A primary mechanism used to monitor and control women’s sexuality resides in the realm of beauty. For women, sexuality is inextricably linked to physical appearance. Sexuality is distorted as ornamental and observable rather than being viewed as a quality that emanates from the context of women’s lives and relationships. Thus, the shape of a woman’s body, the size of her breasts, and the color of her hair, are all features commonly used to assess her value as a sexual being.

Ideas about sexual appeal and beauty are not benign expressions of aesthetic preference, but are symbolically constructed systems of knowing and meaning. The social construction of women’s sexuality as embedded in attractiveness constitutes a conflation between beauty and sexuality. This merger moves sexuality into the public realm, making it concrete and external, and thereby amenable to inspection, definition, social monitoring, and control. Equating physical appearance with sexuality facilitates a per­vasive and ready monitoring of whether women are adhering to an appro­priate sexual identity and, most important, an appropriate social role. Al­though standards of sexual conduct may vary across time and subcultures, the essential features of monitoring and control remain constant. As a consequence, women’s sexuality has come to belong not to women them­selves but to some other person or group.

By linking women’s identity to observable markers and signs that are readily available for public monitoring, comment, and sanction, the social control of women is sustained. Under the framework, women whose iden­tities are not centered on the display of sexuality through beauty and who instead may be focused on obtaining power through educational and eco­nomic pursuits are pejoratively labeled as unfeminine, asexual, or lesbian. Women who live in poverty or who are unable to effectively pursue nor­mative standards of beauty are viewed as lazy and even mentally ill. Women routinely suffer humiliation, harassment, and even discrimination for fail­ing—or refusing—to submit to the normative expectations of beauty, sex­uality, and social role. The social construction of women’s identity demands selflessness; healthy, good women attempt to meet the needs of others, specifically, the needs of men. A consequence of the internalization of the beauty-sexuality-identity equation is that normative standards and expec­tations that are destructive for women often are unseen and unchallenged.

By emulating beauty ideals and attracting and pleasing men, women are taught that sexuality is generated and made real by the responses of men. Sexuality is not promoted as a sensual benefit for women, but is defined as the capability to evoke sexual arousal in others. To be sexual, for women, means to be an object of desire. Thus, whether or not one is sexual is determined almost exclusively by the judgments and experiences of others. Others, then, largely define women’s sense of identity and worth. There is an increased internal motivation to attract the attention and affirmation of others, and the preferences and needs of others become de­fining features of the self. Sexuality is construed in the flair of the nostril, the arch of the brow, the proportions of the waist and hips, the tone of the skin, ad infinitum. This formulation renders older women; larger, heavy women; and handicapped women asexual.

Despite the fact that women are able to periodically receive moderate rewards for upholding social constructions of beauty, sexuality, and identity, several noteworthy exceptions exist. Women who expend too much effort in the pursuit of beauty or the display of sexuality are punished. Women trying to emulate the ideal are often chastised by society for their wanton­ness and narcissism and are regarded as self-centered and neurotic. Women who are overly made-up are considered unattractive; there is a demand that the final effect must look natural and effortless. Women who are overly sexualized are considered to be unclean, immoral, and even pathological. The effort women put forth in attempting to elicit desire from men must fall within mainstream standards in order to be rewarded. Somehow, if women are too beautiful or too sexual, men’s sense of pleasure—or power —is diminished.

It is important to note that the social construction of beauty, sexu­ality, and identity is most compulsory with respect to women; it doesn’t operate in the same way for men. Despite the fact that there are normative appearance standards for men, they are not singularly used to perpetuate oppression and disempowerment. Men—and by this we mean Caucasian, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied men—are encouraged to develop their sense of identity and self-esteem through less destructive and self – denying means, such as occupational status and financial achievement. Ad­ditionally, although physical appearance is considered important for men, a wider variety of acceptable standards exist. Men of various proportions, features, and ages are considered attractive. Finally, the social and psycho­logical consequences of failing to meet the ideal standard are not the same for men as they are for women. Few men would feel badly about themselves for not looking like Mr. Atlas, but women regularly feel inadequate and guilty because they do not look like Miss America.