1960s and 1970s
The 1960s saw the beginnings of the civil rights movement as well as the antiwar movement surrounding Vietnam. Both movements produced a general atmosphere that boundaries could be broken and assumptions about traditional politics could be challenged openly. Women were active in both movements, reflecting the longstanding tradition of feminist women’s commitment to social change and equality in general. For example, Rosa Parks’s refusal to sit in the back of the bus provided a catalytic spark that is timeless, and Angela Davis’s outspoken criticism of the war was front page news across the nation. Like the antislavery movement, temperance movement, and labor movements of earlier decades, the activism of the 1960s and 1970s set the contemporary stage for women to dispute traditional sex role boundaries and to rediscover the ideals of feminism (Lakoff & Scherr, 1984). One would think that with all this growing political consciousness and social activism, the acceptable range of appearance would be similarly expanded. However, there probably was as much, or more, emphasis on women’s physical appeal to men.
It was also a time when go-go dancers, topless bars, and all-nude dancing became commonplace. Breast enlargement was an essential part of the female entertainment industry, with some women gaining notoriety and publicity by virtue of having hugely enlarged breasts as part of their topless shows. Makeup and body physique continued to be narrowly defined. Heavy eye makeup was favored with an Egyptian style; iridescent eye shadow and polished lipstick were derigueur.
Women’s sexuality and social roles were more openly debated during the 1960s and 1970s than in the previous generation, and a second wave feminism flourished. This period saw the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), viewed by many as the official beginning of the second wave of feminism, and the 1966 founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Truly radical statements were promoted with Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1970), Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970), and Ellen Frankfort’s Vaginal Politics (1972). Unfortunately, these social movements took place in the context of a good deal of selfindulgence and narcissism. Drugs and free love were also part of these decades. Embedded in these movements were contradictory messages for women’s sexuality and social roles.
Development of a birth control pill in the early 1960s provided a technological underpinning for rejection of traditional standards for sexuality. Although the early high dosage pill carried significant risks (see reviews by Barbara Seaman, 1969), women welcomed it as a way of finessing the much trickier issues of negotiating birth control with their male partners. Breaking traditional roles meant first and foremost breaking sexual rules. Women were supposed to be sexually liberated. However, this message was popularly translated in the dominant culture as being available to men without expecting a long-term, relational commitment.
Beauty ideals went through further transformation. In the 1960s, the larger, fleshy, busty woman began to decline in popularity and was replaced by a woman with a trim lower torso; thus began the “trend toward slen – derization” (Mazur, 1986). Women, more than ever, began to be evaluated primarily on their figures. Twiggy became one of the first international super models, primarily because of her skeletal thinness. This trend toward slen – derization is documented by Silverstein, Peterson, and Perdue (1986) who analyzed the ratios between bust, waist, and hip measurements of women depicted in photographs of two popular magazines from 1902 to 1982 and correlated them with acutely thin, college-aged women during this era.
The popular conception of women’s liberation during the 1960s revealed underlying views of women; namely, that sexual and reproductive status was the most salient aspect of women’s identities. While the pill gave women some control, the basic issues of sexual equality in and out of the bedroom were only partially addressed. Thus, the ideal for women’s personal identity as liberated women was constructed—as it was before— in ways that privileged male interests. As Pat Minardi (1971) noted, there is a big difference between the terms “liberated women” and “women’s liberation.”
During the 1960s and 1970s, women who were vigorously opposed to traditional work and family roles for women were often labeled as lesbians, especially if they refused to display the standards of beauty and style in vogue. Feminists were regularly viewed as physically unattractive (Goldberg, Gottesdiener, & Abramson, 1975). The underlying belief was that feminists simply could not attract a man and that the angry rhetoric was a disguised form of sour grapes. The public mindset of the time demonstrates the close connection between beauty ideals and sexual politics. Thus, despite the progressiveness of the time, cultural expectations for women and their identities remained fixed. Women who embodied the ideal pursuits—ideal in that they benefited men—were considered attractive and appropriately sexual. In contrast, the rewards of social acceptance were withheld from women who resisted standard social-political roles. Their protests were dismissed as a product of their own failure to achieve a traditional role, a failure due to their own lack of physical appeal.