At a public event in Amsterdam, a female speaker told two women standing on the stage to take each other’s hands and say they are beautiful. Does the significance of this instance change if the two women were noted feminist and author Germaine Greer and the immensely accomplished Dutch Politician Hedy d’Ancona? As discussed in Greer’s recent opinion piece in the Canberra Times, it does.
The involvement of two supremely successful women only serves to highlight an increasingly pervasive problem women have been forced to contend with. What Greer and presumably many others were wondering is, why are some of the most affluent women in the world talking about their beauty?
Greer’s point is clear, but it is not an obvious one. As long as women associate self-esteem with their beauty or how beautiful they feel, they will not be liberated.
People are beginning to realize the combination of self-esteem and beauty can be a disastrous one, however Greer takes issue with the prioritization of feeling beautiful as a measure of self-esteem. Everyone has the right to feel confident in a new outfit or after a workout, but the idea that feeling beautiful is indicative of self-worth has become more and more common, particularly for women.
Greer points to advertising efforts by Dove and its Campaign for Real Beauty, as indicative of the flaws of a beauty oriented outlook. According to Dove, only “Two per cent of women would describe themselves as beautiful” so its attempts to steer women away from traditional images of beauty and “build positive self-esteem” seem admirable on the surface. Yet, as Greer points out, Dove manufactures all of the products by which “sweaty, smelly, greasy-haired, dry-skinned, ageing females can make themselves less revolting.” If women are feeling unattractive and self-conscious, Dove reassures that ”Women are only a five-day transformation away from beautiful hair with the Dove Hair Care lines of shampoos, conditioners and treatments, which work hard to protect and repair all types of hair, making hair soft and smooth. This transformation can help women feel more beautiful and confident.”
The uplifting comments and pictures of women of varying body types are easily overwhelmed by Dove product placement. Of course Dove is principally a company, however its strategy only “works by intensifying women’s anxiety and challenging them to make themselves beautiful and (therefore) confident.” Campaigns of this nature are characterized by their marriage of product placement and an exploitation of female self-consciousness masquerading as a feel good celebration of uniqueness.
While Dove’s campaign is widely considered to be a step in the right direction, where do women turn when it becomes clear that Dove hair treatments don’t instill the confidence necessary to perform well in a job or in life?
This is where the discussion of beauty as a source of confidence must cease. When are men compelled to spend hours on their hair or hundreds of dollars on anti-aging creams in the name of self-confidence? Would a conference with Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama ever conclude with them holding hands and expressing their mutual regard for their good looks? The double standards women must contend with are evident on any given day, but it is incredibly difficult to fight against them.
The expectation is that a woman will wear makeup to work in order to look professional. If she does not, she will be visibly out of place and looked down upon for a sloppy appearance. None of these reactions are conducive to a positive self-image, so the act of deriving confidence from something other than beauty could ultimately be a source of self-consciousness.
In our society, there is no foolproof means of enabling women to look beyond beauty for value. Thankfully however, there is a definitive place to start. Devoting unnecessary time to striving for an impossible beauty ideal inhibits women from achieving their true potential. In the time it takes for some women to put on makeup every day, one could learn a language. If, as a culture, we can stop propagating the image of a woman as an object first and a person second, women will stop subconsciously believing it and have a little more confidence in themselves.