Taking it as read that some men feel it is their right and duty to judge and comment on women’s appearance and rate them on physical characteristics to determine their sexual desirability, why is it that women compete with each other on appearance? Because for centuries, women had no recourse other than to find and catch men to marry them so they could be provided with the basics for survival and, if they were lucky, some luxuries as well. For a very large chunk of human history, women were perceived and treated as commodities – used to ensure inheritance passed down the family line by producing the required male heir; used to provide domestic labour, to produce the next generation and feed the menfolk. For a very long time, women (in most societies) could not own property, earn their own income, or even buy the necessities of life; they were almost totally reliant on men to provide the means for them to live.
Life tended to be difficult and short for women who remained unmarried, unless they were members of the upper classes for whom the rules were frequently bent. For other women, remaining unmarried usually meant a life of servitude – either as a servant, nanny, nurserymaid or governess to an upper class household, or to a relative’s family – caring for young children, frail elderly and invalids, and providing other domestic labour. Despite all this free labour, women in these circumstances were generally considered to be burdens on their families and could be treated very badly. If an unmarried woman was unfortunate enough to have no relatives to take her in, life was very bleak indeed.
Unmarried women were also targets of suspicion as witches and the bringers of disaster – crop failings and livestock deaths were frequently blamed on the nearest unmarried woman who would often suffer awful consequences. Single women were also not recognised in private law until well into the 20th Century as women’s legal rights were considered to be inextricably bound to their husbands’ (Dubler, A. 2003, Theoretical Inquiries in Law, 4.2).
Marriage became essential to their survival, so women became adept at working the marriage market. And the primary attribute a woman needed to get the man she wanted was her appearance – big breasts, big hips, a nice face, good hair, good teeth…. much like a cattle market 🙂. A father who could give the intended groom some money or possessions to make up for the fact he was getting this woman for life was an added advantage. Then she needed some kind of ‘purity certificate’ – men were quite happy to badger unmarried women into having sex with them, but they only wanted to marry virgins. So women also became very adept at fending off men’s advances, and the poor unfortunates who were unsuccessful faced lives of penury and misery, being disowned by their families and relegated to the poor house or prostitution.
Most women – understandably – wanted to get out of the circumstances they grew up in by finding and marrying men who could provide a nicer life. In order to do that, they needed to ramp up the competition with other women who were after the same thing. So women paid careful attention to their appearance, and learned to be pleasing to men so they could maximise their chances of getting married and avoiding the fate of the typical ‘spinster’ (a term coined to describe unmarried women who spun thread or wool for a living).
Imposing beauty ideals on women to improve their chances of getting married while limiting their abilities to lead full, independent and respected lives without being married set the scene for women to compete with each other on appearance. It made men’s approval the goal of so many women’s endeavours, and set men up to believe they had the right to be judge and jury on a woman’s appearance. All of this led to the pervasive male sense of entitlement to women’s time, attention, and bodies which has become so embedded in our social fabric. This relatively simple dynamic is a root cause of domestic violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault in all its forms.
If men over the centuries had been smart enough to realise what a great deal they were getting, instead of behaving as if being married to a woman was a terrible burden they had to bear; if they had placed greater value on the person and the partnership rather than on outward trappings of beauty; and if men en masse had respected, appreciated and valued the incredible contribution women made to their wellbeing, then we would probably never have needed suffragism or feminism. We would have had a world in which women’s lives and work were equally valued alongside men’s.