We came of age at a time when society seemed to be redefining, not only the roles of women, but of itself. We were young when, for the first time in living memory, it was youth who toppled a president and ended a war. When the modern women’s liberation movement began. When Roe v Wade opened the doors for legalized abortion. When both Title IX and the Pill leveled the two major playing fields of life.
Heady times. And, ultimately, confusing and frustrating. Women in the late 1960s may have been marching and tossing their bras into trash cans, but the Miss American Pageant was still going strong, and the modern child beauty pageant began at exactly the same time. Blinded by the dazzle of what was possible for us, we didn’t realize that while society allowed us new freedoms, it didn’t take away all the requirements of the old order.
Clearly, we were not our mother’s generation. But we had not yet achieved a total break from the mentality of the past. We may have gone to college, but most of us married as soon as we graduated. And the overwhelming percentage of us who did graduate, went into teaching, nursing, or social work. We may have been professionals, but we were professionals in the age-old arena that women had always had access to: We were nurturers, but now nurturers with advanced degrees.
The more powerful we became, the more important, it seemed, to be childlike. Twiggy, the first supermodel sensation, hit the pages of fashion magazines in 1966. In her own words, “I never planned to be a model. I thought I was much too thin.” She was 5’7” tall and weighed 91 lbs. And she was catapulted to idol status by women all over Europe and the US. In that moment, our notion of beauty had taken another turn. It was no longer beautiful to be shapely. We had to be waif like. Skirt hems rose and dieting became a popular obsession. The average fashion model weighed eight percent less than the average woman.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, women, for the first time, began to make inroads into male-dominated professions like medicine and the law. In 1975, Helen Reddy’s song “I Am Woman” rose to the top of the charts. The most famous line in the song, “I am woman, hear me roar” became the anthem for many women. Unfortunately, for many others of us, it was our stomachs roaring with hunger. The average fashion model now weighed 23 percent less than the average woman.
As the standard of beauty kept shrinking, the possibilities for cosmetic surgery increased. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, more and more space in fashion and lifestyle magazines like Vogue and Ladies Home Journal was being taken up by articles on plastic surgery. Breast augmentation was the #1 cosmetic surgery procedure. The result was that yet another version of beauty emerged, one that would have been virtually impossible in nature: the waif with large breasts.
Throughout the 1980s, the relentless march of cosmetic surgery possibilities increased and became accessible to more and more people. Liposuction was added to the mix. We could have large breasts and have fat suctioned off our bodies. We could have wrinkles removed and sags lifted. The appearance of youth became a national obsession.
Many of us were too busy raising children and/or working on our careers to notice that, increasingly, it wasn’t enough to be thin. It was becoming even more important to be young. As we passed out of youth into an age that, historically, would have meant kudos for a life well lived and wisdom gained, we were to be hit with a double whammy that our mothers and grandmothers could never have understood. As women, we were required to be attractive. As older women, we are required to be attractive and still look young.
If the current notion of beauty no longer works for us, it’s up to us to make it change so that it does. We get to do this for ourselves, for our daughters and for our granddaughters.
Next up: Redefining Beauty and Aging