Dimensions of Her: Beauty and Sexuality in a Man’s World

by Maria van der Sloot

Written for BioCultures: Nature, Gender, and Sexuality (LARTS 468, Spring 2012)

Image“Dimensions” explores the concepts of female sexuality and beauty, highlighting the negative effects of the ideals promoted in mainstream society. It is inspired by and rooted in discussions of gender, nature, and sexuality. I was intrigued by the concept of gender as a social construct and performance, as well as by cultural ideas of feminine beauty, including the mythologized link between female and natural beauty.

Form and Medium: Originally, I imagined “Dimensions” as a simple art collage presentation of the portrayal of women by the media, focusing particularly on sexuality and beauty. However, I felt this format was, quite literally, lacking in dimension, so I shaped the collage over a cube. From there, the form began to influence the content of my project. After much brainstorming and several false starts, I developed the following relationships between the project’s form and content:

  • § The cube itself represents the multiple and complex dimensions of “woman” dictated in popular culture. Many elements contribute to the heteronormative feminine ideal.
  • § While researching for this project, I was surprised by the many links between the standards imposed on grown women and those set for young girls. I narrowed my focus to three subjects; opposite sides of the cube address the same topic’s significance to different age groups.

As I researched for “Dimensions,” the benefits and limitations of my chosen medium became clear. The collage format is visually arresting and allows room to include photographs, text, cut-outs, and fabric within the same structure. Sculpture is useful because it is touchable, so the audience can experience the art in a very physically way. However, it is impossible to share video, articles, or other types of media this way, or to explain the visual references. To overcome this issue, I’ve included an extensive annotated bibliography: think of it as an educational game that could be used in a school. The cube is a giant die (here, sculpture as a medium becomes relevant); if you land on a topic that grabs your interest, you can refer to the bibliography for further sources. The specific sources in the bibliography all have had a strong influence on “Dimensions”; consider the bibliography a crucial part of the project, expressed through a different medium.

Content: Sides #1 and #2 of the cube deal with sexuality and are inspired by the following quotation from Judith Lorber:

For the individual, gender construction starts with assignment to a sex category on the basis of what the genitalia look like at birth. . . . Sex doesn’t come into play again until puberty, but by that time, sexual feelings and desires and practices have been shaped by gendered norms and expectations. (14)

Lorber states that sexuality is influenced by gender constructs but does not specify exactly what these constructs are or how they reveal themselves at the onset of puberty. Sides #1 and #2 fill in these blanks by explicitly showing the effects of adult female norms—specifically the virgin/whore binary—projected onto young girls.

 

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#1: Women’s Sexuality. This side explores the virgin/whore binary that adult women face. All of the images and quotations are cut out from Cosmopolitan. The aim was to contrast ideas of the innocent, pure, gentle woman (e.g., the baby-like face, the woman in pink rain boots with a ribbon in her hair) with the concept of the slut. The Bible passage comes from the book of Ezekiel, where God compares the city of Jerusalem with a whorehouse and promises it similar disgrace and punishment for its lewdness. This quotation reflects the still-prevalent notion that women’s sexuality is bad or shameful.

 

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#2: Girls’ Sexuality. This face shows how the virgin/whore binary is imposed on young girls. The model shot is of Thylane Blondeau, a 10-year-old French model whose oversexualization by photog-raphers has caused controver-sy. The Barbie-like face in the background is that of Eden Wood, star of TLC’s “Toddlers and Tiaras.” In contrast to this premature sexuality, the girl holding a rose and her father standing behind her are attendees at a “purity ball,” a formal event where middle-school girls pledge their chastity to their fathers before God. The quotation, “Which Disney Princess Are You?” comes from the Disney website; you’ll notice the deadened princess heads floating around other images. Lastly, “What’s a Good Girl?” quotes the poem of the same title by Eve Ensler.

Sides #3 and #4 address the relationship between beauty standards and women’s relationships to food, and are also inspired by Lorber, who writes:

Gender norms are inscribed in the way people move, gesture, and even eat. In one African society, men were supposed to eat with their “whole mouth, wholeheartedly, and not, like women, just with the lips, that is halfheartedly, with reservation and restraint.” (23)

This quotation directly addresses women’s relationships with food and the social role food holds; food is used as a weapon against females trying to live up to impossible standards of perfection.

 

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#3: Women’s Beauty Ideals. Kate Moss, a famously thin supermodel, stands braless and toned in front of an air-brushed torso. Such taut bod-ies are impossible and dan-gerous for most women to try to replicate. An ad for Hydroxycut (a company that has had to recall its products due to counts of liver damage) promises drastic weight loss to women who are willing to take non-FDA-approved drugs in the name of beauty. “We promise” directly references The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf; it is the lie implicitly spread by the beauty industry at every turn—“we promise” that if you buy our mascara, you will be beautiful and happy; you will land your dream man with this one-shouldered dress; everything you’ve wished for will fall into place if you use our brand of shampoo.

 

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#4: Girls’ Beauty Ideals. This side dramatically reveals the dangerous effects of beauty norms. While, in fairness, eat-ing disorders are complicated diseases that have yet to be understood fully, there is little question that our impossible beauty standards play a role in  at least triggering eating disorders in young girls. This issue is also incredibly personal to me. Almost all of the media on this side is from my own experience with anorexia and bulimia. The collage of “thinspiration” was my computer background for a year; the poem is taken directly from my journal; the bits of fabric are cut from the gown I wore for a week in a mental hospital’s re-feeding ward. The text “tagged: thin . . .” comes from a pro-anorexia Tumblr blog.

Sides #5 and #6 showcase female power. In researching for this project, I frequently discovered a deep-set sense of determination in the writing of these female authors. These women fight for something significant, and that has had a powerful impact on me.

 

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#5: Inspirational Women. This side showcases a few women I find inspirational: Amelia Earhart, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, and Hillary Clinton. Note that their beauty and sexuality are not what first jump to mind; these women are famous for their achievements—Earhart in flight, Angelou in literature, Steinem in the feminist movement, and Clinton in politics. Beauty and sexuality are irrelevant to how they are identified; in this sense, maybe they “transcend” societal expectations. The quotation comes from the poem “Invisible Womon” by Beth Daily-Wallach and represents this transcendence.

 

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#6: Inspiration for Girls. This last side shows positive role models for today’s young girls. The girl in the background, Demi Lovato, is a former Disney star who recently came forward with her story of bulimia and cutting; she is now an activist for men- tal health issues and promotes authenticity over “perfection.” The princesses here contrast with the princess heads on side #2. These two princesses from recent Dreamworks films are headstrong, savvy, in-dependent young women—much more suitable than the helpless princesses of the past. Pippi Longstocking peeks her head out from behind Rapunzel; fearless, impolite, and endlessly curious, Pippi was my idol as a little girl. The final quotation of the project (“I dance . . .”) comes from the poem “I Dance III” by Eve Ensler and is an open invitation to the audience.

Annotated Bibliography

On Sexuality (Sides #1 and #2)

Cosmopolitan, April-May. 2012. Print. Images and quotations from both of these issues of Cosmopolitan magazine are cut and pasted onto the collage cube. This popular magazine is notorious for promoting the heteronormative ideal of female sexuality and is ripe with examples of current sexual and esthetic norms for women.

Durham, Meenakshi Gigi. The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do about It. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 2008. Print. A great resource on the sexualization of young girls in the media. Durham argues that girls are not only increasingly sexualized, but are also seen as knowledgeable and willing participants in their own fetishism, which is both disturbing and dangerous in its implications and effects.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W.W.

Norton, 1963. Print. Friedman’s classic and ground-breaking work, based on her surveys of American housewives, is considered to have started the second wave of feminism. Friedman claims that men have normalized the notion of female domestication as the ideal, and that this false premise is the cause of unhappiness in housewives.

Gibbs, Nancy. “The Pursuit of Teen Girl Purity.” TIME. TIME, 17 July 2008. Web. May 2012. <http://www.time.com/ time/magazine/article/0,9171,1823930,00.html>. This TIME magazine article explores the trend of “purity balls,” formal events where young girls pledge their virginities and “purity” until marriage before their fathers and God. This phenomenon is a glaring example of the virgin/whore binary affecting the youngest generation.

Kateuptonexp. “Happy Easter from Kate Upton.”  YouTube, 7 Apr. 2012. Web. May 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=vBdWGD8F3Oo>. A short promotional clip for current Sports Illustrated “it” girl Kate Upton. The 19-year-old is featured as a scantily-clad Easter bunny; the video could not exemplify the virgin/whore binary more perfectly.

Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free, 2005. Print. Levy’s controversial book examines the popularization of “raunch culture” among women. She argues that overt sexuality is not a sign of empowerment, but rather another form of submission to the male expectation and ideal. Her writing is accessible and certainly provocative; however the often-dismissive and condescending tone weakens her argument.

Lorber, Judith. “Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender.” Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994. Print. Lorber claims that gender is a social construct. She points out other cultures’ ideas of gender in her analysis and argues against gender as a biological phenomenon. Several quotations from her work inspired this project.

Orenstein, Peggy. Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-girl Culture. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2011. Print. Orenstein argues in Cinderella Ate My Daughter that girlie-girl culture shapes girls’ identities and gender associations from a young age in a negative way. Although it may just be a stage, the “princess phase” has a lasting effect.

The Purity Myth: The Virginity Movement’s War Against Women. By Jessica Valenti and Jeremy Earp. Dir. Jeremy Earp. Prod. Sut Jhally. Media Education Foundation, 2011. Film. This short documentary based on the popular book of the same name explores the concept of sexual purity and its implications for girls. Valenti argues that America’s obsession with purity is damaging to girls; instead of focusing on their sex, we should value girls according to other qualities.

Realititygameshowfan. “Toddlers and Tiaras S02E10 Tiny Miss USA.” Youtube, 1 Feb. 2012. Web. May 2012. <http:// http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rk-HD_7zOqI>. A full episode of “Toddlers and Tiaras.” The hit TLC show follows the lives of toddler-aged pageant contestants and their families; it serves as direct evidence of the sexualization of young girls.

Sephora. “Sephora Presents Scent Impressions: Addictive.” YouTube, 26 Apr. 2012. Web. May 2012. <http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=lH-dHelv7xw>.

Sephora. “Sephora Presents Scent Impressions: Playful.” YouTube, 26 Apr. 2012. Web. May 2012. <http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=7PlQ8syFomQ&feature=relmfu>. These videos from Sephora, an international cosmetics company, reflect the female sexual binary in advertising. The videos are notable in the extremes they present. “Addictive” is quite disturbing and features a woman who looks like a drugged zombie, while “Playful” shows a woman playing peek-a-boo through an oversized pink tutu.

Wolf, Naomi. Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood. New York: Random House, 1997. Print. Wolf provides an informative read on the sexual and cultural transition from girlhood to womanhood. Insightful and well-written, this narrative provides a foundation for understanding what it means to be a sexual female in modern society.

On Beauty (Sides #3 and #4)

ANAD. “Eating Disorder Statistics.” National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. ANAD, 2012. Web. May 2012. <http://www.anad.org/get-information/ about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics>.

National Eating Disorders Association.”Statistics: Eating Disorders and Their Precursors.” National Eating Disorders Association. National Eating Disorders Association, 2005. Web. May 2012. <www.nationaleatingdisorders.org>. Great factual resources, these webpages provide up-to-date statistics on eating disorders and related information. The authoring associations provide support and raise awareness for eating disorder victims.

Buzzcola2012. “Killing Us Softly 4 (2010)—1/6.” YouTube, 7 Dec. 2011. Web. May 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=RMVS5M3SckQ&feature=results_video& playnext=1&list=PLC137B339FAB1F25B>.      The latest from the “Killing Us Softly” series. Created by Jean Kilbourne, these videos address media advertising; Kilbourne argues that no person is immune to advertising, and that false beauty standards set by the media have a harmful effect on viewers of both sexes.

Daily-Wallach, Beth. “Invisible Womon.” Lesbians, Levis, and Lipstick: The Meaning of Beauty in Our Lives. Ed. Jeanine C. Cogan and Joanie M. Erickson. New York: Harrington Park, 1999. Print. A goldmine for writings on lesbian sexuality, gender performance, beauty norms, and the connections between them. Particularly striking is “Invisible Womon,” a poem about visual identification as a lesbian.

Disney. “Which Disney Princess Are You?” Princesses: Which Disney Princess Are You? Disney. Web. May 2012. <http://disney.go.com/games/play3/?content=204062&gt;. This online quiz perpetuates the myth of the “soft” feminine ideal, targeting young girls. Questions reflect a heteronormative perspective and suggest a traditionalist attitude towards women from the Disney corporation.

Fatgirlx. “Real Girl & Celebrity Thinspo.” YouTube, 15 Nov. 2009. Web. May 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch ?v=BMIUukaXFls>.

“Four Month Mission.” Tumblr. Web. May 2012. <http://

fourmonthskinnyminny.tumblr.com>.

“FUCKFATLET’SGETSKINNY.” Tumblr. Web. May 2012. <http://fuckfatletsgetskinny.tumblr.com&gt;.

“I Will Be Perfect…” Tumblr. Web. May 2012. <http://

iwillbeperfecteventually.tumblr.com>. These videos and Tumblr sites are a sample of a recent Internet phenomenon where eating-disordered adolescents share tips on starving, post “thinspiration” (pictures of ultra-thin women and celebrities), and track their calories on social media websites. “Pro-ana/mia” sites are banned on most blogging hosts and forums.

Gimlim, Debra. “Anorexic as Overconformist: Toward a Reinterpretation of Eating Disorders.” Ideals of Feminine Beauty: Philosophical, Social, and Cultural Dimensions. Ed. Karen A. Callaghan. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994. Print. Ideals is comprised of readings falling under the umbrella term of “feminine beauty.” Topics include beauty ideals, race and beauty, anorexia, beauty and women’s identity, and feminine beauty in religious/philosophical literature. “Anorexic” speaks personally to those recovering from eating disorders.

Odell, Amy. “Adriana Lima Goes on a Liquid Diet, Works Out Twice a Day Before the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.” NY Mag. New York Media LLC, 7 Nov. 2011. Web. May 2012. <http://nymag.com/daily/fashion/2011/11/ adriana-limas-secret-diet.html>. This story reveals the extreme diet and exercise plan undertaken by Victoria’s Secret models in preparation for a fashion show. It is a great example of the ludicrous beauty ideals set by popular culture.

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women. New York: W. Morrow, 1991. Print. This controversial modern classic in women’s social studies examines the concept of female beauty. Wolf argues that modern ideas of beauty are elusive social constructs created by patriarchal institutions. Through impossible and restrictive standards of beauty, male-dominant society effectively and intentionally prevents women from achieving real equality or reaching their full potential; these impacts extend to multiple areas of life beyond physical appearance.

 

On Inspiration (#5 and #6)

Bitch Magazine. Bitch Media. Web. May 2012. <http:// bitchmagazine.org>.

Feministing. Feministing. Web. May 2012. <http://feministing. com>.

Jezebel: Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing. JEZEBEL. Web. May 2012. <http://jezebel.com&gt;. Bitch, Feministing, and Jezebel are all feminist online magazines/blogs/editorials. Most articles are humorous as well as informative; the websites are easy to navigate and very accessible. Such websites offer an excellent point of entry into current discussions on gender and sexuality.

Ensler, Eve. I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls around the World. New York: Villard, 2010. Print. Ensler’s collection features prose written from the fictional viewpoint of girls across the world, covering issues from abortion to genital mutilation to first love in an insightful and authentic voice accessible to adolescent girls.

Lindgren, Astrid, and Michael Chesworth. The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking. New York: Viking, 1997. Print. Pippi Longstocking is a popular children’s series revolving around a spirited, independent, and unorthodox heroine who embarks on all sorts of unbelievable adventures in her daily life. Lindgren has created a fantastic role model for young girls.

TED. “Themes Celebrating TEDWomen.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. TED Conferences. Web. May 2012. <http:// http://www.ted.com/themes/celebrating_tedwomen.html>. TED is a fantastic program that provides short presentations by experts in specific fields. TEDWomen celebrates powerful women who are at the top of their game, and many of the TEDWomen talks are specifically related to women in the work force.

Wolf, Naomi. Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century. New York: Random House, 1993. Print. Wolf explores the history and politics of feminism, specifically in regards to how women relate to the movement. She argues against the victim perspective presented by a large branch of feminism, and instead suggests women take on the mindset of agency in claiming power.

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