What cost beauty?
Inventing problems with women’s (and now men’s) bodies and offering a ‘cure’ fuels the multi-billion dollar beauty industry.
LADIES, I have good news and bad news. The first piece of good news is that I will never again begin a column with the word “ladies” because typing that opener makes me cringe at the thought of one too many all-female e-mail threads organising Sunday brunches and bachelorette parties.
The second piece of good news is that American Apparel and Cameron Diaz say you can stop waxing all your pubic hair off. The bad news: you need to start deodorising under your boobs.
I can already hear your objections: “But the area under my boobs doesn’t stink!” or “What kind of marketing genius not only came up with the term “swoob”, but actually thought half the world’s population might be dumb enough to buy into it?” or simply, “This is a dumb product aimed at inventing an insecurity and then claiming to cure it.”
You would be correct on all three points. In fact, inventing problems with women’s bodies and then offering a cure – if you pay up – is the primary purpose of the multibillion dollar beauty industry.
More than 20 years ago, Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth challenging that exact phenomenon. Since then, the industry has only gotten bigger, and the range of made-up problems women need to “cure” only wider.
Women spend billions every year on beauty products, and that’s not including the the money they spend on plastic surgery.
Poke around and you’ll find a laundry list of painful-sounding or bizarre procedures, from labia trimming to anal bleaching to freezing your facial muscles with poison to prevent wrinkles. But even relatively benign and basic beauty upkeep would look awfully strange to an alien landing on our planet.
The women wear shoes that are pointy and unstable and make it impossible to walk, and they rip out hair from everywhere but their heads but then they paint extra hair on their eyes, and they turn their fingernails colours found nowhere in nature, and they paint their lips impossible shades of red and pink and orange, and they draw lines around their eyelids and put colour on top, and they try to make their whole bodies skinny except their butts and their boobs, which they sometimes fill with gelatinous sacks. We are an incredibly strange species.
Of course, human beings throughout history have altered their appearance, to indicate membership in a group, to denote status or to appear attractive.
What counts as “attractive” may vary wildly across cultures and traditions, but the pursuit of beauty is important to many human beings in many different societies around the world.
An interest in the aesthetic isn’t weakness or vanity. It’s the foundation of art, of design, of architecture, of many of any given culture’s most treasured developments.
It’s not shallow or frivolous for women and men to interest ourselves in our own personal aesthetic, devoting time and care to how we look. There can be an art in dressing and doing your hair and make up, not to mention a femalecentric passing down of traditions and practices. Lipstick alone is not propping up the patriarchy.
But socially obliging women as a class to present in a certain way that necessitates the expenditure of time, money and effort is.
No one is legally required to shave their legs, blow dry their hair, get a facial or wear lipstick. But if you don’t wear make up, you can be fired for it, and many employers have dress codes that require a full done-up face. And don’t get to thinking that striving for attractiveness will solve your problems. Employers can fire you for that, too.
Beauty also pays you back. Beautiful women (and men) earn much more than their averagelooking or unattractive counterparts. But beauty, especially for women, isn’t so much inborn as an achievement. That truth is simplified in the teen movie trope of the nerdy girl transforming into a babe by whipping off her glasses and shaking her hair out of its ponytail, but the fact is that beauty is about a whole lot more than just genes – it’s not just that it can be bought, it’s that it usually has to be.
Yes, there are the lucky few who were born looking like our particular cultural ideal, but there are many more who are able to pay to come close. Think investments like braces to fix crooked teeth, whitening to fix a yellowed smile, dermatology for flawless skin, gym memberships and pricey healthy diets for a toned body, a skilled hairdresser and colourist for lovely hair, manicures and pedicures, well-made on-trend clothing, good make up and someone to teach you how to apply it, not to mention the luxury of time for daily workouts, careful shopping and the necessary beauty appointments.
You don’t have to be rich to look great. But it sure does help.
That’s because many of the ways we look “great” are about projecting a particular class status. Sometimes it’s about being in the know about trends or ways of wearing particular items; sometimes it’s just about signaling wealth; sometimes it’s about indicating that you probably also live in a particular kind of neighborhood and enjoy a particular kind of book and listen to a par- ticular kind of music. But women stand on ever-shifting grounds of “appropriate” physical presentation, and we’re pulled by what we enjoy, what we want to signify, and what we’re supposed to exhibit.
All of that costs us money and time. It’s never about finally being beautiful and getting to just exist as a pretty person. It’s about achieving beauty. It’s a series of efforts and improvements and rituals, and ongoing work of beautifying yourself. There’s always something else that could be improved or fixed.
And when we live in a society where people make enormous sums of money selling unnecessary things to other people, you can bet that the stakes of acceptability continually get higher. – Guardian News & Media