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Feminism, Femininity, and the "Beauty" Dilemma: How Advertising Co-opted the Women's Movement

By Steve Craig, from the University of North Texas

(This paper was presented at the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture/American Culture Association Conference at Lubbock, Texas in January, 1998.)

"As a matter of principle I stopped shaving my legs and under my arms several years ago . . . but I look at my legs and know they are no longer attractive, not even to me. . . . To ease my dilemma, in the summertime I bleach my leg hair to a golden fuzz, a compromise that enables me to avoid looking peculiar at the beach. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only woman in the world who puts color into the hair on her head while she takes color out of the hair on her legs in order to appear feminine enough for convention."

Susan Brownmiller's experience summarizes the dilemma that many feminists in the 1970s faced when they were forced to confront the conflict between a feminist ideology that rejected sexual objectification and the deeply- ingrained American cultural definition of femininity denoted as a particular kind of commercialized feminine beauty. This paper explores that dilemma and how it was exploited by the beauty industry to turn feminism to its own commercial ends.

The Sexual Objectification Issue

Gatlin (1987, Ch. 6) argues that as the women's movement evolved in the 1960s and 70s, three major political branches emerged. Of these, the liberal feminists were by far the largest and best established. Drawing on the women's rights' traditions of the First Wave, the liberal branch consisted of popular, broad-based organizations such as the National Organization for Women

(NOW). Despite the terminology, the "liberal" branch was the most politically moderate of the three.

The other two branches were smaller and substantially farther left. The socialist-feminists had roots in the American socialist movement and were ideological Marxists. But a more influential group was the radical feminists, who urged major political and social realignments to offset the historical oppression of women by patriarchal society. Although small in numbers, most radical feminists were intellectuals and academics and several, such as Kate Millett and Shulamith Firestone, published widely-read feminists works.

The philosophical and political differences between the radical, socialist- feminist and liberal feminists is amply illustrated by how they each saw the issue of sexual objectification of women. For the radicals, the social pressures on women to be "beautiful" were an example of a patriarchal society's treatment of women as chattel -- property to be displayed and exploited. The socialist feminists added the criticism that the promotion and sale of cosmetics and fashionable clothing to women was a divisive class-based Capitalist strategy to sell more consumer goods.

Liberal feminists also crusaded against many aspects of sexual objectification, but their approach tended to be more pragmatic than philosophical. One area of concern to them was mediated images of women -especially images of women in advertising.

As early as 1963, Betty Friedan, who would later become founding President of NOW and one of liberal feminism's most popular spokespersons, blasted the advertising industry in her international best seller, The Feminine Mystique, for perpetuating and exploiting the oppression of women through the use of negative advertising stereotypes. One of Friedan's major criticisms was that advertisers consciously manipulate their portrayals of women to insure they continue to serve as good consumers of the thousands of products and services sold by the food, drug, and fashion industries. As she wrote,

. . .the perpetuation of housewifery, the growth of the feminine mystique, makes sense (and dollars) when one realizes that women are the chief customers of American business. . . . the really important role that women serve as housewives is to buy more things for the house. (1963, 197)

Although Friedan's book focused primarily on advertising's images of women as housewives, other critics began to focus on advertising’s use of sexual innuendo and feminine allure to sell products, and the term “sex object” entered every day vocabulary. One opening salvo was fired by Detroit News writer Kathy Sudomier who, writing under the pseudonym Kathy McMeel, attacked the advertising industry for its sexist images. Her first article appeared in the youth section of the News and was written in a tone and vernacular the paper thought would appeal to the newspaper's increasingly disenchanted teen and young adult readers. Sudomier was especially concerned about what she saw as the promotion of subtle sexual fantasies involving younger models.

You dirty old ad men make me sick. . . . (You) are using chicks to peddle damn near everything. And you aren’t using your chicks man, you’re using ours. . . the teens and the twenties, man, they seem to be what turns you on. . . . You’re putting your own daughters out on the street to hustle for you. No, you’re not whipping them onto the tube or the magazines nude. It’s a whole lot more horny than that. (McMeel, 1969)

Sudomier’s criticisms might have gone relatively unnoticed, but they struck a chord with some in the industry and the national advertising trade publication, Advertising Age, reprinted the article. (Writer blasts, 1969)

But Ad Age went one step farther. In a front page box, it editorially asked the question “Are We ‘Dirty Old Admen’?” and requested its readers respond, promising that the publication would “try to print all views that are not libelous or obscene” (Are we ‘Dirty Old Admen’?, 1969). Over the next several issues, the debate raged on Ad Age’s pages, and within three weeks, the magazine had received over 100 letters from ad professionals which, it concluded, were about evenly split for and against Sudomier’s criticisms (Sederberg, 1969).

One male respondent pointed out what was, for him, one of the issue’s confusing ironies: many of the ads that use sexually alluring images of women were, in fact, designed to promote beauty products to women; and women used these products to make themselves more sexually alluring to men -- an apologia that was to become a frequent response to such criticisms.

Some feminists translated their concerns about sexual objectification into activism. In one of the Second Wave's earliest demonstrations, a group of women picketed the 1968 Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. In a bid for press coverage of their protest, members of the group symbolically tossed their bras in a garbage can. News stories erroneously reported that the women had burned their bras and the term "bra-burners" entered the media vocabulary as a pejorative for feminists (Davis, 1991, 107).

But it was the radical feminist intellectuals who gave the arguments against advertisers a solid base in feminist theory. In 1971, an anonymous member of the radical feminist group, the The Redstockings, explained it this way:

The real evil of the media image of women is that it supports the sexist status quo. In a sense, fashion, cosmetics, and “feminine hygiene” ads are aimed more at men that at women. They encourage men to expect women to sport all the latest trappings of sexual slavery—expectations women must then fulfill if they are to survive. . . . For women, buying and wearing clothes and beauty aids is not so much consumption as work. One of a woman’s jobs in this society is to be an attractive sexual object, and clothes and make-up are tools of the trade. (A Redstocking Sister, 1971, 483)

As the movement progressed and more feminists joined in the objections to sexual objectification, the beauty industry became concerned that the “new woman” would be one who rejected their products altogether. As it turned out, this fear was at least somewhat justified. The decade of the 70’s did see cosmetics, fragrance, and hair-care products all suffer flat or declining sales (Faludi, 1991, 202-203).

The Beauty Dilemma

However, notions of femininity and beauty and their interdependence with the fashion and cosmetics industries have been very deeply ingrained in American life. While some women began to reject beauty products, many others did not. The "beauty dilemma" fostered confusion and even divisiveness, especially among liberal feminists.

Feminist pioneer Susan Brownmiller explained the situation:

An unadorned face became the honorable new look of feminism in the early 1970s, and no one was happier with the freedom not to wear makeup than I, yet it could hardly escape my attention that more women supported the Equal Rights Amendment and legal abortion than could walk out of the house without eye shadow. Did I think of them as somewhat pitiable? Yes I did. Did they bitterly resent the righteous pressure put on them to look, in their terms, less attractive? Yes they did. A more complete breakdown and confusion of aims, goals, and values could not have occurred, and of all the movement rifts I have witnessed, this one remains for me the most poignant and the most difficult to resolve. (Brownmiller, 1984, 158)

The fundamental reason many women were unwilling to give up fashion and cosmetics was that they had been saturated since childhood with patriarchal society's emphasis on beauty. Women believed that they had to at least make an attempt to be conventionally beautiful or they would be branded unfeminine and undesirable. Women had been told over and over by the beauty industry that their products were the way to achieve the conventional standards of femininity that insured social acceptance.

There were other factors as well. By the early 70's, many women were attempting to enter the workplace for the first time and believed that fashionable clothing and the artful use of cosmetics were essential elements of corporate success. Other women, supporting only the women's movement's more moderate demands, feared that without makeup, they would be branded radicals. This was not an unreasonable concern, since early news coverage tended to marginalize feminist ideas and often cast women activists as part of the "lunatic fringe." One common practice was to portray women in the movement as physically unattractive, and reporters who interviewed feminists often pointed out what they were wearing and how ‘feminine’ or ‘unfeminine’ they were” (Davis, 1991,108).

But the fundamental issue was that many women who generally supported feminism were not prepared to fully accept the ideological underpinnings proposed by the radicals and socialist-feminists. Liberal feminist organizations such as NOW were well aware of the controversial nature of the beauty dilemma and so focused on less divisive issues such as pay equity. Ms magazine, founded in 1972 and run by such NOW stalwarts as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, had to confront the issue both editorially and in their advertising pages. Inside its front cover, the first regular issue of the magazine ran what was to become a controversial ad for Coppertone suntan lotion. A full color photograph featured a slim blonde woman in a bikini with copy that said the product “helps more people get a magnificently deep fast tan” (Beautiful tan today, 1972). Several readers of the new magazine became irate and wrote indignant letters of protest. As time went on, Ms learned to be sensitive to the issue, yet it did not rule out beauty ads altogether. In fact, Editor Gloria Steinem, believing that beauty ads could be tactfully presented, continually sought to attract business from Revlon and other large cosmetics firms. If cosmetics ads virtually never appeared in Ms., it was because the advertisers chose not to place them, fearing negative publicity brought on by responses from those readers who did find them objectionable (Steinem, 1995).

Invisible Cosmetics for the New Woman

For the beauty industry and its advertising agency, the beauty dilemma offered a weak seam in feminism that they quickly exploited. By the 1970's advertisers began to coopt the accomplishments of the women's movement and redirect them for their own ends. In this, they were willingly assisted by many popular women's magazines, which were themselves economically threatened by a decline in the fashion and cosmetics business.

Naomi Wolf has documented the strategies of the beauty industry in her 1991 best-seller, The Beauty Myth. She argues that during this period, the old myth that women were fulfilled as housewives and mothers (Betty Friedan's “feminine mystique”) was gradually replaced by advertisers with what she calls "the beauty myth." This notion suggested that to be accepted in the world of the liberated and independent “new woman,” one had to meet rigid new standards of slimness, beauty, and fashion. As Wolf explained, the industry's motives were simple:

How to make sure that busy, stimulated working women would keep consuming at the levels they had done when they had all day to do so and little else of interest to occupy them? A new ideology was necessary that would compel the same insecure consumerism; that ideology must be, unlike that of the Feminine Mystique, a briefcase- sized neurosis that the working woman could take with her to the office. To paraphrase Friedan, why is it never said that the really crucial function that women serve as aspiring beauties is to buy more things for the body? . . . The beauty myth, in its modern form, arose to take the place of the Feminine Mystique, to save magazines and advertisers from the economic fallout of the women’s revolution. (emphasis in the original) (66)

So by the early 1970's both the advertisements and the editorial copy of popular women's magazines had become fixed on redefining feminism. For example, an editorial on the status of the American woman in the June, 1972, issue of Vogue read:

She's looking great. She feels great. The American woman has a whole new view of herself pioneered out of self-reliance and a "divine discontent" with just making do as wife/woman, mother, chauffeur, cook, lawnmower, keeper of family dogs, cats, hamsters . . . and, always, a knockout (ellipsis in original). (The American woman, 1972, p. 75)

The remainder of Vogue's issue was, of course, devoted to fashion layouts and cosmetics ads.

The ads themselves also began to portray a consumerist version of liberated women, and new products (or at least products with new names) were devised for them to buy. By 1970, for example, readers of Vogue were finding ads for "The Liberated Wool Sweater," courtesy of The American Wool Council:

It's part of a whole new generation of liberated looks that give you freedom of movement, freedom from wrinkles, and freedom to wear any hem-length you like. Shown here, the embodiment of the new freedom. Stripes walk softly, but carry a big look-at-me message. . . . (The Liberated wool sweater, p. 9.)

Cosmetic companies were also quick to exploit feminist rhetoric. Revlon introduced “Charlie” in 1973, a fragrance designed for and marketed to the “new woman.” “Charlie” ads featured what purported to be a no-nonsense single and independent working “girl” with a fashion model face and figure, usually pictured in a pantsuit. "Charlie" swept the market and became the nation’s best-selling fragrance in less than a year, and other fragrance companies rushed to introduce their own “liberated” scents. (Faludi, 1991, 205)

Selling cosmetics, however, presented a seemingly more difficult problem. How could the industry convince liberated "new women" who purportedly rejected sexual objectification that they had to continue to buy and wear makeup and lipstick? One successful approach was to portray the cosmetics as clean, natural, or, in some cases, as "invisible." For example, Revlon's "Moon Drops" was pitched as a "demi-makeup," and ads told women that it was "the makeup that is and isn't" (underscore in original). An ad for the product in a 1970 issue of Vogue read:

'Moon Drops' Demi-Makeup. . . . It looks so convincing you'd swear it isn't makeup. . . . People will think it's your own fresh, flawless skin. (Let them.) (The makeup that is and isn't, p. 16).

Other brands took similar approaches. Max Factor advertised its Geminesse false eyelashes as looking "for all the world as though they were born there." (Optical Illusions, p. 12). Another Vogue ad showed a close-up of the face of a dramatically lit model with the words "if she never stops being told how lucky she is not to need make-up . . . she's got to be covered with Germaine Monteil's fabulous new Acti-Vita cream foundation." (If the fine, silky bloom, p. 122)

"New women" could look like they'd given up cosmetics without ever really having to -- the perfect solution to the beauty dilemma. The beauty industry was more than happy to supply new, "invisible" products, along with a steady steam of reassurance.

The 80's and Women's Rationalization of Beauty

As the women's movement matured into the 1980's, its aims had been at least partly realized. Progress was made in opening up new job opportunities for women, especially for those in the college-educated middle class, and many employers began to show sensitivity to issues of equity in pay and promotion. The advertising industry also made accommodations to the movement and many of the most objectionable portrayals of women disappeared from ads. At the same time, however, interest in the movement by mainstream women began to wane. The powerful voices of the radical and socialist feminists were relegated to university classrooms and feminist conferences, and feminist theory was rarely discussed outside the halls of academe.

Yet the beauty dilemma persisted in the minds of some. The 80's saw a spate of "feminist" books on beauty such as Lois Banner's American Beauty (1983), Rita Freedman's Beauty Bound (1985), and Valerie Steele's Fashion and Eroticism (1985). Each author offered her own version of the struggle with the beauty dilemma and attempted to rationalize most women's continued investment in fashion and cosmetics.

One notion these authors propose is that women's reliance on fashion and cosmetics is not the product of sexual objectification produced by a patriarchal society as the radical feminists suggested, but should rather be seen as a form of women's empowerment. Banner, for example, argues that the use of fashion and beauty products evolved as a "rejection of the Victorian prohibition on sensual expression" (275). Steele agrees, maintaining that "It is absurd to blame fashion, as such, for turning women into sexual objects" (244) and offering the explanation that "men and women look differently and do different things" (246).

A variation of this rationalization is offered by Linda Scott (1993), who points out that "nearly all the founders of major cosmetics companies in America were women: Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein, Estée Lauder, Dorothy Gray and others" (150). This, she suggests, is evidence that cosmetics and their ads are not the product of patriarchy, but of entrepreneurial women who succeeded in one of the few industries open to them. Rather than have us consider beauty products as symbols of oppression, she urges the pragmatic recognition that beauty is one of the few paths to power that women have, whether they be producing or consuming (154).

Rita Freedman seems to agree. In Beauty Bound (1985), she points out that "looks do count, in love and in work. Reformers must begin with this premise, in order to meaningfully challenge the beauty myth" (p. 230). She concludes by pointing out that many women who describe themselves as feminists today "regard looking pretty as part of the feminist mandate to project confidence, to utilize assets, and to feel good about oneself" (p. 231).

Despite the fact that these works were generally well researched and documented, they must be considered apologia rather than theory. Postmodern critical thought is based on the premise that social conditions are brought about by human actions usually hidden from conscious thought. The current rationalizations about beauty ignore the more sophisticated theoretical explanations offered on that level by the radical and socialist feminists of the 70's.

The decade of the 90's has seen renewed interest in the beauty dilemma, stimulated in part by Naomi Wolf's best selling The Beauty Myth (1991). Wolf extensively documents both the cooptation of feminism by the beauty industry and the harmful effects -- both physical and psychological -- caused by the new emphasis on women to be fashionable and beautiful. But even Wolf leaves an intellectual loophole in her argument by suggesting that the problem lies not in women's use of beauty products, but rather in the pressures society places on women to be beautiful (290). She does not explain how women are to separate these two.


The "beauty dilemma" -- whether or not a women should buy and use fashion and beauty products -- is not a trivial issue. Not only does the issue of sexual objectification remain, but pressures on women to become more "beautiful" have led many to courses of actions that can create health problems. Reactions to implants and body piercing, eating disorders, chemical reactions to cosmetics, the dangers involved in cosmetic surgeries, the overuse of diet pills, and the increased likelihood of cancer due to tanning are all well-documented side-effects of the quest for commercialized beauty.

For those who study the mass media, the issue of feminine beauty represents a potent, yet largely unstudied force. Despite the gains of the women's movement, the notion of a particular consumerist standard of feminine beauty -- one that can only be achieved through the use of advertised products -- permeates most aspects of popular culture. From who will star in next seasons' sit-coms to what products are advertised in this month's Glamour, these images are a constant part of our lives. Further study and analysis are required to make both men and women aware of the forces at play.


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