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The Holocaust Survivor’s Beauty Contest

By October 20, 2018May 18th, 2019No Comments

Why are women still judged by appearance and the male gaze?

The control and objectification of girls’and women’s appearance must be questioned if we are heading toward a change in women’s and men’s psychology. Why does what is called by some philosophers and psychologists “the male gaze” and what I have come to call “the cultural gaze” continue to dominate everywhere in the world? The cultural context contributes mightily to the self and affects the self-esteem of every woman. This results in many women coming to therapy in order to try to discover how to live by their own standards. This is not an easy job for the therapist to counteract years of conditioning, years of looking in the mirror or years of hiding one’s face behind cloth, as is required in many cultures as much as showing off and painting the female face is in others.

A close relative of mine, in her final years, was stricken with dementia that proceeded to worsen until she could not recognize most of her family members. Yet she stood in front of the mirror lamenting the change in the beautiful skin she used to have and putting on makeup. I had to cry every time I saw her do this.

Recently, I came across an example from another country, which I choose not to name, as they are not so different from us or other places where the male gaze dominates women as well. I read in the newspaper an unironic description of the Holocaust Survivors Beauty Contest. This is a real event and twelve women were chosen to participate in the final competition out of the several hundred left. The winner was proud and delighted, according to the interview I read.

Is there an equivalent contest for male survivors? We all know the answer. Why aren’t these women honored in a more dignified and appropriate way? For heaven’s sake, they survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust, but did they do it while looking pretty? And do they look pretty now? I did not know whether to laugh or cry. Ultimately I cried again.

How different are these examples from the president of the U.S. ridiculing the appearances of women, while he is probably one of the most ridiculous looking persons on the planet? I will not go into detail as I do not believe that women acting like men evens the score. I do not believe that shooting the second arrow is anything but a strategy to create war. We are looking for peace and for gender equality and that requires a large-scale cultural and therapeutic conversation. It requires a conversation on both sides of what contributes to mental health. Fighting and humiliation are not the way.

It is said that humiliation is what men fear most from women and that women fear violence most from men. The fear of violence and assault is becoming culturally and personally conscious. That then allows the possibility for change. Psychologists and other mental health experts have to bring to consciousness for women and men that the male gaze is based in men’s fear of humiliation and women’s unconscious ability to take it on. Each woman and man of good will can also mindfully do this for themselves. It takes waking up and staying woke, not an easy task, but a necessary one.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.