Artistry & Artifice: How Beauty Lifts Women Up, and Lets Us Down

I used to make a list in my head of everything I’d change about how I look, if I could just click my heels and make it happen. This ritual often helped me fall asleep at night when I was too full of insecurities. It helped me feel like there might be a solution to that steady ache of imperfection.

I’d start at the tips of my toes, and scan my entire body: my arms, my nails, my eyes, my stomach — what kind of person would I be if every part of me changed? Would I still be myself? Would it even matter?

As a child, before the dark implications of this mental exercise came to be, the idea of transformation was really exciting. Dressing up my Barbies, painting my nails, giving friends makeovers, sneaking off with scissors to cut my bangs — one time I brushed out the exquisite ringlets on my sister’s porcelain doll, just to see how it would look. (In my defence, my doll had a mushroom cut.)

It wasn’t about making anything or anyone better or more traditionally feminine. The thrill was in the change. It was fun, messy, and rebellious, and made me feel in control of something I couldn’t yet define.

This pure love of what I thought of as “beauty” didn’t last long. The waters were muddied. Girls often have a precious few years to decide what we like and who we are before we’re told to look outside ourselves for cues of reassurance and affirmation.

When I was 15, I came from swim practice with mascara running down my eyes and swiped across my cheeks. Our fitness trainer pointed to my flushed, streaked face. “And THAT’S why you shouldn’t wear makeup,” he said smugly, as if I was going to give him a high five and pledge to never touch the stuff again. On a night out, the first boy I ever loved put his fingers on my glossed lips and smeared it across my mouth. “Ugh,” he said, examining his hand, as if my superficiality might be contagious.

If you’ve ever scrolled through the comment sections on Instagram, you know that men prefer Real Women™ with “natural” looks. Men don’t want to see the mess that comes with their demands, the hurt and stress they cause, and how it wreaks havoc on women. We should be effortlessly beautiful. We should hide the brush strokes.

In Face Paint: The Story of Makeup, Lisa Eldridge discusses the origins of cosmetics, and looks back at humanity’s “ever-evolving relationship with makeup, tracing the journey that has led to beauty becoming the multibillion-dollar industry it is today.”

Anthropologists believe that face and body paint was first used for protection and camouflage. Ancient Egyptians loved face paint on an aesthetic level, and used nail color, kohl, and rouge, while ancient Britons would dye their faces blue before battle. So while makeup hasn’t always been about beauty, throughout history, it has been closely tied to women’s rights and freedoms. “It’s during the times when women were most oppressed that makeup was most reviled and seen as unacceptable,” says Eldridge.

Beauty as an art form has always brought me a lot of joy, but beauty expectations are confusing and damaging. We’re supposed to look perfect, but feel guilty for seeking perfection. We’re supposed to be apologetic about how many retinol creams we own, but equally sorry for aging. We’re supposed to be beautiful, but not engage with aesthetic routines that are deemed frivolous and inauthentic.

We’re rarely taught how to cope with our worth being determined by men’s desires. We’re rarely given the tools to become women — women who play, women who change, women who age.

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I sometimes joke that my villain origin story happened when, as a child, my entire family was asked to be on the cover of the local phone book without me. At the time, I didn’t think of this as weird or funny, I just accepted it as something that happens when you’re fat.

I didn’t come upon this belief accidentally, or by chance. It was drilled into me by doctors, dieticians, parents, classmates, the media. You cannot be beautiful and fat. You cannot be loved and fat. You cannot be successful and fat. It was gospel, and while I wholly reject it now on an intellectual level, viscerally, it still feels true.

As a fat, white woman with some proximity to Western beauty standards, I’m used to living in this paradox. Real beauty has always been something waiting for me on the other side of an inspiring transformation. Once I lose weight, I will be beautiful. So, my body shrinks and grows, shrinks and grows. It becomes more acceptable, more desirable, then bounces back in defiance. A wild thing. Untenable, untameable.

Regardless of my size, I am shouted at on the street. When I’m at my smallest, the harassment is the kind a lot of femmes are accustomed to — embarrassing, sometimes frightening. But “fat calling” is a different beast altogether.

As Aubrey Gordon writes in her book What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, “Fat calling is rooted in a deep sense of entitlement to others’ bodies, an entitlement that is affirmed in nearly every aspect of our culture. Women’s bodies are always at men’s disposal, there to comment on, to ogle, to touch, and to take, [but] as a fat woman…I face the grislier side of sexual harassment: unsolicited disclosures of men’s rape fantasies, a violent expectation of full access to my body, and the certainty that any assault will be met with my gratitude.”

Yes, conventional femininity makes us vulnerable to the dangerous attention of men. But a lack thereof (i.e. not fulfilling white, cisheternormative beauty ideals) certainly doesn’t make one safe. Trans women, particularly trans women of colour, are at a much higher risk of sexual violence than white, cis women.

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In a piece published for The Independent, Michelle Smith talks about the complicated history of cosmetic surgery, which originated as a treatment for “syphilitic deformities”. The first recorded surgeries occurred in 16th century Britain and Europe. The advent of sterile surgery and anaesthesia in the late 1800s made the practice more common for “ordinary” people who wanted to change their appearance. Procedures before the 20th century were often done to correct features that weren’t “typical of white people”, while in the early 1900s, breast reductions were common. This changed in 1950, when small breasts were considered a medical problem.

“There has been a shift in ideas about race, health, femininity and aging — and there is a close link between cosmetic surgery trends and those qualities we value as a culture,” writes Smith.

When I have my first consultation for cosmetic injections, the doctor says to me, “It’s a good thing you take care of your face. It’s almost perfect.” I try not to be too flattered by the person taking my money. And I try even harder not to focus on the word almost.

I decide against Botox for now, but go with lip fillers a few months later. The needle hurts, but the pain doesn’t bother me. After all, beauty is pain, right? I hate that I feel so uneasy about aging, but I love that there appears to be a solution, even though there’s not. Not really. But in a way, I enjoy the process of getting fillers, because it feels better than sitting with my ambivalence about the way I look, and how this reflects my place in the world.

The lip fillers feel alarmingly noticeable at first. I can’t stop looking at myself in the mirror, but as the weeks progress, they fade away. I’m relieved. And disappointed.

I wish my self-worth wasn’t tied up in this, but it’s hard to determine what you do for yourself and what you do because of patriarchy. It feels arduous to extract one from the other. And sometimes, I’d rather just get the lip fillers and forget the inner work of accepting and loving a body that is vilified and hated. I don’t want to sit with those emotions, that discomfort. It doesn’t feel like my work to do.

Of course, unpacking beauty standards is my work to do. As a feminist, as a white woman who benefits from this system in a plethora of ways, it is my responsibility to examine the ways I am oppressed, but more importantly, how I’ve been an oppressor. The patriarchy would not exist without white women as underlings, and the way we uphold conventional beauty standards is closely tied to white supremacy. I can’t allude to struggling and suffering under these ideals without acknowledging how I fit into them, and the power this grants me.

So, when I talk about the fillers I have, or the Botox I will probably get, or the weight I hope to lose, or the surgery I might undergo, I understand my decisions do not exist in a vacuum. As someone in a marginalized body, I am protecting myself, trying to fit into a world that doesn’t really want me. But as a white woman, I am contributing to the pressure, the expectation. I am playing the game.

As Stephanie Genz writes in her essay Under the Knife: Feminism and Cosmetic Surgery in Contemporary Culture, “What makes beauty — and women’s involvement therein — so treacherous and precarious in feminists’ eyes is precisely that it does not come without its benefits and seductions; historically, beauty has functioned as a ‘patriarchal invitation to power’ that confer onto (mostly white, heterosexual, middle-class) women a number of social privileges and economic gains.”

Essentially, if we are able to play the game well enough, we are spared a certain amount of pain in the short term. The trouble is, the game is rigged against us. Eventually, we age, and we grow incapable of keeping up with these oppressive ideals. And when we’re not taught to cultivate a sense of self outside the game, our time of reckoning comes along sooner or later. We can’t all die young and beautiful.

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Of course, our personal actions shouldn’t always be politicized, especially if we are multiply marginalized. The backlash Lizzo experienced at the end of 2020 due to her Instagram stories on detoxing is a relevant example. While I wish we could all get behind denouncing diet culture, we (fellow white women, especially those who are thin) should be listening to fat Black women on this, rather than pointing fingers and expecting them to seamlessly fit into a role we’ve created without their consent. Black women are not personally responsible for our feelings, and we don’t have the right to anyone’s bodily autonomy.

In her book Fearing the Black Body, sociologist Sabrina Strings writes about the racial history of fatphobia, saying “the fear of the imagined ‘fat black woman’ was created by racial and religious ideologies that have been used to both degrade black women and discipline white women.” Hatred toward Black bodies is heavily linked to how we engage with beauty. Black women are discriminated against because of their hair, their skin, and their clothes, yet white women continue to be credited when appropriating these styles.

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As Stephanie Genz writes, the idea that feminists shouldn’t engage in beauty regimes, whether it be makeup or dieting or cosmetic surgery, has become “increasingly problematic and difficult to sustain, particularly since the advent of postfeminism and its celebration of femininity as a source of empowerment.”

And there are liberating aspects to physical transformation, to be sure. While the pressure to engage in beauty can be a symptom of capitalism and patriarchy, it is a privilege to think so myopically about cosmetic surgery, for example. The idea that a “natural” feminine body is somehow more desirable or authentic is really problematic.

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Beauty is made complicated for a reason — it keeps women laser-focused on our outer appearances, and keeps us from stepping into our power. Billions of dollars are made from these insecurities, the same insecurities that used to keep me awake at night. But when we are able to take back beauty, to make it our own, there is something really empowering in that.

In an interview with Elle, author Autumn Whitefield-Madrano says “I don’t think beauty and feminism actually were ever in opposition to each other…I think we dismiss beauty as frivolous because it’s something women engage in more than men. I don’t think we can fully understand our relationship with beauty until we’ve untangled sexism.”

Whether we use it to blend in or stand out, to protect ourselves or to express ourselves, we’re entitled to make our own decisions and lay to rest our concerns about what other people might think of us. We’re allowed to look imperfect, and we’re also allowed to be imperfect, in the way we think about our bodies, and the decisions we make surrounding them.

I may never know if I paint my nails or dye my hair or inject my lips just for the fun of it, or because I feel I have to, but I do know one thing: engaging with beauty doesn’t make us good or bad feminists. It only makes us human.

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JK Murphy is a writer and photographer from Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has a degree in Journalism from the University of King's College.

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Jennifer Murphy

Jennifer Murphy

JK Murphy is a writer and photographer from Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has a degree in Journalism from the University of King's College.

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