The tyranny of the beauty industry is as potent at its misogynistic core as it as in the waiting rooms of plastic surgery clinics, but how, as a woman, can we simply exist without the constant criticism of modern culture eating away at us? Kate Demolder writes.
If you were online this week, you’ll likely have seen a video of Natalia Dyer, a 27-year-old American actress, known largely for her portrayal as Nancy Wheeler in the Netflix science fiction fantasy horror Stranger Things. In the video, which originated on TikTok, a photography still of Dyer on a red carpet hits the centre frame. She is slim, pale, petite. She is wearing a black and gold dress, gold studded earrings and deep pink lipstick. Her auburn hair dusts the tops of her shoulders, her green eyes staring directly into the camera’s lens.
The video is then interrupted by a beautiful woman in an inscribed white coat, the kind worn by doctors. She introduces herself as Miranda Wilson, @np.miranda on TikTok, a certified aesthetic nurse practitioner injector, who quickly proceeds to roll off the details of how she would improve Dyer’s appearance, further detailing which procedures and injections she would provide to do so.
She began by saying that the first thing she would start with is Dyer’s masseter muscles, the part of the jaw used to help with chewing. “We all know how much I love treating masseters to help slim the face,” she said. She would then, she continues, inject chin filler to “help fill out her chin and make her face more of a heart shape.” She also expressed her desire to add lip filler (“nothing crazy”) and finally add a little botox as well as “a nice brow lift to help open up her eyes. And to top it off, we’d start working with some Sculptra.” The final shot of the video showcased a highly-photoshopped version of Dyer, including all of the changes that Wilson was suggesting. Her face appeared oval, not dissimilar to a typically illustrated cartoon alien, her eyebrows were pulled taut, mobilised closer to her hairline. Her eyes, now noticeably lifeless, appear unforgiving, harrowing even, asking why was this done to me when I never even asked.
The since-deleted video, mercifully, has grown in infamy under an increasingly left-wing internet space. Dyer, whose presence in the piece was justified only by her existence, was, at repeated instances, told that her face was wrong, by a person attempting to market her business. It, and many other instances, highlights the grotesque irony of the beauty industry, a space which does not take a woman’s body as something natural or given, but rather as raw material to be twisted and shaped to fit an external standard. Their bodies are transformed for others to exploit them.
These layers of gaslighting begin early, by companies purporting to be pro-women while inventing issues and problems (e.g. pored skin, the lack of a ‘thigh gap’, untreated masseters in Dyer’s face) to push forth a wave of new (and often, expensive) products directly profiting off of female self-loathing. It’s a tried and tested mechanic; tell women they are ugly, they will do something to change it, or as Eugène Schueller, the creator of L’Oréal put it: “Tell people they’re disgusting, they don’t smell good, and they’re not attractive.” They’ll even tell themselves it was their idea.
“Women are mere ‘beauties’ in men’s culture so that culture can be kept male,” Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth. “Since middle-class Western women can best be weakened psychologically now that we are stronger materially, the beauty myth, as it has resurfaced in the last generation, has had to draw on more technological sophistication and reactionary fervor [sic] than ever before,” she writes. We see this in the recurring invention process harboured by the beauty industry, telling us extensively that how our body acts is unruly, horrifying, grotesque. We see it in pore reducers, false tan, Botox antiperspirants, skin-bleaching, under eye serums, curly hair relaxers––each subtly screaming at us that an element of ourselves is uncurated and wrong, and should be treated as such. And society has followed. In the 1960s, Feminists were stereotyped as ‘ugly’ in an effort to undermine their message, throughout the 1970s courts consistently upheld the right of employers to enforce beauty-based policies on female employees and in a recently as four years ago, the ‘beauty premium’, as coined by a 2018 study, showcases how conventionally attractive were lauded personally and professionally, oftentimes earning more, securing better job offers and promoted more frequently than women who were deemed not as obedient.
The pursuit of beauty; the individual qualifications women are expected to meet in order to embody the “feminine beauty ideal” (The terms “women” and “feminine” are used here because the beauty industry was deliberately built on the binary) are clearly and constantly communicated to us in ways both subtle and glaring through politics, film, television, modern media and advertising. It feels akin to brainwashing because it is (psychologists suggest that it may be all but impossible to separate what we inherently and individually find beautiful from what society tells us is beautiful).
These standards and qualifications are moving targets, changing consistently over time. However, due to Western colonialism, they are largely Eurocentric; small noses, pale skin, straight hair, slim bodies, a concept directly refuting the theories that today’s ideals stemmed from the evolutionary process of mate selection. This set of standards first introduced the concept of one’s image appearing ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, laying the foundation for a myriad of products, services or provisions one can seek to ‘fix’ the conceived mishaps of simply owning a functioning body.
In Dyer’s case, the outrage stank of exasperation. When a woman who satisfies the current feminist beauty ideal––petite, white, hairless, young, wealthy, appropriate make up, sleek straight hair––is policed to the point of reprimand on a public forum, what chance do we, as members of the un-rich, un-retouched public have? It lends itself to the current choice of refurbishment women now must consider; cosmetic gynaecology. Commonly known as vaginoplasties, procedures currently on offer to clients (not patients, because these surgeries are cash-only elective procedures for improvement or remediation) include labiaplasty (trimming or completely removing labia), vaginal rejuvenation (tightening), hymenoplasty (“revirgination”) and clitoral “unhooding” – among others.
Worldwide, the number of labiaplasties performed in 2019 reached 164,667, which corresponded to a 24.1% increase compared to 2018 and a 73.3% rise compared to 2015. Labiaplasty was the 15th most popular plastic surgery procedure among female patients for 2019, after upper arm fat removal and breast reduction. It’s a horrifying concept, that of young women going under the knife, armed with the belief that their vulva doesn’t look like those of pornographical standards, but not dissimilar to the Hollywood wax trade, or the Botox boom we recognise as wholly normal today.
Indeed, these reinforcements appear to only exploit female guilt because it is willed into being by those stunned into submission by the rapidity of gender relations and equality; a parapet of reassurance against an overflow of change. This is the basis of reasoning behind the $58 billion diet industry, the $564 billion beauty industry and the $1.1 billion pornography industry and indeed the beauty myth itself. The contemporary trappings of the beauty industry are both destroying women physically and eroding them psychologically, demanding us to remain on our toes lest another element of ourselves grows to appear disgusting.
Indeed, the antidote to the beauty myth is an entire unsubscription of same. It happens slowly, like the gradual acceptance of the word ‘feminist’ in modern society, then ends with a strike, like Nora’s door slam of the dollhouse in Ibsen’s 1879 magnum opus. For those of us keen to relinquish control of the beauty industry over the way we live, this act cannot simply be done by flaunting our blemishes, showcasing our body hair or demanding the rights we possess as 21st century women––it is instead the aversion to see those things as they are intended on being, and choosing a new way to see, entirely.