Hit upon both in “A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman” by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792) and “The Subjection Of Women” by John Stuart Mill (1870) is the idea of the attractiveness of women—how it has, historically, been the aim in life of women and on which their worth is solely measured (which, naturally, perpetuate each other). What I find interesting is comparing ideas of attraction in these historical perspectives to today’s standards.
Mill writes that “it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character” (1159). Even if the modern woman’s goals in life appear to transcend that of the woman of yesteryear—who was considered successful if she bagged a wealthy and steady husband—I would argue that the standard is much the same, and that regardless of being encouraged toward other pursuits, we are taught to give it all up in a heartbeat if a good man comes along. At least that’s how I was raised. From an extremely young age, I was constantly interrogated by my family as to why I didn’t have a boyfriend. Most of my cousins hooked up and settled down early, buying houses and dogs and raising families, and it was my lifestyle choices—travel, the arts, a liberal-arts college far from home and the available local man-pool, not dating—that were seen as deviant and which demanded explanation. (As far as I’m concerned, it’s one cousin, married homeowner at 21, from which explanation ought to be demanded.)
Wollstonecraft writes, “Women are taught from infancy… [that] should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives” (para. 2). That women should make themselves beautiful (I make the distinction between being beautiful, a so-called “natural” quality, and making oneself beautiful, using the products and accouterments of the day) for the course of their youth and early adulthood, is still very much in practice. Just look at Hollywood: we rarely see female actors mature; they make themselves look younger (hence, more beautiful) for as long as they possibly can, and then, once they are unable to maintain the charade, they evanesce from the limelight.
In terms of how women are attractive, Wollstonecraft offers insight into a time and place with which, sans time machine, I cannot experience. She says that women are expected to “feign a sickly delicacy in order to secure her husband’s affection” (para. 39). This is a result of said “sickly delicacy” being a sign of weakness, and therefore dependence, and dependence is exactly what a man wanted in a woman. Throughout history we can see these absurd links just as clearly. As women became “emancipated”, attractiveness was then often a sign of class status. It is theorized that, at one time, plump and fair women were considered attractive because they were the ones with the money to eat and stay indoors; whereas the lower-class women, who couldn’t afford to eat and worked long hours in the sun, were thin and tan. Today it is reversed: the thin and tan are considered attractive, because they can afford (and have time) to diet and lounge outdoors (or go to tanning salons); whereas the lower-class women, who can’t afford (or have time) to eat well or exercise, are plump and fair.
I’m still waiting for the day when solid, physically (and emotionally) strong women are considered attractive by the masses and the media (and I don’t mean this passing fancy of muscular [though still astonishingly thin] sportswomen posing for Playboy); but that will probably only be an indication of yet another time in history, to be studied by our still-struggling feminist descendants, when men decide it’s even nicer to have the women do all the physical work as well as everything else.