Elevate Difference

Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism

Madonna was once “willfully out of step with the times.” When she started her career in the early ‘80s, her body was fleshy and voluptuous. In a word: natural. She was a “model of resistance,” wrote Susan Bordo in her landmark book, Unbearable Weight. But succumbing to mainstream pressure, she “normalized” her body shortly after marrying Sean Penn in 1987, becoming lean and muscular.

Madonna was then in her mid-twenties. Now, at forty-eight years old, she can still easily stir insecurity in women her own age, not to mention women in their twenties. “Look at her ass,” a friend remarked recently while we were watching her latest “Hung Up” video. Bordo might wonder whether or not Madonna had work done.

Linda M. Scott, however, would not. Judging by her book, Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism, Scott would not care whether Madonna’s alleged plastic surgery raised the bar for average women who measure themselves against such an icon. She would just want to indulge in Madonna’s triumphs – her rise to stardom, her ability to stay on top, her talent to reinvent her look, her overall fabulousness. “Isn’t she pretty and stylish,” she might ask instead. It is a fun idea, but ultimately not that satisfying.

In Fresh Lipstick, Scott argues that the anti-beauty ideology of ‘second wave’ feminists, advanced by women such as Bordo, Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi, is self-serving and elitist. Unwittingly reversing the argument that mainstream imagery promotes normative beauty standards, Scott says this feminist bias is “a compulsion to enforce homogeneity.” But an oppressed group trying to dominate, she recognizes to her credit, is indeed a counterintuitive argument.

As long as we ignore the fact that all women belong also to other groups – different classes, races, religions – we can turn a blind eye to the reality that some women have advantages over others and have, in the past, acted alongside the men of their own group to ensure the continuation of their privileges. By asserting that women must all dress the same way – conform to the same “ideal” – we make a space where we can overlook their unequal access to the goods used in grooming and dress, as well as the ethnic differences that cause each group to view particular items or colors as acceptable, beautiful, or immoral.

Comprised of a slew of anecdotal evidence demonstrating this thesis, Fresh Lipstick starts with Susan B. Anthony rebuffing the fashionable Elizabeth Oakes Smith at the 1852 Women’s Convention. As another example, she claims the legacy of Victoria Woodhull is omitted from contemporary feminist history because “Woodhull’s life story was a Whig-Republican’s nightmare.” And she celebrates the Gibson Girl – a cartoon published in Life magazine – as did Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for her beauty, independence, and low esteem of “Puritan moralists.” According to Scott, feminists take a dim view of the Gibson Girl as an icon, and as such, Scott rhetorically asks: “is it possible that Charlotte Perkins Gilman, one of the most brilliant and unorthodox minds feminism has ever produced, was simply so enthralled by the power of this mass image that she couldn’t see what it was really doing?”

Despite Scott’s posture of arguing from the fringe reacting to feminists – whom she portrays as being full-fledged members of the mainstream (and that some feminists may be is beside the point) – she actually argues from the center. She calls attention to the fact that fewer than thirty percent of Americans have finished college, and claims that just because Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex sell at college bookstores due to the proliferation of Women’s Studies Departments, they’re part of the establishment. Scott writes as though the beauty and fashion industries are suffering because of this so-called anti-beauty ideology, when in fact they’re flourishing. This is an oddity of the text that might have something to do with her status as an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois, which may keep her a little out of touch.

Deliberately contrasting the well-educated pedigrees of Friedan and Beauvoir, Scott tells the up-by-the-bootstraps tale of Helen Gurley Brown. Brown couldn’t go to college because she had to work to support her mother and sister, and worked for seventeen years as a secretary. Being given the opportunity to write an ad opened a door into a career as a successful copywriter. Shortly thereafter, at thirty-seven-years old, Brown married a famous film producer who encouraged her to write a book about being a single working woman. Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl was a bestseller, and within two years it went into paperback and was optioned as a film. Brown then went on to become the editor of Cosmopolitan, garnering praise for turning it around.

Scott faults Brown’s detractors as being elitist and classist because of the scathing reviews Sex and the Single Girl received in the press. “Even those who disagreed with the Beauvoir and Friedan books treated them respectfully,” writes Scott. However, she also calls attention to its “light style” and “simple vocabulary,” and to the fact that Brown openly encouraged single working women to have affairs with married men. Scott does not argue that Brown flouted marriage as a patriarchal institution, but rather makes the false comparison that she was transgressing taboos analogous to “an act against the prevailing kinship system of dressing like a butch lesbian.” She doesn’t read Brown’s survivalist instincts and exhortations to women to “do your own work… don’t live off anybody else” alongside her ruthless pursuit of married men as a response to a cultural climate that produced images of sex and free-love for men as flight from the stark reality of breadwinning.[1]

Scott’s biggest gripe is the condescension and arrogance attributed, sometimes accurately, to some major ‘second wave’ thinkers toward working-class women. For example, she objects to the portrayal of some women as submissively internalizing ideals presented in the media because, she argues, women read more widely than men. But reading more mainstream media doesn’t mean you automatically become more discerning, in fact, it may merely engender facility with these images and messages without distance. [2]

Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women chronicles the beauty industry’s destructive presence in women’s lives. Anti-wrinkle treatments were carcinogenic, acid-face peels burned women’s faces, silicone injections left painful deformities, and liposuction led to infections and even death. In spite of this glaring reality, the Economist reported in 2003 that the beauty business – “encompassing make-up, skin and hair care, fragrances, cosmetic surgery, health-clubs and diet pills” – is a $160 billion-dollar-a-year global industry which is based, obviously, on female insecurity.

Faludi also cited a study by Wells Rich Greene on women’s fashion-shopping habits in the early 1980s, which found that the more confident and independent a woman became, the less she cared about her clothes. The fashion industry discovered it needed to prey on the young and the unhappy. That is the great thing about beauty – its redemptive quality. In fact, it is probably not a coincidence that so many people are diagnosed with depression in this country while the beauty industry thrives. Grooming oneself, as a ritual, fosters joy.

Arguing as a feminist at odds with overarching feminist ideas is a lonely pursuit. Scott’s book is exhaustively researched, and her dramatizations of the lesser-prominent characters in the ongoing tale of feminism’s history are entertaining. Her objection to the unspoken classism among some of the most influential feminist leaders is admirable, but she has no real problem with hierarchies. Finally, her bold claim to take on Faludi and Bordo, among others, ultimately falls flat. It is a shame that it comes back to the lack of seriousness that she talks about throughout her book: that feminists inevitably deem fashionistas as frivolous. But ignoring eating disorders is an egregious mistake. Charting dress and the ‘second wave’ without addressing this does, unfortunately, make one seem shallow. Scott seems to write from an idyll where feminism has done its work and can wash its hands and move on. But from where other writers sit, Madonna has an enviable ass, the gendered wage gap is lower than the publicized seventy-eight percent, mothers are discriminated against as a group, and the fashion and beauty industries are doing just fine thank you.

Written by: Jeanine Plant, December 15th 2006