THE BIG READ: Beauty, the beast and the othering of women
I have been pondering a mass revolt against the beauty industry. This mostly male-owned industry, along with the mainstream media, is premised on beautyism, a very effective tool for "othering" women who do not fit into the idealised picture of what is pleasing to the male gaze.
Beautyism bestows all sorts of virtues and privileges on a woman simply because she is beautiful. And the beauty industry preys on this false belief.
Many modern women fail to recognise the beauty industry as a form of oppression because their mothers and fathers initiate them into beautyism from a very young age.
They grow up within easy reach of a propaganda campaign waged by the media and the beauty industry.
Many women fail to make a conscious connection between their consistent feelings of failure and the amount of money they are prepared to spend to numb that pain by conforming to society' s standards of beauty.
As women we receive the same message from our mothers, our peers, our employers and the media - a social mantra that consistently tells us that we are worthwhile only if heterosexual males find us beautiful or want to have sex with us.
Black women have it even worse as society holds up the white woman as the ideal standard of feminine beauty.
The black woman's hair is too crinkled, therefore it needs to be straightened. Her skin is too dark and it needs to be lightened. Her body is too round, so she needs to go on a diet.
All these "othering" tactics have forced her to become a virtual stranger to her own body. The feeling of not belonging can follow black women right into a successful career, motherhood and old age, notes feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins.
Furthermore, modern society causes many women to feel worthless and not deserving of respect.
This is the oppressive and abusive face of an industry that profits from psychologically torturing women, and prompts them to buy their way out of misery by purchasing expensive beauty products.
Of course, there have been pockets of feminists who have long since turned their back on this delusional trap - but the majority of women continue to be slaves to this lie.
Feminist writer Sandra Bartky contends that, no matter how hard women try to please the male gaze, the admiration conferred on a sexually appealing female body or a beautiful face fails to confer equality, social power, respect and dignity on women.
As hard as this might be for post-feminists to swallow, little has changed for women.
The legacy of patriarchy continues - except that nowadays women are controlled by more sophisticated means. C ontrol is exerted on women as newer and more insidious forms of domination replace older ones.
It is now the growing power of popular culture that ensures that women aspire to an ideal standard of femininity. It is no longer about the feminine body's duties and obligations, or capacity to bear children, as was usually the case in the past.
The new gaze has shifted to women's physical appearance and the sexual allure it is expected to hold.
The woman who obsessively monitors everything she eats and who preoccupies herself with her hair and make-up all day "has become a self-policing subject, a self committed to relentless self-surveillance", contends Bartky.
We are aware of the controlling gaze and consequently groom ourselves for approval. Women, in effect, become their own jail-keepers. This plays out, as a form of obedience to patriarchy and the woman becomes "a body designed to please or to excite".
Television programmes such as Sex and the City and Generations undoubtedly exhibit this obedience even while presenting the female protagonists as liberated. Media like this programme women into becoming slaves of consumerist culture.
It is time that women stop feeling the need to please the perpetual male gaze. We must say "no more" to capitalist and consumerist propaganda that insists that all women look, behave and consume in exactly the same way.
Undoubtedly a revolutionary epoch offers us the opportunity to halt this enslavement. The time has come for women to realise that they have been duped into believing that this status quo is normal. We must see it for the restrictive jail sentence that it is.
- Schutte is an award-winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice. This article first appeared on www.sacsis.org.za