My friend sends me a link to a YouTube video from her favourite Vogue channel titled, ‘A 25 step guide to toned skin.’ She tells me she really enjoyed it but admits it’s “very excessive.”
‘TWENTY-FIVE steps!!’ I exclaim in response and send the distressed face-emoji to emphasise my disavowal.
Two days before this she shared an Instagram post about a ‘hydrating mist’ she came across and included the caption, ‘My next unnecessary skincare product.’ I laughed and agreed that it may indeed be unnecessary. She explained that although her facial skin doesn’t give her many issues, it is quite dry and she’d read some good things about the mist and saw it recommended multiple times on makeup videos for its hydrating properties.
My friend is not one to blindly follow trends. In fact, she’s often been critical of what she calls the ‘Beauty Industrial Complex’, a thriving capitalistic system in which the beauty industry convinces women that there’s a product on the shelf that would fulfil everything they need, and even take care of issues they didn’t know they had. It’s a massive industry promoted by pop stars, actresses and influencers alike. Every season we see a local celebrity crowned as the new ambassador of an international beauty product. And every month there are hundreds of newly uploaded YouTube videos from beauty influencers reviewing the latest product on the shelf. The sell is infallible beauty, perfectly airbrushed skin and a perpetually youthful look, and no one cares how absurd or unrealistic it is – we all want it. And why wouldn’t we?
We are so rarely pleased with our natural look, especially as women, and the beauty industry thrives on our insecurities. I recall being in high school, paging through a collection of teen and fashion magazines with my girlfriends, and having casual conversations about what we would change about our bodies if we could ever afford plastic surgery. I pulled on the skin on my knees and elbows, expressing disfavour at how dark and discoloured it was. My friend pulled up the sleeves of her shirt, exposing the stretch-marks sparking from her underarm like lightning bolts. She told us these also appeared on her chest, making it ‘awkward’ to wear vests and expose her cleavage. Another friend pulled her cheeks in to pout her face and thinned her gaping nostrils using her fingertips. At no point did we question the absurdity of altering our physical appearance to fit the beauty standards modelled by celebrities we saw on those magazine pages. The fact that there were several ‘Reality TV: make-over shows’ where ordinary women went to transform themselves to look like their favourite celebrity or fictional character was enough to make body-altering surgical procedures sound normal and even aspirational. In that moment, the three of us – coming from three diverse racial and cultural backgrounds – bonded over our hidden insecurities and shame over the way we looked. We imagined how much happier our lives would be if we could only remove all the features we considered as our flaws.
Society places a high value on us to look pretty and behave in a feminine manner. Indeed, from the time we are young girls, we are socialised to judge ourselves based on the way we look – with over 90% of compliments and comments relating to our appearance.
“Yhu, awusemhle!” (Wow, you’re so beautiful!) – is a natural greeting amongst our friends.
“OMG, your skin is so flawless! What’s your secret?” – we comment on social media posts.
“Wait, have you lost some weight? You look amazing!” – we tell friends/colleagues/relatives we haven’t seen in a while.
Compliments are lovely to receive, but when they predominantly relate to your physically appearance, it’s easy to centre your looks as the only thing that really matters. As much as I may try fool myself into believing that I am not socialised into obsessing over fashion and beauty trends, the truth is, I am often deeply aware of how others view me and the kinds of comments they make. And so, in an attempt to be liked, affirmed and complimented, I fall into the trap of designing and curating my appearance to model the standard sold to us by the merciless industry. And because the beauty standard is always shifting with the latest trends and pop-cultural influences, there’s always a new product or procedure that is marketed to get you as close to ‘flawless perfection’ as possible.
On one hand, the use of social media has given us platforms to express ourselves and showcase our curated looks and interests to a diverse community of friends, followers, and strangers. On the other hand, the exposure and platforms have made us more susceptible to a continuous feed of beauty content which heightens our sensitivities to the way we look in comparison to the ‘flawless faces’ online that quip, “I woke up like this.” And so, the burden of women to be beautiful and feminine is not only felt through day-to-day socialisation with friends and family, but multiplied by the expectations of online and digital communities which have become a significant part of our lives
So how do we get ourselves out of this trap? When we’re caught up in the bubble of largely consuming the beauty and fame culture that’s marketed by television, advertising and social media, it’s not always easy to pop out of it and fully return to reality. This is because the industry is strategically built to pull us in as a consumer. Features such as double-taps, favourites, likes, shares, and comments after you post a selfie keep you engaged, whilst the active notifications keep you going back for more. This obsession with content production and consumption has been likened with the effect that drugs have, as they provide similar instant-gratification and increased dopamine levels.
It makes sense then to consider switching off from the constant online feed as much as possible, as a way to detox and keep your self-perceptions guarded from any creeping insecurities. It’s also important to remember that there are women who don’t engage in the obsessive beauty culture at all. Consider having conversations with them to learn about their thoughts and ways of remaining sane in a narcissistic culture where good looks are considered a higher priority than kindness, intellect, sympathy, or even talent.
But most importantly, let’s start a culture of affirming each other through compliments that are not tied to a person’s appearance, but to who they are (personality), what they do (behaviour), and how much it means to you (feelings). Ultimately, these affirmations and compliments have to start with ourselves.
Read about one writer’s journey to loving the skin she is in here
Tell us: Do you think society has unrealistic beauty standards?