I remember reading Naomi Wolf’s book, “The Beauty Myth,” about 10 years ago and having a revelation about how we, as a society conceptualize value and beauty. This is an AWESOME book which delineates so many ways that beauty is used as a measure of value for women and a tool for oppression in so many capacities. I think about this topic quite often, because I am a person who is expected to abide by these rules and standards at all times. But one reason that I have been more acutely aware of this set of standards is because of the implications it has with respect to women’s civil liberties. Kind of like the way that you can tell if a train is approaching by feeling the vibrations in the tracks women should be perking up their ears every time a new beauty trend is escalated to new levels, because it probably means they about to lose some rights because they are too distracted with trying to maintain impossible beauty standards.
Maybe this seems alarmist, so let’s break it down and look at some ways that the beauty routines that women are expected to ascribe to help keep women from having equality in their rights:
Women spend a significantly greater amount of time creating their “look” to present to society than men do. The average women spends 55 minutes or more getting ready in the morning (according to this completely sexist article I found!) These facts and figures of course totally vary and look differently depending on the ethnicity of the woman. Women spend copious amounts of time to create a second self, a “better” self that is more satisfactory for public consumption through routines of putting on makeup, manipulating hair, foundation garments, and finally clothing. All this, to achieve a desired, “natural look.” The idea that is constantly reinforced to women is that the way that they actually look naturally is terrible and completely inferior. And as the article I used above highlights, there is even criticism for how much time a woman should be spending on herself; too much and she is a vain narcissist or insecure, and not enough and she doesn’t take care of herself, how sad for everyone. But that is only accounting for the daily routines. Then there are the maintenance routines which are WAY more time consuming.
I spent 6 hours getting my hair done the other day. SIX HOURS. And then had to pay a zillion dollars on top of that. The equivalent of almost a standard work day, sitting in a salon to achieve a desired physical aesthetic. And I am a white woman. I was listening to, “2 Dope Queens,” an awesome podcast that you must listen to immediately, and the two female hosts who are both African American and were both describing the amount of time it takes them to have their hair done. One woman said 8+ hours. It shows that society does not value women’s time.
Most women engage in various levels of beauty maintenance, I am by far an exception, but depending on how many beauty routines you have, you are spending quite a lot of quality time that should be yours to use however you like, to fulfill beauty standards. From shaving your legs, to exfoliating your skin, to anti-aging routines, to face masks, eyebrow threading, botox, waxing, to hair care, to nail care, to facials, to clothes shopping, to tanning, to laser hair removal, to working out, that doesn’t leave time for much else. It’s amazing women have time to go to work with all of these routines and some people would argue that working out isn’t a beauty routine, but if it’s to achieve a specific physical appearance then, yes it is! But it certainly leaves very little time for meaningful social engagement. I could have spent that 6 hours writing postcards to members of congress, knocking on doors in my community, helping people register to vote. But instead, I have pink hair now and am out $400.
Makeup and beauty products cost a shit ton of money. I can’t even tell you how many times I have walked out of Sephora with a bag that’s the size of a Chinese food take out container and a receipt for well over $100. What the fuck did I just buy? Happiness, of course. All it costs it every penny that you have.
Women spend thousands of dollars on makeup each year. And that only equates makeup. When you include the other types of beauty maintenance listed above, women end up spending a huge portion of their income on maintaining a socially acceptable appearance. Rather than investing that money in say, an IRA, which if you took the average of $500-$600 a month that the average woman in New York spends on personal maintenance and extrapolated that over the course of a year, you could have $6,000 to $7,200 to put towards retirement at the end of the year. Holy shit.
This is also one reason why women are at a greater economic disadvantage than men. If a woman took that money at age 30 and continued to save at that rate for retirement until she was 65 she could have at least $200k saved for retirement (without an consideration for interest, market performance, etc. over the course of 35 years. But if you couple the bullshit that women have to spend money on to make their butt not look like cottage cheese and also consider that they are making less money than men overall, it really puts women in a pretty shitty financial situation for their entire lives. And, here’s another thing to consider, the less like the beauty standard that a woman looks, the more she spends on trying to achieve that impossible beauty standard, which only further hurts her financial stability.
And for what? So that they can have a great picture on Instagram where they get likes?
Women get the message, pretty much from the second that they are born, that the only way they can command power is by using their bodies and their beauty. I remember so vividly a friend’s mother saying to me when I was like 11, “girls who eat sweets, take up two seats.” Really? That’s what you are going to tell me? Make sure to always obsess about every food item you put in your mouth because your body is for social consumption and if it doesn’t look good then you are worthless. Thanks so much for the sage advice. But, what she was reinforcing, probably without realizing it, is the cultural idea of visible and invisible bodies and the power that comes with them.
Social media has dramatically shifted the way we present ourselves to society. Having the capacity to curate a life through pictures is powerful tool to help reinforce social expectations for beauty and also a great way to make most people feel like shit. Social media has also allowed bodies that are generally very visible (white, lithe, flawless, perfectly dressed, affluent, care-free) to be juxtaposed to bodies that have been mostly invisible until this point (literally everyone else who isn’t a heterosexual J. Crew model). So in some ways this has created a backlash and a voice but it has also made the forces that perpetuate the visible bodies that much stronger.
The ideals of beauty are a continuum that pushes and pulls. But these waves of pushing and pulling get stronger and stronger as women continue to buy into these ideas, both literally and metaphorically as a means to have social power through their physical presence. We are getting constant reinforcement that if we are younger, thinner, tanner, more stylish, have perfect hair that somehow all of our problems will be solved. But just like clever lifestyle curation on social media, this is a lie. These things might make you feel better for a short period of time, but beauty standards are designed so that once you feel comfortable in your skin, something else comes along and makes you feel like shit again. It’s a vicious cycle which we need to break.
If women want to regain social control and have greater autonomy, rejecting these expectations is a great way to start. Your life doesn’t get markedly better because you waxed your pubes into the shape of a dinosaur or whatever other insane thing you are supposed to do with them this week. You should do what makes you happy. I do not like when women tell each other how to live their lives. This is simply to show that social constructs are hurting women in major ways, however, if you like doing all these things and feel empowered by these routines, then go for it. But, if you are feeling like these are a time and money suck, don’t do it. Global warming is not going to accelerate if you don’t shave your legs.