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How Our Performance of Beauty and Womanhood Is a Lifelong Trap

How Our Performance of Beauty and Womanhood Is a Lifelong Trap - closeup on the hands of a Black, feminine-presenting person applying lipstick, with a makeup palette in the background

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My mom and I faced each other in the upstairs bathroom—me sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, her standing before me—at a standoff. She had just finished transforming my long, mostly straight hair into a mass of soft waves, and the air reeked of the hair spray she’d liberally applied, despite us both knowing my hair would be limp again within the hour. My nails gleamed with a French manicure. My cheeks glowed with a soft blush. She had brushed a subtle eyeshadow across my trembling lids. And then she’d reached for the mascara.

“No. I draw the line at mascara,” I’d said.

I had already complained about the nails. About the effing hair.

“Your homecoming dance only happens once,” she’d insisted. “Don’t you want to look nice?”

I’d crossed my arms. She’d waved the mascara wand menacingly. We’d argued back and forth, back and forth, each of us getting more and more agitated.

In the end, it was the only battle I won that night. My poor mom. A woman who never left the house without lipstick, who—like her mother before her—got her hair colored on the regular, she obviously wished for a daughter who cared more about her appearance. Instead, she’d gotten me, a petulant teen who wore wide-leg carpenter jeans and oversized tees. Who wore her hair in a ponytail every day. Who insisted that she hated the weight of nail polish on her fingernails. I was never all the things girls were supposed to be, never cared about the things I was supposed to care about. The only concessions I made to beauty were my tube of ChapStick and my baby powder-esque Heaven Sent perfume.

How Girls Are Taught to Follow a Particular Model of Womanhood

Based upon whether we have been assigned male or female at birth, we are all raised to adopt certain markers of femininity or masculinity. I remember being raised to be polite, passive, cooperative, amenable. To cater to the needs of others at the expense of my own.

Physically, the ideal model of feminine beauty is white, slim, and able-bodied, with long, flowing hair, peaches and cream skin, and a complete lack of body or facial hair. Looking at this list, it’s clear that I was set up to fail.

At a young age, I contracted a virus that led to the loss of my hair. The grow-back process was awkward, and I still remember the time when, at the age of 9, I was mistaken for a boy. I burned with shame.

I was 11 when, during gym class, I was ridiculed by my “best friend” for not shaving my legs. It hadn’t occurred to me to start.

And I was 13 when the acne began. (It’s never stopped; I have a doozy on my left cheek right now. Believe me when I say that I connected so hard to Laura Chinn’s Acne, and also to the fourth episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, in which an awkward young woman goes to extreme lengths to fit in at work, using a popular skin lotion that has an alarming effect.) I was called “pizza face.” I was subjected to regular visits to the dermatologist, who poked and prodded at my skin, leaving me stinging and inflamed by the time we headed back home.

I knew I would never be beautiful. I knew that no one would ever want me.

This was devastating to a young girl who could see, clearly, that our power was supposed to lie in our beauty. What good was I if I was not beautiful? What good was I if I could not use my appearance to convince others of my worth?

In an effort to disappear myself, I hid inside my baggy jeans and my large T-shirts. I hid behind the curtain of hair that, luckily, grew back.

We Are All Performing an Unrealistic Version of Beauty

I’ve long known that the vision of beauty we’ve all been conditioned to chase is an unrealistic one. How could it be otherwise when, according to research, the average American woman wears a size 16 (typically translated to an XL) and most stores balk at stocking anything above a 12?

More recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books and articles that explore this theme. In Mona Awad’s forthcoming Rouge, for example, a young woman shackled to her skincare routine and clearly suffering from colorism returns home when her mother is found dead after what appears to be a tragic accident. When she begins frequenting the high-end spa at which her mother was a regular, she finds the key to her beauty dreams…but it seems she must also lose herself in the process.

More insidiously, we are culturally conditioned to perform these unrealistic beauty standards for others, a tendency that has only been exacerbated by social media. This tendency has been explored (to exaggerated levels) in fiction, such as in Allie Rowbottom’s Aesthetica, in which a rising Instagram celebrity undergoes a multitude of plastic surgeries in order to attain online fame, a path she ultimately regrets. But our online habits—our perfectly angled iPhone cameras and our Instagram filters and our multi-step beauty routines—are scrutinized even more satisfactorily in nonfiction books like Sara Petersen’s Momfluenced, which delves into how momfluencer culture impacts women psychologically. And while Petersen focuses specifically on those influencers who perform idealized versions of motherhood, the truth is that we’re all presenting an incomplete, prettied-up picture to the world, a picture that has the potential to make those viewing it feel less than in comparison.

Our Obsession with Beauty is Supported by Our Capitalist Society

As I grew up, from an awkward preteen to a marginally less awkward young adult, my peers learned to artfully apply lipstick, eyeshadow, nail polish, and mascara. They filled their Caboodles with glitter rollers and tinted lip balms that smelled like Tutti Frutti and bubble gum while I got by with the Vaseline I slathered on my chapped lips and (for my chronic acne) my CoverGirl concealer stick.

I made my way through my teens and my 20s completely incapable of adequately performing beauty. This was obviously a failing (imagine me saying this with huge air quotes), but I owned it, preemptively joking about it so no one else could beat me to the punch.

Still, I gazed wistfully at my friends’ makeup brushes and liquid eyeliners and wished I were a part of that world. This despite the fact that whenever I spent my money on the brightly colored, egg-shaped lip balms and the eyeshadow palettes in their shiny packaging, they only ended up gathering dust in drawers and bathroom cabinets. And when I signed up for beauty-focused subscription boxes, I ended up giving away the bulk of what I received.

What did the beauty industry care, though? Either way, fueled by my own self-loathing, the money had been spent.

And this is how the beauty industry thrives, by convincing us of our own inadequacy.

Beauty journalist Jessica DeFino explores this idea at length in her work (and you should totes subscribe to her newsletter, The Unpublishable, in which she reveals what the beauty industry would rather you not know). “[Beauty standards] are tools of oppression that reinforce sexism, racism, colorism, classism, ableism, ageism, and gender norms,” she writes for Teen Vogue. “They are built into our societies and embedded into our brains. They contribute to anxiety, depression, dysmorphia, eating disorders, self-harm, and low self-esteem.” She goes on to explain how both colonialism and capitalism have proven “just how easy it is to profit off of deep-seated insecurities stemming from a lifetime of being treated as less than.”

Oof. (Please read the entire article.)

And the beauty industry keeps rebranding itself in order to stay relevant.

And, darn it, I keep falling for it.

In my late 30s, after the industry pivoted to embrace “wellness” (something explored in Pooja Lakshmin’s Real Self-Care), I was easily convinced that bath bombs and body butters counted as self-care. From there, it was a slippery slope to a skincare regimen involving toners, serums, moisturizers, primers, and more. Was it working? Fucked if I knew! I have only recently packed away all of my serums and creams after reading DeFino’s thoughts on how skincare products do the things our skin already naturally does on its own.

More recently, as sustainability has become a larger part of the cultural conversation, the media has been abuzz with talk of “de-influencers,” who purportedly beg you not to buy those high-end products.

But as DeFino points out, they’re still selling something.

All of This Is Compounded by the Fact That We Are Not Allowed to Age

I feel as if, the more I age, the more I am taken in by the false promises of the beauty industry. Just last year, a friend gave me a makeover while we were away at a writing conference, a glow-up for that evening’s cocktail party and, later on, a night out at the bar.

Within a week of that conference, I purchased a new cream foundation, a powder foundation, a bronzer, and a makeup brush specifically for liquid foundation. I ordered the same curling iron she’d used to create my loose curls, plus a hair spray and a pre-iron spray.

At the age of 42, I feel as if I should have no fucks left to give. But I’m not gonna lie. It felt good, for that one night, to not feel so invisible.

This past decade has left me feeling progressively more invisible. It’s come with the weight gain and it’s come with the tired mom uniform of black leggings and oversized top. As the years have piled on, it seems as if people’s eyes just…slide over me.

And on the one hand, as a woman who has experienced her share of unwanted sexualization over the years, this comes as a relief.

But on the other hand, as a woman who has been culturally conditioned to believe her worth is tied to her looks, it feels like a loss.

This internal struggle is something that was put beautifully into words for me when I read Dorothy Rice’s Gray Is the New Black, in which she writes about her decision to let her hair go gray, but also about all the other insecurities she carries as she finds herself growing older. I related to a lot of what she wrote. After all, I myself teeter back and forth between feeling shame and feeling shameless. This state of mind is inevitable when we live in a society in which we are not allowed to age.

I still grapple with how much I’ll be able to push back against all this as I continue to age, and how often I might still succumb, for example, to that overpriced jar of manuka honey cleansing balm I tried the other month, to questionable effect. To an extent, attending to my appearance is like donning a superhero outfit or a suit of armor. It makes me feel confident.

But this is the trap we’ve all been placed in. That self-confidence I feel when I’m looking “good”? Haven’t I just been culturally conditioned to feel that way?

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

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