I appreciate Louise Manning’s criticism in last week’s Militant of my article “Sagging Cosmetic Lines Try a Face Lift.” She raises some interesting and important questions that go beyond what was intended in my report in the July 26 issue of the declining cosmetics sales and what the hucksters plan to do about it.
On one point, however, I must disagree with her. I do not believe that “beauty is predominantly monopolized by the wealthy” and that the “wealthy are beautiful because the workers are wretched.”
It appears to me that you might just as well say that “morality is predominantly monopolized by the wealthy,” and that the “wealthy are moral because the workers are immoral.”
If you were to try to prove that the wealthy are beautiful by citing examples, certain difficulties would at once arise. Among the bourgeoisie, what period would you choose? The period of their rise, when the closefisted miser and the puritanical house economist were the models? Or the period of imperialist expansion, when the pigeon-breasted officer strutting his war ribbons and medals is the model? Or a period of ostentatious wealth when the stockholder lounging on a yacht deck is the model? Clearly, it is difficult to find absolute beauty within bourgeois society. The ideal seems to change.
Seeking a firmer standard, we might go beyond the limits of capitalist society and compare its concepts of beauty with that of other societies. For example, the postwar American bourgeois ideal of the beautiful bosom — the upholstered, steel-girdered front (or the flattened chest recently decreed by Christian Dior to replace it) — would make an interesting subject for comparative study with say the Balinese ideal where women prefer their breasts free of clothing.
In the field of cosmetics we might compare the frozen mask of the neurosis-ridden bourgeois clotheshorse with the primitive who beautifies himself by filing his teeth, putting a bone in his nose, saucers in his ear lobes, and who makes his hair alluring with rancid butter. And, really, is the one more beautiful than the other?
Even in feet, it is difficult to find an absolute standard transcending society. The current bourgeois ideal of beauty there — a woman balanced on spiked heels — is perhaps better than the ideal of the rich Chinese mandarin whose wife, out of devotion to beauty, bound her feet. But then how do both compare with the sandal wearers? Or with those who go barefoot?
From a materialist point of view, the norms of beauty like the norms of morals, are functions of society. Although the relation may be remote, they are determined in the final analysis by the ruling class. The norms are far from fixed. And when a revolution comes along, they are often deposed with startling swiftness.
I think that when capitalist society gives way to socialism, and the new generations take stock of what they have inherited, not much in the bourgeois lumber room of morals and beauty will prove very useful.
The new society will at first probably be much more interested in truth, above all the truth about the human mind, its physical under-structure, its endowments, its relation to other minds, its potentialities and how to realize them.
From the study of such patterns in the world brotherhood of enduring peace and well-being will emerge — if I may venture a prediction — completely new and unsuspected fields where the great artists of the future will again consider the problem of beauty on a qualitatively different level.
The emphasis on cosmetics in our miserable, superficial society will then be seen for what it really is, one of the signs of the barbarism of the times. Lovers of beauty in the new society will feel no need, I believe, to decorate lilies.
As to the feeling that Louise Manning expresses of my presenting “women as being a little ridiculous” despite my good intentions, I am somewhat at a loss for an answer. I do not deny that the unconscious can play tricks on us, but I hope that I will be held responsible only for what I was aware of.
I think most of the customs and norms of capitalist society are ridiculous and even vicious, including the customs and norms of wealthy bourgeois women. As for so-called ordinary women, whether housewives or workers, I think they are beautiful, no matter how toil worn or seasoned in experience, for they are the ones who will be in the forefront of the struggle to build a new and better world.
They will be admired in future times the way we admire the hardy, ax-swinging pioneer women of America, for their beauty lies in their character and it is manifest not in the cosmetics they indulge in but the deeds they perform.
New York City
‘Fight to eradicate women’s oppression is integral part of working-class struggle for power’
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