One way to tell if someone is feeling under the weather or sick, is by the way they look. From our childhood we learn that our faces and expressions are an indicator of health or illness for both boys and girls. However, something happens in the transition from girl to woman where aesthetic characteristics are required to look good or healthy, which are not required of men.
In my own experience, I started to wear a little makeup in my teenage years. This led to the point that, on a day that I didn’t get made up, I would be asked if I was ill. Over time, I realised that I wasn’t the only woman being judged by these standards. We are asked to apply “natural” makeup but ironically, the way we are seen naturally, is as ill.
Women are increasingly subjected to more and more products advertised as promoting health. Looking at them more closely, we can see that many of them seek to accentuate beauty. Anti-wrinkle creams or slimming teas are classic examples of this.
It is socially accepted that, for women, “health is beauty” while, for men, there is no similar phrase in which their state of health is determined by their aesthetic appearance. To understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to explain that Western thought has been built on a binary system within which men are associated with characteristics such as strong, public and rough, while women are symbolically constructed from the opposite; weak, private and beautiful.
For a long time, the medical discourse on women’s health was constructed through the biological contrast between men’s and women’s bodies. In the 19th century, medical ideas were related to social parameters. Therefore, the notion of strong men and weak women was complemented by the notion that men were the healthy ones, while women were in a permanent state of illness.
“The affirmation that they were controlled by their uterus proposed an emblematic representation of them that not only made it impossible for them to exercise control of their body, their behaviour and their emotions, but also placed them in the position of eternally ill.” 1
Both medical and social discourse defined woman by her uterus and her ability to reproduce. Women have a limited reproductive life and their most fertile years are in their youth. Therefore, if the social value of women was built on their ability to be mothers, their youth was a highly valued attribute. Currently, the idea that a woman can decide to be a mother or not is becoming more accepted but great value is still given to youth, for which a wide variety of “health” products are sold whose sole objective is to promote an image of eternal youth.
From this binary system, the concept of beauty can also be understood as it is associated with the feminine and women, while roughness or coarseness is a masculine attribute.
“Certainly the styles of the female figure have been modified over time and according to each culture, but over a long period we observed the association of beauty with childish features, the absence of hair, wrinkles and other details that denote a strong temperament. ”2
By establishing that beauty is construed through its contrast with the masculine, the implication is that women who have characteristics that may be associated with men such as robustness or hair, must undergo a series of aesthetic treatments to eliminate them and thus be considered feminine .
Studying the history of the concepts of health and beauty allows us to understand why women have adopted a daily makeup routine, why we remove unwanted hair from our bodies or follow demanding diets to remain eternally thin, as if they were requirements for staying healthy, when in reality they are social constructs that have been built throughout history, in which women’s social value lay in their ability to attract a man (beauty) and reproduce (health).
1. Olivia López Sánchez. “The centrality of the uterus and its annexes in the technical representations of the female body in nineteenth-century medicine” in Cage the bodies: nineteenth-century regulations and femininity in Mexico … p. 129.
2. Julia Tuñón, “Introductory essay. Problems and debates around the social and symbolic construction of the body ”in Enjaular los cuerpo: nineteenth-century regulations and femininity in Mexico … p. 29.