Back in June a friend and I went to a small coastal Texas town to find a beach that wasn’t — unlike Galveston — fit to burst with tourist activity. I was bizarrely anxious in the days leading up to it, even though it was a perfectly lovely seaside day — it wasn’t blazing hot, there was a pleasant breeze, the beach was quiet, and at the end of the evening we had a nice seafood dinner al fresco.
But the thing about beaches and swimwear and being a female in this particular time period is that for many women, the idea of having to display so much of oneself is terrifying in light of the rampant body-shaming and general focus on physicality that we get from the media and our own immediate social contexts.
In other words, it’s hard to feel okay with your own body when everyone and everything around you is telling you that you’re unfortunate-looking and that you need to be better.
On the covers of a couple of America’s most widely-circulated women’s magazines, we see aggressive suggestions for self-improvement splashed across a celebrity’s expensively maintained body in bold, peppy fonts. Cosmopolitan says: “SEXY OUTFITS,” “PRETTIEST SKIN AND HAIR,” and “YOUR BEST BIKINI BOD.” Says Health magazine: “SHED POUNDS,” “ENJOY EATING WITHOUT GUILT” (erm, as if the natural state of a woman is supposed to involve food guilt in the first place), and “IS YOUR WORKOUT MAKING YOU FAT?” Even Oprah’s magazine takes advantage of female physical insecurity to sell issues: “LOVE + KINDNESS = THINNER THIGHS.” And yet the cover of that particular issue declares that its main story is about being confident. (Maybe if magazine covers didn’t tell women that we need to lose weight and pretty ourselves up, we wouldn’t need stories like that.)
Advertisements — especially ones about food — work the same way. Ever notice who’s featured in low-fat yogurt ads? Cereal bar ads? Over 90% of the time, the person enjoying a Yoplait treat or a hunger-curbing granola bar is a slim, put-together woman in her late 20s or early 30s who, for some reason, feels the need to cut even more calories form her diet. It’s common for ads to appeal directly to food-related guilt: a woman turns away from chocolate cake or cookies (as if she should feel bad for wanting these) and chooses a low-calorie snack instead (see: swap-por-tunity ads in which a woman “swaps” a high-calorie snack for something less fattening and feels fulfilled and triumphant).
Sure, this female-specific targeting occurs partly because companies know that if they sell low-fat items, they will sell primarily to women. But we need to realize that the relationship of body-shaming to product-selling is a bidirectional arrow. They respond to demand, but more importantly and problematically, they create demand by creating discontentedness. When a company airs ad after ad in which a relatively thin woman diets to become even thinner, it creates and reinforces female physical insecurity, low self-esteem, and self-doubt, all of which encourage the buying of low-fat products and helps the company rake in more cash. Then it becomes a cycle: 1) women are made to absorb these body-shaming messages and believe them, and 2) women then give money to — and therefore feed and support — businesses that will in turn send out even more messages that women’s bodies are inadequate and constantly need improvement.
There’s something off about what movies and television sell us about beauty, too. A particularly ubiquitous Hollywood formula goes like this: plain girl has crappy life, plain girl gets a makeover, plain-turned-beautiful girl finds fulfillment only after her transformation (see: Miss Congeniality, The Princess Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada). Problematically, we also see characters get “beauty-washed” for the big screen. Have they ever cast a Jane Eyre who was truly as unattractive as the source material said she was? Nope. Did they accurately cast a larger actress for Bridget Jones’s Diary? Nope, Renee Zellweger still looked relatively trim in that film. Is Tina Fey’s character in 30 Rock, Liz Lemon, actually as unattractive as she perceives herself to be, or as her boss often tells her she is? Nope.
Beauty is also the entertainment industry’s visual shorthand for “good.” When characters are evil, and especially when they’re women, they’re often shown to be “ugly” (or at the very least bizarre). Unfortunately, the trend is strongest in children’s/family movies: the wicked witches in The Wizard of Oz and The Little Mermaid, the stepsisters in Cinderella, etc. More recently, in an adaptation of Snow White, Charlize Theron plays a beautiful queen who symbolically grows uglier and uglier throughout the film. Similarly, Mila Kunis’ character in Oz the Great and Powerful becomes “ugly” after she turns evil. It’s as if pop culture is training us to readily accept beautiful people as good and personable people worth sympathizing with and adoring. The opposite conditioning occurs where less-than-beautiful people are concerned. We’re basically being taught by movies to hate, distrust, and be disgusted with “ugly” women on sight. (I put “ugly” in quotes because “ugly” is an unstable, indefinite modifier used to shame and devalue certain people. It’s just a name we give to physical qualities that society doesn’t want us to have, for whatever reason.)
[Side note: the beauty-as-good, ugliness-as-evil coding can quite different for men. The one time a lead character’s “ugliness” had nothing to do with his gentle, caring personality, that character was male: Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Apparently Disney only thinks you can be ugly AND good if you also happen to be a dude.]
The sometimes-implicit, usually-explicit message we’re getting from film and advertising as a whole is, then, that we really, really need to fix ourselves if we want to be happy, complete, and good, if we want people to like and value us, and if we want to like and value ourselves. Even “pretty” is not pretty enough.
So we need to buy products. Diet. Groom ourselves. Read magazines telling us how to do these things. And sometimes we even spread beauty-conscious, improvement-focused material among ourselves. A quick glance at some popular posts on Pinterest and Tumblr reveals how often and how intensely critically women are made to think about physical self-improvement. There’s a home remedy meant to whiten teeth with baking soda, a week-long juice cleanse, an “ultimate ab workout,” countless tutorials on how to achieve the perfect smoky eye, and “fitspirational” graphics (usually a photo of a Victoria’s Secret model with text superimposed, saying WORK FOR IT or GET THE BODY YOU WANT). Posts like these are rapidly cycled from poster to follower, poster to follower, creating a culture of “here’s a way I’ve discovered I can fix myself, and now you can fix yourself, too! Do it so we can compete with each other!”
I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I’ve discovered, on Pinterest, a new thing for me to be insecure about. Problems that I had not thought of as problems suddenly became intolerable once I learned that these were things I could potentially “fix,” if only I devoted enough time, energy, and money to them. I learned that I should exfoliate even harder than I’ve been doing; I learned that I was curling my eyelashes incorrectly; I learned that my foundation was oxidizing and I needed to wear primer underneath it.
These are stupid little details. I doubt anyone I run into on the sidewalk is actually going to be offended if my eyelashes don’t have the perfect curve. I doubt anyone will even notice to begin with. But when awareness of tiny “imperfections” is shared among a community with the speed, detail, and gusto of breaking news, these stupid little details bizarrely start to feel very important indeed. We are now unable to forgive ourselves for a stray hair, a bit of dry skin, a flat or too-big butt, thin lips, boobs that aren’t perky enough, or even improperly curled eyelashes, when we would have been just fine with ourselves before.
The same sharing of remedies and “fixes” also happens face-to-face. As an intern in the fashion industry in the summer of 2012, I was somewhat disheartened to hear my very glamorous and tiny co-interns discuss the apps they’d downloaded to help track their 1,000 cal daily diets, the lunches they’d decided not to eat, and the ice cream they so badly wanted but were going to give up entirely so that they could “be skinny” — their words, not mine — for the next few months. And all it takes is one girl to say this at a crowded lunch table to spread the same attitude among her co-interns. For two months I listened the ripple-effects of girls refusing food and obsessing over yoga, soul cycling, zumba, kickboxing, and pilates.
No wonder the summer months are particularly psychologically hard on young women. No wonder that, when April hits, I start to overhear female classmates talking about dieting, working out every day, and lying out in the sun to keep from looking awkward and pale in shorts. No wonder the girls on my campus seem to physically shrink as summer approaches. No wonder so many of my female friends go swimming in oversize t-shirts. No wonder I almost couldn’t bring myself to step onto that beach in June.
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Beyond simply being psychologically pressing, this widespread forcing of girls and women to be hypercritical of their own cosmetic value is oppressive in other ways.
Perhaps most obviously, it is a form of economic stress. The amount of money that goes into the fashion and beauty industry may be healthy for the American and global economy, but it is draining on the individual level. By volume, makeup is expensive, even if you’re not buying from department store counters: a roughly 7 mL tube of drugstore brand lip gloss runs around $8. Quantity-wise, this means the price of lip gloss is stupidly high. It would run at just over $4,000 a gallon (compared to $2.75 or $3 for milk, or $3.50 for gas). I don’t even want to think about how much “good” makeup would cost ($25 per similarly-sized tube of gloss…you do the math). Of course makeup is not used up as quickly as milk or gas, but the point still stands: it is phenomenally expensive considering its small sizing and its non-essential purpose (cosmetic vs. nutritive/transporting).
Before you protest that women don’t have to buy makeup, keep in mind that this financial sacrifice is not necessarily a purely voluntary one. The wearing of makeup is not entirely like a hobby, which is picked up at leisure and at will. The wearing of makeup is more like the wearing of clothes: sure, you can walk outside naked, but if you don’t wear clothes, society will make sure you answer for it. When it comes to makeup, women are rewarded for beautifying themselves and are negatively affected for going bare-faced. Women who wear makeup to work are perceived as being more “competent” and likeable compared to those who don’t (NY Times). Celebrities who venture out of their homes without makeup on are publicly shamed in magazines. In other words, makeup is often practically a prerequisite for the positive perception and treatment of women by the people around them. (What’s even more ridiculous than this is the fact that “natural” makeup is such a sought-after look. So we spend money on makeup…to look like we’re not wearing makeup…but not really not wearing makeup, because it’s still better than a naked face? Huh.)
Moreover, if a woman is forced to spend effort maintaining her beauty, spend money on beauty products, clothes, and related products, and is forced spend time thinking constantly about how to make and keep herself beautiful, what does this do to her day, to her week, to her life? It’s a drain on resources. That time could be spent on other things. So when we force women to pay such close attention to their physical appearances, what we as a society are doing is creating additional hurdles women must jump over in order to just keep up with the rest of society. It’s a form of disempowerment by distraction.
So what the cult of “beauty” feeds to women as a force of social regulation is essentially this:
1. We are never good enough on our own.
2. To be better, we must continually self-improve.
3. If we self-improve, we will have better lives.
4. To self-improve, we must buy and use shit.
5. If we do not buy and use shit, our perceived value decreases — both in our own eyes and the eyes of others, because…
6. …we are never good enough on our own.
And so it cycles back to the beginning.
It’s also socially poisonous. Because of the you’re-never-good-enough nature of this cycle, women who on average are considered attractive often still find themselves weighed down by low self-esteem and rampant self-doubt. If they make this known to their peers, the reaction is often hostile: “but you’re already thin,” “how can YOU have problems,” “you should be grateful for being so lucky,” “things are so easy for you,” etc. Everyone is a victim of the idea of “beauty,” but this shared victimization is not always immediately clear to a woman perceiving her friend as more beautiful than she herself is. It’s no one’s fault in particular — not the woman’s, not her friend’s, because beauty drives a wedge between women, further distracting us from the actual problem at hand.
The problem is not that our friends are prettier than we are, or that our friends are thinner than we are; the real problem is that we are being fed this idea that we need to be beautiful, and more so than the other women around us.
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Beauty is an asymptotic thing, something we are made to strive towards and are never able to reach, partly because of the more-more-more nature of marketing and consumerism, and partly because the media shows us images of women who are beautiful and tells us these women must strive to be better still.
So what’s the fix? How do we help women feel better about themselves and free them from this system of disempowerment via physical criticism?
A lot of people have been taking the “we’re all beautiful” route lately. Funnily enough, it’s mainly businesses who did this at first, taking advantage of the low self-esteem they previously created in their customers and saying, “wait, but you ARE beautiful already! Now buy our beauty product anyway!” (Hello Dove skincare, I’m looking at you.) But predictably, since American business is intimately tied with American culture, this faux-empowering attitude has trickled into everything else.
Telling women that they should love themselves because “everyone is beautiful” is not as liberating as it ostensibly sounds. Telling women that everyone is beautiful is another psychological trap.
This past Christmas, I was given a Spotify premium account, and using it, I began (quite belatedly) to explore the world of American pop. In a surprising move that was either highly fortunate or highly questionable, I found myself making my way through the albums of Selena Gomez. And I found myself bizarrely and unexpectedly soothed by them. Maybe it was because I was having a bad self-esteem day and needed comfort, or maybe I was in the throes of a narcissistic fit and wanted affirmation, but whatever the reason, I felt an instant kinship with the track “Who Says.” It told me exactly what I wanted to hear in the moment, and it did it in an unapologetically bubblegum manner:
Who says you’re not pretty?
Who says you’re not beautiful?
In this series of posed questions, “who says” isn’t literally interrogative in the manner of what are the names of the people who said these things to you; rather, Gomez (or her lyricist) is drawing attention to the supposition that no one says these things. And if no one says we’re not beautiful, then maybe we are beautiful after all. Victory! Guess all those days we spent hiding ourselves from the world were completely pointless, because now we know we’re beautiful. We have it on authority: Selena Gomez, queen of wholesome tween pop, said so. We’re fucking beautiful, guys. Shine on.
But there’s something funny at work here. Why exactly does this song make us feel better? Why does it give us a little kick of happiness and energy? Why do we, in the three or four minutes we spend listening to Miss Gomez tell us we’re gorgeous enough to “be in movies,” feel like we can suddenly don a tiny bikini or short dress and go out there and knock ‘em dead? Why is it so crucial for us to feel like this before we can allow ourselves to feel confident and valuable?
Doesn’t it make more sense to directly reject the necessity of beauty itself?
We do not, however, reject beauty. Instead, we stubbornly and repeatedly embrace it as a requirement for happiness and worth, and then we insist upon spreading it to everyone in sight. This is the problem with beauty and the problem with the recent influx of pop music, bloggers, television shows, and advertising media that tell us everyone is beautiful and we should just bask in the glow of that supposedly inspirational fact.
Anonymous denizens of the internet want us to know that we’re gorgeous and perfect just the way we are. The makers of all those different cuts of Levis jeans want us to know that every kind of shape and size is beautiful. Recently a Dove bath and beauty video campaign was released, and its foundational claim was that every woman—no matter how plain or ugly or fat she perceives herself to be—should be more “grateful [of her] natural beauty.” Many a teenage boy and girl has taken to Tumblr or Instagram to share a photo of himself or herself holding a sign that says “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL.”
And problematically, beauty is also called upon as the defining trait of girls in difficult situations: I can think of at least ten anti-cancer related films, PSAs, and images telling us that cancer patient X, though bald and pallid from chemotherapy, is “still beautiful,” and a few Crimestoppers-style public announcements telling us we should aid in the search for a missing young woman who was “so beautiful” and didn’t deserve to be abducted. Years ago I watched a 60 Minutes feature on a young murdered woman, and when her parents were interviewed for comments on how they remembered her, they had only one memory to offer the press: that she was their “most beautiful daughter.”
Beauty, beauty, beauty. It’s as if people can’t think of a better way in which to frame these discussions. But shouldn’t we value the cancer patient because she’s a person and deserves a fighting chance? Shouldn’t we value a missing or murdered woman because she was also a person and deserved a fighting chance? Instead we fixate on their physicality — namely, their beauty. We turn it into the core of our battle cries when we rally on their behalf.
The implications of this cultural obsession with calling everyone beautiful are mammoth and oppressive. This claim sounds counterintuitive, but not if you look at the situation this way: we want to be beautiful so badly that we’ve resorted to saying left and right that everyone is. We’ve begun to tell ourselves with staggering scope and frequency that the reason we are entitled to a modicum of basic self-love and self-respect is that we are beautiful, no matter what. We even — as just discussed — allow ourselves to associate the personal worth of victimized women or women fighting disease with beauty, as if beauty is the main reason these women deserve to live. And if on top of this we depend on the assumption of unquestionable, inherent beauty in order to buttress our flagging self-esteem, then that is hugely problematic. It means that we are using the terms of our oppression to further oppress ourselves without realizing it. We keep volunteering ourselves to be subjects of the tyranny of beauty, even while we simultaneously believe we have made ourselves free of it.
We’re not free. If everyone should feel confident and fulfilled because everyone is “beautiful,” then the idea of beauty is once again (and more insidiously this time) made central to our self-image, our self-value, and our concept of ourselves as worthy of, well, anything, including love and attention and success. And it tends to affect women more than men, as women are more strongly socialized to be invested in the necessity of their own physical beauty. (See: everything you have just read in this post.) How many women do you know would say, glowingly, of a romantic partner, that he or she makes them “feel beautiful”? I’m guessing it’s quite a few. But we should start to question that reaction, that feeling of being tickled pink by the feeling that we are gorgeous.
We should start to question if we need to be beautiful at all, and if we even are beautiful at all.
By questioning the pseudo-inspirational assumption of everyone’s beauty — beauty that’s everywhere, just because — we reject it, and this rejection is where the true freedom from tyranny lies. To do otherwise — that is, to cling to the hope or delusion that we’re somehow all beautiful and therefore deserve to feel good about ourselves—is to buy into the system of values by which we already felt oppressed in the first place, hence our need to adopt Christina Aguilera-esque mantras of beauty (“I am beautiful no matter what they say/ Words can’t bring me down/ I am beautiful in every single way”).
We need to divorce beauty from from self-worth and de-prioritize beauty as a prerequisite for complete and contented personhood. Once we acknowledge that not everyone is beautiful, and that we are not ourselves beautiful, and once we decide that we’re okay (or more than okay) with ourselves anyway, that will be an expression and exercise of true freedom. We don’t have to find ourselves beautiful in order to love or respect ourselves; we need only to love and respect ourselves anyway, beauty be damned.
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tl;dr version (parts of which I didn’t actually get to in the body of this post, but whatever, it’s here now):
Where beauty is concerned, women can’t win —
1. “Beauty” is a disempowering distraction created by marketing media that has bled into the social and material reality of women’s lives. We have been socialized to think of beauty as something that will help us win happiness, success, friends and partners, value, etc. We are taught that beauty will fulfill us, therefore we should strive to be beautiful. This diverts us from the direct pursuit of personal fulfillment. We begin to turn a hypercritical gaze upon our own bodies.
2. To some degree, we can pursue “beauty” with products, but that’s an endless, expensive, time-consuming journey. It is a journey designed never to have a clear destination. Hence more spending, more distraction.
4. “Beauty” divides women: if some are conventionally “prettier” than others, other women in general are not socialized to blame the cult of beauty for their own oppression, but are insidiously socialized instead to be wary of these “prettier” women.
5. Beauty can also works against women in the eyes of society in general. Those who are deemed less attractive can suffer in terms of treatment, salary, etc. Women deemed more attractive are not necessarily better off. On the internet, “pretty” girls who choose to share their own pictures are vilified as vain, dumb, and narcissistic. Beautiful women in the workplace are routinely cast as lazy, social-climbing airheads who are handed things without regard for merit. Beautiful women are often also treated as prizes to be won, as ornamental hangers-on. Female physical insecurity has even lately become a subject of romanticization in pop culture: Bruno Mars and One Direction want girls to know that their lack of confidence is attractive. This gives girls yet another headache on top of headache…now they’re not even socially ~allowed~ to think they’re pretty.
And finally, 6: the recent pop cultural insistence upon calling everyone beautiful is simply another variation on the same tune of oppression we’ve all been listening to for generations already.
So instead of thinking about how we might become more beautiful, and instead of finding ways to think about ourselves as beautiful, how about getting comfortable with ourselves regardless of our looks? Why don’t we purge homeliness and plainness of negativity, and stop seeking physical improvement as if our self-worth depends on it?
We don’t need to be pretty to feel worthwhile.
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