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“Inscribing Gender on the Body”

In the fourth chapter of Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee’s Women’s Voices Feminist

Visions, “Inscribing Gender on the Body”, the authors discuss the concept of ‘beauty’ as

something fluid and adaptable across cultural lines. The dominant American ideology has seen

shifts in its standards of beauty over generations, adapting to accommodate more “eclectic” looks

that “focus on health and fitness” to suit an ever-adaptive American culture (191). However,

despite these progressions, the authors suggest that American female beauty as an ideal is still

predominantly characterized by thin frames, large breasts, and white skin with a moderate tan.

These qualities together construct a model of peak beauty for which American woman can aspire

to, and which creates an illusion of inadequacy in the majority of women who do not fall under

the standards of that body type.

Idealized beauty is made significant through societal enforcement. When a culture

collectively accepts and encourages an unrealistic beauty standard is the point at which it

becomes harmful. The authors emphasize the complexity of enforcement tactics which cause

women to present beauty standards to themselves as a “choice” and thus can justify the

phenomena of “self-objectification”, or “seeing ourselves through others’ eyes” (193), a harmful

practice for self-esteem which exaggerates vulnerability to the sexualization and objectification

projected upon them though contemporary media. The danger (and power) of beauty standards is

in its internalization. An assurance that you, as you are, fall short of the standards set by society

– and, indirectly, by yourself – can lead to the “disciplinary beauty practices” Shaw and Lee

discuss manifesting in cosmetics, body sculpting and fashion (193). These practices develop into

threats to female bodily and mental health when the standards they work to achieve become so

essential to the individual’s self-esteem that their comfort and health becomes a lower priority
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than the achievement of idealized beauty. For example, Shaw and Lee utilize the F.D.A.’s

concerns with the safety of breast implants, of which the American Society of Plastic Surgeons

reports twice as many women electing to purchase than there were a decade ago (193). On a

broader scale, the authors discuss the growing cultural attraction to the maintenance of female

youth and vulnerability as a means of control, whereas sexuality is considered most appropriate

in young girls rather than mature woman. This mindset not only projects further societal pressure

on adolescent girls to preform at a certain level of sexual attractiveness to men, it also weighs on

grown woman to alter their own appearances in harmful ways to present as younger (for

example, unhealthy eating habits which can devolve into eating disorders) (201).

Shaw and Lee present some methods by which modern woman are resisting the urge to

strive for idealized beauty. In some of these cases, the women choose to highlight the lack of

reality in current beauty standards by manipulating and twisting the standards themselves. This

acts as a sort of reclaiming of the standards, and supports the third-wave feminist assertion that

conforming to certain beauty standards that suit you individually does not mutually exclude your

identity as a feminist. The significant facet of the equation, the authors suggest, is not the

participation in beauty practices, but instead the consciousness of the choice itself. Because the

women in question are choosing to practice beauty tricks which may conform their appearances

to idealized standards, they are still maintaining agency over their bodies and are thus resisting

the beauty ideal.


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Work Cited

“Inscribing Gender on the Body.” Women's Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary

Readings, by Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee, 6th ed., McGraw-Hill, 2009, pp. 181–204.