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A Defining Moment of Crisis, Essay Example

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Words: 1398

Essay

Sometimes a social crisis that is as profound as poverty and as deadly as a disease can masquerade as normalcy. This kind of social crisis is often the most difficult to confront let alone solve given that it lurks just beneath the surface of the everyday world. Such is the case with women’s self-esteem and the way that sexual objectification and body-image are actualized in American society. The photograph that will be discussed in this paper is called “Disgust in the Mirror” and it is emblematic of the way in which women are socialized to embody the conflicting behaviors of self-beautification and self-denial. The combination of these two behaviors leads many women to self-disgust and to a lowering of self-esteem. The photograph speaks to this issue in a way that Masur would consider a reverberation of the central crisis in society.

The photograph shows a young women who is regarding her image in a hand-mirror. The hand-mirror carries a good many implications of social symbolism not the least of which is that it is simultaneously a symbol of vanity and self-reflection. This combination of symbolic reverberations is at the heart of the photo’s theme and speaks directly to the social crisis in question. The girl in the photo is wearing makeup which indicates that is trying to fulfill social expectations of beauty. However, her face shows a disgusted expression as if she hates the image she sees in the hand-mirror. The message that is expressed by the photograph is that the young woman wants to be desirable, attractive, and socially accepted, but that in order to do so she must become something that she dislikes and that makes her feel disgusted.

In her article “Tour of Beauty: A Hundred Years in the Arms Race to Acquire Newer, Better Weapons of Cosmetic Enhancement.” (2004) Christina Larson remarks that women throughout America’s history have endured radical and often painful methods of beautification. These methods are often nothing less than a form of self-disfigurement. Larson writes that in  dedicating themselves to an image of sexual attractiveness “American women have variously plumped breasts with toilet-plunger-like suction devices (1890s), strapped themselves into fat-roller machines to press away the pounds (1910s), endured ‘electrode’ shock treatment to zap away wrinkles (1920s)” (Larson). She also describes the more recent “treatments” of diet-pills, lotions, and modern cosmetic surgery as examples of the ways women have actively attacked their bodies in an effort to embody social ideals of beauty.

The girl in the “Disgust in the Mirror” photo is a symbol for this process of self-mutilation that takes place under the guise of self-beautification. The layers of makeup that are worn by the girl in the photo serve to conceal, rather than express, her true looks and personality. Women are taught by society to sacrifice their bodies to an ideal of sexual attractiveness and in doing so are also forced to sacrifice their inner-nature in order to go along with the physical ideal. That said, the real central question of this crisis which impacts all women in American society is: why? For what purpose are women made to feel that their bodies should be camouflaged and, if necessary, mutilated in order to embody a certain cultural idea of beauty?

The answers to these questions can be thought of as being implied by the photograph but yet “invisible” in that they are social expectations rather than physical objects. Part of the answer lies, of course, in the consumer culture of America that benefits from lowering women’s self-esteem so that they will feel a need to buy cosmetics and other beauty-enhancement products. As Larson points out part of the crisis evolved from, “the rise of consumer culture that put luxury items within the grasp of every woman” (Larson). However, the idea of “luxury items” and the consumer culture are only part of the underlying aspects of the crisis. Another aspect, and a far more profound one,is the sexual objectification, by men, of women’s bodies and women’s reproduction. This aspect of the crisis must be considered as the primary reason that women are socialized to be self-conscious about their appearance and driven to extreme measures in order to try to embody a social conception of beauty.

This is also the reason that the photograph shows the women in a small, very confined space. The space that is depicted in the photograph is meant to express the emptiness of the cultural ideal of beauty in America as well as the way in which this ideal “imprisons” women in a captive space. The photograph is meant to impact the viewer with a sense or urgency and alarm and to show the true consequences of certain expectations that women are forced to live by in American society.  These expectations have a strong connection to sex and — primarily — gender-specific categorizations of how sexuality should be culturally perceived.

At the heart of the crisis that is depicted in the photograph is the reality of gender prejudice and sexual morality as practiced in American culture.  As Mandy VanDeven points out in her article “JUST SAY Yes” (2009), “We still live in a patriarchal world [we] are socialized to conform to particular gender roles […] that define women as passive […] and men as aggressive conquistadors” (Van Deven). This dynamic, obviously, feeds into the objectification of women’s bodies as shown in the photograph and also into the sense of self-disgust that is shown on the woman’s face.

Stated simply: the woman in the photograph represents an image desired by men that creates the appearance of a woman as a passive sexual object. In the male conception of sexuality, women are viewed as “prey” for male sexual conquest. The disgust that is shown on the woman’s face is because she understands that in conforming to a social standard of sexuality perpetuated by men for men, she has made herself into a victim. Because she is a human-being and not an object she is naturally disgusted by the result of her efforts to embody the role of sexual victim. However, because she is human adn a member of society, she naturally desires to be loved and wanted by her fellow human-beings. This is the reason that the photograph is profound and why it reverberates to larger social issues.

The sexual objectification of women by men in American society leads to a great many negative consequences such as rape, spousal abuse, and domestic battery. It also leads to self-victimization behaviors such as eating disorders, body-mutilation, social phobias, and low self-esteem for millions of women in American society.  In terms of the relation of sexual objectification to a crime such as rape, the history of American culture is  obviously biased toward the idea of male ownership and entitlement.     Linda LeMoncheck reminds us in her book Loose Women, Lecherous Men: A Feminist Philosophy of Sex (1997) that “rape was originally conceived as a violation of a man’s right to his daughter’s or wife’s body.” (LeMoncheck 167). So, the history of women’s bodies being objectified by men is both long and tragic in American history. This is the real outcome of the crisis that is symbolized in the photograph: sexual violence and crimes against women’s bodies. Additionally, women in being sexually objectified by men often lean into dangerous promiscuity in order to feel accepted in society. The consequences of these actions can be emotional and physical as well as psychological.

The women in the photograph can be looked at as occupying a physical space and social position that is a logical outgrowth of the misogynistic culture in which she lives. This culture, which institutionalizes the victimization of women rests on the core principle that men are dedicated to controlling women’s sexuality. The photograph can be thought of as simultaneously  sounding an alarm about this crisis in society adn also nakedly expressing the consequences of that crisis. That the women in the photograph is disgusted by the image she has worked so hard to embody is the extension of the photo graph’s most profound theme: that the superficialities of beauty hides beneath them, the tragic mutilation of women’s bodies and self-esteem.

Works Cited

Larson, Christina. “Tour of Beauty: A Hundred Years in the Arms Race to Acquire Newer, Better Weapons of Cosmetic Enhancement.” The Washington Monthly Nov. 2004: 50+.

LeMoncheck, Linda. Loose Women, Lecherous Men: A Feminist Philosophy of Sex. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Van Deven, Mandy. “JUST SAY Yes.” Herizons Spring 2009: 29+.

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