Uncovering misogyny lurking in beauty: Reading Sheila Jeffreys’ “Beauty and Misogyny”

“In our culture, not one part of a woman’s body is left untouched, unaltered….[F]rom head to toe, every feature of a woman’s face, every section of her body, is subject to modification, alteration.”――Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (1974)

 A Japanese translation of Sheila Jeffreys’ book Beauty and Misogyny was finally published in July 2022. The original English version of this book was first published in 2005 in the U.K. and U.S.A, followed by a new edition with substantially updated content in 2014/15, and a Korean edition in 2018 (translation of the Korean preface is here). This is the first Japanese version of one of Jeffreys’ books. She is well known in the English-speaking world as a radical feminist theorist and writer, and has published ten books. Jeffreys has been active in the women’s liberation movement internationally for 40 years. Beauty and Misogyny thoroughly exposes the misogyny that is behind women’s “beauty standards” and everyday beauty practices in contemporary Western societies (including, of course, Japan and Korea).

 Men wear free and easy-to-move clothes, keep their hair short and washable in length, and are not expected to wear makeup in their daily lives. But what about women? Their hair is long and dyed, their faces are made up, eyebrows are plucked and drawn in, eyelashes are curled and given extensions, cheeks and lips are painted various colors, piercings are placed in the ears (and sometimes elsewhere), and the underarms and legs (and in the West, the genital area) are depilated. Women are forced to wear thin, easily torn, non-functional clothing that reveals parts of their bodies (and has few pockets), short or high-cut skirts, and shoes that are difficult to walk in, such as pumps or heels. Breasts are augmented, wrinkles are removed with Botox or plastic surgery, fat is suctioned, and labia are cut off (labiaplasty), purportedly to shape the female genitalia. Exactly as Andrea Dworkin says, “not one part of a woman’s body is left untouched, unaltered.”

 The author, Sheila Jeffreys, argues that these acts are not natural or inherent to women, much less a magical means of empowering women, but maintain male domination and female subordination by creating and reinforcing external differences between the sexes. It makes it possible to identify at a glance the inferior situated sex class (women) and places women in a subordinate and vulnerable position in relation to men.

 Beauty practices, the author argues, are one of the “harmful cultural practices” that the UN recommends overcoming. When the UN used the term, it had in mind mostly traditional customary practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and the burqa/niqab that are forced upon women in the Third World. Jeffreys, however, argues that such harmful cultural practices also exist in Western societies. Labiaplasty, for example, is very similar to FGM, both in terms of its physical impact on the female genitalia and its harmfulness to health. Hiding the bare face with makeup is of the same nature as hiding the entire face with a burqa or niqab. The difference is that the former is done in the name of personal choice, while the latter is directly enforced by the state, family, or religion. However, the situation in which women cannot achieve a socially decent standard of living without being favored by economically and politically powerful men (which has not changed much today); the existence of the beauty and fashion industries and the media and advertising industries that make huge profits from promoting distorted “beauty standards” and beauty practices; and the power of Western culture which over the centuries has created the conventional wisdom that women should serve men; if we take these facts into account, we can see that even if those beauty practices are made as a direct personal choice in the West, that does not make them any less harmful or less misogynistic. The fact that sexist culture is mediated by personal decisions made by individuals does not deny the existence of sexism; on the contrary, it indicates the fact that sexism is so deeply pervasive that it influences the individual’s subjective choices.

 And it is nothing short of misogyny that is driving the mechanism of social coercion of these beauty practices and appearances. In the culture of misogyny, women are taught to detest their own natural appearance and are constantly induced to please and sexually arouse men through their daily beauty practices. It does more than just make women paint something on their faces. It forces them to wear things that cause constant pain and physical distortion, and even to exercise abusive practices on themselves to the point of having their bodies mutilated. The culture of misogyny not only dominates men’s behavior, but it is also deeply internalized by women, guiding and constraining their daily practices.

 Many of the clothes and outfits that are considered feminine also have the added function of making it harder to prevent (or escape) sexual violence from men. Long hair that is easy to grab, thin and easily torn clothing, skirts that provide easy access from the outside, heeled or pumped shoes that are difficult to run in, and so on. Not only clothing, but also feminine behavior and attitudes, and what are considered feminine norms (reservedness, modesty, shame, not shouting, not embarrassing men, etc.) function to weaken women’s resistance to sexual violence.

 Pointing out this fact does not, of course, justify the logic of classical misogyny that women suffer sexual violence because they were dressed in a way that provoked men. On the contrary, the very viciousness of misogynistic male culture is that, on the one hand, it socially forces women to dress and behave in ways that make them vulnerable to sexual violence, while, on the other hand, it holds the victims responsible for the actual sexual violence when it occurs. This is, metaphorically speaking, like capitalists forcing workers to wear light clothing to do dangerous work, and then blaming the workers who were wearing such light clothing when an industrial accident actually occurs. The workers who were forced to wear light clothing should not be held responsible for anything, but that does not mean that they should be allowed to wear light clothing when performing dangerous work. What is one-sided about the so-called slutwalk (also critically examined in Jeffreys’ book) is that it disputes only the latter of the two imperatives of misogyny and rather endorses the former.

 The unique contribution of this book, which is not found in previous similar books criticizing fashion and makeup in the West, is not only that it reveals Western beauty practices as “harmful cultural practices” as defined by the United Nations. Chapter 5 of the book, “Fashion and Misogyny,” gives a detailed critique of the dominance of gay male designers in the fashion industry, and it reveals the fact that these gay men are deeply aligned with misogyny and project their own distorted images of women onto the fashion they design. Moreover, the book’s other unique contribution, and the one that is most likely to attract controversy and attack in this day and age when transgenderism has completely conquered the liberal-left world (and has actually attracted that kind of attack less than a month after it was published), is Chapter 3, “Transfemininity”.

 The fact that some men engage in cosmetic practices and cross-dressing, Jeffreys points out in this chapter, means that cosmetic practices are socially constructed and culturally enforced on women. The fact that such (stereotypical) practices and behaviors can also be performed by some men does not indicate that these people are “women”; on the contrary, it indicates that such practices and behaviors are essentially unrelated to women. The adherents of transgenderism have definitively failed to understand this point.

 Based on previous scientific research and findings, Jeffreys has shown that not a small portion of transgender people are autogynephilic. They obtain sexual arousal and gratification by thinking of themselves as women, dressing and behaving in feminine ways, and even modifying their bodies to look like women. The memoirs of so-called trans women cited in the book clearly demonstrate just such tendencies. Beauty and Misogyny does not deal with transgenderism in its entirety, but it touches on it only in order to clarify the social and political artificiality of beauty practices. For a more serious critique of transgenderism by her, readers can refer to Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, published in 2014. For her most recent analysis in this field, we also look forward to her new book, Penile Imperialism: The Male Sex Right and Women’s Subordination, scheduled for publication in September 2022.

 Jeffreys reveals that various beauty practices–not only invasive ones such as breast augmentation but also routine ones–are deeply influenced by the sex industry. The sex industry is linked to the “beauty and fashion complex,” and even colludes with the “media and entertainment complex,” in the form of television, movies, magazines, and websites, which set the “beauty standards ” for women and thus dominate the nature of beauty practices. What is alarming to Jeffreys is that such influence has not weakened, but rather has intensified over the past decade. And liberal feminists, who are very much in tune with neoliberalism, even praise such practices as liberating.

 It is no coincidence that they mostly glorify, legitimize, and promote the sex industry and transgenderism as well. This fact suggests that there is a deeply internal and structural linkage between sexist beauty practices, the sex industry, and transgenderism. These are the three pillars that support misogyny. Beauty and Misogyny is an extremely valuable piece of work that takes a scalpel to such structures. Although there have been a number of books and articles explaining the Korean “take off the corset” movement, none have elucidated the inseparable relationship between these three elements. Therefore, this book remains a pioneer even in the radical feminist literature. Its Japanese translation is accompanied by a special Japanese preface by the author herself, which provides the reader with her latest views and related information on beauty practices.

投稿者: appjp




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