There is no easy resolution of the beauty debate within feminist discourse, says Paramita Banerjee.The feminist struggle in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, now known as the second wave of feminism, was marked by the beauty dilemma. Susan Brownmiller, a pioneering American feminist, expresses the debate succinctly in the following passage: “An unadorned face became the honourable new look of feminism in the early 1970s, and no one was happier with the freedom not to wear makeup than I, yet it could hardly escape my attention that more women supported the Equal Rights Amendment and legal abortion than could walk out of the house without eye shadow. Did I think of them as somewhat pitiable? Yes I did. Did they bitterly resent the righteous pressure put on them to look, in their terms, less attractive? Yes they did. A more complete breakdown and confusion of aims, goals, and values could not have occurred, and of all the movement rifts I have witnessed, this one remains for me the most poignant and the most difficult to resolve.”
The different schools of feminism varied to some extent in the positions they took on this issue. Socialist and radical feminists agreed that the pressure on women to be ‘beautiful’ reflects a typically patriarchal position: women are to be displayed and exploited. However, socialist feminists further argued that canvassing beauty and fashion products as indispensible for being ‘beautiful’ was a class-based and divisive capitalist strategy to sell more consumer goods. According to the radical feminists, though, “[the] real evil of the media image of women is that it supports the sexist status quo…For women, buying and wearing clothes and beauty aids is not so much consumption as work. One of a woman’s jobs in this society is to be an attractive sexual object, and clothes and make-up are tools of the trade.’ The liberal feminist school, though opposed to many aspects of the commodification of women as sexual objects, took a more pragmatic view than either of the other two schools of thought. They recognised the discordant nature of the beauty debate and chose to concentrate on less problematic issues such as wage equity.
In 1968, some 400 feminists gathered on the boardwalk at Atlantic City to protest the Miss America beauty pageant. (An aborted attempt to burn a bra at this event would lead to generations of feminists being labelled bra-burners.) The objectification of women wasn’t the only serious issue the pageant raised. There were no black finalists, raising inevitable allegations of racism. The winner was also condemned as a “mascot for murder”, since she was used as a cheerleader for military operations abroad, especially in Vietnam. Paradoxically enough, however, the beauty and fashion industries, as also women’s magazines devoted to these, were quick to apprehend the possible impact the beauty dilemma of the second wave of feminism might have. They shrewdly co-opted the feminist debates and came out with a whole new range of products such as the ‘Liberated Wool Sweater’, described as “part of a whole new generation of liberated looks that give you freedom of movement, freedom from wrinkles, and freedom to wear any hem-length you like. Shown here, the embodiment of the new freedom. Stripes walk softly, but carry a big look-at-me message…” In 1973, Revlon introduced Charlie, a fragrance designed to impress the “new woman”, with its advertisements depicting a single young woman with a fashion-model face, but dressed in pant suits and with a no-nonsense expression. Its immediate popularity prompted other perfume companies to come out with their own products for the new, liberated woman. Cosmetic companies came out with a range of products that were supposed to offer all the advantages of makeup without looking like it. (Revlon’s tagline in the early 1970s was “The makeup that is and isn’t”.)
Linda Scott pointed out that most of the major cosmetic companies had been founded by women, indicating that beauty products were not products of patriarchy, but of entrepreneurial women who started their businesses in a domain exclusive to them.
By the 1980s, however, as some of the goals formulated in the 1960s and ’70s were achieved, the beauty dilemma found spokespersons who attempted to variously redefine women’s engagement with beauty and fashion. Authors like Lois Banner, Rita Freedman, Valerie Steele et al defended women’s use of beauty and fashion products as a freedom of expression removed from the Victorian moralistic prohibition of any show of sensuality. Linda Scott pointed out that most of the major cosmetic companies had been founded by women, indicating that beauty products were not products of patriarchy, but of entrepreneurial women who started their businesses in a domain exclusive to them. However, their arguments are more defensive, as if in apology, than logical with firm theoretical moorings.
The beauty dilemma is far from over for feminists of different schools. Beauty pageants all over the world are invariably marked by feminist protests. I am reminded of a recent discussion/debate with a fellow development activist working in the disability sector. A recently started “Miss Wheelchair” contest was the topic, and some of us emphasised that such a competition is at least an acknowledgment of a sexualised, sensualised, beautiful body even if she is wheelchair-bound. That, in our view, is a big step forward from the asexual view taken of differently-abled people, who are provided only a unisex toilet in malls, airports and multiplexes. Her opposition to the contest, on the other hand, was grounded on several arguments:
- It is a deliberate ploy to divide people with disabilities on the basis of sex and gender, as also the type of disability.
- Such contests promote competition among people who need to fight together for their rights.
- A beauty competition is inevitably based on a narrow notion of beauty defined by patriarchal norms, representing women only as sexual objects.
Needless to say, no conclusion could be reached. I refer to that debate simply to emphasise that there is no easy resolution of the beauty debate within feminist discourse. This story, like most things in life, has more than one legitimate explanation; resolving it is impossible unless one is prepared to transcend dichotomies and be ready to accept the unity of opposites, as Hegel would have us do. If the focus on women’s need to be ‘beautiful’ in a particular manner—defined by the beauty and fashion industry “trends”, which are in turn determined by hetero-patriarchal norms—is the thesis, the freedom experienced by women in defying age-old moralistic dress codes that disallow any show of sensuality, the open celebration of a sexualised feminine body, and the economic aspect inevitably attached to participation in beauty pageants in terms of visibility and career options is the anti-thesis. It’s not an either/or situation, since there are arguments for and against both sides; the only solution may well lie in synthesis.
In this context, it’s rather interesting to probe feminist positions on women in sports. Feminists certainly have no objection to women participating in organised sports, since such participation challenges the notion of women being unsuitable for sports and games and promote the participation of women in an arena historically marked over centuries as a male bastion. However, there has been no dearth of debates among different strands of feminism regarding the focus of such participation. In fact, such debates have become sharper as feminism evolved into its third phase.
If the focus on women’s need to be ‘beautiful’ in a particular manner is the thesis, the freedom experienced by women in defying age-old moralistic dress codes that disallow any show of sensuality, the open celebration of a sexualised feminine body, is the anti-thesis.
The second-wave feminism of the 1960s and ’70s was fuelled by an outrage against discrimination. The agenda was to gain equality, for which the similarities between women and men were emphasised. The logic by which beauty pageants were marked discriminatory against women also marked organised sports as an area where women’s increased participation would signify greater egalitarianism. A rich body of feminist research published throughout the 1980s consistently focuses on refuting myths of physiological and psychological differences between women and men that justify disparities in their participation in organised sports. The main tenet of all such research (almost entirely concentrated on the western world, though) has been to challenge the supposed inferiority of women in the world of organised sports.
Collectively, these researches indicate that physical strength and mental stamina of women and men participating in organised sports may well be equal, but social perceptions and expectations—even of the participants—are so different that parity becomes difficult to achieve. Some interesting examples might clarify the issue. Cheska, a well-known feminist researcher of women in sports, cites how the audience reacted differently to an intercollegiate basketball game score announced on television depending on whether they thought it was the score of a game between men’s teams or women’s teams. Those believing the 41–40 score to be that of a women’s game mentioned lack of skill and application as the reason for such a low-scoring match. Those believing it to be a men’s game thought it was probably the teams’ tight defence.
Similarly, there is enough research to reflect that women actually outshine men in races extending beyond two hours. In 1976, two women broke the world record in swimming the English Channel. In 1974, a woman won the 100 miles AAU Open Super-Marathon race. Bev Francis, a woman from Australia, defeated all her male rivals along the way to clinching the title and setting a world record in a men’s middleweight weightlifting competition. Beryl Burton of Great Britain created a new competition record in cycling by covering 277 miles in 12 hours—two more than her closest male rival—not to mention that she held the world title seven times. Despite many more such records that reflect that women do not lag behind men in sporting potential, the International Olympic Committee refused to permit women to compete in long-distance running, on the grounds that women would not be able to endure so much strain, until as late as 1980.
Those believing the 41–40 score to be that of a women’s game mentioned lack of skill and application as the reason for such a low-scoring match. Those believing it to be a men’s game thought it was probably the teams’ tight defence.
Such prejudice persists even among sportswomen who themselves hold records to the contrary. Dorcas Susan Butt, once a professional tennis player and later a practising sports psychologist, argues in her book The Psychology of Sport (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York; 1987) that in sports women would always remain physically inferior to men. Greta Waitz, whose 1980 world record marathon time was better than every men’s Olympic marathon time up to 1948, has been quoted as saying: “I don’t think a woman can run a marathon as fast as a man. Physically, men are stronger than we are.”
On an entirely different plane are feminists who argue against the early feminists’ emphasis on women’s similarities with men and the cry for equality on that basis. This school of feminist thought emphasises differences between women and men, arguing that women construct their world in a uniquely feminine way. Applied to the arena of organised sports, this strand of feminist thought revolts against women’s participation in a world of sports organised purely on socialised masculine characteristics of aggression and competitiveness, thereby losing their healthier feminine characteristics such as cooperation, compassion and interpersonal orientation. Butt, for example, argues that “the female competitor in professional athletics has tended to take on the worst attributes of the male athlete role. The cooperation, compassion, and broader communal identity of the female tend to become submerged. Unfortunately, one must conclude that, save for a few, the professional female athlete has not merely been bought for a time. She has sold out.” There are also other researches by feminist scholars that indicate that cultural expectations and years of involvement in organised sports do influence whether children prefer to cooperate or compete, substantiating Butt’s argument. This school of thought, therefore, discourages women from participating in organised sports so long as it remains based on masculine values of aggression and individual competitiveness—demanding, instead, a whole new world of sports that foreground feminine principles and characteristics instead.
There is a third steak of feminist thinking, which seems to have crossed the either/or binary to arrive at a more syntheticist view (unlike the beauty debate). This school of thought emphasises the advantages of androgyny and argue that sportswomen adopt and blend masculine traits with their pre-existing feminine qualities, thus achieving above-average scores in both femininity and masculinity. Also, masculinity is understood as instrumentality and femininity as expressiveness. Dorothy Harris, for example, is a staunch advocate of androgyny among sportswomen, arguing that the masculine characteristics adopted by female athletes are positive traits like healthy self perception and self esteem.
Other feminists take this argument further to question the extent to which organised sport is based on masculine traits and values. Carol Oglesby is one author who has researched and argued against organised sports being nothing but a male bastion, painstakingly pointing out how six feminine/expressive qualities are amply applied in organised sports: passivity (in curtailing training after injury and in taking orders from the coach); submissiveness (in abiding by the rules and laws governing the game as also in accepting loss); subordination (to accept feedback and change habits/strategies); dependency (on the coach and other teammates); naturalness (as the embodiment of the uniqueness of each player and personal involvement/achievement); improvisation (for out of pattern brilliance, spontaneous strategic manoeuvres). Her argument is that expressiveness is integral to sports and this must be emphasised to deconstruct the myth that women are unequal participants.
Butt argues that “the female competitor in professional athletics has tended to take on the worst attributes of the male athlete role. The cooperation, compassion, and broader communal identity of the female tend to become submerged.”
This idea appeals to me the most: rather than promoting women’s participation in sports dominated by masculine/instrumental qualities like muscle power, aggression and individual competitiveness—thereby encouraging women to be more male-like, and probably suffer role conflicts in the process, as some sports psychologists vehemently argue—why not emphasise androgyny and strive to showcase feminine/expressive traits integral to sports? A world of organised sports that emphasises cooperation, compassion, interrelations far more than aggression, competition and hierarchy: doesn’t that seem far more attractive?
I would, in fact, go a step further and urge everyone to rethink beauty contests in that same light. It cannot be impossible to imagine pageants that defy notions of beauty as defined by the beauty and fashion industry and reclaim feminine beauty in radical new ways that put androgyny over size zero, personality over a Barbie-doll face, and comfort-wear over fashion. Whoever said that Billy Jean King, one of the first women to play professional tennis, wasn’t beautiful? What about Sania Mirza in our own backyard? Isn’t she excelling in tennis and modelling, too? Steffi Graf looks no less beautiful in her tennis shorts than in her scintillating dresses and her muscles remain the same in both. After all, way back in 1970, Germaine Greer had argued that: “The new assumption behind the discussion of the body is that everything we may observe could be otherwise.”
 Brownmiller, Susan: Femininity; Simon and Schuster, New York, 1984; p 158
 A Redstocking Sister: ‘Consumerism and women’ in Gornick, Vivian, and Moran, Barbara K. (Ed): Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness, Basic Books, New York, 1971; p 483. The Redstockings is a radical feminist group founded in 1969.
 American Wool Council ad in The Vogue, August 1, 1970; p 9
 A detailed discussion of such strategies is available in Wolf, Naomi: The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women; William Morrow, New York, 1991
 Cheska, Alyce Taylor: ‘Women’s sports – the unlikely myth of equality’; in Borms, Jan; Hebbelinck, Marcel & Venerando, Antonio (edited): The female athlete; Basel, New York, 1981; pp 1 -11.
 All these examples have been cited by Jarrat, Elizabeth H: ‘Feminist Issues in Sports’; in Women’s Studies Int. Forum, volume 13, number 5; Pergamon Press plc; USA, 1990; pp 491 – 499
 Quoted in Ferris, Elizabeth: ‘Attitudes to women in sport: Preface towards a sociological theory’ in Borms, Jan; Hebbelinck, Marcel & Venerando, Antonio (edited): The female athlete; Basel, New York, 1981; p 27
 Butt, Dorcas Susan: The psychology of sport; Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York; 1987; p 131
 Harris, Dorothy: ‘Personality research: implications for women in sport’; in Borms, Hebbelinck and Venerando, Op cit