefty punditry with examinations of prominent women's body parts -- i.e., "Guess the Celebrity Breast Implants." It's now-abandoned "The Big Picture" section featured photos of famous people blown up to reveal every line, stray hair, and enlarged pore -- an open invitation to spiteful dissection.

New flaws are constantly being discovered on women's bodies. Female genital cosmetic surgery appeared in 1998 and has grown steadily. "The surgeons argued that women attend to genital appearance because of skimpy bikinis, thong underwear, Brazilian waxing, laser hair removal, oral sex, provocative fashion advertising, and internet pornography," Leonore Tiefer, a New York University psychiatry professor, wrote in a journal article last year. The Food and Drug Administration only approved Botox for use on wrinkles in 2002; it's now a cultural staple that has vastly changed our expectations about what a middle-aged woman's face should look like.

This year, we were introduced to "cankles," a derisive term for insufficiently tapered ankles. (Naturally, there's a surgical cure.) Last Thursday, a New York Times Style section article about eyebrows described teenagers seeking professional plucking, waxing and threading at 12 and 13. Older women, it said, are increasingly having hair surgically transplanted to their eyebrows in order to fill them out: 3,484 such procedures were done in 2008.

Of course, you probably know a lot of this already -- we all do. It's become so exhausting and repetitive to complain about insane beauty standards that many of us have stopped, even though they keep getting worse. There's something embarrassing about letting it get to you -- what should a women with a life care about body-snarking bloggers or US Weekly? But opting out of a culture and its obsessions isn't easy to do, and so appearance anxiety, and a sense of constant unloving judgment, eats up many women's mental energy.

Naomi Wolf described all this in 1991, in her pathbreaking book The Beauty Myth. "The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us," she wrote. But Wolf was writing before plastic surgery was considered a prerequisite for ongoing employment, before Botox, before ubiquitous Brazilian waxes, before images of natural breasts started seeming like an odd retro novelty. Almost 20 years later, the period Wolf was writing in seems like a prelapsarian paradise of female self-acceptance.

Given the way women perceived as unattractive are treated, it's no wonder so many find the pressure intolerable and seek surgical relief. Laurie Essig, author of a forthcoming book on plastic surgery, recently reported that a third of plastic surgery patients make less than $30,000 a year; many pay for their surgeries with credit cards charging usurious interest rates. Blogging on True/Slant, Essig argues that it's unfair to tax these women further, especially since there's no objective way to figure out which operations are and are not necessary. "'Necessary' is an impossible word when it comes to cosmetic surgery because ultimately, almost none of it is necessary for pure physical survival, but we are social animals who increasingly depend on 'first impressions' to survive," she writes.

There's some truth to what she says, but stretching the term "necessary" to encompass cosmetic surgery means acquiescing to the last decade's most pernicious trends. The more time women are compelled to spend fighting their own bodies, the less they have to fight for anything else.