Dr. Nicky Beer
9 May 2016
Approaches to Beauty
Thanks to the revolutionary movement by confessional writers in the mid-1900s, poetry has transformed to be more inclusive of women and explorative of private, once taboo experiences. Both 20th and 21st century poets have contributed to the expanding cannon of women’s poetry, by diminishing the sexist stereotypes of their craft and expanding the complex voices of their speakers. Two poems contribute to these themes directly: “Woman with Girdle” by Anne Sexton and “Beauty” by Sandra Beasley address the ideas of beauty, femininity, and gender expectations through audience, imagery, and realism.
“Woman with Girdle,” first published by Sexton in 1962, is a poem radiating with confessional style through its subject matter. The poem describes a woman undressing for her own benefit, which could be considered a taboo topic to explore: women’s bodies were historically treated as either private or sexually intimate, whereas Sexton discusses them in a casual, conversational tone. This body under discussion is specifically removing her girdle—a popular type of undergarment during the 20th century that women wore underneath dresses to shape their bodies. Though girdles were associated with maintaining a standard of beauty and femininity, this poem uses imagery to instead describe the realistic form of women’s bodies. For example, Sexton does not try to sexualize the subject: “Your midriff sags toward your knees” (line 1); “your belly, soft as pudding,/slops into the empty space” (10-11); “thighs, thick as young pigs,/over knees like saucers” (18-19). Though a woman undressing has classically been characterized as attractive, seductive, and beautiful, none of Sexton’s descriptions are particularly flattering, though they do describe a candid woman. The romanticism of the womanly shape is gone from “Woman with Girdle,” and is replaced with a gritty, realistic representation of femininity. Sexton does this for her audience.
Two main arguments surround Sexton’s intended audience for “Woman with Girdle.” First, the poem appears to be written for women by a woman. This can be supported by its ending, which includes the subject standing up, naked and released of her girdle, rising as beautiful and strong as she embraces her body as beautiful, despite not being depicted in the traditional verses of femininity (slender, sexualized, doll-like). Sexton writes, “Now you rise, a city from the sea,/born long before Alexandria was,/straightway from God you have come/into your redeeming skin.” (24-29). This language is empowering and could be written with the purpose of engaging other women and asking women readers to consider the strength and beauty and power of their bodies that extends beyond the superficial fads of the era. Instead, the subjects’ body is more powerful when it’s unclothed—not hidden or conformed to any standards. Rather, Sexton uses these lines to connect with her women audience over the innate strength of women, which dates back to before Alexandria existed as a city.
Another possible theory of audience denotes that Sexton was writing with men in mind. “Woman with Girdle” is a poem that gives readers an inside perspective into what a woman’s form can truly look like, without taking away its beauty or power. The juxtaposition of the subject having a “belly, soft as pudding” (10) yet being able to rise into her “redeeming skin” (29) in a god-likeness is where this power comes from—Sexton uses imagery to subvert the expectation that a woman is only as moving as her appearance. The idea of femininity is repurposed; the subject emerges as a symbol of power and strength, as Sexton uses a comparison to a god: not only are gods nearly always depicted as men—especially in terms of Judeo-Christian values—they carry a connotation of creators and masters and rulers, as opposed with traditional depictions of women as dainty and fragile and submissive. Not only was it important for women to feel represented and spoken to directly through other women artists and be reminded of their potential, it was essential for men to be taken away from the sexist stereotypes and be broken from their leashes of romanticizing and sexualizing women’s bodies. In releasing men from their objectifying gazes and women of their porcelain-painted roles, both men and women benefited from this type of poetry, in the same way that feminism benefits all gender identifications in modern life.
In “Woman with Girdle,” there are powerful images that allude to outside symbols and themes. One example of this is the subject removing the girdle. This act, as she removes the layer of underclothing, represents her taking off the object that represents the male gaze. The male gaze is how she is seen from a masculine perspective, from a man’s attitude: for the subject, the girdle represents the shapeliness, the masking of imperfections, and the flawlessness expectations of women. As the subject removes this symbol of the male gaze, she is able to become and transform into her true self—most powerful when she’s naked and authentic. Another example is the reference to the city of Alexandria, which carries connotations of wonder, intelligence, and logic in a mythical way. Sexton also, in line 15—“slow motion like a rolling pin”—inserts a domestic image. This juxtaposition comments on how women do not have to be free from their domestic lives to be strong; there is no one way of achieving authentic beauty.
“Beauty” deals with similar themes and audiences. The poem tells the story of an animalistic beauty being let into the speaker’s home, and how the family dealt with both its presence and its sudden disappearance. Beasley uses personification to talk about beauty as a concrete character rather than an abstract concept, which makes the themes of societal pressure and ideas of femininity come to life. Beauty is introduced at the beginning of the poem, in a free verse form that narrates chronologically, as though this encounter with beauty is a story: “That night, something howled outside./I opened the door. It was Beauty. Beauty/was muddy and senseless. I let her in” (lines 1-3). Beauty’s personification takes on an animalistic personality—Beasley describes the character as pet-like. “She drank water from a plastic bowl,/then crawled under the table and fell asleep,” (5-6), “The next day Beauty ate eggs, a little raw beef” (7), and “We decided/to keep her. She learned a few tricks” (10-11) all characterize beauty as an animal, which is done to associate standards of beauty with danger and ferocity, though it is often kept around under the pretenses of having control.
In the same vein as Sexton, Beasley is able to counter the traditional concepts of beauty—that women and their physical form are romanticized and glorified on appearance alone. She does this by her animal imagery, and by also calling attention to how addictive these perceptions are, even for women. An example of this is when she writes, “And when she left a mess/we rubbed her nose in it, so she’d understand/that even Beauty makes mistakes. We loved her” (16-18). Sexton defied beauty stereotypes through describing a woman’s body in a casual and down-played way, whereas Beasley broke the romanticism of beauty by giving it more attention and directly giving the concept a life of its own. “Beauty” also subverted expectations, as the speaker admits to being consumed by the ugliness of beauty, but does not necessarily deny that she would welcome it back into her home again.
Beasley’s poem shows the same audience diversity, where there could be two intended audiences in mind. For women, “Beauty” reads like a warning. The subject allowed beauty into her house, embraced it willingly, and in turn it affected all of the women in its reach with unhealthy consequences. After it left, “as strays often do” (22), the uglier side of beauty was revealed: its damaging nature (“I tried to towel her off, and she bit me” (4)), addictive properties (“For hours I worked the burrs from her hair” (8)), and the ever-lasting yearning that surfaces after it leaves (“My daughter refuses to eat,/dreams of Beauty beading on her skin like rain” (25-26)). For men, “Beauty” reads more as a call to action, as Beasley incorporates the juxtaposing images of the subject’s two children. The girl is left damaged by beauty, while the boy appears completely normal, carrying on with his life unaffected. This could act as a warning to men that if they consume and feed into the culture surrounding beauty standards or place a lot of importance on or have a high appreciation of physical beauty, they will leave a devastating impact on the women in their lives, even if they do not notice it initially.
“Beauty” lingers into the realm of motherhood, and brings up controversial subjects like watching one child become consumed with physical appearance while the other child’s actions allude to feeing into the same culture that allows the cycle of beauty to be used oppressively. Though the children represent a literal take on family and children, the two youth characters symbolize Beasley’s darkest commentary on beauty. “My daughter refuses to eat,/dreams of Beauty beading on her skin like rain/My son models Play-Doh in the Classical style:/He has taken away our arms and our heads” (25-28) contribute to a single idea: women are not allowed to use beauty, they are only able to create it. In contrast, those who contribute to the sexist standards of beauty—in this case, represented by the Play-Doh welding son—are not only crippling women, but also still able to mold and form the minds of its victims—as seen in the daughter, unable to eat—without necessarily knowing or understanding the damage they do.
These two poems, “Woman with Girdle” and “Beauty” do many of the same things, in different ways. They approach and analyze the idea of beauty and the idea of femininity. The language in both poems is aimed at being realistic, by their purposeful imagery in a confessional style. Both of the poems are about beauty, but the two poets have different approaches and goals. Sexton’s “Woman with Girdle” is about owning beauty. It’s about uncovering it and unleashing it and possessing it unapologetically. Sexton uses her language and symbolism to assert that beauty, synonymous with strength and power, is what all women have inside. Beasley’s “Beauty,” however, is an external examination of beauty, which takes a look at its intrusion as a welcomed and natural presence. She uses her personification to say that the vanity that beauty produces is damaging and short-lived. Both poems, written in the 20th and 21st centuries, remain relevant, as they both are natural and raw, and bring attention to the idea of beauty as non-fabricated and authentic, and never cultivated from an outside source.