Modified from Cultural Woman Value (2016 MFA Thesis)
The standards within femininity began to change through the 1960s and 1970s. Expressing dissatisfaction within domestic confinement, women demanded lives outside of the home. Women set about to redefine cultural woman value from its cage of domesticity to contributor of culture. The mass media, now synonymous with the advertising industry by the 1980s, set two monumental changes in motion. They turned the story of feminism into an angry, misguided fad, and they subverted cultural woman value away from its egalitarian destination by creating a new story of female self-worth. The advertising industry invented what bestselling author Naomi Wolf coins as the beauty myth.
In her book, The Beauty Myth (1991), Naomi Wolf exposes the damaging effects of “beauty” images—those from magazines, television, films, pornography, and worst culprit of all, advertisements. With an economy that safeguards and incentivizes greed, advertisers find women to be their most vulnerable and profitable targets. Wolf uncovers the media corruption, building a remarkable case against the media and profit-based economies. Standing on the shoulders of a nearly dismantled patriarchy, the advertising industry took over where patriarchy relented.
Images depicting the ideal female face and body emerged in droves. A woman’s physical appearance became more salient than ever before. Women began to feel tremendous pressure to look like the quintessential Barbie doll. Ideal attributes included long hair, small noses, long eyelashes, and full lips. Standards of physique demanded tiny waists, small hips, flat stomach, and large breasts. Women began to buy an endless stream of beauty products which promised them the self-worth they so craved. Women went hungry. They surgically altered themselves. Wolf reflects, “As women released themselves from the feminine mystique of domesticity, the beauty myth took over its lost ground, expanding as it waned to carry on its work of social control.” As women began to gain access to culture and power, that very power structure used the beauty myth to undermine the progress of women. That power structure, the advertising industry, figured out that if you keep women in cycles of self-hatred, emptiness, and sexual insecurity, they will buy lots and lots of stuff. The beauty myth took over when the cult of domesticity relented. By naming a problem where it had barely existed before, the ad industry began to attack the woman’s body.
Exposing the depravity of contemporary cultural woman value, and riding the line between the spheres of domesticity and adornment, my artwork nudges the viewer into a conflict between consciousness and delight. My soft sculptures encapsulate both the oppression and splendor of women. Although radiant and joyful, the objects are tempered by a self-consciousness, submitting to an existential insecurity in that moment.
The beauty myth succeeds so exceptionally because the very notion of beauty lives deep inside the psyche where it becomes enmeshed with self-esteem. “A misogynist culture has succeeded in making women hate what misogynists hate,” identifies Wolf. In My Life on the Road (2015), activist Gloria Steinem observes that misogyny is almost never named by the media, because misogyny is the media. Media is the misogyny. In service to dollar signs, the media yields control over women into the twenty-first century by manipulating cultural woman value.
But here’s the good news: The beauty myth is exactly that—a myth. Cultural woman value is a mental construct, a mere social agreement. Women need only to disagree.