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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.