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In a recent MOMA Instagram post, artist Petra Collins admits that if she could tell her 15-year-old-self anything, it would be to “try not to care about your appearance.” It sounds like good advice for any kid with aspirations; focus on your goals and worry less about what you look like. But, as Petra Collins–who has made a career out of her intense awareness of the male gaze–surely knows, for most women such an injunction is easier said than followed.
Recently, as I plunked down an exorbitant amount of cash for one of my regular hair salon appointments, I had a vision of another woman. She had mousy, dishwater blonde hair and a well-stocked savings account. Her wardrobe was simple and, quite possibly, she rejected beauty-angst in favor of a lucrative career, or at the very least, a wholly fulfilling one.
It’s this kind of thinking that’s behind Chelsea Fagan’s site, The Financial Diet. A tongue-in-cheek play on the abundance of diet-centric content aimed at women, The Financial Diet offers women career and money advice to achieve the perfect beach bank account. The site encourages women to put less stock in maintaining an impossibly high beauty standard and more stock in, well, stock.
A 2013 study estimated that the average woman spends about $15,000 on beauty products over the course of a lifetime, collectively spending about $426 billion on beauty products each year. The $15,000 figure, however, doesn’t take into account much more than makeup products–and as every woman knows, a beauty routine is more than just lipstick, mascara, and eye shadow alone. For many women, a beauty routine will also involve skin care products, hair removal products or services, salon services, a stylish wardrobe including underthings, and an ever-increasing menu of anti-aging processes. And, as if that didn’t add up to enough, women also pay a “Pink Tax” on many items, meaning many products and services are priced higher simply because they’re marketed to women. A 2013 study found that women pay 48 percent more on hair products, 92 percent more on dry cleaned shirts, and 57 percent more on hair cuts.
It’s not news that being a woman is expensive and neither is it news that women still make only 80 cents to every dollar earned by a man. For black women and other minorities, that pay gap is even worse, with black women earning only 63 cents to every dollar a man makes. Ironically, black women also spend a whopping 80 percent more on beauty products than their non-black counterparts.
It might seem like one possible solution to the financial rock and hard place most women face is to dispense beauty routines altogether. Indeed, all one has to do is Google “Is makeup feminist?” in order to find a trove of embattled opinions and expressions of inner conflict. On one hand much of what we call “the cost of being a woman” has to do with meeting beauty standards upheld to us by the male gaze, on the other hand, an attention to one’s own beauty can be an exercise in self-love and self-expression.
Even in Collins’ exhortation to her 15-year-old self, we can see this conflict. She shames her younger self for her focus on her appearance, but from that younger self she’s also built a career as a model, artist, and photographer by the age of 24. That career wasn’t built in spite of Collins’ adolescent obsession with appearance, but perhaps because of it. She rose to fame on Instagram where most of her work focused on the female gaze and also played with societal expectations placed on the female body.
Many seem to share Collins’ logic, seeing focus on appearance as inherently frivolous, and like women’s meagre paychecks, attention that could be spent elsewhere. But when followed to its end, the rationale for this kind of thinking falls out: Less time getting my hair done in the salon does not necessarily equal more time marching for social justice or pursuing my passions. In fact, it might just mean more mousy hair. It’s a natural human desire to look good; it only becomes frivolous and vain when applied to women.
Furthermore, as women in societies gain spending power and personal rights, many choose to spend that money on beauty and personal care products. This could account for the rise in beauty products out of South Korea and other Asian countries, as well as the popularity of beauty pageants in South American countries. For many women, access to better beauty products indicates access to more power.
But the alignment of beauty and power is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the beauty industry is an excellent place for women to connect and even earn money. The rise of social media platforms have given birth to the beauty community where women share beauty tips, get product sponsors, and found their own cosmetics companies. Michelle Phan is probably the most well known entrepreneur to go from vlogger to CEO. On the other hand, as beauty services and technology become more advanced, the beauty standards seem only to grow ever higher.
A 2015 study found that one in five women are actively considering a cosmetic surgery procedure, and it’s not just older women. A staggering 90 percent of women ages 18-24 admitted to being dissatisfied with their appearance. As more and more women of all ages take on the risk and expense of cosmetic surgeries, the pressure on those who may want to opt out rises. Studies have found that leaner, more attractive women earn considerably more than their less attractive counterparts and are also more likely to marry. As the bar for “pretty” gets set higher and higher, so grows the bottom line and the amount of time spent on grooming.
Thus, the pursuit of beauty is both a burden and a beast, and one that women are unlikely to give up. Even if we did manage to convene and collectively agree to tip our products into the nearest Bay in one giant Pink Tax protest, it wouldn’t solve the fact that women are more likely to be valued based on their appearance–whether it’s bare-faced or not. The problem is not the beauty industry per se, but the patriarchy at large.
Unfortunately, as with most oppressed populations, the onus is on us to create change. Thankfully, the first step isn’t to throw out the hair straightener and kiss the stylist good bye, rather, it’s choosing to value other qualities over external feedback on one’s appearance. As conscious consumers, we can choose to support beauty businesses that campaign on the quality of their products rather than capitalize on a culture of impossible standards.
Beauty will fade for all of us, but we have a lifetime of opportunity to gain new skills, achieve goals, and pass down knowledge. We can learn to confer self-love on ourselves that penetrates deeper than a face mask. We can compliment other women on their leadership, creative, social, and intellectual qualities rather than their appearances. It’s on us to value ourselves and each other based on more than the banal structure of the beauty standard and to discover the unbearable lightness of the beauty within.