BEAUTY, SEXUALITY, AND IDENTITY: THE SOCIAL CONTROL OF WOMEN
CHERYL BROWN TRAVIS, KAYCE L. MEGINNIS,
AND KRISTIN M. BARDARI
Beauty is considered to be a fundamental quality in women, as can be documented in the personal ads of any American newspaper. The never – ending pursuit of beauty occupies center stage for many women; the emphasis placed on appearance can be partially estimated by the millions of dollars spent annually on cosmetics and other beauty-enhancing efforts. Why this compulsory focus on beauty? What role does beauty play in the formation of individual identity? What are the social mechanisms that foster this phenomenon, and whose interests are being served in the process?
This chapter is based on the premise that beauty has become a key factor in defining and controlling women’s sexuality. Socially constructed, narrow definitions of beauty and, thereby, sexuality are used as mechanisms to maintain social, political, and economic control by those who benefit from traditional patriarchal structures. We propose that the conflation of physical appearance and sexuality is detrimental to women on individual, interpersonal, and systemic levels and that it ultimately sustains gender – based oppression. In the first section of this chapter we elaborate on the
social construction of sexuality as a means of sustaining the social control of women. In the second section we examine the social construction of beauty by documenting the arbitrary changes in beauty ideals over the course of the last century. Correlates to changing social roles and sexual expectations of women are explored. In the third section we identify the physical and emotional costs of the beauty sexuality equation. In the final section we offer some reformulations and suggestions for transforming the politics of sexuality and beauty.