In Contraceptive Culture, Women Can Never Rest

(photo: Shutterstock image)

A recent study showed that one of the fastest-growing markets for plastic surgery is women who are over 65. According American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, over 85,000 people in that age group had cosmetic surgery last year; one 83-year-old woman recently made the news for getting breast implants.

This isn’t a surprising turn of events, considering that our culture now tells women that if they are not sexy, they are not valuable. This idea is everywhere. Women’s magazines and websites are filled with well-meaning messages assuring women of all ages that they too can achieve this all-important status. For example, Joan Collins wrote an article in the Daily Mail on this topic (which I’m not going to link to because of some of the images it includes, but you can Google it). Here’s an excerpt:

Many women over 40 are beginning to feel unsexy—and with that often comes a tremendous feeling of insecurity.

In a more sane society, here is where you might expect a rallying cry to remind women that there’s more to life than being sexy, a call to action for women over 40 to embrace their changing bodies and demand that our culture’s objectification of women cease. Instead, Collins posts pictures of 62-year-old Helen Mirren in a bikini and offers these words of comfort:

The truth is there are plenty of role models for them to aspire to: women like Dame Helen are by no means in the minority for looking sexy and stunning.

When Sophia Loren was 71 she posed in skimpy lingerie for the famous Pirelli calendar, and women’s magazines everywhere announced with palpable relief that this proved that older women could be sexy. Sixty-year-old former Vogue model Nina Carter reports casually that her boyfriend will make remarks to her and her friends like, “You need your eyes doing,” or “You could do with a bit of liposuction,” and she hits the gym regularly to make sure she still looks good in a bikini.  If that’s not enough, aging women are now supposed to be concerned about knee wrinkles.

And then there’s the even-more-disturbing other end of the spectrum, with marketers now pushing tiny bikinis for babies, push-up bras for eight-year-olds, and racy lingerie for girls as young as three months. (No, that’s not a typo. I said months.) In other words, women are now expected to be sexy from the cradle to the grave. And the message is clear: If men are not lusting after you, you are “invisible.”

We have contraception to thank for this.

For better or worse, a woman’s physical appearance has always been an important factor in the way she’s perceived by others and the way she perceives herself. But before the widespread acceptance of contraception, there was more of an emphasis on being beautiful than being sexy. A woman with a few extra pounds, with wrinkles and stretch marks and callused hands and other physical indicators of a well-lived life, can still be beautiful; but, according to our modern definition of the word, she cannot be sexy. Whereas beauty takes the entire person into consideration, sexiness is about making yourself an object of lust.

The Church totally called this one. Back in 1968 Pope Paul VI made four predictions about what would happen when the world accepted contraception, and in one of them he stops just short of naming toddler thongs and octogenarian breast implants specifically. Dr. Janet Smith explains:

Paul VI argued that “the man” will lose respect for “the woman” and “no longer (care) for her physical and psychological equilibrium” and will come to “the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” This concern reflects what has come to be known as a “personalist” understanding of morality. The personalist understanding of wrongdoing is based upon respect for the dignity of the human person. The Pope realized that the Church’s teaching on contraception is designed to protect the good of conjugal love. When spouses violate this good, they do not act in accord with their innate dignity and thus they endanger their own happiness. Treating their bodies as mechanical instruments to be manipulated for their own purposes, they risk treating each other as objects of pleasure.

The world now sees all women through a lust-saturated lens, and values them accordingly.

It’s tragic to read some of these articles where women in their 70’s and even their 80’s report feeling bad about themselves because they can no longer rock a bikini at the beach, or to walk through the store and see racy, revealing outfits targeted at young girls. It’s bad enough that women in their 20’s face the pressure to objectify themselves, but now little girls can’t enjoy their childhoods free of worry about whether they’re five pounds overweight, and aging women can’t relax and embrace their new type of beauty. It’s a sad situation for a lot of reasons, one of them being the sheer amount of work women in our society feel they must put into their appearances in order to attain inappropriate and unrealistic physical ideals. In contraceptive culture, there’s never a time women women get a pass on not being sexy, and thus they can never rest.