Beauty U goes on winter break tomorrow, so I’m gearing up to take the next 12 days off from blogging for Christmas, New Year’s, and the plentiful eating of real chocolate. It’s all good — we’re gearing up for advanced facials after break, and my skin needs some rebound time after a class effort to extract every comedone (that’s spa speak for pimple) currently erupting on my face.
But before I go ice my face, I’d like to direct your attention to “The Beauty Standards Backlash,” Amanda Marcotte’s fantastic post over on Double X. She argues that our culture’s current obsession with Brazilians and Botox (and pore excavation and everything else I’ve been obsessing over here for the last two months) is a backlash against the feminist movement:
Those of us who came of age in the ’90s apparently grew up in a feminist paradise in which you could totally be considered hot while not being on the brink of starvation. Body hair was only considered a problem if directly visible (and even then, armpit hair made a small comeback), comfortable clothes were the norm, make-up was applied sparingly and for artfulness rather than deceit, and natural hair became completely normal. The slovenliness of the grunge era has given way to sharp dressing, but it’s still done with a minimum of discomfort. And I swear to you that by applying a relaxed beauty norm, we were able to train the men of my generation to be sexually aroused by women who didn’t need to show suffering for beauty. Indeed, many men I know in their 30s and 40s recoil at the idea of finding waxed anorexics with plastic parts to be sexier than someone unafraid to wear a pair of sneakers on the right occasion. Or perhaps they’re flattering me for reasons I don’t understand, though their choices in partners tend to uphold their claims.
All of which tells me that we’re in a backlash period, much like the 80s as described by Susan Faludi. Which means that the oppressive beauty standards are a response to feminism, but also that we don’t have to give up hope.
Remembering the 1990s as a “feminist paradise” might be a bit of a stretch (water bras, Biore strips, the flip side of grunge being Kate Moss skinny/heroin chic), but you need only compare the original cast of 90210 (which first aired in 1990) with the remake to see Marcotte’s point. It’s not just the lack of mom jeans — thighs and eyebrows alike have been downsized.
You can try to make the case that we’ve come so far with women’s rights that it’s the CW Network’s prerogative to shrink their starlets or not — and fluffy window dressing issues like these shouldn’t play into the real problems, like equal pay, and how many women we’ve elected to public office. In fact, I’m sure there are some people running around calling themselves feminists (or more likely, prone to starting sentences with the phrase, “I’m no feminist, but…”) who see it as a sign of progress that a former beauty pageant queen can finally be a serious candidate for the vice-presidency.
But I agree with American Prospect writer Michelle Goldberg, who says the message Sarah Palin and friends really send is “it’s fine for women to do everything men do — as long as they stay skinny, sexy, young, and soignée at the same time.” That double standard is alive, well, and on a diet. And what’s really interesting about the current anti-feminism backlash and the ever-more-absurd beauty standards it promotes is that We. All. Know. This.
We (the media, blogs, people at dinner tables and water coolers everywhere) talk about how crazy beauty makes us all the damn time. I almost didn’t post those then/now photos of the 90210 casts because I thought, “gee whiz, everyone from Us Weekly to Oprah talked about that last year when the show first aired.” But then I realized: We got in a lather, and absolutely nothing happened. We’ve convinced ourselves that these extreme beauty norms can’t be all that dangerous because we’ve gotten so good at identifying them all around us. What we’re ignoring is how we’re sort of accepting them at the same time.
And that means pretty soon we won’t be shocked or scandalized by the onslaught of “waxed anorexics with plastic parts.” They’ll just be normal.
Unless: We do more than just talk about it. Marcotte says that we can fight oppressive beauty standards by doing less: “I’m trying to do my part—by refusing to dye my hair even as it turns gray—and what’s awesome is this rebellion is the easiest in the world. How often do you get to rebel by creating more leisure time for yourself?”
But if you want to take it a step beyond easy, it starts with asking hard questions about our own notions of beauty, as we’re trying to do here. Then we need more boycotts when brands like Ralph Lauren screw up. And, we need the environmental movement to join forces with women in a way that doesn’t involve us taking our clothes off and does push beauty companies to make safer products. Maybe we don’t need to go cold turkey on facials or even bikini waxes, but we do need to think a little more critically about why we think we need them.
I’m just saying, it would be nice if this next decade doesn’t end with us waxing nostalgic for 2009 as that more innocent time when that ever-shrinking 90210 cast was at least worth mentioning.
PPS. Another great take on this backlash/epidemic by DoubleX’s Claire Gordon.
See you back here in 2010!