The Beauty Myth

Yesterday morning I stepped out of the shower and reached for my big, trusty pot of Nivea Soft moisturiser. It was empty. I started fretting. As I use soap and water to wash with – my skin is dry after a shower. And so I dashed over to the chemist to remedy my flaking face but nearly fell over when I saw that a tub of (what used to be one of the cheapest moisturisers on the market) is now nearly £7. I had a similar shock when the only other ‘beauty product’ I use – Palmer’s Cocoa Butter – cost me a fiver.

I returned home and started thinking about why I use these products, when I started and why (most) men don’t feel a desperate need to smother themselves in sweet-smelling cocoa butter and Nivea face moisturiser when they step out of the shower.

Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, published in 1990, discusses – in the opening – the progress that women were making in the 70s: legal and reproductive rights, entering higher education – as well as trades and professions. Wolf then goes on to suggest that in 1990, womens’ progress stalled. A rise in eating disorders, cosmetic surgeries, pornography and general body-hatred seemed to be the product of a backlash against second-wave feminism – whereby women were persuaded that beauty is a powerful, political weapon.

Wolf explains that the beauty myth tells a story: ‘the quality called ‘beauty’ objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it. An imperative for women and not for men, it is necessary and natural because it is biological, sexual and evolutionary: strong men battle for beautiful women, and beautiful women are more reproductively successful.’

She then looks at various aspects of our culture and society – and how women are being repressed: they starve themselves to achieve the right body shape, undergo surgery – for the same reason, succumb to male demands of what ‘beautiful’ looks like (often dictated by pornography) and stem their own sexual appetites in order to appear more feminine.

In 2012 – the picture is no less depressing. In fact, it’s a lot worse. Psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach works tirelessly to debunk the commonly-believed myth that (so-called) beauty products – and surgeries – equate to higher self-esteem and success.

She contributes to the website Any Body – promoting body confidence for all women – of all shapes and sizes – and challenging the body-hatred perpetrators: plastic surgeons, the manufacturers of ‘beauty’ products which promise to correct our wrinkles and reverse the ageing process, and the fashion industry.

The beauty industry generates billions of pounds each year through making women feel as if not buying into this world will make them ugly, unpopular, undesired and unsuccessful. We need the latest; most fashionable clothes, the cosmetic products that extend our eyelashes furthest, the surgery that enhances our breasts/arses – or reduces our thighs/ calves/ chins/ tummies – to fit the body-ideal.

And so many of us buy into it.

It is no longer our sole aim to achieve through a career, or motherhood, or charity work, or activism – it is now our aim to do all of those things but to be beautiful whilst doing it. Because however successful a woman is in her career – if she’s not also attractive, she is lacking. Unlike her male counterparts. This was illustrated in Miriam O’Reilly, ex-Countryfile presenter’s ageism case against the BBC – she felt that she was being told her experience and expertise weren’t enough – she also had to look good (read: young).

In a society where body hatred is rife and so many ‘remedies’ are deemed acceptable, it is difficult to determine how a woman should treat her body. At a talk by Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism, a few years ago – I remember her asking the audience if it is acceptable for women to be putting themselves, and their bodies, through painful epilation each month – to fit with the pornified image of what female genitalia should look like (bald, pre-pubescent). Waxing is painful – and I agree with Walters that it needs to be addressed – but I couldn’t help wondering: Do you wax each month, Natasha?

The reason feminism is still being discussed, debated and written about – is because inequality remains prevalent. Women are confused about whether it’s ok to wear red lipstick, wax their legs, rock out with a mini-dress, give themselves a few extra inches with some stilettos. My understanding of feminism is equality between men and women – and so rather than the beauty industry turning on men – putting pressure on them to gel their hair/ wax their backs/ pay for expensive haircuts/ have their penises enlarged – we should be shifting all pressure away from vanity.

Who cares whether or not Natasha Walter waxes?

We should celebrate sporting achievements (as we did with the Olympics this year), literary achievements (as we did with Hilary Mantel’s second Booker prize this month), visual arts (the Turner Prize), successful chefs, great musicians: Brit awards, MOBOs – and all other achievements that do not require participants to adhere to the beauty-ideal in order to succeed.

My first step in shifting from vanity to productivity was just before I began writing this piece. I hate mascara – but sometimes feel a bit more ‘awake’ or ‘complete’ with it on and so I went upstairs to put some on. But just before the brush touched my lashes I decided than instead of coating myself in that sticky, black horrible stuff – I would spend that time writing this. And so I’m sitting, make-up free, feeling a much greater sense of satisfaction now than I would have had I merely applied my make-up and twiddled my thumbs for an hour.

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