The 1990s have been an odd mix of prosperity and economic uncertainty. Although unemployment rates have been low, many Americans are worried about their jobs and future well-being. Recent years have been associated with corporate growth and low interest rates, but downsizing has typically followed mergers. As a result, large numbers of well-educated, middle-class people worry about their financial stability. In addition, international trade agreements like NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) have made it easier for corporations to move production facilities, and jobs, out of the country. Added to the economic uncertainty experienced by many individuals is the fact that the U. S. population is aging, and there are serious concerns about the future of Social Security and health care.
During uncertain financial periods, political sanctions often increase against marginal groups that have made demands for a greater share of economic resources. It is ironic that during a time when an increasing percentage of the work force is composed of women and more women with children are working, there is vigorous political rhetoric about family values. Family values are a topic of news coverage and are played out in political arenas. For example, Susan Molinari, a New York Republican and member of the House of Representatives resigned her position to take a job in television, partly to enable her to spend more time with her infant daughter. In response to her resignation, a conservative commentator, David Frum, noted that one could not have a high-powered career and “be a conscientious mother” (Young, 1998). The rhetoric of family values has powerful appeal and gets votes. For example, the election of GOP gubernatorial candidate James S. Gilmore III of Virginia was attributed in exit polls to his strong stance on family values (Morin, 1997).
The issues of how to balance family, relationships, career, and equality have again become matters of personal struggle in the lives of individual women rather than an impetus for change in the larger system. The idea that women could have it all has come under serious scrutiny (Morical,
1984; Spain, 1996). Book titles emphasize hard choices, dilemmas, balancing acts, and compromise (e. g. Choice and Compromise: A Woman’s Guide to Balancing Family and Career, Douglas, 1983; Hard Choices: How Women Decide About Work, Career, and Motherhood, Gerson, 1985; and Dilemmas of a Double Life: Women Balancing Careers and Relationships, Kaltreider, 1997). Considerable attention also is given to the idea of essential sex differences. John Gray’s 1992 bestseller, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, is just one of many examples. It appears that economic uncertainty has been teamed with the concept of family values, resulting in a view that makes traditional women’s roles—and the women who occupy them—especially valorous and laudable.
Beauty ideals of today reflect increasingly unrealistic images for women, images made omnipresent by mass media. Media images not only work to establish normative reference points for gender behavior and appearance, but they also confer subtle messages about status and entitlement. Television commercials and print advertisements create idealized and unrealistic portrayals of women’s beauty and continue to perpetuate the piecemeal objectification of women’s bodies (Kilboume, 1994). Fashion magazines promote the possibility of beauty through illusion, as models’ stretch marks and other skin imperfections are airbrushed away and their body shapes distorted by the tricks of photography and computer-generated images (Lakoff & Scherr, 1984).
One of the most critical elements of the contemporary ideal beauty has been the continuing trend toward slenderization. In fact, for women to be seen as acceptable, they need to be “painfully thin” (Kilboume, 1994). More recently, fitness has become a crucial factor in maintaining this ideal body shape. More and more women participate in aerobics, jogging, and bodybuilding. This trend is seen in the declining body measurements of Miss America beauty pageant contestants and Playboy centerfolds over the past 20 years, who have averaged 10-15% below the average weight for women of equal heights (Gamer, Garfinkel, Schwartz, & Thompson, 1980). Fashion models may weigh as much as 23% less than the average American woman (Kilboume, 1979). One speculates that if store mannequins were alive, they would be too thin to menstruate. Thus, although only 5% of American women have the body type of a tall, thin, long-legged physique, those characteristics make up the majority of images that are portrayed in the media (Kilboume, 1994). This leaves 95% of us to wonder what is wrong with our bodies! The pursuit of thinness carries with it an economic component. The marketers of diet books, diet programs, health spas, and celebrity exercise videos all profit from women trying to achieve the ideal body (Travis, 1988). The economy virtually relies on women being obsessed with thinness and forever unsuccessfully attempting to achieve it. This phenomenon is illustrated by the 33 billion dollar diet industry that is unproven in its success (Kilboume, 1994). A casual perusal of magazine headlines confirms that the demand for thinness continues as a ubiquitous message for women.
In addition to the increased demands of thinness and perfection, sexuality in the 1990s has been constructed as even more external to women than in previous eras. The centrality of lingerie to women’s sexuality and sex appeal has thrust Victoria’s Secret and Frederick’s of Hollywood into multimillion dollar status. In order to be considered sexual, women must not only have the ideal body, but they must also adorn themselves in expensive—and often uncomfortable—g-strings, push-up bras, and corsets. There is a mass marketing of women’s lingerie catalogs that have defined, at least in part, what it means to be sexual. In the 1990s, women’s sexuality and, thus, their identity is inextricably linked to mass marketing and capitalistic pursuits.
Youthful pursuits also have become central in defining beauty and identity for women. Entire cosmetic lines are geared toward reversing the effects of aging, and facial scrubs, moisturizers, and acids are promoted as critical regimes for women over the age of 30. Although the market-appeal of aging baby boomers certainly drives this movement, one cannot help but speculate on the additional factors that motivate such attention to aging. Although young women have been the primary targets of beauty – (identity) enhancing efforts with promises of social rewards including eligibility for marriage, older women have been infused with anxiety about divorce. Since men have more socially allowable options for younger partners, older women are given the message that they must compete with younger women. It is only acceptable to be older if the woman continues to look 30. If you are 50 with wrinkles and sags, the prevailing message is that your husband may leave you for having the nerve to focus on viable aspects of your life such as children, career, friends, and activities instead of continuing to orient your identity and life toward pleasing him.
Feminists have viewed these developments as evidence that social change toward equality has been an illusion all along (Hewlett, 1986), or that these voices of authority represent a backlash against equality. Naomi Wolf (1991) has argued that along with the increasing resistance to feminism and equality there has been a redefinition of sex as beauty. The message is that a woman must be beautiful in order to feel sexual. She surmised the phenomenon succinctly: “Sexuality follows fashion, which follows politics” (p. 133). Wolf (1991) argues, as does Faludi (1991), that changes in the way beauty and sexuality are conceptualized occur as a reaction to women’s imminent sexual and political freedom.
As women have continued to move into the public world of employment and politics, another set of demands for perfection has intensified. There has been increasing rhetoric about family values, in which the implicit image of family is a heterosexual couple in a nuclear grouping with children. There is a great deal of emphasis on the instruction of children in moral values and an emphasis on parental supervision of children. These images of family and what it takes to have a healthy family imply that women will be present to ready children for school, take them to team practice, and supervise them in household duties. In the rhetoric of family values, the role of mom is a full-time job. The idea of a family where mom is the emotional nurturer has great appeal. For example, when young women who will soon be college graduates “talk,” it is rare for them to envision their future caretaking of children in terms of economic provisioning (Travis, personal observation). In counterbalance to this image of full-time mom, it is important to remember that most women work because of economic necessity. Government poverty standards indicate that providing even the basic necessities for a family of four requires an annual income of at least $30,000. The fact is that women must work, but they are made to feel guilty and inadequate about it.
We suggest that the image of an ideal family and full-time domesticity for women represents an increased pressure on women to restrict their educational and career aspirations to those endeavors that can be managed as secondary to husband and children. This image of full-time mom also carries the hidden message that somewhere there will be a man who takes care of the financial worries while mom provides emotional caretaking. It requires that young women spend a good deal of their time attracting, nurturing, and pleasing a good provider. At some level the young woman must be sexually desirable to a man.