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Ideals of femininity, such as the Victorian-era “Angel in the House” and the 1950s domesticity Betty Friedan attacked in “The Feminine Mystique,” tend to arise as a means of constraining women anew after each major step forward.
When my book was published in 1991, I noted that a burgeoning epidemic of eating disorders was engulfing what should have been the feistiest, most confident generation of women ever.
Not for me and not for the women I know and admire.
When I am at a social occasion, the showstoppers are no longer the young beauties in their 20s.
But despite these pressures, a substantial subset of women are simply not buying the hype.
Middle-aged women are supposed to face the loss of their youthful selves with grief and anguish.Today, the notion that beauty ideals are socially constructed, manipulated by advertisers and marketed for profit motives is part of the conventional wisdom, not a fringe argument.Smart advertisers for beauty products court women’s raised confidence, and few use the hectoring, insulting tone of the early ’90s, when anti-age cream manufacturers would refer to wrinkles as “lesions” and aging as a “disease,” and the standard ad image was a barely middle-aged woman looking, stricken, into her mirror, as if finding her first wrinkle was the equivalent of getting word of a terminal illness.Their results demonstrated that about 17 percent of women felt more trapped than ever by the ideals of attractiveness; about 53 percent have good days and bad days.The rest, about 30 percent, are “change agents” who are defining beauty for themselves.
Our only hope to hang on to an increasingly precarious sexuality and sense of self-esteem lay in magical potions and powders, or perhaps in the surgeon’s hands.