FF 2016 Day 2: Women and beauty

Women’s “choice”
The double standard
The beauty industry, feminism and empowerment
“We should all feel beautiful”

Before you scroll down and start to read, take a look at these two 30-second ads. They were both released in 2013, they’re both for razors, and they’re by the same company. Spot any differences?

There’s quite a few differences, in the end (e.g. the advert targeting men has a comic element, whereas the advert targeting women basically just focuses on making women attractive for men) but the main difference I want to focus on is how the same product, a razor, is being used. You only see the razor actually in action in the men’s advert. That’s because in the women’s advert, the actress shaves an already-hairless leg.

Women’s body hair is so taboo that it isn’t even shown in adverts for shaving or depilating products. If I turn on the TV or open a newspaper, I’ve got a pretty good chance of seeing a man with a beard. Beards are not taboo, even if some employers prefer you to be clean-shaven. However, in 21 years, I have never seen a woman with hairy legs in a movie, advert or TV show. Ever.

Modern western beauty standards expect women to be thin (but with curves in the “right” places), to wear makeup until our supposed flaws are gone but it’s not “obvious” (conform to the beauty ideal but don’t show you made the effort) to look sexy (or you’re a prude) but not to own it (or you’re a slut). The media bombards us with the ideal of the perfect woman, one invented by 4 hours in the stylist’s chair and then a heavy Photoshop session, and by doing that tells us that we need to look like this. We are told we must be thinner, and thinner, and thinner. Older women are considered attractive only as long as they can stay looking impossibly young, and women over 40 are so rare in our media that they might as well be invisible.


Black girls and women are told that their natural hair is inappropriate or unprofessional, their bodies are derided or fetishized, and are whitewashed in Photoshop before they’re allowed to grace magazines and adverts. Women of colour are “considered beautiful only insofar as they resemble the white ideal: light skin, straight hair, Caucasian features, round eyes.” (Jean Kilbourne) Where women of colour are shown in media, women with darker skin face even greater discrimination as a result of colorism. For example:  Entertainment Weekly suggesting light-skinned women of colour to play Marvel’s new character Riri, despite the character art clearly showing a dark-skinned girl. Chika Okoro’s TED talk, below, talks about colorism in our standards of beauty:


Beauty standards and women’s “choice”

Many times, when I’ve spoken about the oppressive beauty standards all women are held to, people have told me that women choose freely to wear make-up, to buy the latest fashions, to diet, etc. Some have even told me that women just do this for other women- men have nothing to do with it, one guy told me.

It must be sheer coincidence, then, that women make up only 3% of creative directors. That means that 97% of the people deciding how women are depicted in adverts and how products should be marketed towards women are men. The idea that women are inflicting ridiculous beauty standards on themselves is just not true.

Empirical studies have shown that women face discrimination in the workplace depending on whether they wear makeup- more than two thirds of UK employers admit they would be less likely to hire a woman if she didn’t wear makeup to the job interview. It’s also been shown that women who don’t spend as much time on their hair, clothing and makeup face a significant pay penalty. When the pressure to conform to beauty standards is so normal that women are discriminated against for not wearing makeup, how can we talk about a genuine ‘choice’?

Women’s (feminine) appearance in the workplace is often treated as important to their work- they are often told they must wear makeup to appear “professional,” or asked to dress in a “sexier” way in order to please customers or clients. Recently, a backlash against one woman being sent home for not wearing high heels to work pushed the issue of sex discrimination in dress codes to the media forefront for a couple of days (before it disappeared again).

Below is a great TEDx talk by Tracey Spicer, talking about the way women are pressured to fit these social beauty standards, particularly in the workplace:


The double standard

double standard.jpg

I can’t remember the last time I heard a man express any kind of guilt when it came to eating. If I had a quid for every time I’d heard a woman describe her food as “bad” or say that she felt guilty, or talk apologetically about her “lack of willpower” before eating chips or cake or ice cream, I wouldn’t have needed student loans. When I was in secondary school, it was generally accepted that the boys could eat a small mountain of food and that was fine, because they were “growing teenage boys.” Half the girls I knew were on a diet- the idea that girls should eat plenty because they were growing too never seemed to come up. For girls today, self-esteem peaks at around the age of 9 and then begins to plummet. 50-70% of girls of healthy weight think of themselves as overweight. More than a quarter of 14-year old girls in the UK have considered plastic surgery or diet pills, and 19% already suffer from an eating disorder.

Jean Kilbourne points out that “Men are photoshopped too, but when they’re photoshopped they’re made bigger.” Women are cut down, their limbs thinned and their stomachs made concave, their jawlines trimmed, etc. Women are constantly told to make themselves smaller.

Age is another area of the double standard. Men are allowed to age in the media, and women are not.


The blog Beauty Redefined compares these two pictures: “similar age, both major celebrities, both in ads for the same company from the same year. Just one major difference: one is a human face and one is a cartoon.” Linda Evangelista has been put through a Photoshop rigmarole to erase any possible sign of human ageing. Put bluntly, men are allowed to age, and women are not. Leading actors in movies are allowed to get older, but their love interests do not, as the blog Vulture points out (more graphs at link).

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The beauty industry, feminism and empowerment

I’m not going to tell you that you can’t wear make-up and be a feminist, or that you can’t be a feminist if you shave your legs. That would  be ridiculous. What I will say is that these things are not themselves feminist.

We’ve been conditioned, all our lives, to fit the mould that society gives us, and so it may well feel more comfortable to conform and do the things that help us fit that mould.  Being a feminist doesn’t magically make you immune from all social pressure and influence. You’re not a bad feminist if you feel uncomfortable, or struggle to feel confident, when you don’t shave your legs or wear makeup.

war paint.png

But makeup is not empowering; neither is dieting, shaving, or tweezing, or teetering on high heels or dressing ‘sexy.’ What social, political or economic power do women gain if we make ourselves fit beauty standards? The word ’empowerment’ is thrown around a lot in discussions of things like the beauty industry, a feeling of personal confidence is not the same as actual empowerment.

Maybe it’s easier to get a job or a promotion or a personal favour if we wear makeup, but that doesn’t give women power over men, just over women who don’t wear it

Lipstick is not war paint. We may like it, and maybe feel more confident in it, and that’s okay, but we’re not challenging the status quo when we wear it. This is something that can be hard to hear, but again, we’re not criticising women who wear makeup, but criticising the industry.

We need to stop defending the beauty industry as a whole on the grounds that many women like makeup. We need to ask, “Why do so many women only feel confident when they wear makeup? Why does society, the media and the beauty industry continue to make women feel inadequate in themselves? Why do women learn to think that they need to be pretty?”

An industry which profits from women’s dislike of their own bodies, and makes them jump through hoops men don’t even have to think about, is not feminist.

Sandra Bartky makes the point well here:

 “In the language of fashion magazines and cosmetic ads, making up is typically portrayed as an aesthetic activity in which a woman can express her individuality. In reality, while cosmetic styles change every decade or so and while some variation in make-up is permitted depending on the occasion, making up the face is, in fact, a highly stylized activity that gives little rein to self-expression… Little latitude is permitted in what is considered appropriate make-up for the office and for most social occasions. Indeed, the woman who uses cosmetics in a genuinely novel and imaginative way is liable to be seen not as an artist but as an eccentric. Furthermore, since a properly made-up face is, if not a card of entry, at least a badge of acceptability in most social and professional contexts, the woman who chooses not to wear cosmetics at all faces sanctions of a sort which will never be applied to someone who chooses not to paint a watercolor.”


The idea that “Every woman should feel beautiful”

Even as we try to be progressive and try to do something about constrictive beauty ideals, we’re still holding on to the idea that beauty is important for women. The blog The Belle Jar questions the way we keep implying that beauty is a priority for women:

“The problem is that when we promote this idea that all women are beautiful, what we are really doing is emphasizing that it is important for women to be physically attractive. We are telling girls that, as females, the way that they look is a huge part of who they are – that we expect prettiness from them, and that we expect them to want it. Even if we don’t mean to, we are still attaching a high value to physical appearance.”


Instead of breaking down the idea that women should be beautiful and feel beautiful in order to be and feel valued and important, we’re just trying to make the definition broader. Sociologist Sheila Jeffreys says:

“I’m troubled with using “beauty” as a synonym for feeling valuable and powerful and magnificent. It’s not far removed from nominally inspiring, but ultimately shallow, slogans like “Confidence is sexy” and “Nothing is more attractive than happiness” that treat emotional well-being as an accessory. I seek happiness because it feels good, not because it makes my hair shinier. Happiness, confidence, self-esteem—these things should be ends, not means.” (Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful cultural practices in the west)


Whether a woman wore makeup and dressed femininely was considered an important factor in psychiatric evaluations as late as the 1980s and early 90s. Michael Pertschuk points out that the first thing that medical students are taught is to observe the patient: “If the patient is a woman, is she wearing makeup? How well is it applied? Has she attended to her hair and nails?” (1985, p.217) Pertschuk considers a failure to conform to general beauty standards to be a sign of poor mental health, and suggested “appearance training” as treatment for such women.

While it might not be official practice in psychiatry in 2016, performing femininity is still often tied to self-care and mental health today. Sadly, though it’s usually well-intentioned, telling women that we should feel beautiful keeps reinforcing the message that beauty is an important part of our value.

One blogger puts it in a more blunt way:

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