Answer: Lots of things! I made a list.
1. They reinforce the artificial gender binary.*
The vast majority of bodily modifications demanded of women by our beauty standards – for instance, plucked eyebrows, painted lips, shaved legs, and exaggerated eyelashes – exist to accentuate the differences between men and women. Fashionable clothes for men and women are vastly different, with most women’s fashions being tailored to highlight and emphasize “feminine” shapes.
Not only is this dichotomy unfair (the burden of highlighting gender differences, in time and resources, falls disproportionately on women), it’s outright harmful to trans* and intersex people. When our beauty standard pushes people to the outside edges of the gender spectrum, it renders those who live in the middle invisible and tells anyone who doesn’t comply with rigid gender roles that they are “ugly.” That’s a major problem.
2. They are racist.
Let’s think about where we get these beauty ideals for a minute. We get them first from our toys – baby dolls and Barbie dolls, the default for both of which is still “white.” It’s far easier to find a diversity of dolls today than it was ten years ago, but the distribution in no way matches actual population percentages.** Then we grow up and look in magazines, on television, in movies. And again, the representation there is overwhelmingly white (and thin, and impeccably groomed, and usually retouched).
Women of color are included in media now, but they always seem to have lighter skin, and straight or wavy hair. Those beauty ideals get passed on to the women watching, and at a high cost – monetarily, psychologically, and physically. I highly recommend reading this article by Madame Noire to get a perspective on the impact the straight hair beauty standard, in particular, has had on the African American community. (Also, if you’ve got time, watch Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair.)
Toxic skin-lightening creams abound, and are linked to health problems from eczema to kidney failure. A woman in Nigeria, where 8 out of 10 women regularly use skin lighteners, described her reasoning as: “I’m not seeking to be totally white, I just want to be beautiful.” Watch the video here, and then try and tell me that skin bleaching as a beauty ideal isn’t racist. Just try it, I dare you.
Also, vaginal bleaching! WHAT. A MILLION TIMES WHAT.
This article over at Racialicious does a far better job than I can of analyzing the ways in which our beauty standards have shifted slightly but remained oppressive. It breaks down things like this photoset from Allure, which ostensibly celebrates diversity but really just “swap[s] an old, exclusive beauty standard for a new one.”
3. They are contradictory and impossible to satisfy.
I have written before about how having a larger body was intensely painful for me as a young person. Advertisements promise us that being thin will solve all our problems, or at the very least release us from the painful shame of our inadequate bodies. But women who naturally inhabit thin bodies experience a different kind of pressure – a pressure to look more “womanly,” to have wider hips and bigger boobs and more of a butt. This can be just as great a source of pain, although it’s one that frequently goes unrecognized or even rejected.
There all so many ways for women to have the “wrong” body! Endless ways. Muscular women are attacked for being “bulky” or “masculine” – while at the same time, every magazine contains articles on how to “get toned” and “eliminate flab.” Women with small breasts are given padded bras, while women with larger breasts are told to minimize and cover up lest they be perceived as “slutty.” You know, for having breasts. I could go on, but I won’t, because I’m getting really angry at how utterly ridiculous this shit is.
Even the celebrities who are held up as our ideals fall short of the standard in some ways – although those “failures” are always corrected by Photoshop before they are presented to us in magazines. (Unless it’s a gossip magazine like People, taking vicious delight in body-shaming anyone famous who dares to have cellulite*** in candid photos).
Really, my hero Tina Fey summed it up the best in her book Bossypants:“Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.”
Having a standard that is literally impossible to achieve is pretty warped. But it’s also pretty profitable, if you’re the beauty industry.
4. They cost enormous amounts of money to maintain.
Women in the United States spend over seven billion dollars a year on makeup alone. That’s an average of $100 per month, per woman.
African American women spend even more money (because our beauty ideals are racist and require non-white people to put in more money and effort in order to meet them). African Americans spend $507 billion dollars a year on hair care and personal grooming. For an individual woman, commercial hair placement can cost between $4,000 and $80,000 a year.
Globally speaking, the top 100 beauty companies made a total of $195.36 billion in sales last year.(By the way – L’Oreal, the top-grossing beauty company that owns way more brands than you think it does, was convicted of discrimination against women of color in France).
I looked for studies documenting how much women spend on clothing, but the only one I could find had been done by The Daily Mail, so it’s guaranteed to be both unscientific and woman-shaming, and I’m not even going to bother linking to it. However, the United States “womenswear” market earned $161.7 billion in 2009, which averages out to slightly over $1,000 per woman per year. And that’s not even counting shoes.
Let’s not forget plastic surgery: In 2007 (the most recent numbers I could find) 11.7 million women underwent elective plastic surgery, at $3,000 to $5,000 a procedure.
These numbers make it obvious that a whole lot of players have a whole lot invested in making sure women continue to chase a shifting and impossible beauty standard. Which brings me to our final point.
5. They are mandatory.
As an adult, with an education in feminism and media criticism, I can break down the elements of a beauty standard that I disagree with and choose not to conform to them. I also have the luxury of living in a liberal environment where deviations from the norm will be greeted with enthusiasm, or at least neutrality. I am in the minority of adults who are that lucky. Virtually no children in our country are that lucky.
Growing up, the overwhelming message I received was that achieving the beauty ideal was mandatory. The extent to which I fulfilled that ideal was the extent of my value; the extent to which I failed, the extent of my worthlessness. My parents never told me anything of the sort, and did their best to shield me from negative messages – but my peers were not at all hesitant to inform me of all the ways I fell short. And besides, I was no dummy. I knew I looked nothing like my dolls, nothing like the characters on TV, nothing like the characters in my books. It was obvious to me that attractiveness – determined by a very narrow set of parameters – was the entry fee for participating in public life. It was the key to deserving a chance to be heard. It was, most importantly, the key to deserving love.
Like I said, I got lucky. I learned to un-believe those lies. But a huge percentage of women haven’t had the chance to unlearn these lies, and they perpetuate them to themselves and to their daughters and to each other. For women in these environments, opting out of the beauty standards can have an enormous or even prohibitive social cost. For many women, choosing to conform to oppressive beauty standards is no kind of a choice at all.
. . .
Your turn – what else is wrong with our beauty standards? Is there anything positive about them? How can we change them and/or relate to them in healthier ways?
*What do I mean by “artificial?” For starters, the Intersex Society of North America estimates that 1 in 100 people are born with bodies differing from the “standard male or female.”
**For a great article on the importance – and difficulty – of finding toys that reflect a child’s ethnicity, check out this one, again at Racialicious.
*** Cellulite, like halitosis, is a made-up problem designed to make you buy shit and feel bad about yourself. Surprise!