Elayne A. Saltzberg and Joan C. Chrisler
Beauty Is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body Women: A Feminist Perspective edited by Jo Freeman. Fifth Edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1995. 306-315.
Elayne Saltzberg (Daniels) was a postdoctoral clinical psychology fellow at Yale University School of Medicine. Her major interests include body image and eating disorders. She is an eating disorder specialist with a practice in Massachusetts.
Joan C. Chrisler is Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College. She is the author of From Menarche to Menopause: The Female Body in Feminist Therapy (2004) and co-editor of Arming Athena: Career Strategies for Women in Academe (1998) and Charting a New Course for Feminist Psychology (2002).
Saltzberg and Chrisler discuss the ideal of the perfect female body, one that varies across cultures; changes over time; and is impacted by racism, class prejudice, and ableism. Because it is a fluctuating ideal that women strive for and few are able to attain, failure and disappointment are inevitable. Striving to attain the ideal takes its toil on women in the form of physical pain, health problems, medical procedures, costs of beauty products, time and effort, and damaging psychological effects. They argue that there are detrimental consequences for women who fail to reach the ideal: being punished for social transgressions, fired from jobs for being too old and unattractive, and discrimination in hiring and promotion. Saltzberg and Chrisler advocate that women become more aware of the effects on their bodies and their lives of pursuing ideals of the perfect female body.
Ambrose Bierce (1958) once wrote, “To men a man is but a mind. Who cares what face he carries or what he wears? But woman’s body is the woman.” Despite the societal changes achieved since Bierce’s time, his statement remains true. Since the height of the feminist movement in the early 1970s, women have spent more money than ever before on products and treatments designed to make them beautiful. Cosmetic sales have increased annually to reach $18 billion in 1987 (“Ignoring the economy. . . ,” 1989), sales of women’s clothing averaged $103 billion per month in 1990 (personal communication, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 1992), dieting has become a $30-billion-per-year industry (Stoffel, 1989), and women spent $1.2 billion on cosmetic surgery in 1990 (personal communication, American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, 1992). The importance of beauty has apparently increased even as women are reaching for personal freedoms and economic rights undreamed of by our grandmothers. The emphasis on beauty may be a way to hold onto a feminine image while shedding feminine roles. Attractiveness is prerequisite for femininity but not for masculinity (Freedman, 1986). The word beauty always refers to the female body. Attractive male bodies are described as “handsome,” a word derived from “hand” that refers as much to action as appearance (Freedman, 1986). Qualities of achievement and strength accompany the term handsome; such attributes are rarely employed in the description of attractive women and certainly do not accompany the term beauty, which refers only to a decorative quality. Men are instrumental; women are ornamental. Beauty is a most elusive commodity. Ideas of what is beautiful vary across cultures and change over time (Fallon, 1990). Beauty cannot be quantified or objectively measured; it is the result of the judgments of others. The concept is difficult to define, as it is equated with different, sometimes contradictory, ideas. When people are asked to define beauty, they tend to mention abstract, personal qualities rather than external, quantifiable ones (Freedman, 1986; Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986).The beholder’s perceptions and cognitions influence the degree of attractiveness at least as much as do the qualities of the beheld....
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[ii] Statistics indicate that women are far more likely than men to be diagnosed as depressed. The ratio is at least 3:1 (Williams, 1985).
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