Psychological Battle Between Self Expression - Dissertation Sample -

Psychological Battle Between Self Expression – Dissertation Sample

Stereotypes of Feminine Identity as Controlled by The Media

The modern media gives women an identity based on stereotypes (e.g. housewife, mother, lover, career woman, film star femme fatal), yet simultaneously tells her that she is not good enough to fulfill this identity in her natural state.

Not to worry, though, says the media — just the right commodity to transform them is available for their consumption. Women, in essence, are asked to buy themselves. The media have stolen, and continue to steal, women’s identities, and offer them back to her for the price of a product. But the satisfaction is always partial, and each part of herself she buys may be soon contradicted by another form of representation. Just as she buys the product that promises domestic perfection, she may subsequently receive a message that she can or must now be a femme fatal.

How do women react to this closeted controlling of their identity?  They often manifest a post-modern form of ‘hysteria’ – not the dismissive, sexist term of yore, but a new concept — an oscillation between women’s impossible-to-obtain self-expectations and neurotic, nervous anger at finding themselves a never-quite full, or empty vessel – not quite a person, but rather a malleable cultural object.  

This study will seek to illuminate and explore both the media’s role in the psychological battle between self-expression and cultural ideals, and how women react to this battle for their own souls.


The formation and proliferation of feminist conscious-raising groups in the 70’s led to a radical transformation of the female role in society. Within the format of these enlightened and supportive settings, women were able to explore issues related to self-perception, as well as gain an insight into how they were perceived by men.  By exploring these issues, women acknowledged the psychological oppression of being “stereotyped, culturally dominated and sexually objectified” and were able to assert that beauty practices were oppressive and a waste of time. (Jeffreys, p. 7)

These explorations continued throughout the 21st century, as women attempted to re-invent themselves as individuals in a society that remained largely patriarchal. However, instead of embracing new roles, positive images and healthy self-perceptions, the consciousness-raising efforts of the previous decades came under challenge by the post- modern feminist, who asserted that women had the choice to ‘play’ with beauty practices, so that instead of being seen as oppressive the practices were promoted as being fun.

This view was endorsed by the media, where women were constantly bombarded with ubiquitous images of beauty, which were “reinterpreted as fascinating resources from which girls and women can be inspired and creative rather than playing a role in dominant ideology” (Jeffreys, p. 16)
The approval of the beauty ideal by post-modern feminists and the media had an alarming affect on how women perceived themselves and the resulting actions they took, thus defining the ‘hysteria’ engineered by the female inability to please both feminine self and patriarchal society at the same time.  The brutality of beauty practices that women performed on their bodies became much more severe, to include the breaking of skin, spilling of blood, purging of bodily nutrients and the rearrangement or amputation of body parts. 

In the heyday of feminism, the exhortation for women was to make something of themselves and change the world.  In the post-feminist era, they were pressured by a society which was imbued the concept that women’s bodies were inherently constructed as ugly, and in constant need of improvement. Engulfed with feelings of self-hate, worthlessness, and inadequacy, many women strived to achieve the beauty ideal and in doing so, risked physical, mental and emotional well-being. 

The ambivalence of the two messages that women have received from feminine critiques, society and the media – “You’re equal…  no, wait, you’re subordinate” (Douglas, p. 161) — brings to light the constant struggle and mental torment that women have to address in their daily lives, often leading to both outwardly and inwardly manifested neuroses – the ‘hysteria’ — which has ominous implications for women’s futures.  It is this ongoing struggle that I hope to address in my Project Proposal.


•    In our culture, not one part of a woman’s body is left untouched, unaltered. No feature or extremity is spared the art, or pain, of improvement.  (Dworkin, pg. 112)

•    “To her belongs all that is beautiful, even the very word beauty itself – ‘she is a doll’. I’m sick of the masquerade.”  (Germaine Greer, in Wolf, 1991, p. 12)


“The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us.”
(Wolf,  1993, p.10)

Being a woman in society today, one is constantly aware of the conflicting messages that we are fed by feminist teachings and the media. Both spread the word of feminism throughout the world, but also manage to inhibit and/or co-opt the cultural movements with the most liberating potential, by advocating the beauty ideal.

In the past decade, through feminist enlightenment, women were successful in usurping the patriarchal power structure.  Women had more money, scope and recognition than ever before.  Simultaneously, however, cosmetic surgeries became the fastest growing medical procedures performed; eating disorders reached epidemic proportions; pornography (hardcore and softcore) became a mass media mainstay, and woman often claimed that they would much rather lose weight than achieve any other personal goal.  Indeed, research has shown that inside the mind of the successful, attractive woman “lies a secret ‘underlife’ poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging and dread of lost control.” (Wolf, 1991, pg. 10)
So many potentially powerful women are led to feel this way, as they are caught in the midst of a violent backlash against equality from the media, who use images of beauty as a weapon against female advancement. The advent of the post-modern feminists and their view that beauty products were a way in which women could express their “creative expressions” also aided in undermining women’s emancipation from patriarchal control.

This conflict is a matter of utmost significance for all women to consider.  Accordingly, it is this conflict, between mixed messages from the media and feminist critiques, and the psychological impact they have on women, that I hope to address in my Project Proposal.


The customer that I am targeting is a female within the age bracket of 25-40. She is a well-traveled individual with a comprehensive knowledge of the arts and culture. 

She has a positive image of women, one that is based on morality and belief in a value system.  Her philosophy emphasizes individual liberty and personal independence. She fights for causes, not fame, and is strong and free-spirited.  Although interested in fashion, she is an individual who will take a garment and use it to interpret her own style, therefore rejecting trend in favour of determined modernity. She will be drawn towards garments that are a complex and inspirational marriage between creativity and exploration, and that are innovative, functional and individual. She is also a customer who appreciates that a garment can be regarded as a sculptural aesthetic, or wearable art. 


Primary sources for this research have been books and articles that explore the myths of femininity and how women react to their plight, from a variety of perspectives (full bibliographic details available in the Bibliography section of this proposal), as follows:

•    Naomi Wolf’s groundbreaking book The Beauty Myth offers an in-depth analysis of the “beauty backlash” that has served to ˜hypnotize women into political paralysis.” (p.7) 
•    Susan Douglas' book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media offers an enlightening discussion of the media representation of feminism as a 'false dichotomy' that helps “to reaffirm, more than ever, the importance of female attractiveness to female success.” (p. 191).
•    Mary Pipher's books, Hunger Pains: The Modern Women's Tragic Quest for Thinness and Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, offers an insight into the effects of the media on the young female psyche. Phiper suggests that despite the advances of feminism, media-impressionable young women continue to be victims of abuse and self-mutilation. 
•    Harold Koda’s book Extreme Beauty addresses the ideals of beauty that have persisted or shifted through the ages. The book explains how the mechanism of costume has transformed the zones of the body that dictate shape and proportion, in order to alter its physical structure. 
•    In Cindy Sherman, edited by Zdenek Felix and Martin Schwander, the famous photographer’s works are depicted as brilliant, yet painful parodies of the dictate imposed by media images on every girl, that she should “perfect her clothes, her make-up and her posture so as to imitate an apparently desirable but simultaneously unattainable model of immaculate feminine beauty.” (p. 14)
•    Catherine Redfern’s article “Teenagers and Cosmetic Surgery” explains that in our society “adult female bodies are treated like mistakes that continually need correcting.” From makeup to plastic surgery, these beauty rituals are “almost seen as an essential part of the female experience.”
•    Barbara Homeier’s article “Eating Disorders: Anorexia and Bulimia” explains why women, particularly teens, may fear any weight gain and go to extreme measures to prevent it: “We’re overloaded by images of thin celebrities, people who often weigh far less than their healthy weight.” 
•    An article on the BBC news website, “More Young Women Seek Cosmetic Surgery,” gives an insight into the increasing popularity of cosmetic surgery, citing a 1999 survey which shows that one in three British women have considered such surgery.
•    Alfred Hitchock’s films Vertigo, Psycho, and Rebecca, all of which depict women in stereotypes and harrowing duress, highlighting society’s expectations of them.


Research will explore how artists and their subjects manifest and depict the conflict between feminism and media expectations, and the resulting hysteria, from both a physical and mental perspective.  This type of exploration will give the widest variety of perspectives on the conflict and how it is both perceived and experienced by women and the creators of their media expectations:

Physical aspects

•    Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo seems to regard the conventions of fashion as a necessary evil. While contemporary fashion is usually tailored to follow the body’s silhouette, Kawakubo challenges this principle by wrapping the body in sheathes of fabric, therefore blurring the margins between body and dress.

•    For British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, the old maxim that “fashion is a cruel mistress” is apropos. He redefines the experience of the fashioned body by negotiating his designs in terms of brutality and aggression. Models are either imprisoned in painful corsets, metal skirts or dresses constructed from sharp material, or put into garments that extend their presence beyond the borders of the human body. In this way, each model has the ability to wound or attack.  McQueen also uses his designs to investigate the theme of probing and exploring the body’s interior. He recognises that while traditionally focused on the body’s surface, fashion also unconsciously reveals the anxieties of the flesh beneath it. By imprisoning his models in garments made from rough, sharp and dangerous materials, they are unable to control their inner feelings of fear and turmoil due to wearing the garment, and at the same time are only able to react in a defined, slow manner, to prevent the dress from causing more pain.

•    “Unladylike” Exhibition / East West Gallery

Artists : Marcelle Hanselaar, Sadie Lee and Laurie Lipton

The term ‘ladylike’ is considered the benchmark of femininity, and often regarded as a constraint paradigm conceived by men to force woman into subjection. It should stand to reason that a woman is a woman without trying, but not every woman can become a lady in the sense of being “ladylike”.  This often involves a performance in some way, determined by actions, gestures and  demeanour.  Artists, Marcelle Hanselaar, Sadie Lee and Laurie Lipton strive to challenge this concept, with the introduction of their “Unladylike” women who are coarse, outspoken, and ‘unsuitably’ dressed. Based on feminist teachings of the desire to be free, rather than compliant and conventional, they expose  “ladylike” behaviour for what it is: merely another performance expected by a patriarchal society. 

Mental Aspect

•    The female characters in Alfred Hitchcock films reflect the stereotypical blonde. They are cool, remote and sensual — and imprisoned in costumes that subtly combine fashion with fetishism. They are frequently placed in psychologically harrowing situations, where their true identity is put under challenge when they are forcibly moulded into something they are not. By subjecting his leading ladies through a mental ordeal, often indistinguishable from the films’ plots, Hitchcock was able to give the viewer an intense combination of feelings, oscillating between desire and horror; fascination and discomfort. Vertigo, Psycho, and Rebecca all had this unrelenting, provocative impact. 

•    Photographer Cindy Sherman uses photographs to expose the stereotypes of women found in the mass media today.  She draws attention to their function and deeper significance, by revealing the suppressed psychological material that is not always evident on the surface: the subject’s imagination. Photographs portray the housewife, student, lover or film star in their conditioned and socially prescribed roles, who then through the medium of role reversal and illusion convey a disturbing mental image of humanity, exposing inner fear and anxieties: “the female body petrified into a mask, a prosthesis, or a doll.” Sherman’s photographs, Disaster Pictures, Fairy Tales, and Fashion all use this method, to reveal what lies beneath the cosmetic surface. (Bronfen, p. 16)

•    Orla is an artist who takes part in self-mutilation in order to dramatize the rules of male dominance, that a woman’s body must be controlled and punished. A self- confessed feminist, she objects to the “dictates of a dominant ideology that impresses itself more and more on feminine flesh.” (Jeffreys, p. 164) While undergoing extreme forms of mutilation to alter her body, Orla’s performance requires disassociation, that of splitting her emotions from the body, a necessity required by women today to survive the pain of extreme beauty practices, in order to transform themselves into something they are not.  


Summer Holiday
•    Visit museums/galleries/exhibitions for inspiration
•    Collect visuals
•    Research and develop ideas
•    Analyse and abstract research
•    Decide what form your Independent Study will take

Autumn Term

Start sewing and Photoshop classes on Friday – second week of term
•    Continue to research, explore and develop ideas
•    Collect visuals to support concept
•    Plan Budget
•    Source Photographer, Models, Theatre Make-up Artist
•    Start looking for location for shoot
•    Start developing and sketching ideas
•    Define concept
•    Start manipulating fabric on stand
•    Continue to sketch ideas
•    Start design developments
•    Start looking at fabrics
•    Start thinking about samples
•    Research for theatre make-up/masks
•    Consider background possibilities
•    Continue with design developments, explore possibilities of placement
•    Research and experiment with fabrics
•    Start making samples
•    Continue with design developments
•    Continue with samples
•    Think about presentation methods
•    Continue with developments
•    Continue with samples
•    Continue with research on theatre makeup/masks
•    Continue looking at location/background/lighting
•    Finalise developments
•    Finalise fabrics and buy for toiles and final garments
•    Call photographer, models, theatre make-up artist and arrange date for mock shoot
•    Continue with research
•    Kept free for anything that has been omitted in timetable

Spring Term

Sewing and Photoshop classes to be carried out on Friday of each week
•    Continue with samples
•    Work on technical development to ensure that project shows appropriate level of 2D & 3D abstraction
•    Continue with research on make-up/masks
•    Continue looking at location/background/lighting
•    Explore presentation possibilities
•    Select location/background/lighting
•    Finalise make-up/masks
•    Take photos of make-up
•    Take photos of location
•    Start writing up research for make/-up selected and location
•    Select garments for final presentation
•    Finalise presentation method in relation to media and materials explored
•    Finish putting together make-up book and location book
•    Call photographer/model/make-up artist – ensure they are prepared for mock shoot
•    Start on toiles
•    Start story board for shoot
•    Ensure you have all accessories for mock shoot
•    Continue with toiles
•    Work on presentation of technical file
•    Continue with storyboard
•    Continue with toiles
•    Finalise any amendments to be made on toiles
•    Finalise storyboard
•    Mock shoot
•    Amend any details on garments/make-up/location/background
•    Select poses for final shoot
•    Kept free for anything that has been omitted in timetable

Summer Term

•    Start to make garments in selected fabrics
•    Continue to make garments
•    Make a list of everything required for final shoot
•    Continue to work on garments
•    Confirm final shoot date with photographer/models/theatre make-up artist
•    Confirm location
•    Model fit session
•    Make any amendments required to garments
•    Organise everything for final shoot
•    Model fit session
•    Final shoot
•    Select photos from shot
•    Work on presentation of photo shoot
•    Keep free for anything that has been omitted in timetable
•    Keep free for anything that has been omitted in timetable


Ideally, the research will yield a variety of fascinating examples of how the ‘hysteria’ manifests itself in women, both internally and externally; both personally and artistically.  From that point, it may be possible to extrapolate and suggest methods for women to understand and then combat the patriarchal oppression, and women’s own complicity in it, by a variety of personal, social, political, and artistic means.  Some of the questions which may be answered in the research itself, or in the work that it may inspire along the way, include the following:

•    Why do women oscillate between dissatisfaction and criticism of the roles prescribed to them by the mass media and their own selves, on one hand, and an ongoing collusion with the mass media by imitating precisely the repertoire of identities offered to them?

•    What are some of the passive-aggressive, vs. active and overt ways in which women manifest their dissatisfaction and criticisms?

•    How do women currently answer the questions “Who am I?  Do I exist as myself or as a function of what society expects of me?  Am I a human, doll, model, plaything?” and how should they answer these questions in the future?

•    How can women who work in the mass media, e.g. film, television, the fashion industry, modeling, etc., work to curb the hysteria created by the messages created by the industries within which they earn a living, and presumably some of their power and self-worth?

As all good research should, this research will seek to not only justify itself, but have practical implications:  perhaps it can suggest ways in which women can not only come to understand their plight, but take an active role in deciding it. Search other essay topics here



  • Jeffreys, S. (2005) Beauty And Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices In The West.  London: Routledge
  • Bronfen, E., Zdenek, F. Schwander, M. (1995) Cindy Sherman.  Munich: Schirmer/Mosel.
  • Douglas, S. (1994) Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media 
  • Koda, H (2001) Extreme Beauty.  New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Pipher, M. (1995) Hunger Pains: The Modern Woman’s Tragic Quest for Thinness.  New York: Random House
  • Quinn, B (2002) Techno Fashion. New York: Berg
  • Wolf, N. (1991) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women.
  • Wolf, N. (1993) Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century. New York: Random House

Internet Sites

  • BBC News “More Young Women Seek Cosmetic Surgery”
  • Homeier, B. P. MD. “Eating Disorders: Anorexia and Bulimia”
  • Redfern, C. (2001) “Teenagers and Cosmetic Surgery.”
  • Davis, K. “Cosmetic Surgery in a Different Voice”

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