Writing about beauty can be challenging. But as a writer who both likes and partakes in all facets of the beauty industry while simultaneously thinking almost everything about it is problematic, it’s unavoidable.
Can you partake in the beauty industry — makeup, tutorials, magazines, and the oppressive standards they impose — and still feel good about your self-worth?
I think we all know what we're picturing when we think of "beauty standards." It’s a face that is probably white, definitely thin, most likely able, and conventionally feminine. She’s probably rich and straight, too — although that’s a little harder to gauge.
And while there have been strides to diversify what we think of as beautiful, this monolithic standard is still a problem.
But I think there’s another, more difficult to define and thus more pernicious issue here: actual physical features and how they relate to what we call beauty. To clarify, I’m referring to big eyes, a small nose, plump lips, defined cheekbones, and narrow jaw.
Obviously, not everyone possesses a button nose or Cupid's bow lips. But instead of embracing our natural features, now we contour, conceal blemishes, and line our lips. We conform. And it's hard to decide whether this is an okay thing or not. After all, makeup can be liberating and allow us to experiment with our identities.
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There’s a quote from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey that always makes me think about the beauty industry. It’s basically about how being self-consciously different is just another kind of conformity: "Everything everybody does is so — I don't know — not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and — sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much only in a different way."
There are makeup brands whose very ethos is based on embracing difference and standing out from the crowd – and yet they still want you to look “pretty.”
There’s nothing that irks quite like looking at those “hot new trends” pieces that feature something like “fresh, glowy skin.” As if that’s not the unrealistic beauty standard that all women are held to all of the time. And positing it as anything new or ground-breaking isn’t just patronizing — it’s dangerous. It implies that in all the time you’ve been striving for this beauty standard, you simply haven’t been trying hard enough.
It blames your lack of conventional beauty on you.
Think about it this way — if the beauty industry is selling an ideal, and we are all equally aspiring to that ideal, then the beauty industry is essentially trying to make us all look the same. And that sameness is surely based on being conventionally beautiful, but maybe conventionally beautiful isn’t the best way to look.
I should be the last person writing about this because I buy into every beauty innovation, every cool-girl trend, every “cult” product launch. But it’s good to be thinking about the industries you participate in, even if sometimes you feel taken advantage of.
I don’t want to tell people what to do. I don’t want to say “quit contouring” and “don’t cover your zits” because I’m not even sure that’s the right thing to say or do. We should all feel comfortable with our bodies — made up or not — and be aware of the reasons we either critique or embrace the beauty industry.