2016 Faves: "The Beauty Myth - 26 Years On"

As it's International Women's Day, we wanted to revive another one of the Parallel team's favourite pieces from the print magazines in 2016. The Beauty Myth: 26 Years On was selected as one of the most popular pieces from issue 6. Written by Amy Walker and Jenna Mahale, with visuals by Victoria Chetley, it tackles a subject that affects millions of women and girls worldwide: body image.

I think it's vital to look back on and reflect historical texts such as 'The Beauty Myth' and see where they stand in modern times, which this article does very well, while also informing the reader of things that affect body image today.

The Beauty Myth - 26 Years On

Trigger warning for dieting, depression, anxiety, and rape

The 1990s are often considered as the era where feminism won. Tony Blair was elected to government with a cabinet of 101 female MPs, the most there has ever been in Parliament to date, rape within marriage finally became a crime in the UK, and the Spice Girls took over the world with their feisty attitudes and “Girl Power!” It was also in the 90s where Naomi Wolf published her landmark book The Beauty Myth. That means that a girl born at the time The Beauty Myth was released will now be in her mid-twenties; and whilst combat trousers and butterfly hair clips may be but a distant, embarrassing memory, the insidious force of the beauty myth remains stronger than ever.

The Beauty Myth claims that as women in the west advanced in many social, political, and economic arenas, standards of physically beauty were more aggressively enforced on women, as a way to reinforce patriarchal hegemony. However, Wolf asserts these rigorous beauty standards are actually nothing to do with appearances - they are about female behaviour. 

A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.
[Wolf, N. 1991: The Beauty Myth. Vintage.]

Just as women in the west were confined to the home and forced to carry out domestic labour in the past, The Beauty Myth ensures women are controlled and remain subordinate to men. As many women in the 1960s in the US and Europe began to reject their unfilled, domesticated lifestyles, The Beauty Myth came through as ‘the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.’  So not only does this ensure male dominance by encouraging women to compete with each other for resources men have appropriated for themselves, but it also weakens women psychologically, and can lead to disorders such as depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety.

The pressure for women to look a certain way is a real problem that continues to shape many women’s lives from all over the world. In the UK today, girls as young as five years old are worried about their appearance and their size, and 70% of adult women have reported to have felt pressure from television and magazines to have a perfect body.

Recently, The Daily Mail published an article with the headline ‘Half of all Teenage Girls Diet.’ The article draws upon a study where half of the girls aged 13 to 14 admitted they were trying to slim, despite only 30% of them believing they were overweight. The article subtly blames ‘high profile waiflike celebrities’ and fashion models as the reason why so many young girls are conscious about their weight. But as you scroll down the page to read the article, other Daily Mail stories are promoted on the side banner with headlines such as; ‘Geordie Shore’s Marnie Simpson showcases her recent weightloss as she slips her toned curves into daring white swimsuits on sun-soaked trip’ and ‘Millie Mackintosh looks tanned and toned in final sizzling bikini snap from Portugal trip.’ Clearly the writers over there have never heard of irony... or snappy headlines, for that matter. 

As well as weight loss, the amount of women turning to cosmetic surgery is steadily increasing.  More than 50,000 cosmetic surgery procedures were carried out in the UK in 2013. Of those, 45,365 of them were on women, with breast augmentation accounting for 11,123 off the total procedures. These are just some of the many examples that highlight the time, money, pain, and labour women invest in order to be beautiful. Shockingly, this time and effort arguably does not translate in to women actually believing they are beautiful. In a study by Dove, it was found that only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful, and that only 1% of British women would use the word beautiful to describe the way they look. In other words, it would seem that despite the billions that are spent on beauty practices; cosmetic procedures, hair care products, makeup, skin care, diets etc, British women still do not identify with the word beautiful. 

Although these statistics are telling, though perhaps not surprising, what is surprising is that a multi-million dollar corporation such as Dove would spend time and resources into researching this phenomena. The reason this is paradoxical to me is simply that if women didn’t hate their appearances, Dove, as just one example, would lose a massive proportion of their target market. This brings me on to a rather different side of the debate on beauty standards, and that is capitalism.


As everyone knows, capitalism is an all encompassing evil that must be stopped. Or to put it another way, it is ‘an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.’  Much of this system relies on consumerism, the idea that we derive our worth from the material objects we buy (as opposed to the work we produce). Consumerism has become such an integral part of our lives in the west because we assign certain symbolic values to commodities, and so want to posses those commodities as a way to assert something about ourselves. Consumerism works by creating solutions to problems before they’re even problems. Products don’t sell just by simply existing, they sell because they play on our insecurities and/or our desire to make life just that little bit easier. This is true of any commodity, but beauty brands in particular rely on capitalising on anxieties you probably didn’t even know you had until you saw the advert.


The Language of Cosmetic Capitalism

Companies have crafted products as answers to spectrum of supposed issues, marketing to the young and the old. Primarily directed towards those who fall into the bracket of ‘mature skin’ (a bracket, I should mention, which has now widened to include women in their 20s) are products to stem the ‘signs of ageing’, be they initial or longstanding. Simple’s Regeneration Age Resisting Day Cream is an example of a product that claims it “fights premature ageing” in young women: an entirely oxymoronic phrase in itself, implying that ageing is not a constant, ongoing part of life, rather a specific period of time one should attempt to delay by investment. It seems that corporations targeting this group are earnestly encouraging women to wage a war against the passage of time.

The Greek prefix ‘anti’ meaning ‘against,’ ‘in opposition to,’ and even ‘hostile to’, is used in many product names: for example, Nivea’s Vital Anti-Age Spot Concentrate implies this. However, many of these brands maintain a focus on the superficial, the Spot Concentrate (and products like it) promises that it “helps visibly correct the look of age spots”, as of course ageing is inevitable, yet it is something we are meant to be ‘anti’. Garnier Skin Naturals Miracle Skin Cream: Anti-Ageing Skin Transforming Care uses a similar semantic field to Nivea’s. ‘Transforming’ is particularly interesting dictation as it is a bold claim, pledging an entire metamorphosis. Further than that it speaks to the state one’s face must be in to need ‘transforming’, or require a skin cream qualified by the ‘miracle’ it can work.

Young, usually adolescent, women are the target demographic of the majority of cosmetic marketing. Oily-skinned, emotionally vulnerable teenagers who don’t have total responsibility of their finances make for excellent customers. Bioré’s Deep Cleansing Charcoal Pore Strips posit that they ‘free your pores’ a near-absurdist notion that they are imprisoned by something. Playing on the idea of perception once again — once can ‘see 3x less oil’. It has been suggested that this may in fact be detrimental to your skin’s composition, namely its sebaceous filaments. These are a permanent facial feature; their appearance can be reduced, but they cannot actually be removed. Stirring women, as Bioré does, to extract all the ‘dirty’ spots in one’s face can cause anxiety in the more perfection-inclined in a way that could escalate to conditions such as dermatillomania. ‘Correctors’, like Garnier’s Skin Naturals Dark Spot Corrector, imply mistakes you are responsible for rectifying.

The subset of products this particular one falls into, promoting the ‘evening out’ of one’s complexion, has for a long time been a mode for promoting skin lightening products to women of colour: rather than ‘whitening’ the skin, you’re ‘brightening’ or ‘illuminating’, concepts thinly veiling the oppressive Eurocentric beauty ideal behind them. Hindustan Unilever Limited, the Indian subsidiary of Unilever, examines the impetus behind women complying with this shockingly pervasive ideal:

90% of Indian women want to use whiteners because it is aspirational, like losing weight. A fair skin is like education, regarded as a social and economic step up. 

There is an unfortunate tendency to compare the skin lightening industry to the skin tanning industry. Firstly, this is a view entrenched in diasporic experience, and so inapplicable to the majority of communities of colour. Secondly, it is an entirely false equivalence. Having tanned skin is simply not a standard reinforced by social structures. It is also important to remember that a purchased tan doesn’t look the same as inherited duskiness does. For centuries, dark skin has carried associations of lower-class living and ‘dirtiness’. Today these implications are much less prominent, replaced by the notion that proximity to the Eurocentric ideal equates to beauty. Indicative of this issue is a 2007 television advertisement for Fair & Lovely, in which the male protagonist (Saif Ali Khan) essentially elects to romantically pursue whichever woman has the paler skin: initially he is involved with the fair-skinned Neha Dhupia, though the darker-skinned Priyanka Chopra wistfully longs for a romance between them. The advertisements play out in parts like a miniature television serial, culminating in Priyanka Chopra’s romantic victory, courtesy of a whitening facial cream. Of Couse, this is a devastating message to send to women and girls: commercials like these place unnecessary emphasis on the importance of romantic relationships and in turn dictate that one is only worthy of this love once they are beautiful. And this beauty must take the form of pallor. Today, Chopra is a self-identifying feminist and somewhat of a role model for Indian girls. She says of the her previous endorsement of the product:

I was such a kid, I didn't even know what I was doing then — I was like 22 or something. But I realised that it made me feel how I felt as a kid. I used to, jokingly, be called 'kali' by my family and that means 'dark girl.' It made me really conscious of what I looked like. I used to use those [whitening] products as a kid and I thought they would work and I guess I grew from that. That experience taught me that that's not something I want to do.

Unfortunately, Chopra is not the only celebrity feminist to support skin lightening: even a lauded figure like Emma Watson promotes these sorts of cosmetics. In 2011, she was the face of Lancôme’s Blanc Expert (Expert White) range. Their foam cleanser claims to remove “skin cells charged with melanin” — many of these ‘illuminating’ cosmetics interfere with or suppress the production of melanin, a compound which protects the skin from UV rays. Companies often construe ridding oneself of melanin as a manner of cleansing, which of course is harmful, as it increases vulnerability to skin cancer. So in this way, these skin lighteners could even be considered as carcinogenic as those containing substances like mercury and hydroquinone.

The cosmetic industrial complex has long abused the power of language, from taking advantage of women’s trust to manipulating their social vulnerabilities. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop anytime soon.

What all of these messages tell us; from adverts, to billboards, to celebrity endorsements, is that women’s natural bodies are wrong. We are told time and time again that our stomachs aren’t toned enough, our bums aren’t peachy enough, our skin isn’t clear enough, our teeth aren’t white enough, our lips aren’t plump enough, our hair isn’t shiny enough, our eyelashes aren’t long enough, and perhaps one of the most ridiculous of all, the space between our thighs is not wide enough. And if you’re tired of keeping up with all this crap, then this concealer will cover those dark circles, sister!

In the end, what modern capitalism teaches us is that women must be beautiful above all else , or risk being punished; but it also tells us that womanhood itself is measured against an idealised standard of feminine beauty that is simultaneously a commodity that can be bought, and a standard that can never be achieved. This not only imposes restrictions on cis women who are influenced to feel insecure about the way they look, but it also causes even more problems for transwomen and non-binary folks who are expected to conform to rigid forms of gender expression in order to “pass”.

With all this being said, it becomes easier to argue that capitalism relies on The Beauty Myth, because women who hate their bodies are profitable. Journalist Laurie Penny words this perfectly;

The ways in which contemporary capitalism undermines women’s bodies, from advertising to pornography to the structures of gendered labour and domestic conflict, are not private troubles with no bearing upon the wider world. They are necessary fetters in a superstructure of oppression that has become so fundamental to the experience of femininity that it is effectively invisible. This superstructure is vital to the very survival of the patriarchal capitalist machine. If all women on earth woke up tomorrow feeling truly positive and powerful in their own bodies, the economies of the globe would collapse overnight.
[Penny, L. 2011: Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism. Zero Books, pp. 2.]

Whilst I personally stand firmly in the “beauty ideals are oppressive for women” camp, I do not believe that beauty practices should be given up by everyone on the planet, or that beauty is bad in and of itself. Rather it’s the fact that some women feel they must consume in order to be taken seriously as women that is the problem. In other words, our society needs to work out that womanhood and femininity are not the same thing, that beauty should not be the top priority for women to achieve, and that women should not be judged on their appearance. Maybe then we wouldn’t have such a huge amount of the population who hate the way they look, and instead accept our bodily differences as just that, differences.

The sad part is this is difficult to see happening because the shift doesn’t just need to be social or cultural, it also needs to be political and economical. While ever huge corporations profit from women who feel insecure about their appearance, it’s always going to make sense to influence us to feel that way. And so accepting the way you look in a climate that constantly tells you you shouldn’t becomes a radical thing.

For I conclude that the enemy is not lipstick, but guilt itself; that we deserve lipstick, if we want it, AND free speech; we deserve to be sexual AND serious--or whatever we please; we are entitled to wear cowboy boots to our own revolution – Naomi Wolf.

Words by Jenna Mahale & Amy Walker
Visuals by Victoria Chetley