Historical sources of the “Beauty Myth”

The following is the first of probably several sketches of an article I am researching for that will pose a preliminary Marxist analysis of the “beauty myth” in the contemporary West. Briefly put, “beauty myth” might be defined as the sets of interweaving anxieties, pathological, psychological, social and otherwise in which women in the West tend to experience alienation from their own bodies mediated through the ideal of what Naomi Wolf describes as the beauty myth, typically in the United States the image of a pale, ultra-skinny, large-breasted woman (although the ideology is, as always, very flexible on this). Wolf, a third-wave feminist whose “feminism” might be described as the goal of getting people who happen to be women into positions of power above all else.

Hence, she tends to view the beauty myth as an idea developed in a rather conspiratorial way as an attempt by a patriarchal ruling class to reverse the gains of the women’s movement. She is primarily concerned about the ways in which the myth, in the form of anorexia nervosa, bulimia and other eating disorders affects middle-class and professional women who she thinks ought to be running the country. In contrast, I will attempt a more historical analysis grounded in the rise of and changes in industrial capitalism in the West from the 19th century onwards.

This will be a sketch, meaning a very flawed attempt to come to terms with historical development of the body problem in the West. I welcome any criticisms, constructive or otherwise. Unless stated otherwise, my sources for this piece are, as follows, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State by Friedrich Engels (Penguin Classics, 2010 repr.), Chris Harman’s article “Engels and the Origins of Human Society,” in International Socialism 65 which updates the conclusions of the former, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation by Silvia Federici (Autonomedia, 2004) and finally The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls by Joan Jacobs Brumberg (Vintage, 1998).


The history of the female body problem is inseparable from that of women’s oppression in general. Naomi Wolf views the “beauty myth” as an ideal of beauty developed by and for men, disseminated in the media beginning around the time when the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s began to see real gains, such as the right to abortion. More importantly for Wolf however, this meant the success of middle-class women in high-profile walks of life such as business and politics – which she thinks was countered by the spread of the beauty myth, which forced them to focus on their bodies rather than their careers and breaking down male domination. However, Wolf’s analysis, primarily addressed to the needs of, as Sharon Smith writes, “women managers [who] convince themselves they are bettering humanity simply by taking powerful positions in business or government,” tends to mystify the actual historical and social development of what has become a very real problem for Western women. Many thousands are tortured and even die as a result of the pathological application of the beauty myth that Wolf correctly identifies. The fight against this ideal must correctly identify its material roots if we are to be successful, but it is certain that they lie elsewhere than in Wolf’s hypothesis, however successfully she identifies the way individual and social “beauty myths” function. Therefore an account of the history of women’s oppression is germane, from its roots in the first class societies to its particular structure and functioning under late stage capitalism.

Women’s oppression is inextricably tied with not only capitalism, but the development of class society in general out of the contradictions of early “primitive communism,” or kinship modes of production at the beginning of human history. Friedrich Engels’ account in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, though outdated in some respects and plain wrong in others, still represents the foundations of a materialist critique of this development. Engels spends a large part of the volume attempting to uncover the sources of women’s oppression. In his account, women were first oppressed when early pastoral societies first began to accumulate property that would serve beyond the needs of mere reproduction of the community – called the surplus. Surplus gained through pastoral activities, and later, in agriculture, was provided primarily by the labor of men, whereas in earlier systems, the woman’s share of production had been equal or greater to that of men. Male production of the surplus allowed men for the first time to take possession of the reins of society, overthrowing what Engels called “mother right” (matrilineal descent) by enforcing the right of their own sons to inherit property, which had made sense in previous societies because judgments of paternity could never be entirely certain. In his own words:

With the herds and the other new riches, a revolution came over the family. To procure the necessities of life had always been the business of the man; he produced and owned the means of doing so. The herds were the new means of producing these necessities; the taming of the animals in the first instance and their later tending were the man’s work. To him, therefore, belonged the cattle, and to him the commodities and the slaves received in exchange for cattle. All the surplus which the acquisition of the necessities of life now yielded fell to the man; the woman shared in its enjoyment, but had no part in its ownership. The “savage” warrior and hunter had been content to take second place in the house, after the woman; the “gentler” shepherd, in the arrogance of his wealth, pushed himself forward into the first place and the woman down into the second. And she could not complain. The division of labor within the family had regulated the division of property between the man and the woman. That division of labor had remained the same; and yet it now turned the previous domestic relation upside down, simply because the division of labor outside the family had changed. The same cause which had ensured to the woman her previous supremacy in the house – that her activity was confined to domestic labor – this same cause now ensured the man’s supremacy in the house: the domestic labor of the woman no longer counted beside the acquisition of the necessities of life by the man; the latter was everything, the former an unimportant extra. (199)

In Engels’ account, the appearance of monogamy, typically only enforced on females, lay in these roots as well. To ensure paternity and the reproduction of themselves, the first ruling classes destroyed earlier forms of pairing such as group marriage, polyandry, and other systems which had allowed females the right to easy divorce. In his words, this was the “world-historic defeat of the female sex.”

Engels’ work contains much room for elaboration, improvement, and the elimination of errors. For instance, there is not much evidence either historical or from contemporary times of power differentials among the sexes in pastoral societies. Chris Harman’s article,which examines and updates many of Engels’ conclusions, transfers the site of women’s “world-historic defeat” to in early agricultural societies which began to use the plow. The plow was an implement that allowed a much higher surplus to be gathered than in previous methods of agriculture, but whose use was off-limits to most women, especially those who were pregnant or caring for children. Furthermore, Engels did not identify why with the creation of a surplus rising from men’s labor would those men suddenly want to deprive women of their power and influence rooted in those early societies. As he points out on repeated occasions, men’s closest relationships would have been with their sisters and sisters’ children rather than their own, making questionable their desire to overthrow “mother right.” If not adjusted, this assumption could lead to a niche of idealism (i.e., men seizing power because it is just in their nature) in the Marxist materialist corpus. Harman is again helpful here:

So long as much of food production was carried out by women it made sense to everyone for land and other means of production to be under the control of lineages running through the female line. This guaranteed a continuity of cultivation across generations. A woman, her sisters and their spouse would be able to look forward to their daughters cultivating the lineage’s land and so providing for them in their old age…

Once, however, the main food producers became the men, the situation changed. A couple became dependent on the production of the next generation of males to keep them once they were no longer physically able to provide fully for themselves. The survival of any particular household came to depend much more on the relationship between the males in one generation and the next than between the females. Relying on the father’s sisters sons, who would themselves work on land controlled by other lineages (that of their wives) was much less dependable than trying to keep the couple’s sons attached to the parental household. Patrilineality and patrilocality began to fit in with the logic of production much more than matrilineality and matrilocality…

Finally, the rise of classes and the state at the expense of the lineages encouraged male dominance among the lower classes once men were the main producers of the surplus. It was on them that the newly emerging authorities would place responsibility for handing over part of the crop. And they would then have to impose these demands on the household unit as a whole, beginning to direct its work and control its consumption. (137-8)

Another glaring omission from Engels’ work is the modern sources of women’s oppression existing within capitalism as distinct from oppression in slave or feudal systems, for instance. A rigorous analysis demands answers to this question. The sources of oppression under different modes of production must be identified, rather than leaving it as a vestige of the initial division of humanity into classes – which might against our inclination devolve into an account that mistakenly views oppression of women as being solvable under capitalism, leaving the door open to Naomi Wolf and other forms of feminism which lack a class analysis.

Silvia Federici, an Italian academic and radical feminist, has connected the oppression of women under capitalism to the rise of that form of production. In this she has done Marxists a great service.* Initial or “primitive” accumulation rested on the proposition of having a much larger workforce than had existed previously under feudalism, and the discipling of that workforce to suit the requirements of capital. In both cases, she shows how they were accomplished only by a vast assault upon women, primarily of the feudal peasantry and urban artisinal classes. To force up the population, the limited controls women had exercised over their own body, such as early methods of contraception and abortion, had to be outlawed and knowledge of them had to be eliminated. To discipline the new workforce, women were forced into the home and away from roles in production outside biological and social reproduction. Their work in these areas, bearing and bringing up children, was systematically devalued to outsource the costs of this labor back onto the producing class. Finally, a campaign of terror known in Europe and colonial America as the witch hunts during the 16th and 17th centuries finally cut off women from the knowledge of and control over their own bodies they had been able to exercise previous to the early modern period. As she writes,

In reality, so far are procreation and population changes from being automatic or “natural” that, in all phases of capitalist development, the state has had to resort to regulation and coercion to expand or reduce the work-force. This was especially true at the time of the capitalist take-off, when the muscles and bones of workers were the primary means of production. But even later – and down to the present – the state has spared no efforts in its attempt to wrench from women’s hands the control over reproduction, and to determine which children should be born, where, when, or in what numbers. Consequently, women have often been forced to procreate against their will, and have experienced an alienation from their own bodies, their “labor,” and even their children, deeper than that experienced by any other workers. No one can describe in fact the anguish and desperation suffered by a woman seeing her body turned against herself, as it must occur in the case of an unwanted pregnancy. This is particularly true in those situations in which out-of-wedlock pregnancies are penalized, and when having a child makes a woman vulnerable to social ostracism and even death. (91)

Initial accumulation and the consolidation of capitalist production tended to break down social reproduction, especially in the form of the working-class family, which was on the brink of dissolution as children were forced into production. In the mid-19th century, however, the ruling class turned around and sought to impose a form of the bourgeois family as the way of ensuring the socialization of the next generation of workers. In the Victorian era of Britain, the United States, and other countries, the system took a step back in an attempt to care for women as the means of social reproduction, leading to such organizations as the Young Women’s Christian Association, in which as Joan Brumberg says “concern about the bodies of adolescent girls was an impetus for a powerful network of social support that was a functional hallmark of American life well into the twentieth century.” In this period the regulation of women’s bodies, while subordinated to the demands of capital in every sense, was largely a function of socialization within the family, and a matter for only women (mothers, daughters and women’s societies like the YWCA) to take care of.

Federici devotes a chapter of her book to noting the changes capitalism attempted to enact on the bodies of those who were the sources of primitive accumulation, primarily the workers, but also, and more importantly for her, the female proletariat, without whom the accumulation would have no chance of happening. If women went on strike against childbearing, she suggests, the system would have ground to a halt (this happened in many cases on the slave plantations of America). She attributes to this desire the rise and success of much Enlightenment philosophy, specifically that of René Descartes, whose work put the mind above the body much as the proletarian body was subordinated to the forces of the state and capital. Much artwork of the time goes so far as to depict the human body as an actual machine for production.

Joan Brumberg’s work is complementary to this analysis because she is able to document the physical changes, over time, which capitalism wrought on specifically the female body. While the condition of the body was subjugation to the task of accumulation, over time capitalism was able to grant an amount of rising wealth in the West that first affected the middle class. This was slowly extended to the proletariat with the rising tide of class struggle. The rise in the standard of living meant that women sexually mature much earlier than they did several centuries ago, including both menstruation and sexual intercourse:

Young women begin to menstruate early only where living conditions generate better diets and a decline in infectious diseases. Both of these factors contribute to making larger, healthier girls, a process that was already in motion by 1900. American girls today are appreciably larger than they were eighty or even thirty years ago. Size is important because a young woman must have a certain level of stored, easily metabolized energy the form of body fat in order to start menstruation, and she also needs to attain a certain degree of skeletal growth, especially in pelvic size.

In the early 20th century, a new phase of accumulation began in regards to women’s bodies which had the effect of breaking down the ability of institutions such as the Victorian family and associations like the YWCA and Girl Scouts to control the sexual development of girls. Brumberg writes that this began with capitalization upon the process of menstruation. During the 19th century the menarche had been a matter confined to the attention of girls and their mothers, and menstruation was poorly understood by the medical establishment of the time. The menarche was the first “body project” of women under contemporary capitalism, in that it broke the domination of the family over this key moment in a girl’s bodily development and brought in into the domain of modern science and medicine. Eventually, menarche became a purely commercial event in which a girl bought tampons, as she has been instructed in health class and by popular media, with little to no support from her mother. As Marx and Engels write in the Manifesto:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and [wo]man is at last compelled to face with sober senses [her] real conditions of life, and [her] relations with [her] kind.

The commercialization of menstruation opened the way for other, increasingly public “body projects.” These include prominently the development and maintenance of “perfect skin” through the eradication of acne, the creation and marketing of the brassiere, and increasingly, the regulation of weight through dieting. Brumberg identifies women’s obsession with weight as emerging in the early 20th century United States in which clothes were increasingly mass-produced rather than manufactured at home. Mass production meant the creation of arbitrary sizes for clothes based on measurements, which girls were then expected to fit into rather than the clothes fitting around the girl. It is easy to see how this would lead naturally to the rise of unnatural “body types” as we have today. One would hesitate to find a better way in which products manufactured mostly by women become alienated from them and turn into their enemies under capitalism. Brumberg, for instance, writes

Ever since the 1960s, adolescent diaries repeat, over and over, the same concern: “I’ve been eating like a pig,” “I’ve got to lose weight,” or “I must starve myself.” This preoccupation is persistent rather than episodic; it characterizes the teen years of most middle-class girls, regardless of race; and it underlies their struggles with self-identity, peer relationships, and even educational and occupational choices.**

And quoting a diary of one such girl during the 1950s, she says

Whether they were thin or fat, had breasts, or seemed “sexy” was becoming as important as how they rode a bike or performed in school. Sarah was disheartened by the fact that a classmate at school considered her only a “3” while a boy she met during the summer in Georgia thought she was a “10.” It did not matter to her that the boys who did the rankings were as young, inexperienced, and gawky as the girls. The boys took their authority from popular culture, which made male perspectives on female bodies all-important.

The mass entry of women into the workplace during the 1950s and 60s, as workers, managers and professionals served to intensify this process. Suddenly, working women had an amount of disposable income which could be used to buy clothes, make their skin “perfect” generally improve the condition of their bodies which were felt in some way to be lacking. This contributed to a further breakdown of the family’s domain in matters of social reproduction. Mothers increasingly lacked time to instruct their daughters on the “correct” ways of dealing with menstruation, acne breakouts, and other embarrassing bodily matters. The “correct ways” themselves were increasingly defined by the needs of the market.

The sexual liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s, which succeeded in legalizing abortion across the United States, and saw the practice of sex rise among a much higher population of teenagers than previously, had the effect of accelerating this process. If women were having sex younger, then their bodies were being judged wanting earlier, and thus they were having to diet and make themselves crazy about their bodies earlier. As Brumberg writes, the sexual liberation brought by the rise of the feminist movement was a “stunning new freedom [which] actually implied the need for greater internal control of the body, an imperative that would intensify and become even more powerful by the end of the twentieth century.”

The current phenomenon of the “beauty myth” and its accompanying “body projects,” therefore is a result of the conjunction of several different factors in contemporary capitalism. Predicated on the control exercised over women’s bodies instituted in the initial stages of accumulation and the Victorian dissemination of bourgeois ideology surrounding the family through the Western working class, the beauty myth rises in the early 20th century when the most intimate parts of a girl’s sexual maturation, starting with menstruation but embracing the many changes in the skin, breasts etc that occur throughout the body, come into the realm of capitalist accumulation. The mass entry of women into the workplace and the accompanying feminist movement leading to a form of sexual liberation created the conditions in which it is acceptable to not only demystify the female body, but to tell women that their bodies somehow do not match up to a supposed norm – turning, once again, women’s own bodies against them in a way much like the forced pregnancies and witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The negative consequences of this for women are all too clear. While diseases like anorexia and bulimia are not physically caused by the prevalence of “beauty myths,” their rise in the West is directly traceable to a society which finds it acceptable, and even desirable, that women should hate and want to improve their bodies. Their consequences are, frankly, horrifying, and include death in a significant number of cases, as well as disfigurement of the body, and the enduring psychological trauma of denying oneself food or feeling wrong for eating. This inevitably invades daily life, affecting our most intimate moments.

While most women do not suffer from an actual eating disorder, it is probably safe to say this last symptom has become generalized at the societal level. There are other very obvious consequences, just a few of which are the disgusting objectification of women coming out of the porn industry and increasingly present in the mainstream as a device of increasing sales, and the increase in sexual pressure which women are subjected to, at increasingly early ages – as Brumberg notes, “fourteen and fifteen are two of the peak ages for becoming a victim of sexual assault; approximately 50 percent of rape victims are between ten and nineteen, and half of this group are under sixteen.”

However, a realistic perspective of the beauty myth must deal not only with its negative consequences, but the contradictory character which leads it to be a lasting force. Two important things must be noted here: first, although sexual liberation has had the consequence of reenforcing the beauty myth for millions of women, in no sense does this mean that it was not worth fighting for. As Brumberg notes of the attitudes of many of her students at Cornell, “Although they admitted that male ogling made them nervous, they also regarded the ability to display their bodies as a sign of women’s liberation, a mark of progress, and a basic American right.” To recognize this is to recognize the contradictory gains of women’s liberation that marks all successful movements of oppressed people, including women, national minorities, and LGBT people under capitalism. This does not mean that such gains are to be ignored, rather that for such movements to be lastingly successful they must join up their cause with that of destroying our current economic system and constructing a new one.

Secondly, we must recognize the contradictory character of the beauty myth itself. While on the one hand it certainly has the effect of sickening, even killing large numbers of women and subjecting millions to the virtual enslavement of constantly attending to the perceived need to improve their body, it strikes a significant chord for the reason that the logic of capitalist production implies that a woman’s body is her primary source of “capital,” of respect from others and from herself. In this respect, improving one’s body is a goal that may be incredibly empowering. To quote Brumberg one final time, “The body is a consuming project for contemporary girls because it provides an important means of self-definition, a way to visibly announce who you are to the world.”

The beauty myth therefore increasingly comes to resemble what Marx famously said about religion:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

To ask women to give up the beauty myth, therefore, is to ask them to give up a condition which requires myths in the first place – something I hope to deal with further in a future post.

* Federici’s perspective is not without its flaws. Though she uses Marx’s analysis of primitive accumulation as a background for her work, she is not a Marxist but an anarchist-influenced feminist. (Hence, she goes out of her way on repeated occasions to denigrate Marx for a supposed lack of respect for women, though she doesn’t much seem to be bothered by the fact that her own conclusions are drawn from his influence and his method of historical analysis.) She tends to view the rise of capitalism as a “counter-revolution” imposed from above by an alliance of nobility, Church and the bourgeoisie. She idealizes various feudal resistance movements, including millenarian sects such as the Cathars and Anabaptists, as well as the feudal communes, which she suggests posed some kind of sustainable alternative to both feudal and capitalist systems that was overcome by ruling-class “counter-revolution” which imposed capitalism. To get there, however, she is forced into making some incredible leaps of logic, for example that class solidarity between peasant and proletarians in the Middle Ages was undermined when the ruling class decriminalized rape, allowing the men a free source of sex so long as they raped their class sisters.

In contrast a historical study should reveal that the communes, while progressive compared to what surrounded them, were not to be idealized as having something for us to imitate today. The millenarian and class-struggle movements including Cathars, Anabaptists, and the brief rule of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” by the Ciompi in Florence showed moments of incredible heroism but it is questionable from a historical perspective whether they stood a chance of establishing a new kind of society. Even assuming they could overcome tremendous lack of resources and organization, they would probably have ended up ruling over no more than a society of “generalized want,” which may have in the end reproduced the same contradictions which led to the terminal crisis of feudalism in Europe. It would take capital to be able to raise production to the point that the society they sought to create finally became possible. It is in this sense that Marx and Engels saw capitalism as progressive, though only in a very contradictory sense, indeed they noted frequently the increased misery it brought not only to the Western proletariat and peasantry but the peoples of America and Asia who were colonized in the drive for initial accumulation. The Marxist view of this process must always seek to rescue the historical role of those who resisted the initial drive to accumulation, or else risk siding with capital in its initial phases- which, as Federici consistently points out, is still ongoing in the global South. This would require us, for example, to support “structural adjustment” in Africa, Asia and Latin America as it would clear the way for some kind of progress. This is the vulgar Marxist position taken historically by much of the Second International and rediscovered recently by the academic “Marxist” group based on the works of the Frankfurt School, Platypus 1917.

** Unfortunately, Brumberg as well pays most attention to middle-class women, only stopping to say a few words about women of the working class, African-Americans and Latinas in the last chapter of her book. Though I’m not very familiar with demographic material, I tend to be suspicious of the attention both her and Wolf pay to the “middle class.” In the first place, of course, “middle class” is an unscientific category based on income or, perhaps, culture, the vast majority of the members of which in fact belong to the working class. Secondly, I doubt that the “beauty myth,” being so pervasive in culture as Wolf impressively demonstrates, leaves women who would be typically identified as “working-class” entirely unscarred. Her attention only to women of the professional ranks gives some idea of the limitations of her feminism. (See the relevant sections of Sharon Smith’s Women and Socialism on Wolf’s middle-class feminism, and Wolf’s own recent article claiming that Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin are “feminists”). In the case of Brumberg, her ignorance of a class perspective also leaves her rather ignorant as to the material causes to the rise of the “body projects” she documents.



Filed under History, Politics

3 responses to “Historical sources of the “Beauty Myth”

  1. JohnAB

    To what degree do you believe Brumberg is correct when she refers to the persistent preoccupation with weight as something experienced by “most middle-class girls, regardless of race” since the 1960’s? If she argues that the origins of body weight as an issue are in the mass production of clothing; that the material basis of body issues is in the entry of women into the workforce and the sexual revolution, then why are “middle-class girls” seemingly the only ones effected? Do working class women make their own clothing, live off trust funds and somehow remain ignorant of the sexual revolution? Is the experience of working class women not addressed because it is the same or because it hasn’t been studied?

    • I think you bring up an important issue which seems to be ignored by both Wolf and Brumberg as well as most people who write about this topic at least in the United States. It is especially significant as you point out that she seems to think “working class women make their own clothing, live off trust funds and somehow remain ignorant of the sexual revolution.” As we know this could not be the case; there must have been some affect on working-class women if Brumberg’s conclusions are correct. I imagine she does not address this primarily because her account relies heavily on the diaries of adolescent girls going back to the late 19th century and for obvious reasons we have more of those lying around from middle class girls. I’m not aware of any studies documenting body image in working class women specifically, but the analysis that both Brumberg and Wolf make (and that I am relying on) has severe problems to say the least if this is not accounted for. Working class women were in the workforce long before the 1960s, and presumably they would have been affected to an even greater extent by the historical trends I am trying to come to terms with than were the middle class.

  2. Pingback: A Novel of Primitive Accumulation in the Soviet Union | That Faint Light

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