The myth of beauty
It’s Bank Holiday Monday and I popped into town on the way home from lunch to grab some beauty bits.
A disclaimer- I am no fashionista! Most of the time I have a pineapple head, no make up and am wearing training gear or my dressing gown.
I have a complicated relationship with beauty as many women do. I know the theories, I have taught on the Beauty Myth, I had read the feminist literature that asserts the beauty industry is nothing more than an apparatus of the patriarchy and oppresses us by consent. And I am shamed to say that I once bought into this narrative.
I started reading feminist literature aged 14 and being the cliche that I am, I started with radical feminism. Yet I see these same simplistic notions being rolled out in 2020. The nuances are lost.
After being diagnosed with PTSD in 2017 I felt lost. I gave up on myself. I was painfully skinny and grey in the face. My hair came out in patches. PTSD took my identity away.
I have always enjoyed clothes, blogs, beauty, Instagram. In primary school I collected nail polishes and by secondary school I scoured every ‘girls’ magazine’ I could get my hands on. I would cut out the photos and we would share comments in a book. The old school version of Instagram!
None of this was to please the male gaze. Painting my nails black and getting blue highlights (my hair has been every colour and length you can think of!) was not for men. Most fashion and beauty is not for women, it’s for ourselves and other women.
Beauty as currency and plastic surgery
Of course Wolf was right, in that beauty does have currency, and we are making choices within a pre-programmed culture that has gendered expectations. But of course Wolf was also writing from a White middle-class American position. As with any bestselling text, nuance doesn’t sell.
I wrote about the sociology of plastic surgery here.
I worked in one of the most beauty-focused industries on earth. I had lip fillers at 18, breast implants, was addicted to fake tan and sunbeds, had extensions, and was obsessed with my weight. I understand the pressures of the beauty myth more than many people. I lived it. My looks were literally my money. I blogged about my breast explant here. It was my own experiences of having my 400cc implants removed that solidified my interest in medical sociology and the gendered harms of medicine.
Bring Beauty Back
The recent Bring Beauty Back campaign was a response to the misogynistic and classist government decision that we could go golfing or get beard trims, but that facial treatments in the beauty salon were forbidden. This meant that many beauty shop owners, (the majority of whom are young working class women) went for nearly 6 months without their income. For many shops it is eyebrows, lashes and facials that are their main earner. Do men notice our skin is fresh from dermabrasion or our eyebrows have been recently HD’d? No they don’t. And we don’t care.
Infact it quite the opposite. Many men openly mock the ‘scouse brow’ and heavy make up. We know from my thoughts on Aintree here that women and places were are deemed excessive experience symbolic violence. We are aligned with dirt, disgust, contagion. We are the pollutant. Bodies who are deemed excessive are regulated and punished.
In a similar fashion, whilst women are pressured to conform to the eurocentric standard of beauty (I am certainly not saying the beauty industry is not problematic or complex) – women who enjoy their image and selves are mocked and derided. I write on selfies here.
Women who spend time and money on themselves are judged to be vacuous, bimbos, self-indulgent, dangerous. It is deemed acceptable when our bodies are being used to sell everything from burgers to cars, but not when we produce and celebrate our own images.
Even wearing leggings is seen to be a dangerous act for women. Rape culture teaches us that if our bodies are ‘excessive’ in any way they will incite violence against us.
It is often other women with their internalised misogyny who try and shame women who are interested in beauty practices. You only have to look at the high-profile trolling of reality TV stars and influencers to see how entrenched this hatred for hyper-visible women is. Women who ‘love themselves’ are bullied, they are ‘taken down a peg or two’. Because if you are a confident woman, you will not do. You might speak back, reject being banished indoors and having no time or money to spend on yourself with the people you choose. The more freedom we have been given, the more they claw it back. Heaven forbid we resent the unpaid double shift of domestic labour on top of full time jobs.
The silence on twitter from academics was unsurprising when beauticians were desperately seeking support for the Bring Beauty Back campaign. Getting a facial or a lip wax is seen as frivolous and is misunderstood. Salons represent women-centred spaces. Many of us will disclose more personal information to our nail tech than to our therapist or GP. I have experienced more female solidarity in a beauty shop than at a feminist academic conference.
Campaigns to raise awareness of domestic abuse have been carried out in the hair and beauty industry.
I used to explore these issues at LJMU Sociology on Body Politics. Now I will be exploring them at UOL in SOCI103, SOCI256 and SOCI349.
I realised today that not only do I enjoy clothes and beauty, but they are actually one of my hobbies. I like scrolling the gram and screen grabbing images, I like reading fashion and beauty blogs. I used to feel guilty that this was a waste of my time, but it brings me pleasure and stirs creativity in other areas of my life.
It is a hobby I share with my 78 old mother who loves a bit of glam, and one of my closest friends who is 81. Many women of all ages enjoy expressing themselves through clothes and hair, and enjoy beauty rituals.
If you find yourself mocking women who work in the beauty industry, or who you see as excessive or carnival-esque, you need to look deeper at what is happening. If you think women should be demure and ‘respectable’ then your raging misogyny is showing and I I would totes recommend a glycolic peel, left on forever.
What do you think of beauty? Connect @princessjack