In the past several years there has been a growing backlash against Western media portrayals of women. Media outlets, and even actresses themselves, have not been remiss in pointing out digital nips and tucks. To counteract this barrage of picture perfect female forms, there is a trendy movement to redefine what beauty looks like. These movements vary from going without makeup, to daily self-affirmations of just how beautiful you are, to athleticism as beauty, to the well-known marketing campaign by Dove. Amazon and other book dealers carry many titles on the topic like Redefining Beautiful, Beauty Redefined, and Girls and Self-Esteem. Within the Mormon community this trend also promises to help women and girls feel more beautiful as they accept their bodies. Besides the grassroots effort of firesides on redefining beauty, Church leadership has approached beauty in a similar fashion. In April 2000 General Conference, President James Faust encouraged young women, “As you seek to know the will of our Heavenly Father in your life and become more spiritual, you will be far more attractive, even irresistible.
More recently, In April 2010 Elaine Dalton, President of the General Young Women Presidency, redefined beauty with inner beauty, by having the companionship of the Holy Ghost and by being virtuous.
We have been taught that “the gift of the Holy Ghost … quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands and purifies all the natural passions and affections. … It inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness and charity. It develops beauty of person, form and features.” (Emphasis hers) Now, that is a great beauty secret!…It is the kind of beauty that doesn’t wash off. It is spiritual attractiveness. Deep beauty springs from virtue. It is the beauty of being chaste and morally clean…The world places so much emphasis on physical attractiveness and would have you believe that you are to look like the elusive model on the cover of a magazine. The Lord would tell you that you are each uniquely beautiful. When you are virtuous, chaste, and morally clean, your inner beauty glows in your eyes and in your face…There is no more beautiful sight than a young woman who glows with the light of the Spirit, who is confident and courageous because she is virtuous.
The premise of these campaigns is to help girls and women feel good about themselves by telling them they, too, are beautiful. While I laud the effort to help women feel good about who they are, and to choose the right, all of these campaigns are misguided less effective as a way to teach both self worth and gospel principles. First and foremost, they don’t work. Secondly, these campaigns ironically reinforce the definitions of women they are striving to stamp out. Because this is a Mormon blog, I’ll focus on Mormon examples. [note: edited in response to reader comments]
Part I: Why they won’t work
A recent article in LDS Living, Beauty Redefined: Rejecting the Media’s Impossible Standards, sisters Lexie and Lindsay Kite write:
You will never see an average American woman represented in the mass media as a “beauty ideal.” And it is completely reasonable to assume that every image of women you see in the media has been digitally manipulated. So why is that where we get our standard for what is normal and beautiful? (Emphasis theirs)
The authors’ are right in asserting that we will never see an average American woman represented in the mass media as a “beauty ideal.” However the authors’ question assumes a false paradigm, “So why is that where we get our standard for what is normal and beautiful?” The answer is we don’t. We don’t get our standard for what is normal or beautiful from women portrayed in the media. Research shows that humans universally decide who is beautiful, and who is not.* In some sense, the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is nonsense. Women instinctively know this as well as men. Telling women that women in the media aren’t normal doesn’t make the rest of the female population like being normal.
The second stipulation under the authors’ false paradigm is that, “it is completely reasonable to assume that every image of women you see in the media has been digitally manipulated.” Despite as much media frenzy over digital photo enhancement as there is actual photo enhancement, not every woman portrayed in the media is photoshopped, and we know it. Watching Transformers, we assume that Megan Fox is not digitally altered in every frame. We also know most of us don’t physically measure up. But telling women they are as beautiful as (insert favorite celebrity here) in their own way, makes about as much sense as telling a child who is learning to play the piano that she sounds as lovely as Rachmaninoff. Likewise, telling a woman she can be beautiful by being chaste, makes about as much sense as telling a woman she will be a great runner by reading a book. When appealing to beauty, women want to be physically beautiful, not beautiful in some ethereal sense.
I do not want to downplay the harmful effects of, nor ignore the onslaught of objectification of women in the media. However, the perpetuation of the idea that eating disorders are caused by media images (although I do not deny they are a factor), and that redefining beauty campaigns will cause eating disorders to fade away is a dangerous oversimplification of what causes them. It is also a painful oversight of the reality that eating disorders existed long before thin was in.**
And we find ourselves with this dilemma; Salt Lake City is America’s vainest city.
Either there is something inherent in the Utah/Mormon culture that makes girls and women more susceptible to media messages; or two, Mormon girls and women are receiving messages about what it means to be beautiful from influences besides media; or third, a combination of media influence and Mormon religious culture compound to make a bigger impact on girls and women about what it means to be beautiful and desirable.
Next up: Part II: How Redefining Beauty Campaigns Reinforce Our Notions of Women and Beauty
*Maxims or Myths of Beauty? A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review. Psychology Bulletin. 2000 Vo. 126. No6, 390-423. Judith Langlois, Lisa Kalakanis, Adam J Rubenstien, Andrea Larson, Monica Hallam, Monica Smoot. University of Texas Austin. In examining over 1,800 studies in addition to their own work, researchers concluded that people around the globe find the same physical features attractive. This conclusion is backed by other researchers.
**I won’t belabor the point that trendsetters in Utah spreading the gospel of redefining beauty do so by proclaiming the BMI unjust and unfair to women in classifying them as overweight, while at the same time using the BMI to classify women as underweight.