The beauty myth

"Beauty myth" conjures up Wolf's tome on the politicization of the fashion and diet industry.

Monroe Color 88 (photo credit: )
Monroe Color 88
(photo credit: )
For some women, the term "beauty myth" conjures up Naomi Wolf's feminist tome on the politicization of the fashion and diet industry. But for the small group of predominantly women who gathered on May 24 in Mishkenot Sha'ananim for a conference entitled "The Beauty Myth," feminist theory was conspicuously absent. Instead, most of the presenters - artists, academics, writers and filmmakers - were far more interested in discussing the history of the development of what they called "standard Western beauty." Almost all the presenters agreed that such a concept exists and many attempted to uncover mathematical equations that would reveal what makes models and actresses so sought after. Neri Livneh, a popular journalist, presided over a series of sessions exploring the phenomenon of beauty from several angles. Early panels covered the origins of beauty culture as well as its place in art and literature, followed by an in-depth look at the ideology of beauty. The day ended with sessions exploring contemporary beauty standards, including a panel entitled "Black and Beautiful," devoted to the quest to understand the Israeli wish to be blonde. However, throughout the day the connection between marketing strategies and modern standards of beauty was not brought up by any speakers. Neither did any speaker address the role of sexism as a potent force in the diet industry. Instead, Dr. Yael Ranan, an archeologist who spoke in a session entitled "The Birth of Beauty," suggests that women's involvement in their looks can be traced back to ancient times. Discoveries in an Israeli cave suggest that a particular woman fleeing the Romans, knowing her days were numbered, took an ornate mirror with her into hiding. For Ranan, this presents proof that beauty culture was a "universal idea." Dr. Tzvia Litivski, a professor of classical literature, followed with another view of ancient beauty. She explored the dark side of Greco-Roman beauty by looking at the story Helen of Troy. She compares various versions of the myth, and proves that while classical mythology worships beauty, it also sees it as inherently false and ephemeral. "Like 'False is grace and vain is beauty' from 'Eshet Hayil [Woman of Valor],'" called out a woman in the audience, quoting a line from a popular hymn sung in many Jewish homes on Shabbat. Indeed, beauty as a fleeting concept was one theme of a slide presentation by art historian Flavia Levov. She presented a wide array of artistic images from throughout history and challenged the audience to distinguish what divided the masterpieces from the average works. A sense of mystery was crucial, she said, but only when accompanied by a symmetric and mathematically proportionate body type. Postmodern art, while challenging some of our assumptions about who is beautiful, still preserves the basic body proportions, which are in turn based on ideals of fertility, said Levov. Symmetry and fertility were important terms for a later session on the power of beauty as an ideological tool. Strangely, visual images in Israeli literature were explored right before a slide-show about the usage of pictures in Nazi propaganda. Both sessions were meant as an exploration into the power of an image to indoctrinate. While early Israeli poetry and art often celebrated the natural fecundity of the earth and the fleeting youth of the young men who would defend it, Nazi propaganda almost defied the 'Aryan' look: a Western European blonde, tall physique said to embody all things pure and good. Slide after slide showed the Nazi proclivity to portray Jews as small, dark and disfigured, while Western gentiles were photographed as happy, healthy and light-colored. Ironically, the panelists drew no connection between the Nazi claim that "blonder is better" and the contemporary wish by some Jewish women to be blonde. In fact, filmmaker Orna Ben-Dor, who has become quite famous for her television documentary Blonde, dominated a panel on the topic of race and beauty with her statement that the wish to be light-skinned has "an evolutionary significance" which she traced back to ancient times. Ben-Dor, who is of Ashkenazi heritage, told the audience that through research for her documentary she discovered that "being light-skinned is considered preferable no matter where you are from, even if you are Ethiopian," and that she has met Israeli women of Mizrahi origin who experienced "a feeling of pride" upon giving birth to a child with a lighter-hued skin tone. Ben-Dor attributes this fact not to internalized racism but to an inborn desire to look European. Visibly frustrated at such comments, cultural critic Dr. Diana Luzatto attempted to begin a conversation about Israeli media and how images on television reflect and create stereotypes. Using the model of a popular Israeli soap opera, she pinpointed varying Israeli attitudes toward women of color, Russian women, Mizrahi women and women of Ashkenazi heritage. Yet, Ben-Dor and Livneh continuously brought the conversation back to its point of origin - do blondes have more fun? The answer for Ben-Dor was resoundingly positive and applied to blondes-by-choice even more than to natural blondes, she said. "For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be blonde and I didn't know why," said Ben-Dor, who sports visibly dyed blonde locks. "After I discovered that there are all these biological and cultural reasons that women want to be blonde, it rang a bell. I saw myself in that," she explained. "Let's face it, women get power through how they look while men obtain power by what they do," said Ben Dor. A room full of mostly middle-aged brunettes nodded sadly in response.