Vanessa Fisher - Beauty and Feminism
February 11, 2009 17:25

Written by Corey W. deVos

Vanessa Fisher, a long-time student of Integral theory and contributor to the Fall 2008 edition of the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, speaks with Ken about the tenuous relationship that often exists between feminist thinkers and modern conceptions of beauty.

Sex in All Four Quadrants

Taking its roots in the European Enlightenment, and coming to fruition as a cultural and political force during the postmodern revolution of the mid 20th-century, feminism is certainly one of humanity's crowning achievements. Early forms of feminism were faced with the difficult task of trying to define men and women's roles in relation to each other, without access to an accurate model of human development and experience.  As a result, feminist thought quickly branched out into many different schools of feminism—liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, libertarian feminism, ecofeminism, post-structural feminism, compatiblist feminism, etc.  Each of these schools possesses its own set of underlying assumptions and overarching conclusions, while invariably leaving some crucial aspect of the human condition by the wayside. 

Of course, none of these schools can be faulted for producing these incomplete maps of reality—quite the contrary, it is only because of the enormous body of data, research, and insight generated by these diverse vectors of inquiry that we can begin to pull the very best of these feminist schools together into a comprehensive view of sex, gender, and sexuality.

Here Ken offers a brief overview of precisely this sort of Integral feminism, taking into account the four major dimensions of human experience—personal, cultural, biological, and sociological—represented more fully in the graphic at the bottom of this page.  He and Vanessa discuss how almost all preceding schools of feminism tend to focus exclusively upon only one or two of these dimensions, while dismissing data and perspectives from other dimensions of human experience, or else attempting to reduce these views according to their own partial presuppositions.

Taken one at a time, these conflicting schools of feminist thought seem to paint a chaotic and painfully fragmented mosaic of human sexuality—not too far off the mark, some might say.  But when taken together, we begin to recognize our own intrinsic and mutual wholeness, discover new channels of intimacy that carve deep into our hearts; and witness entire worlds being drenched in ubiquitous beauty.


The Beauty Myth

In 1991, feminist thinker Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth, a book that has been regarded by some as a sort of "last word" on beauty from the perspective of feminist thought.  Subtitled How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, Wolf argues that women are often oppressed by Western standards of beauty, which she believes to be a sort of last line of defense by the male-instituted patriarchy to dominate the spirit, psyche, and sexuality of females everywhere:

“Beauty is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.” -Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth was a highly influential book within feminist circles, and has made significant contributions to the discussion of female beauty—particularly its culturally-constructed nature, its dependence upon male standards of beauty, and its impact upon just about every sphere of daily life.  However, we might disagree with some of her larger conclusions, many of which are the result of some important dimension of sex, gender, and sexuality being collapsed, confused, or left out of the picture entirely.  For example, though there is certainly a very strong culturally-constructed piece to our conceptions of beauty, it is by no means the sole factor, as Wolf seems to maintain—there are at least three other broad components to our definitions of beauty, including biology, developmental psychology, and techno-economic systems; and leaving any of these out is to dishonor the full complexity of male and female relations. 

Considering that one of the central motives of feminist thought is to help women become more comfortable with their own bodies, these sorts of partial definitions of beauty have instead created more tension between women and their relationship with their physical form.  To many feminist thinkers, any participation with today's notions of physical beauty is seen as self-centered, shallow, and superficial—that is, putting on lipstick is just another form of surrender, admitting guilt-ridden subservience to a patriarchy that only seeks to dominate and control women through her sexuality.  While this may sound like a fairly extreme caricature of feminism—and in many ways it is—it nonetheless remains an active sentiment within ongoing discussions of feminism and beauty, much to the frustration of women and men alike.


Of Pigs and Sheep

This brings us to one of the most universal and fundamental misconceptions in virtually all of feminist thought, what we might call "the myth of oppression."  As Ken points out, for one group of people to be truly oppressed, chances are that at least one of three possibilities is true: they are either dumber, weaker, or fewer in numbers than their oppressors.  It is doubtful that we could find any sane person, male or female, who would suggest that women have ever fallen into any of these categories—and yet the myth of oppression lives on, a grim parody of the real oppression that men and women have both experienced throughout our shared history.

It is crucial to emphasize the following: though we may find it necessary to reframe our popular conceptions of male/female oppression, debunking the myth of women as perennial victim, at no point are we diminishing the very real experiences of oppression women encounter every day, all over the world.  At every moment women are being demoralized.  Her identity is being commodified, packaged, and sold for a quick profit.  Her sexuality is either being forced upon her or ripped away, her soul ravaged by senseless acts of physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse.  There is no denying that oppression exists in this world, that countless instances of exploitation and inequity persist to this very day, and that women are too often the victims of this oppression. It is enough to obliterate any man's heart, if he were to open himself to the full severity of women's suffering—if only for a moment.  And it is clear that men everywhere need to recognize these genuine instances of violence, find a way to collectively "man up" and take more ownership and responsibility for his gender’s behaviors, and begin to consciously redefine the male identity as women have been doing for generations. 

But when trying to identify the source of this oppression, we must be careful not to allow ourselves to get swept away by the difficult emotions surrounding male/female oppression, or succumb to the glib oversimplifications presented by so many feminist thinkers: namely, the popular narrative that human history is one giant plot concocted by men to keep women under his thumb.  Make no mistake, men and women are both oppressed, by ourselves, by each other, and by the forces of history.  The dreaded patriarchy and all it is associated with—the sharp divisions between labor, gender roles, sexuality, temperament, etc.—men and women have created this mess together, out of sheer necessity of human survival, and both suffer under its weight.  Thus, a comprehensive approach to feminism would not frame the issue as a woman's struggle to escape her historical oppression by men, but as both men and women together struggling to escape the oppression of history itself.


Additional Notes:

Here is a more thorough examination of sex, gender, and sexuality, seen through Ken Wilber's Four Quadrant model, revealing the four broad dimensions of human experience that must be taken into account if we hope to take a more comprehensive approach to male/female relations, now and throughout history.




Excerpt from Beauty and the Expansion of Women’s Identity

by Vanessa Fisher
The Journal of Integral Theory and Practice


A Personal Search for Beauty

In eleventh century China, there lived a Taoist woman named Sun Pu-erh who sought the path of enlightenment.  Sun Pu-erh’s dedication to truth caused her to search out one of the great enlightened masters of her time in hopes that he would take her as his student. The enlightened master soon came to recognize the passion and perseverance in Sun Pu-erh and told her that if she truly wished to attain immortality she would need to travel to Loyang, where she could cultivate the Tao.  But when Sun Pu-erh revealed her face to her master he was taken aback by her beauty and told her that her beauty would remain an obstacle to her enlightenment. He denied permission for Sun Pu-erh to travel to Loyang for he believed she would be the constant target of men wishing to overpower and take advantage of her.

Unwilling to let her appearance be an obstacle to her path, Sun Pu-erh immediately went home to her kitchen and heated a wok full of cooking oil. When the oil began to boil, Sun Pu-erh picked up the wok, closed her eyes, and poured the oil over her face.  With scars etched across her skin, Sun Pu-erh returned to her master, who, amazed by her sacrifice, gave her permission to travel to Loyang.    

When I came across this story and its powerful imagery, I remember it deeply resonating with my own struggle with beauty. As a young woman dedicated to the search for my Divine Identity, I had always considered my struggle with beauty to be the most superficial concern and ultimately the greatest obstacle on my spiritual path. Yet the more I attempted to deny my deepest yearning for beauty, the more beauty came to haunt me. I often had visions of blinding myself, a similar sacrifice to that of Sun Pu-erh, brought on by my own sense of desperation. Perhaps I felt that it was only in such a dramatic renunciation that I could finally unhook the pain of this unwanted desire. But deep within, I continued to wonder whether such an act would truly offer me the release that I was searching for.

It would take me many years before I realized that denying beauty only repressed it to the unconscious realms of my own shadow, along with the all the desires of my body and sexuality. And eventually my shadow would find its way back into consciousness, painfully forcing me to see that it was in my very yearning for beauty that I would discover my unique channel to the Divine.

Feminism and the Beauty Question

Sifting through the feminist literature, I realized that my confusion surrounding beauty was also a collective struggle and a topic that has, in many ways, been left largely unreconciled for women. Looking back, we see the seeds of feminism being sown within the newly emerging Orange/modern worldview and its worldcentric awareness, which began to take root in the West during the late nineteenth century. For the first time, many women had growing access to domains that had previously been exclusive to men (e.g., jobs and intellectual inquiry). During this era, the majority of feminists agreed that in order to support their advancement and be seen as equal valued subjects to men, there was a need to reject societal ideals of beauty and the passive objectification of the female body. It was through this rejection of beauty that women felt they could redirect their energy and attention toward exploring the untapped potentials of their own minds. Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the earliest feminists to articulate the imprisonment of women in their own bodies:

Taught from their infancy that beauty is a woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round in its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison…. If women do not resign the arbitrary power of beauty—they will prove that they have less mind than men.

The challenge for women became one of stepping out of their natural tendency toward subservience to male desire, which meant detaching from the power they had gained from their dependence on their bodies and physical beauty, so that they might build the important foundation for asserting their minds. 

As feminism and feminist values grew in strength during the 1950s and 1960s, modernism was slowly giving way to postmodernism and awareness of the influence of culture (LL quadrant) on shaping and constructing our reality was at the cutting edge of intellectual inquiry. Within this new paradigm, feminists became increasingly aware of how much socio-cultural systems (LL and LR) had and continued to shape women’s understanding of their own beauty. In the West, this understanding brought with it intensified feelings of imprisonment and resentment toward the limits and dictates of what came to be viewed as a massively oppressive socio-cultural system (the patriarchy). Within the context of this growing awareness, beauty became increasingly problematic for the self-proclaimed feminist.

With the publication of books such as Naomi Wolff’s The Beauty Myth in the early 1990s, beauty soon became regarded as a currency system (LR) built upon the values and discourses of the patriarchy (LL), which aimed to keep women separate from one another and subservient to male desire. The “beauty myth” was exposed and identified by many feminists as a creation of their socio-cultural surroundings with which they felt they had no part in defining for themselves. Some came to regard beauty as a male problem, arguing that since men had the most control over the public sphere, then it was men alone who had constructed and controlled this elaborate deception called “beauty.” Thus feminists felt that the only proper response was to reject this construction for the purpose of freeing women’s autonomy.

Within this important postmodern awakening to the influence of the LL and LR quadrants in shaping our understanding of beauty, there was also an unfortunate turn toward reductionism. Beauty was deconstructed and reduced to a purely socio-cultural phenomenon (thus stripping the important influence of the UL and UR quadrants) and also flattened into the limits of one level of interpretation, namely the Green/postmodern worldview. To reiterate this point: postmodernism, with all its gifts, painfully curtailed beauty’s expansive expression by not only collapsing the UL and UR quadrants into the LL and LR, but also by simultaneously collapsing all levels of aesthetic development into a flatland view with its strictly Green interpretation (a crucial point that I will return to later).

Within this postmodern context, any woman who continued to enjoy exhibiting her beauty was easily regarded as a pawn in the patriarchal system, for there was no room in the Green worldview for a woman to assert independence in her choice to express beauty nor was there an interpretive structure available that could see important qualifying distinctions (e.g., that there are many levels of interpretation and motivation that exist for expressing beauty). It was in this postmodern deconstruction that all beauty soon came to be regarded as morally suspect, and it is here where the evolving feminist consciousness still largely finds itself today.

Amidst the haze clouds arising from the deconstructive dust of our postmodern era, there are a small number of feminists returning to the beauty question and struggling to address the issue of beauty as not merely a male or socio-cultural construction but also a deeply rooted female yearning (e.g., Wendy Steiner, Nancy Etcoff, Luce Irigaray, and Ellen Zetzel Lambert). These feminists are attempting to speak to the desire for beauty that women seem to naturally harbor and are working to try to sort out what beauty might mean for us as women in today’s world. Most of these women are doing so largely through the UL quadrant (namely zone #1) by attempting to bring back the important reality of the subject; a subject that is not merely a construction of cultural networks but also an independent self with an inherent desire for beauty. Some are even attempting to overcome this LL/LR reductionism by utilizing the cognitive sciences, as well as research in evolutionary biology, to help reshape our understanding of beauty (mainly through UR methodologies). But there have been no feminists, at least that I can find, who are addressing the issue of beauty in relation to interior aesthetic stage development (zone-#2 methodologies) and thus in my opinion the richest domain, namely the developmental aspect of beauty’s unfolding, is still being largely left in the dark (again, a topic I will return to later).

Women’s seeming lack of investigation into the issue of beauty could be seen as a residual side effect of the postmodern deconstruction that has often left us feeling uncomfortable to engage discussions about beauty that we have convinced ourselves are vain, self-indulgent, and ultimately unimportant. Ellen Zetzel Lambert, a feminist active throughout the 1960s who is only now returning to recognize the deeper issue of beauty in her book, The Face of Love: Feminism and the Beauty Question, admits that it is an uncomfortable topic for her to speak about. She states, “As a committed feminist, I’ve felt embarrassed that the beauty question should still matter to me.”

There seems to be a common acknowledgement among the few feminists returning to the beauty question that beauty has oddly become one of the greatest taboos in feminist discourse. These feminists see beauty as a topic that needs to come to the forefront in the 21st century in order to address what Lambert describes as the divided feeling of today’s young women, who are highly informed of the importance of their minds over their physical appearance and thus have become all the more ashamed of their concern for their appearance. This split and shame is due to women seeing their bodies as separate from their “real” identity, thus adding to the sense of confusion and embarrassment that “liberated” young women are feeling about the beauty question

There is a distinct voice emerging from these few feminists that speaks to the need to reopen the forum and invite fresh perspectives on beauty. As Nancy Etcoff reiterates, “Beauty is not going anywhere. The idea that beauty is unimportant or a cultural construct is the real beauty myth. We have to understand beauty, or we will always be enslaved by it.” Redefining beauty from an Integral standpoint—one that situates beauty in an AQAL matrix of quadrants, levels, lines, states, and types—can help feminism disentangle from its exclusive attachment to postmodernism and bring light and fresh air to an often painful and delicate subject for the emerging feminist to ponder.


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