Princeton University recently held its third annual Women’s Bodies Festival, entitled “Raising Women’s Voices: Perspectives on Women and the Media.” Being an alumna and a feminist, and having heard that Camille Paglia would be sharing a stage with supermodel Cindy Crawford on the same day that Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, was speaking, I decided to attend.
Naomi Wolf spoke to an ardently receptive audience. Her popular thesis is that society and the media keep the newly empowered American woman at bay by brandishing unrealistic images of female beauty. If, she says, we are kept busy enough agonizing over our faces and bodies in an effort to conform to the images in Vogue, which actually are computer-doctored pictures of half-starved women, we will never find the autonomy, or the self-confidence, to “march on congress” again — or even to lift our heads and notice external injustices.
A far more contentious audience faced the panel on “The Power of Beauty: The Beauty of Power.” Its speakers were Alisa Bellettini, tres mod Senior Producer of MTV’s “House of Style”; Linda Wells, 40-ish but eerily 20-ish-looking editor-in-chief of Allure Magazine, the self-proclaimed “beauty magazine for women with IQ in the triple figures,” Camille Paglia, very angry founder spokesperson of an alternative feminism that extols the sexual power of women and lambasts academic Women’s Studies; and Cindy Crawford, supermodel
In direct (and vehement) opposition to Naomi Wolf, Ms. Paglia spoke of the power of aesthetic representations of women throughout the history of art and culture, calling our media images just a continuance of the age-old glorification of the beauty of the female form. Cindy Crawford emphasized the power she herself draws from her capitalistic manipulations of her own beauty. When women in the audience spoke out, saying that the image she wields with such power makes many women feel pathologically inadequate, leading to crises like anorexia and bulemia, she replied simply, “So what should I do, gain weight?” Ms. Crawford took care to point out that she is in the business of business, not making women feel miserable — and that the bottom line is that women continue to buy the magazines touting her image. Linda Wells said that if her magazine would sell (itself and its advertisers’ products) with pictures of real-looking women, she would stop using models — but that of course it wouldn’t.
Wells and Crawford performed a neat trick when they laid the blame for media images of female beauty on what Wolf calls “the victims’ quarter.” They were, however, pointing out one place of women’s power: our checkbooks. Cindy Crawford turned our attention to the fact that her power does not derive from her beauty; it derives from her ability to make money with her beauty. That ability depends upon us: the consumer. It is our gift to her, and to the media establishment she represents, until we choose to stop giving it.