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Why do women aspire to the feminine ideal?

Last update - Saturday, October 1, 2011, 11:56 By Tara Fannon

In western culture there are two ideologies in operation: a formal one where development and success supposedly come from individual merit, skill and tenacity, and an informal one where development and success come from living life according to specific norms and values.

On the surface, the formal principles of meritocracy apply to everyone, but in reality they are reserved for a select few – and even this is up for debate. Nonetheless, the western ethos still urges us all to formally cultivate our skills and pursue our goals. Individuals are left not knowing where they stand, but still naturally want to excel, and resort to using informal methods of success as a way to take charge of their lives.
As individuals we know that we must be in control of ourselves, but we are not quite sure what that means. While the ideas of ‘control’ and the ‘self’ are elusive and indistinguishable, the body is tangible. We can exert influence over it, and the outcome is visible and often immediate. For this reason it has come to symbolise preservation of the self and a correct attitude, making it a common barometer for individual and social development in western society.
It is well known, after all, that the feminine ideal – with its emphasis on physicality – sets the barometer for women. It is socially endorsed as an informal platform for women of all backgrounds to showcase their formal abilities. It is also used as a method of encouraging women to celebrate their appearance, but with its strict limits it also motivates them to want to change it.
Women are inundated with representations of the feminine ideal via the media and interested industries, which take a very narrow view on what is physically attractive. That’s the whole point. The feminine ideal is purposely kept at a distance from women because if it were reasonably attainable, then the media and the fashion and the aspiration industries would be out of business.
Even though most women rationally know that the ideal is unrealistic, its illusion tends to be overpowering because it is consistently used to recast that which is naturally occurring about the female body as fault and weakness.
Moreover, while taking a keen interest in appearance is informally valued quite highly, it is at the same time often dismissed as inconsequential and sometimes superficial when compared to formal abilities and skills. The result is that women are simultaneously targeted with messages instructing them to aspire to the feminine ideal, and others advising them to reject it and accept the appearance they have.
It is not uncommon for women to move between wanting to fit the norm and wanting to be liberated from it, often resulting in them engaging in a variety of behaviours and practices as a way to negotiate balance. They compete over looks and compare them between each other, and they justify and deliberate over their own physicality as a way to safely approve of it without looking like they care too much (or not enough).
At the very same time, women know that they are more than their physical appearance. They simply want to be allowed to feel good in their own skin, and they likewise desire equality among their female peers. Nonetheless, the body and appearance are still construed as the primary way to express individuality, mitigate insecurities about the self and help juggle conflicting ideas over what is socially acceptable. This just happens to have amplified consequences for those women who may be disproportionately targeted, both culturally and socially.

Tara Fannon is a Sociology student at UCD. Her column appears regularly in Metro Éireann

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