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Saturday, 11 May 2013

Are you a slave to the beauty industry?


Recently I've been thinking and talking a lot about beauty and what it means, in relation to the beauty/cosmetics industry. I've also come across many related articles/events/ideas, including Dove Real Beauty Sketches, local accounts of the increasing trend in plastic surgery, posts and comments written by others that challenge ideas of beauty circulating in society. It's a topic close to my heart as I'm participating in the beauty industry by writing about cosmetics and other beauty products. I've grown to become rather disillusioned about the way the industry works, and am questioning the direction that "beauty blogging" will take me and my blog. As such, I've decided to dole out some tough love to everyone who takes an interest in the beauty industry.

First off, I want to share this saying that I've come across:

There are no ugly women, only lazy ones

It's famously attributed to Helena Rubinstein, a beauty/business mogul who became one of the richest women in the world after earning a fortune through her cosmetics line. Some use this saying in jest, and others in terrible magazine advice columns. I'm using it to show you why this idea of beauty is exactly the sort of mentality that's fuelling the self-esteem issues many women face. The beauty industry is guilty too, as it encourages this mentality through selling women products by making them think there's something wrong with them in the first place.

Let's start by breaking down Helena Rubinstein's quote:
  1. There are no ugly women
  2. Women who are considered ugly by society are "lazy" i.e. unwilling to make the effort to look attractive by societal standards
If we put these two ideas together, we see how it's implying that all women should look reasonably attractive. The "ugly" ones are just those who do not put in the effort to look attractive. It upsets me to say that I've seen this play out in real life, with people commenting on women who do not seem to care as much about their appearance, or do not put in as much effort with their appearance. These women are ridiculed for not "trying" to look attractive, and people lament the fact that they could look so much more attractive if they just put in the effort. People also make nasty comments about how these women should improve their appearance or risk being "left on the shelf" and single. There's the underlying notion that if only these women could just "bring out their inner beauty", they would be so much more attractive, confident and happy.

I disagree with that.

Some people are born more physically attractive (in accordance to societal standards e.g. more symmetrical and youthful looking faces), or they do things to look more attractive e.g. make up and plastic surgery. I can understand the impulse to look more physically attractive, even if it conforms to societal standards, as we're all social beings. Just as some people do certain activities to be perceived as having attractive qualities (e.g. playing musical instruments, body building, belly dancing, writing etc), others do certain things to their appearances to look more physically attractive. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be more attractive, given that it does boost self-esteem to be perceived in a positive way by others. There is, however, something wrong with assuming that everyone else has the same priorities, and criticising them based on a reductive social pecking order which goes something like this:

Women who choose to make the effort to look more attractive = good
Women who are unwilling to make the effort to look more attractive = bad

What's worse is that it doesn't stop there. Under certain circumstances, which include certain kinds of jobs, situations (e.g. motherhood) and even more mundane ones (e.g. family gatherings), women are criticised for looking too attractive, which apparently detracts from the role they are supposed to play. The reasons given for having such opinions of these women are that their attractiveness is "inappropriate" for the situation. In these cases:

Women who choose to make the effort to look more attractive = bad
Women who do not make the effort to look more attractive = good

I know that categorising these two opinions are "good" or "bad" is very reductive, but this is exactly what's going on - women's choices in relation to their physical attractiveness are moralised and judged no matter what. It's either the case that the burden is on the woman to look attractive in accordance to societal standards, otherwise they are dismissed as being "lazy" and unworthy of (mostly male) attention, or they are criticised for looking "overly" attractive for the role they are supposed to play. All these opinions are based on societal standards of attractiveness, which are very pervasive and have been there (and will be there) for a long time. It also doesn't help that

The media and the beauty industry create and propagate societal standards of physical attractiveness

This is not news at all. Both the media and the beauty industry circulate pictures of models and celebrities with flawless skin and physically attractive features based on the prevailing social standard of physical beauty. Photoshop can make eyes and breasts look bigger, while slimming down faces, waists and legs, in accordance to a societal ideal of beauty. The knowledge that these images are doctored is not enough to rid women of all ages of their insecurities. Young girls who grow up with these images imprinted in their minds could be strongly affected and could consciously or subconsciously compare themselves to these illusions of beauty. Being bombarded by these images of physical beauty every single day could eventually lead to nagging insecurities about physical appearance, and if taken far enough, would lead to social anxiety and disorders (e.g. anorexia, bulimia). Even though people eventually realise how many of these images are doctored, it's far too late for them to remain unaffected by social standards of beauty and the opinions of others.

Have you heard of the girl who refused to take off her make up for two years because she wanted to look perfect all the time? This is an extreme example of how societal standards of physical beauty can strongly affect a person's self perception. The idea of perfection that the girl was trying to live up to clearly aligns with the societal standard of beauty that is circulated in the media and the beauty industry, wherein photoshopped images show extremely physically attractive faces and bodies that become idealised as "perfect". (note: I am aware that the fashion industry is also complicit in this, but I'm focusing on the beauty industry here). While the girl I've mentioned is an extreme case of the effects of this idea of beauty, there are many other cases occurring amongst women and girls. Using make up to "correct" "flawed" features, such as small eyes or a wide jawline, is one example. Using plastic surgery or invasive procedures to do the same is another way to provide a more permanent "fix". People have become obsessed with "correcting" parts of themselves that do not fit into the societal standard of beauty, and women are most frequently victims of such a mentality. Even people who are supposedly higher on the pecking order of beauty are victims too, as there will forever be an image that is "more beautiful" than their self-perception.

I believe that the problem lies with these societal standards of beauty and the people/organisations who perpetuate them. They make a profit from selling women the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong and imperfect about their physical appearance, which they can change with these products. It's not just about helping women to feel better about themselves in a positive manner; it's about profiting from their insecurities that stem from the same images created and circulated by the industry itself. I do recognise some companies like Illamasqua who don't focus so much on these "imperfections", but celebrate women and their uniqueness through creative uses of make up. I really loved their I'mperfection collection (punning on imperfection and I'm perfection) that sends out a completely different message than that of conformity. Other companies such as Sugarpill also stress creativity and expression through make up rather than conformity to a beauty standard. I believe that such companies have the potential to be game changers in a beauty industry that stresses conformity.

Unfortunately, the majority of what I'm seeing in the beauty industry and the media seems to lean more towards covering up or correcting "imperfections" instead of accepting and celebrating individuality. As long as the message of conformity to a beauty standard is widely circulated, women will continue to feel insecure about their appearances, to varying degrees. I'm not saying that after reading this article, all insecurities felt by women will magically disappear. I'm not saying that my insecurities will disappear after writing such an article, or that I wish for the beauty industry to go out of business. I'm not even saying that I will stop using beauty products, or that I'm judging those who do. Here's what I hope for all women, including myself, to be able to do, or at least to try to do:

  1. Be aware and accepting of our bodies the way they are
  2. Don't use societal standards of beauty to judge ourselves and others
  3. Don't let such standards tell us that we're imperfect and have flaws that need to be fixed
  4. Realise that companies sell ideas and images of beauty for the sake of profit, therefore (3.)
As long as your body is healthy and functioning well, there's nothing really wrong with you. I'm not condoning excess of neglect; I'm not saying that people should just do whatever they want without adequate concern for their physical and social well-being. I do see something positive in allowing people such as accident victims or people born with certain health conditions to use beauty products and cosmetic surgery to make their lives better. I also think that using make up or beauty products as a way of creative expression, with the face/body as canvas, is perfectly fine. What I don't agree with is those people/organisations who tell others that there's something fundamentally flawed and imperfect about them, and that those flaws have to be fixed in order for them to fit into a standard of beauty that is socially constructed. The more women fall prey to such a mentality, the more they will influence other women to also become victims of this social pressure. Living in such a world, the hardest thing to do is to

Accept yourself.

It's also the best way to (try to) escape from these standards that eat away at self-worth. Don't be a slave to the beauty industry or the beauty standards it perpetuates. Don't buy into the rhetoric that others are feeding you, because they are profiting from making you feel more insecure about yourself. Use make up and beauty products, but don't let these things cripple your self-esteem or confidence, and don't let it become an obsession that feeds into a vicious cycle of paying through the nose to "fix" yourself, yet never feeling content with the way you look. Don't let make up (or surgery) become your beauty crutch. That's the lesson I've learnt from beauty blogging.


Rachel loves sharing about the beautiful things in life from different perspectives. She writes on beauty and lifestyle in Cherchez Beauté, and does more abstract stuff on Antelune. When she's not writing, she's playing with her dog Holly, doodling and reading fiction. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.