Beauty, as a quality, is a constant source of joy in our human experience. A life without beauty is a life without pleasure, but this article is not about beauty as a quality. It is about beauty as a tool, as a stereotype, as an ideal. About society’s destructive obsession for women to be the object of beauty; about the dangers of teaching women to appraise their appearance as their most valuable asset. I’m talking about the fictional tale of beauty.
PART ONE: My Personal History with Beauty
I remember being about 13 years old. I had been living in Spain for seven years. Seven years in an all-girls Catholic school which was, by the way, funded by a pedophile priest named Marcial Maciel. Besides praying on dozens if not hundreds of little boys and girls, Marcial impregnated women around the world and was not held accountable until after his death.
Growing up with two sisters and going to an all-girls school with nuns as my teachers meant that I was utterly oblivious to the male gaze for most of my childhood. Until the blossoming age of 13, when my best friend Daniela and I started going to underage clubs (discotecas light), a.k.a the cool places to go as a 13-year-old living in Madrid. We would dance, mingle, gossip, and blush at every boy that approached us. We had this game where we would part our separate ways to count the number of boys who asked us for a kiss. Then, we would meet and compare our scores. This is my first memory of feeling wanted by a boy -and wanting to feel wanted by a boy- even if he did not know me or my personality. It was also was my first encounter with the male-gaze. The first time I became conscious of the importance attributed to female beauty.
Moving from an all-girls Catholic school in Madrid to a mixed public school in Miami as a teenager radically transformed my socialization. My relationship with beauty and femininity took a drastic turn in this new, hyper-consumerist city where women are relentlessly objectified and hyper-sexualized.
With my boiling teenage hormones in this fresh, unknown territory, I began to desperately seek adult-like experiences in which I would feel beautiful and seen. It felt special, at first, when my first crush Ed called me pretty. But that specialness quickly disappeared as my childhood vanished away with it. By the age of 15, I was a rebel, and my looks were my weapon. Or so I thought. I used my appearance as a means to an end. My end was control – or anything I could get my hands on to make me feel I was in control. I understood that the more feminine I was, the more beautiful. And that femininity meant being nice, passive, always smile, and be grateful. It also meant putting a great deal of effort into my looks.
I was constantly reminded that beauty defined value in women. Unlike men – their virility and looks did not merely represent their worth. Everyone loves the funny, chubby guy. My life experiences hammered this social norm into my head every time I went out and about: with every free entry into a +21 club despite being underage because the bouncer saw some potential in me; with every “Ladies Night” that got girls to drink for free and boys to flock into the bar as if ladies were the free commodities in question; with every guy that invited me on a boat yet rejected someone else because their looks did not meet the required standards for a free boat ride; with the ridiculous party ratios of 10 hot girls for every 2 rich, mediocre guys.
I thought I was in control, but in reality, I was being reduced to the utmost superficial part of my humanness: my body. Unfortunately, I was complicit in this sexist exchange. While I thought I was smart and empowered because I got free things, men expected something in return. The free drink was not my prize for being a woman in control – it was a tool of control used against me. I was the prize.
PART TWO: The Power Placebo in Beauty
Appearance is one of the few areas in which women feel they can exert some type of control over how they will be responded to. We feel powerful when we look good. But female physical appearance is also an essential tool used by patriarchal society to justify women’s dismissal as well as their harassment: On the one hand, it occurs much too often that women who do not fit into the beauty ideal are ignored, neglected, rejected, or compared to some cattle animal. On the other hand, it is common for sexual abusers to justify rape or harassment with the victim’s looks: her way of dressing, walking, wearing make-up, her reputation, and physical features are often used against her and in the harasser’s defense.
Ironically, women who are conventionally attractive also face severe social criticism. For instance, someone with large breasts might be called provocative or misunderstood as overly sexual simply because of the shape of the body she was born into. She might also be unable to wear particular clothing or to part-take in certain activities without cruel judgment based on her form. So you can see how beauty does not mean power or control.
Selling Beauty as a Form of Power
Our hyper-consumerist society sells beauty as a form of power, as a currency for social acceptance and self-love, but we are being fooled. Even if one does acquire power through emulating the western archetype of beauty (to climb the career ladder, gain acceptance by a social group, or gain confidence in themselves), the division between women who fit into this ideal and women who do not increases. Outsiders might feel pressured into looking “like a million bucks” which results in the beauty industry actually gaining billions of dollars at the expense of self-hatred, social pressure, and exclusion.
Buying the Beauty Ideal in Consumerist Culture
Western middle-class women in their role as consumers have been fundamental to the development of our industrial society. When the romantic vision of creating a family and buying a house in the suburbs was considered the sole model of a successful life, home products were sold to women under the pretext of homemaking as a higher calling. Today, the product in question is the beauty ideal, and the utilized narrative is a path for a better life, success, and self-acceptance.
Numerous industries create capital out of our unconscious anxieties. The diet industry, cosmetics, pornography, plastic and cosmetic surgery, fashion, and media play a fundamental role in reproducing and enforcing the status-quo ideal and capitalizing off the pressure we feel. The results are undeniably concerning: child beauty pageants, unnecessary and extreme diets, sexist women magazines, rampant plastic surgery even amongst the poorest, horrifying eating disorders, restrictive clothing, the normalization of beauty as suffering, and buying beauty like our bodies were commodities to which we can add new features and discard old ones.
Plastic surgery is reasonably a delicate and controversial subject. I find the most troubling aspect to be the intellectualization and emotional distancing we have normalized with it. We view it as a commodity – as if our body was an alienated object one can buy, sell, modify, and upgrade. This alienation is a typical tactic in our consumerist society that thrives on making money off even the most intangible things in life such as love, identity, and morals.
Is it our personal choice? Or is society, and more specifically the beauty industry, brainwashing us into thinking it is our personal choice? Every time we feel that we are not good enough, we must ask ourselves: Who benefits from our insecurities? Who is making money when we decide our nose is too big or our breasts are too small? The answer is simple: industries that profit off our self-hatred. Businesses create a problem -your not-enoughness- to sell a solution: the ideal body. With the help of mass media, these industries take money from our pockets as we attempt to buy our self-worth and self-acceptance.
PART THREE: Reflections
I’m tired of seeking to attain beauty; of pursuing acceptance from the outside world for the most superficial part of my existence; of being the target of some marketing plot to push me into buying things I don’t need; of random men on the street acting as the divine authority over female beauty; of women unrealistically distorting their bodies negatively, while unattractive men walk around with their heads held up real high. I am now on a path to love my body and judge it less. Embracing the hairiness inherited from my Colombian ancestors, my bushy eyebrows and long lashes, and all the hairy corners of my vessel that shall not be named. But most importantly, I am done with feeling forced to adapt to the consumerist demands of our society. Of course, there are days in which I feel the need to wear make-up or catch a compliment to feel good about myself, but hey, I’m only human.
I am in no way, shape, or form calling for women to dress more modestly, throw out their make-up, or feel ashamed about their views and decisions. Anyone should be able to live the life they strive to live in the body they wish to inhabit. This article is a mere reminder to push away from the trend that places self-value in physical appearance. When we value looks above all else, not only do we help these massive industries multiply their profit as women and girls learn to hate their bodies, but we are also complicit in the male view of women as objects. There is a fine line between appreciating our bodies and sexuality as a form of self-love and feeling the need to look beautiful for the male gaze, for social acceptance, or a sense of approval. We must reject the notion of physical attractiveness in a woman as the ultimate quality and remember that appearance is lost with age. The body will wrinkle, but the brain will not.
Lastly, for better and for worse, times are changing. Beauty ideals are no longer an exclusively female issue. The praise of appearance over other properties is now inclining towards people of all sorts, genders, classes, ages, and nationalities. Social media outlets such as Instagram contribute to this growing societal pressure by acting as the perfect mass-disseminating tool to spread and multiply millions of images of the dominating ideal. The flip side is that these outlets also represent an opportunity for people to re-define what beauty means to them by spreading their own images and beliefs. Increasingly blurred gender lines and new make-up trends are placing drag queens and androgenous models at the top of the beauty industry, and cis-women are no longer the sole target market for it. This is excellent news indeed. All sorts of people are taking up space and transforming this clique-like industry, opening a celebration of beauty in all its diversity. Now it is up to us to embrace our human bodies in all their wholeness and reject the western archetype of beauty that is shoved into our faces on a daily basis by mass media and consumerist culture.