The Beauty Bind, Chapter One

In the mirror at Pilates class, I discreetly scan the line of women in workout attire. I perceive I have the widest hips in the room. I feel a downward tug of tension for the rest of the day. Low back. QL muscle. To shake it off, I seek another comparison in which I emerge the clear winner. The stranger on the sidewalk in size 22 jeans. I’m not proud of this.

I learn I’m not alone in this unflattering habit. A few friends and clients admit they do the same, under cover. We compare ourselves. We notice other women, their clothes, their shoes, their hips, their wrinkles, their handbags. How they carry themselves, how they do their hair, how they look in jeans. And as we do, we can’t help sliding out the invisible rating scale.

If I come out with the lower score, I say, I’ve got to work harder. If I win the comparison, I say, Whew.

In 2003, I started a research project that looked at women’s relationships: mom, daughter, sister, friend, acquaintance, co-worker, stranger. My students and I wanted to learn how cultural beauty pressure shapes the relational space between us. This was hard to explain to people.

So, you’re studying body image? my friends asked. Self esteem?

Not exactly, I’d say.

How the media affects our sense of attractiveness?

Well, sort of. But more like how we relate to each other – with beauty culture in the background.

Oh, they’d say. Like when you hate your sister because she’s skinnier than you?

Exactly.

Hahahahah . . . They laughed, because of course we don’t really hate her. Right?

We took our recorders and notebooks and headed off to Oregon, Texas, New York, Arkansas, and back to Missouri. We talked to women in groups around kitchen tables and in living rooms and sorority houses. We collected their stories and agonized over them for a few years as we tried to make sense of a confusing tangle of threads.

I eat whatever I want. I hardly ever work out.

            Yeah, me too. I don’t give it much thought.

            I care about my health – as in sun protection. But beauty takes too much work.

The circle of social workers laughs. We listen to their recorded banter and scratch our heads. The following week, Ms. Eat-Whatever emails me and admits she’s getting Botox. She is 25.

I used to care more when I was younger, but after 40 you kind of realize there’s more to life than cute outfits and perky boobs.

            I agree totally. Health is my focus now.

            And don’t you guys think those women who get all the surgeries are kind of pathetic?

The retired teachers and librarians affirm each other with deep nods. They make jokes on the shaving of the legs.

I don’t like to see women who try too hard. The Barbie Dolls bug me. They must take hours in the morning.

            I feel sorry for them.

            Me too. Of course, my mother would like me to look like them.

            Oh gosh, mine too. But she’s had to settle for an average daughter.

            Hahahahahah . . .

The urban Texas moms agree their mothers have ordinary-looking daughters. Most of them look amazing to me. So put-together. I feel confused.

Okay, I kind of despise this woman – our realtor. She works it. She’s bodaciously beautiful and she knows it and she flirts with Darren.

            I’m glad you said that. My mother always compared me to a cousin who’s like that. And I despise my cousin to this day.

            To admit you have these feelings is like the most shameful thing. I don’t understand it. But I have them too.

            Just the other day, I saw an old friend who’d had some “work done,” and I pointed it out to my friend and we jointly ridiculed her.

            I had a nose job in high school. It was my sixteenth birthday present. I’ve never told another woman that before.

The New York literary agents dig into the problem. We listen and feel hope and say – Let’s keep going. We listen to more groups. We read their follow-up emails. We go back with more questions. What does this mean? What is happening between us? Are women’s relationships being eroded by the diet industry? By the advent of the mirror? By Miss America and the Prom Queen?

Here’s the upshot of our investigation.

  1. We (women) are ALL involved in beauty culture. Even resisters participate through their unshaven legs and plain faces.
  2. We compare ourselves to each other, whether consciously or not. None of us truly escapes this phenomenon.
  3. We follow a damned-if-you-do choreography. Opting in or out invites judgment. We all feel this – unless we work very hard to tune it out.
  4. We act as if we don’t all know what we’re doing. We feel shame about it.
  5. Our silence feeds an underground competition, which feeds more shame, which feeds more silence.

Every garment choice, every weigh-in, every application of mascara is tinged with relationship. Beauty is social. I’m NOT saying fitness or fashion keep us estranged. But I am saying the silence we keep about beauty culture gives it power, keeps Big Business in the midst of our relationships (think elephant under dining table), and stiff-arms other women who might have otherwise been our friends.

I think conversations about The Beauty Bind are long overdue.

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