top of page

The Demise of Big Hair Feminism

The brand of feminism that obsessed over beauty and fashion is beginning to look as dated as big hair.

Americans lump the last 50 years of the women’s movement into a period called “The Second Wave” in much the way we refer to the entire range from Seneca Falls (1848) to the 19th Amendment (1920) into something called “The First Wave.” Both periods actually encompass many different initiatives, leaders, groups, and ideologies.

Here I propose a new name for the beauty obsession that characterized the years from about 1980 to 2000: “Big Hair Feminism.” During this period, a barrage of books appeared in which it seemed the whole of the movement was focused on the supposed damage that the fashion industry did to the minds and bodies of Western women and a generation grew up who thought freedom was all about pumping up their own self-esteem. This stream of feminism ignored not only issues like equal pay and childcare to the point that no progress was made during the time, but also failed to engage with the comparatively more difficult circumstances of women around the world.  I am naming it Big Hair Feminism to call attention to how dated this attitude is, but also how disproportionately narcissistic it is–and how irresponsible, given the privileged position of the women who engaged in it and the brutalities their sisters elsewhere suffered. But, dated as it is, trivial as it is, some people just can’t seem to let the Big Hair thinking go.

A central contention of Big Hair Feminism was that women were being beaten into a pathological self-loathing by fashion ads. So, in my research for Fresh Lipstick, I included an investigation into the actual social science evidence for the effects of fashion advertising on self-esteem. What I found raised more questions than it answered.

Why do we look at beauty ads?

I was always a bit puzzled by the anguish expressed by Big Hair critics about being “forced” to compare themselves to beautiful models in the magazines.  When I was in my early teens, I used to pore over every page of Seventeen, reading all the articles and fiction, but especially looking at the demonstrations for “hairdos” and makeup.  It was always pure pleasure.  I loved the models of my era (Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy), but they were like paper dolls to me. I did not particularly expect (or want) to be like them, but I did like trying to copy their hair, clothes, and especially their makeup.

Big Hair critics were bonkers over Kate Moss because she was so skinny. I never even thought she was pretty. In fact, she always just looked to me like she needed a bath. Just kinda sleazy.

In the 1990s, when the beauty critique was all the rage, I was still reading the magazines and still not traumatized by them.  In the rare moment of quiet when the kids were asleep and my work was done, I would run a bubble bath and luxuriate in the imagery of Vogue.  The stuff in Vogue was outside my buying range (and still is) and I would never buy most of it even if I had the money.  But I just loved the reading experience.  I did not compare myself to Cindy, Claudia, Linda, Kate, or Naomi, though I certainly knew who they were and had my opinions.

So, I was intrigued to learn from reading the social science research that I was not an anomaly.  Most women do not read these vehicles to check and see whether they measure up.  Amanda Bower’s  2001 study, for instance, found that only 30% of respondents engaged in social comparison when they looked at ads.  And, much as is indicated by the eating disorder research, the 70% who did not engage in these comparisons did not experience negative feelings.  However, there was some evidence that those who did experience comparison anxiety transferred the bad feelings on to the advertiser and rejected the product.  So, in other words, the ad did not work if it produced enough anxiety among the group who did engage in comparisons.

Mary Martin, Patricia Kenney, and James Gentry found, through another series of studies, that beautiful model imagery generally did not affect self-perceptions, but that the tendency to compare oneself was greater among those who already had lower self-esteem.  Further, when comparisons are made, the motive for comparing also causes a differential impact. Women who look at an ad and say, “Hey, that hairdo might look better on me than my current style, ” instead of “I’ll never be as pretty as this model” do not experience a reduction in self-esteem.

How beautiful do you really need to be?

One study really blew me away. Marsha Richin’s 1991 “Social Comparisons and the Idealized Images of Advertising” is a rigorous investigation into the impact of social comparisons on the way young women rate their own attractiveness. The study was billed as a demonstration of the negative effects of beauty ad imagery on college girls.  It demonstrated nothing of the sort.

Some girls don't need more self-esteem. Was it experiences with the "mean girls" that drove the Big Hair critique? I'm just sayin'.

There were two groups of college girls in this study.  One viewed ads that did not contain models and one viewed ads with models.  After the exposure, the young women who saw the models rated their satisfaction with their own appearance lower than the ones who did not see the models.  The decline in rating was statistically significant, though the drop was only from 6.86 for those who did not see the models to 6.0 to those who did.  That’s measured on a 7 point scale.  In other words, we’re supposed to get really worried here because the girls went from saying “I feel that I look absolutely amazing at this moment” to “I feel I look really, really great.”  Wow.

How lasting is the damage?

With the Richins study, inferences about long-term effects are also troublesome.  Since these girls were in their late teens and early twenties, we can assume they had been bombarded with advertising images for at least ten years.  Yet, this barrage has had little, if any, negative effect.  Indeed, who would have predicted that a large group of college girls would give themselves a mean score of 6.86 out of 7.00 on being happy with their personal attractiveness?  It’s difficult to see this group as lacking in self-esteem—and it’s hard to get very concerned about the treatment group since they will probably “bounce back” pretty quickly.

Do we all hate our looks or do we secretly believe we are beautiful?

The girls in Richins’ study were also asked to rate their own appearance.  On that score, neither group showed any effect.  So, even though the treatment group may have rated their satisfaction lower after being exposed to supermodels, the experience does not seem to have affected their assessment of their looks. And, actually, I came across several studies showing that people think highly of their own looks, regardless of the “objective” truth.

Are pretty girls real?

Big Hair Feminism’s constant refrain was that the images in the ads were not real.  As if to imply that there are no girls that pretty in reality.  Now, we all know Photoshop makes everybody look better (and many of us also know how to use it to make pictures of ourselves look better).  But there are pretty girls in real life.  Honestly, the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life were girls I went to college with.

Are the pretty girls we know the real problem? An axiom of social comparison theory is that people are more likely to compare themselves to others in their own social category—these comparisons rather than those made with “distant others” are the ones thought to have an important effect on self-evaluation.  We would expect that the pretty girls in real life would make us feel much worse than the pictures in the ads.

I can easily imagine some of the girls I went to school with getting huffy if they were not asked to wear bags. Can you imagine the campus newspaper? "Susie Smith Tapped for Beauty Bag List!"

Based on this aspect of social comparison theory, Thomas F. Cash and his colleagues, tested the relative impact of supermodel images with pictures of the respondents’ peers.  And, as the theory would have predicted, the impact on self-esteem when peer pictures were involved was quite a lot more negative. So what do we do about that? It is hardly practical or fair to ask all the pretty girls of our acquaintance to wear a paper bag on their heads so that everybody else can be comfortable.

Indeed, it might be problematic even to determine who should wear the bag since, apparently, most of us have a pretty rosy estimation of our own appearance.

Why do we focus on beauty and not other gifts?

In the Big Hair writing, the implicit (sometimes explicit) preference is that women should be valued for their minds rather than their looks. Over time, this theme began to bug me quite a bit.  That’s because the women writing this stuff were consistently highly educated, often the graduates of elite schools and sometimes employed as academics.  Clearly, intelligence was the game they could win. But, just as it is true that not everyone is beautiful, it is also true that not everyone is smart and it is certainly true that many do not get the benefits of elite education.  Did the Big Hair people think that other women are not sometimes intimidated by all the privilege that goes with high IQ and fancy schooling?

Why is the beauty of the dancer not something Big Hair wanted to quash?

And what about athletes?  Big Hair ideology was always bullish on athletic women.  In my own experience, the biggest bullies of youth were the girl jocks. Very aggressive, very negative.  And they always made me feel bad about myself because I am simply not that coordinated.

I have always watched people who can dance and sing with wistfulness.  In my soul, I know I was meant to be able to do that, but the truth is that I can neither sing nor dance (though at a big party, I may shamelessly do both).  Should all the dancers be hustled to a closet somewhere because they make me feel inadequate?

Well, no they shouldn’t.  Because in the final analysis, it is my problem.  Dance is not my gift.  I have others.  I am not good at sports.  I am very good at some other things.  Maybe what is needed is to learn to appreciate each other–even each other’s looks–without being eaten up with comparisons.

Is this whole issue a problem of youth?

As I was composing this post, I reflected on the change in my own attitude about appearance since my teen years.  Looks were much more important to me then.  I had reasonably good looks as a young woman, but I did feel self-conscious around those I thought were prettier.  Especially because I was very tall and rather awkward. I admit it. But somewhere in there, I simply stopped thinking about who was better looking.  I grew out of it.  I think the movement should do the same.

Is beauty the grounds for love?

Another Big Hair theme was that no one would want you if you weren’t pretty.  You were doomed to be lonely.  I think that is obviously untrue.  Maybe in high school.  (I would go to party after party and never be asked to dance–it was awful.)  In the end, though, I don’t think people love for beauty.  Maybe they are attracted by it, lust for it.  But they love for something entirely else.

I have noticed something about the people I love.  Some of them are not “objectively” very good-looking, at least when I first meet them.  As I grow to love them, though, they become beautiful.  Once that happens, I wouldn’t change a hair on their heads.  And I would be horrified to think that any of them would feel inadequate about their looks.  To me, they are perfect.

Can we move on?

I think the venue for the movement today is different.  The stakes are higher, the scope wider, the possibilities enormous.  So that is why I am, perhaps rather optimistically, calling for the demise of Big Hair Feminism.  There is more important work to do.  Let’s please go do it.


Recent Posts
bottom of page