I was reading a Newsweek article from March of last year about how young girls are spending more money at a younger age on beauty treatments (and feeling worse about their bodies, which sucks so bad I can't tell you), and it makes me sad, but I understand their motivations. I, too, use a $100 facial "serum", use $40 soap, and $40 moisturizer. I love cosmetics, and frequently buy more - especially mascara (which is the one make-up item I recommend for anyone who wants to look a little more made up without actually wearing lots of make-up).
I have quite the mascara collection.
I remember wanting to be beautiful from a very young age - without even going into the racist aspects of the westernized beauty ideal, it's clear even to very young girls that people who fit that ideal get treated better - and feeling like a failure because I was sure that I wasn't pretty. Cosmetics seemed to be the answer - even if I wasn't pretty, I could be well-groomed. Consequently, I learned how to do my own nails, do my face (there was an interesting phase I went through where I smeared mascara deliberately under my eyes - I am obsessed with the stuff), and play with my hair. I grew my hair long, because long hair is pretty. I tried to wear pretty clothes (not easy when you're a size 18, but I rocked the vintage Stevie Nicks look in high school) - in short, I bought into the beauty ideal completely.
The young girls today know exactly what I knew when I was young - pretty is where it's at. Pretty gets you friends, gets you better treatment from adults, gets you attention from boys. As you get older, pretty gets you things, like presents, good grades, opportunities, fame, and better jobs. Pretty is an important survival tool.
It's also an extremely oppressive standard used to diminish women's sense of worth; today more than ever. We've moved into an era where 18 year olds get Botoxed, discuss implants and liposuction and laser hair removal as essential, and follow the lead of the adults around them who value looks and devalue the women/girls who don't fit stringent societal beauty standards. When I was a teen, the only plastic surgery teens got was a nose job - and that was only for the rich girls. I went to a very rich school, where girls got custom designer gowns for prom, and fancy sports cars for the 16th birthday, but no-one talked about breast augmentation or cheek implants. The beauty standards for women are getting narrower and more unattainable, and we wonder why 8 year olds are buying thigh-slimming cream? They're being fed an evil and destructive message that looks are all that matter, and if you can't fix your looks, it's your own fault. Worse, if you're ugly, then you are less valuable, so you'd better do everything in your power to fix that, or you deserve the bad treatment you get. Victim blaming at its finest.
The idea of beauty equalling worth leads to the most ridiculous inflation of not terribly talented people to surprising levels of fame - Paris Hilton, Heidi Montag (actually, the entire cast of The Hills) - and the framing of women with great talent purely from the standpoint of their looks, as if back fat somehow negates every other accomplishment. We devalue women when we rate their looks over everything, and even other women use the relative attractiveness of someone they dislike as a measure of their entire existence.
Heidi Montag can waffle about inner beauty all she wants, but her message is "I'm not perfect; neither are you". If a woman who fits all the beauty ideals - blond, blue-eyed, thin, tall - isn't perfect just as she is, what hope does the average teen girl have? We can talk about the importance of personality, but as long as our actions do not match our words, girls are going to take note, and go with the model that gets results - and pretty is where it's at.
I am as bound up into this as much as anyone - while I feel really good about myself these days, I came to that place by way of dieting, fretting about tummy tucks (and if I won the lottery today, I'd arrange for it tomorrow), and hating my looks - even though my family thinks of me as "the beauty". I have allergies that give me all sorts of skin conditions that aren't noticeable, like a flaky scalp, and ones that are, like Rosacea, and I'm short, and I don't have a bikini body, and the media that we all soak in thinks I'm gross, as do all the men who buy into the idea that they deserve a woman with "looks". The fact that I'm married to man who thinks I'm gorgeous, that I have a rich and amazing life, talent way beyond what I reasonably deserve, and enough money to indulge those talents may be great among my circle of friends, but society at large is indifferent to those things in a woman, and judges her entire worth on how attractive she is to straight men.
Are we fucked up, or what?
It's not irrational to want to be beautiful - as I said above, pretty gets you things, and pretty is massively privileged in society, so it's actually very rational to want all the advantages you can get. But it's appallingly disingenuous to go all hand-wringy over young girls taking this message to heart when we privilege pretty people, even if at the personal level it's relatively unconscious. We buy into it every time we rate a woman's body instead of her dress on the red carpet, and make sizeist and lookist remarks about famous people. We're supporting lookism, even though it's not a sensible method for determining worth. Looks have absolutely no correlation to personality or talent. As Ogden Nash puts it:
It's always tempting to impute
Unlikely virtues to the cute
...there have been some very cute sociopaths. I'm just sayin'.
Where we fall down is not in liking to look at pretty people, it's attributing every ounce of worth to looks alone. I have had in mind the tragic suicide of an Irish girl in Boston this week, who was bullied, apparently beyond endurace, and the way that anyone who is different is bullied, and how looks often play a huge part in that perception of worth. Bullies target those they think are lesser and weaker than them, and the bullying often falls along very gendered lines - girls are targeted mainly for appearance and sexuality, and boys for not appearing "manly" enough - and looks play a huge part in gendered insults, because we, as a society, judge women's worth by how pretty they are. As a society , we bully women who do not fit the straight white male-determined beauty ideal. We mock them, insult them, abuse them, deny them agency (look at all the "headless fatty" images we use to illustrate the "obesity epidemic"), and generally imply that if they want to be treated better, they should make themselves fit the "ideal" by any means neccessary, even if it means risking their lives.
I can't repeat this often enough - when we talk about "inner beauty" and "it's what's inside that counts", our actions don't match the words coming out of our mouths. We privilege the attractive constantly. I have inside knowledge of this, being considered unattractive when I weighed 200lbs, and attractive now, and the difference in treatment is astounding. It's not limited to men wanting to date me - it happens at work, when I meet strangers, how I'm treated on the street and in shops, everywhere. I am no different (except I'm happier - but I was happier before I lost weight, because I had left a bad marriage, and started a great relationship with a champion bloke) than before. I have all the same talents, and flaws, but I'm treated very differently by a lookist society.
Yes, it's great to be advantaged, but that advantage comes at the expense of other women, and I don't want that. No-one with a conscience wants to succeed because other people are kept down. Of all the arbitrary and completely uncontrollable factors to privilege, beauty is one that deeply affects women, and the intersectionality of race and beauty ideals makes it even worse.
This was supposed to be a goofy post about the stuff I use on my face that keeps my Rosacea under control. So much for that, eh? I keep it under control with a combination of Lavere Lifting Serum, Arsoa Queen soap, Burt's Bees Rosewater Toner, and Brigit True Magic Balm in a stick. Sometimes I supplement it with Pomega Moisturizing Lotion. It's taken my face from this:
With the red cheeks and nose that can't even be covered with make-up, to this:
...wearing no make-up at all.
I am under no illusions about the power of beauty; I use it when I can to my advantage (though never unethically - as far as I can determine), especially to get stuff for other people. So I'm not surprised that young girls are soaking up the lookist messages - we all soak in it - but I work on my own unconscious bias, and I work on sending out the message that actually, what you do matters a lot more than what you look like. I see it as cleaning up my own act, and not perpetuating the lookist tropes when I refuse to judge other women by their looks. It's taken me time to reach this place, since I'm as steeped in the lookist culture as much as anyone. I think it's a much better place to be, since I know that I'd take Eleanor Roosevelt over Heidi Montag any day - though I don't wish anything bad on Heidi (her sexist asshat doucherabbit of a husband is another matter).
Actions should speak louder than looks.