Women and Beauty
It was New Years Eve just a few weeks ago, and I was putting on mascara in my bedroom. I was happy; swaying and humming to a country song, wearing gold hoops and a bright purple dress. I felt eyes on me, and I turned to see my little girl staring up at me with big, curious eyes. Watching. Learning. “Mommy, you look pretty”, she said. “I want to wear make-up!”
Like most women, growing up I’ve always struggled with beauty. On the one hand, I am interested in beautiful things. I have a desire to be beautiful. A curiosity and interest in beautiful people. On the other hand, I also have “not good enough” feelings related to beauty. A history of comparing myself to others. A sense that a focus on beauty is shallow.
All while growing up I was told repeatedly that:
1) Women are equal to men, and
2) It is what is on the inside that counts.
But these messages, supposedly empowering, actually led to a lot of cognitive dissonance for me when it turned out that in real life not everyone was on board. It is incredibly confusing as a young person when you are told something over and over that you can feel in your bones is not true in real life.
I recall from an early age seeking to understand my place in this world as a girl. Hearing the stories of Adam and Eve, Pandora, and Helen of Troy and feeling a sad, sinking feeling that girls were never the hero. Or worse, low level messages that somehow women were actually at fault for things going wrong. Couple this with watching Disney movies and seeing vindictive female villains coupled with princesses prized for their beauty and ultimately their ability to catch a prince and live happily ever after...and yeah, it isn’t surprising I’ve always had subconscious, complicated feelings about being a woman. And when I first got pregnant with my daughter, I absolutely remember feeling fear and doubt about how to raise a girl in this world.
Luckily four years ago when my daughter was just a little baby, I stumbled upon a life changing book called “Misogyny: the World’s Oldest Prejudice” by Jack Holland. Ever since reading that book, I have felt an acceptance of my love of beauty in a new and deep way. Mostly because the book showed me that many of my hardest feelings over the years of fear, guilt and shame are actually a result of messages passed down through culture over thousands of years as opposed to anything I am or have done personally.
Misogyny is defined by Holland as “hatred of women”; a quick google search returns this similar definition “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women”. It is upsetting and startling to read about the subjugation of women over thousands of years in this compact book. Especially the witch burning craze from the 1500s-1700s with potentially millions of women burned alive as a result of conspiracy theories about women sleeping with devils. Fascinatingly but not surprisingly, the witch craze coincided with the invention of the printing press. As Holland notes: “There is more than a little irony in the fact that the invention that would revolutionize people’s access to information should be so instrumental in spreading one of the most lethal forms of ignorance, fear and prejudice ever to manifest itself.”
It is so critical for us to understand our past both if we want to avoid repeating it, and also since it really wasn’t that long ago from a historical perspective. Holland’s book starts off 2,500 years ago! Whereas many of the gains have happened over the last 200 or so years. And one of my biggest takeaways from Holland’s book is that women’s innate interest in beauty has always been used against them. As Holland notes, “From Plate onwards (approx. 400 B.C.), it has been the goal of every totalitarian regime to stop women from putting on make-up.” But why?
OK, let’s dive in. The following are “myths” passed down through culture, from leaders, orators, books, and institutions (i.e., church / religions) over the last 2,500 years related to women and beauty. Many of these myths were accepted as TRUTH not that long ago, and I think you’ll see many of them still stubbornly linger in culture even in the U.S. today. Similar to racism, if we don’t understand the past and accept that it was hurtful to everyone and see it clearly, it will be very challenging for us to really move forward.
(Credit Assata Shakur; seen on Instagram)
Myth #1: Women are at fault for original sin and the downfall of men.
It should not be shocking to me after hearing the story of Adam and Eve as a kid, but it absolutely was, that for thousands of years it was accepted as fact that women are not to be trusted and are at fault for the downfall of men. First, we were told that a woman is made from a man's rib. Man was created first, and then woman was created to keep man company and for man’s benefit. But even worse than that, then the story told us that the reason men feel sadness, pain and don’t live in peace is because of the original sin of Eve. Man was enjoying a beautiful life in nature in connection with all things and God, and then Eve ruined everything. Women are at fault for all of men’s and the world’s ills. These stories were used throughout centuries as reason to denigrate and subjugate women.
As Holland notes, Tertullian, an early prolific Christian writer from 155 - 240 A.D., wrote: “To avoid becoming the devil’s ally, women should ‘go about in humble garb...and affect meanness of appearance, walking about as Eve mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve - the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium attaching to her as the cause of human perdition.”
According to Wikipedia, Tertullian has been called “the father of Latin Christianity” and “the founder of Western theology”. Yikes. And to be clear, I am a Christian. I got baptized at the age of 33 along with my daughter as a baby after much careful reflection, research and discussion with my husband, who is a lifelong Christian. I can tell you that nowhere does Jesus say that women are less than men. On the contrary, and it is a huge rarity of the time as Holland notes: “What is most striking about the parables and proverbs attributed to Jesus, as recounted in the Gospels, is the absence of both misogyny and vengefulness. Women were among his first followers.”
We can of course say Tertullian and others like him are a product of their times, and it isn’t fair to compare their words to how society functions today. Sure, we could say that...but I also think when I hear the idea that women are at fault for all of men’s troubles, rampant domestic violence makes so much more sense. Rage against women and deep misogyny is easier to understand. These feelings and beliefs are cultural messages that lasted for thousands of years! We have to understand this history not to shame individuals, but to move forward with awareness and knowledge of how we got here.
Finally, in addition to this being super messed up for women to believe everything is all their fault, this is absolutely not helpful to men. It gives them a person (or people) to place all their anger and sadness on vs. taking responsibility for their own actions and feelings. Men need to believe in themselves and their ability to control their lives and actions as powerful beings. Believing women are inferior doesn’t help men. And while I’m at it and seeing some cultural backlash today about how men are incompetent as fathers or that they need to forgo their needs for their wives (happy wife, happy life?), believing men are inferior doesn’t help women, either. As the amazing Brene Brown says, “Connection is why we're here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” It is very hard to connect with people if you believe they are inferior to or less than you. This myth has been devastating to men and women for centuries.
Myth #2: Beauty makes women tempting to men, who cannot control themselves. This is the woman's fault.
If everything is women’s fault, of course arousing desire in men is DEFINITELY their fault. This book also lays out in detail how telling people their bodies, sex and desire are evil for thousands of years negatively impacts our souls and especially poisons the male / female dynamic, but that is another post for another day. Quote from Holland: “Misogyny always confronts women with the same dilemma. Whether they are “good” girls or “bad” girls, they are forced into the same conundrum: they still arouse lust in men for which they, not those who desire them, are held responsible.”
Chanel Miller’s book, Know My Name, was a fascinating and compelling read. Her story makes clear that our legal system still carries these harmful messages when women are sexually assaulted. The “me too” movement helped to bring a lot of this to light across our culture and around the world. For me personally, it opened my eyes to behaviors I had accepted for decades without any awareness of how harmful they were to me and likely to the men engaging in them.
This also oddly shows up related to my daughter, when occasionally someone will say: “That one is a beauty - better watch out.” Or “Those lips...she’s going to be trouble.” Usually with a winky face. About a five year old. It always grosses me out to hear comments about how men won’t be able to control themselves around my daughter or somehow she is going to be out of control because she is beautiful. We still have a long way to go with this myth.
I also can’t move on from this myth without again pointing out how hurtful this is to men. Men are so weak that they cannot control themselves? No, this is not true and hurts good men everywhere. And it gives troubled men an excuse to not take responsibility, which ultimately also hurts them at a soul level. No one feels truly good about themselves when they are abusing others.
Myth #3: If women are allowed to listen to / trust themselves, society as we know it will collapse.
OK, actually this is true and not a myth! But it is a GOOD thing not a bad thing if certain aspects of culture die (e.g. sexism), and certainly society has changed A LOT in the last 200 years. A quote in Holland’s book from around 200 B.C.: “Cato the Elder had warned his fellow Romans long ago, when women were demanding the right to wear gorgeous clothes, that ‘woman is a violent and uncontrolled animal’ to whom any concession of freedom will lead to complete abandonment and the collapse of all moral standards.”
Negative messages and subjugation of and violence against women have been used for thousands of years to keep women quiet, compliant and to preserve the status quo where men retained the power. It is important when reading this to not think that I am condemning today’s men, I most certainly am not. I am just stating a historical fact. This myth is harder to pick up on in the book, but it is absolutely there and certainly there throughout history. Holland talks about how threatening chloroform (to ease women’s labor pains) and contraceptives (so women could control their own reproduction) were to the world order when they first became available.
We can’t change the past, but we can change how we act moving forward. And I hope we raise a generation of boys and girls who are less constrained by arbitrary culture cages. My husband and I are working so hard to parent our two kids consciously, so that they are seen, accepted, and loved and can move around the world with that grounding. Teaching them to listen to and trust themselves regardless of the cultural messages they receive and even more to name and question cultural messages. This myth made me think of Glennon Doyle’s amazing book Untamed and this passage:
“We weren’t born distrusting and fearing ourselves. That was part of our taming. We were taught to believe that who we are in our natural state is bad and dangerous. They convinced us to be afraid of ourselves. So we do not honor our own bodies, curiosity, hunger, judgment, experience, or ambition. Instead, we lock away our true selves. Women who are best at this disappearing act earn the highest praise: She is so selfless. Can you imagine? The epitome of womanhood is to lose one’s self completely. That is the end goal of every patriarchal culture. Because a very effective way to control women is to convince women to control themselves.”
Myth #4: Beauty is for silly, frivolous people (women); whereas serious, responsible people (men) don’t care about beauty.
Quote from Holland: “The misogynists of Greece and Rome similarly censured women for beautifying themselves…it was an opportunity to show how foolish women were for aspiring to possess such a transient bauble as beauty.”
I remember reading an article during the last presidential primary campaign about how Elizabeth Warren had outsmarted the press by wearing the same outfit everyday. It was impossible to do the historical thing people do to women running for political office where you focus more on their clothes than what they have to say. I hope and assume that Elizabeth Warren does that because it feels right and comfortable to her. Contrast that with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). AOC has aroused so much feeling - interest, respect and awe on one side, and fear, anger and indignation on the other. AOC is a woman who wears bright red lipstick and dances when she is happy. She is smart and does her homework. She understands policy and speaks her mind. She frequently points out hypocrisies in culture and is vulnerable and honest. She is a HUGE threat to myth #4, and it is understandable why so many people feel threatened by her; whether you agree with her politics or not, she is absolutely going against thousands of years of underlying cultural messages. What women truly need is to stop being told what to do by others. They need to get in touch with what brings them personal joy and do that unashamed. A "do no harm, and take no shit" approach, (thanks, Elizabeth Lesser!).
The following are two quotes from Holland’s book from less than 100 years ago as it relates to the attempt to suppress beauty from dualistic, extreme right and left cultures (authoritarianism and communism, respectively):
1930s / Nazis and Authoritarianism: "But German men want German women again,’ declared a National Socialist pamphlet. ‘Not a frivolous plaything who is superficial and only out for pleasure, who decks herself with tawdry finery and is like a glittering exterior that is hollow and drab within’….The true German woman rejected lipstick, high heels, and nail varnish in favour of becoming a sort of primordial milkmaid, according to the ideal of party experts. They held that women will only be happy again when the natural differences between men and women are reinstated. Alfred Rosenberg, the party ‘philosopher’, claimed that women think ‘lyrically’ not ‘systematically’ as men do. One Nazi slogan declared, ‘Women must be emancipated from women’s emancipation.”
1920s / Soviet Russia / Marxist-Lenins state and Communism: “...Lenin described as ‘her daily sacrifice to a thousand unimportant trivialities’ was for her to be ‘liberated’ from the home and drafted into the ‘large-scale socialist economy’ as a member of the proletariat. Since the home was identified with woman’s ‘slavery’, it would be abolished...The despised bourgeisie was identified with selfishness, luxury and love of decoration. As usual in dualistic ideologies, anything associated with artifice, such as make-up, becomes demonized. In the new world order of communism, it was a symbol of what Lenin called the ‘old bourgeois humiliation of women’...a symbol of their sexual and domestic slavery from which Marxism has rescued them.
In some ways, the Leninist Utopia is similar to that of Plato’s Republic (approx. 400 B.C.) in which women were integrated into the ruling community as Guardians only at the cost of denying important aspects of human sexuality, such as the love of beauty…Social systems based on this model punish women for putting on makeup or any form of behavior that is seen as refusing to conform to the asexual ideal. They agree with Plato that since mothering is merely a biological function with no behavioral consequences, babies can be taken from their mothers at birth to be raised by the state in communal nurseries.”
I don’t know about you, but when I read that Nazis wanted women to not wear make-up...I felt a lot more comfortable with my desire to occasionally wear make-up! These quotes also remind me that balance and pursuit of the middle way always make so much more sense than extremes. As you’ll see if you read the book, you have to wait until John Locke and the 17th century before you start to see any semblance of the “modern” world and the idea of the individual pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, which ultimately led to increased rights for women. And not surprisingly, but always a good reminder, you see clearly in the book that throughout history there are lots of cycles of forward progress and then backlash over time.
Sometimes when these myths used to creep into my mind unconsciously, I’d get confused. I’d think it was just me that had these messed up thoughts. Or worse I’d think these negative messages were deep truths because it seemed everyone believed them and reinforced them. But once I saw them for what they truly are -- myths told by people who were afraid in the past -- it was much easier to let them go. To release the power or hold they had on my life. To free myself to make my own, new decisions from a place of wholeness.
I’ve come a long way since I first read Holland’s treasure of a book. I am able to embrace how I feel about beauty on a day to day basis. I love to buy and wear a new piece of clothing, especially if it is soft, comfortable fabric or a bright, beautiful color. I love lighting delicious smelling candles. Wearing gold jewelry. Putting on perfume and make-up for a special occasion. Live music often makes me tear up and fill with joy. Snuggling and holding close my two, adorable babies warms my heart. And I love to admire beauty in nature. A sunset, mountain range or ocean view makes me swoon every time.
These are authentic, life and energy giving feelings. They aren’t based on how my husband or strangers feel about me. These little moments give me an overall sense of peace and appreciation for this messy, precious life, which makes me a far better mother, worker and human overall. I am no longer confused, shameful or guilty for my innate desires towards beauty. I do not tell myself these desires are stupid or frivolous. I know my appreciation for beautiful things can coexist with my love of data and good, well researched public policy. I am a lover and purveyor of beautiful things, and I now see that as a strength, not a weakness.
Back to New Years Eve...I turned to my fierce, wild and curious five year old daughter that night, smiled and said: “Sure, baby girl, come here. But remember, the number one rule of make-up is that you do it because YOU like it. People are always going to have opinions about you, but what matters most is how you feel about yourself. Ok?” Big smile and a nod from my girl. I lightly brushed her cheeks with a bit of bronzer and applied essential oil on her wrists that smelled like jasmine. Then we sang and danced together twirling round and round in our pretty dresses, smiling and laughing like the joyful, strong, and beautiful females we are.