Fashion & Cosmetics

Corsets, bustles, push-up-bras, control-top pantyhose: each designed to discipline and “perfect” the female body. Of course, clothing fashions change along with changing standards of female beauty. While corsets and bustles emphasized impossibly small waists, broad hips and large posteriors, today’s fashions often emphasize large breasts and flat, toned mid-sections. But what does fashion have to do with the way we feel about our bodies? What can a critical analysis of fashion tell us?

Fashion trends can tell us about gender relations in a given society at a particular time.

For instance, women’s fashions shifted from the restrictive full-length skirts and tight bodices of the 19th century to the shorter split-skirts advocated by women’s rights campaigners at the turn of the century to the skin-baring “flapper” dresses of the 1920s. We can see that as some of the social, economic and legal restrictions on women began to ease, women’s fashions became less restrictive. It is worth considering, however, whether at some point more revealing and more form-fitting fashions for women become almost as oppressive to women as the corsets and bustles of earlier eras.

Fashion and fashion advertising can shape the way we feel about our bodies.

When fashions are designed to suit the tall, thin frames of supermodels, it is unlikely that the majority of women will be able to live up to the ideals they see on the catwalks and in the pages of fashion magazines. Some studies have even found that women and girls who are more frequent readers of fashion magazines have poorer body image (Harrison & Cantor 1997). With this growing awareness of the ways the fashion industry contributes to the lowered self-esteem of girls and women, in 2006 the organizers of the Madrid fashion week banned overly thin models from participating. While spokespeople for the event said that they simply wanted to avoid promoting the unhealthy, anorexic or “heroine chic” look, representatives of top modeling agencies in America expressed outrage over the move, which would exclude many of their top earners from the event. There is hope, however: organizers of similar events in Italy are said to be considering such bans.   

We spend more time worrying about fashion than about more significant political, social and even moral and emotional issues.

It is not a coincidence that in America an emphasis on female thinness developed in the 1920s, just as women won the right to vote and started to make their way into previously forbidden territory—like university classrooms, professions and elective office. Perhaps because many in the culture felt threatened by women’s new freedoms, new standards of bodily beauty developed, standards which encouraged women to spend more time on their wardrobes, makeup and body shape and less on education, career and political activism. 

Likewise, the cosmetics industry promotes impossible standards of flawless beauty while suggesting that natural features such as “fine lines and wrinkles,” freckles and even pores are unsightly. This fuels self-doubt and self-loathing among consumers, making us more willing spend our hard-earned cash on products to hide our countless “flaws.”

As Naomi Wolf points out, we spend $20 billion dollars a year on cosmetics (1990: 113). That’s enough to pay for 

  • 2,000 women’s health clinics;
  • 33,000 battered women’s shelters;
  • 400,000 four-year university scholarships;
  • 200,000 vans for safe nighttime transport;
  • 1 million highly paid child care workers; or
  • 1 million home health aids for the elderly.

In other words, instead of buying the latest powders and potions in hopes of attaining airbrushed perfection, we could be improving the health, safety, education, career opportunities and security of women across the nation.

Fashion, cosmetics and men

Since the beginning of modern advertising, the fashion, cosmetics, plastic surgery and weight loss industries have primarily targeted women. In recent years, however, these industries have set their sights on men as well. Many cosmetics companies now carry men’s lines consisting mainly of skin and hair care products but also “fragrances” and assorted “grooming aids.” (Of course, they can’t call these things perfume and makeup!) At the same time, men’s fashions are more aggressively marketed with images of muscular male models with chiseled abs, often in sexually suggestive poses.

Is the selling of unrealistic bodily standards for men in some ways a positive development for women? Does it suggest that women and men are finally equal? Jean Kilbourne in Killing Us Softly 3 says “No.” This is not a positive development for either men or women. Rather, we can see this as an attempt by the Beauty Industries to boost profits by instilling insecurities in men as well. But Kilbourne notes that the beauty industries may not be as harmful to men as they are to women, because our society tends to judge men more on their achievements than on their appearance.