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Some questions and thoughts on beauty pressure

(Abstract) What is beauty? (Abstract) What is beauty?

After reading the Ministry of Thin book I reviewed last Monday, and also things I keep reading on the blogs, one question keeps coming back to me: Is the beauty pressure really that bad? It’s a genuine question, not a rhetorical one.

I don’t doubt that people in surveys say they want to lose weight and that they’re unhappy with their appearance. If someone asked me would I like to be 5 kilos lighter, or course I would say yes, in the same way that I’d like to have a higher salary, a more active social life and travel more. But it’s hardly a pressing preoccupation, and in the list of relative concerns, my weight ranks well below the other three things I’ve mentioned and loads of other stuff on top. I certainly am not bothered enough to actually go on a diet or anything, because I value the enjoyment and mental stability that eating until I’m full, and occasionally overeating and eating ‘bad’ food much more than I would value being thinner. ‘Nothing looks as good as being content and able to think straight feels’ is my motto.

Anyway, I just wonder if most people are not in a similar position: they’re not exactly happy with their looks, but their unhappiness is not something they think about that much.

In the book Woolf goes on about how her colleagues are always talking about diets and how many calories there are in stuff, but then she is a journalist in London, and a journalist who reviews new beauty treatments and exercise regimes at that. It’s hardly representative. I’ve had colleagues like that, and I know people who are acting a bit obsessed right now, but they’re unusual enough to be noticeable, not the norm.

And while I totally agree that there’s pressure on women to look ‘good’, I’m not sure I see that much pressure to have specific beauty treatments as is argued in the book. Some women I know get their nails done every fortnight, some have expensive highlights, some wear designer clothes, some are constantly getting new stuff from h&m. Some have botox (presumably), some are on punishing personal trainer exercise plans. People are definitely investing time and money into their appearance, sometimes more than they should/can afford, but I don’t think there’s any expectation to have everything, certainly not outwith the beauty journalist world. As long as you look acceptable, you get to pick and choose your beauty work, right?

And that thing about teenage boys/young men not knowing that women have pubic hair, that’s not actually true, is it? Surely? And the cosmetic surgery on vaginas? How would you even know what your own ladybits look like? It’s not like you can see them by accident, you’d have to go looking.

I don’t know though, maybe I’m just lucky to be old enough and to have escaped into monogamy before all the beauty stuff got out of hand. I’d be interested in hearing from younger readers!

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  • Dawn 29 July 2013, 8:22 am

    I often wonder if it’s the pressure to look like you’re making an effort, rather than the search for perfection. Maybe we’ve gotten to the stage where we realise that perfection is unattainable but we still need the processes surrounding it as a value-judgement. One of the biggest criticisms levelled at women is that she has just given up on herself (by letting herself go grey/ wearing unfashionable clothes).
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    • Franca 29 July 2013, 8:51 am

      I think you might be right there. I’ve been thinking a it about yummy mummies, and as I understand that term, it doesn’t mean a mum who looks good as such, but a mum who is quite high maintenance, who spends time and money on getting her hair and nails done etc. [That’s why I always find it quite confusing when people call me that (happened a few times, not all the time or anything), because I am really very low maintenance.] And the young actresses, who are getting stuff done that usually older women would do in a bid to stay looking young, so they actually end up looking older than they are, that botoxed ageless face. However, I still get the impression that people get to choose what ‘making an effort’ means. It doesn’t mean ‘do everything and anything possible’.

  • Laura 29 July 2013, 10:50 am

    I’m 23, and single, and I certainly don’t feel this way. I invest time and money into my appearance because I enjoy it, and while I’m sure there’s a certain amount of ingrained societal pressure affecting me in that, I’m not deluded/self-centred enough to think that anyone really notices the details of my appearance. As far as men (boys) my age go, I’ve never had any negative comments or anything, or felt pressured to look a different way. (The pubic hair thing is nonsense. Interestingly, while most men seem to be able to recognise that the women they see in pornography are not representative of most women, they don’t seem to make the same assessment of the behaviour displayed in porn.)

  • Cloud of Secrets 29 July 2013, 2:31 pm

    I think a lot depends on the social circles you’re most embedded in. Some women honestly do get the pressure, tacit or explicit, from their best friends, work colleagues, the other women in the town, and their partners who have soaked up the same pressures and expectations.

    Most of my friends and neighbors would think me bizarre if I put up the money, time, and self-attention for weekly manicures, sensitive area waxing, and professional cuts and color treatments every couple of months. Not to mention surgical adjustments or neurotic attention to the scale. But in many socioculturaleconomic pockets in the US, it is the expected norm.

    I stopped reading Elle magazine in part because of its unhealthy (I felt) attention to beauty-oriented surgery and chemicals. But they do have an audience that needs the information.

    My husband made the mistake once of calling me high maintenance. I will point out to him from time to time what *real* high maintenance is, when we see it on TV or in the news!
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  • sara 29 July 2013, 4:33 pm

    Oy! What a sensitive topic! I honestly don’t get it. I mean, I went through a phase where I hated myself, and my appearance showed that. I was depressed, I ate like crap, never slept, never went out and did anything, etc. I found myself hating how I looked ALL THE TIME. Eventually, I got my shit together and got back to school, ate better, worked out, etc. And yes, I did lose weight, but, I FELT better. I still focus a little too much on fitting into certain clothes, and I get bummed that my legs are not as thin as I would like. However, over vacation we went on two very large hikes and the fact that I was able to do them is because I eat well and workout. Standing on top of that ridge of Porcupine mountains after hours of climbing uphill? That is a feeling I would not trade for the world. And i would never trade that for thinner legs.
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  • Kerry 30 July 2013, 1:50 pm

    I think most people like to make an effort for themselves and their own self esteem and like you say, only in certain circles does it really matter. I like talking about beauty products sometimes but I hate talking about diets and find weight talk tedious. There can be a lot of pressure to do what you think you should be doing because everyone else is I suppose but ideally if you take the media at face value then you’ll have a balanced view.

  • Sarah 30 July 2013, 3:15 pm

    I love your motto! Nothing looks as bad as being totally crazy and obsessive feels, right? I do find that my friends and coworkers are obsessed with weight etc. I’ve tried to not participate in weight conversations and find it very difficult because they happen so much! Maybe it’s just my friends?
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  • Camelia Crinoline 30 July 2013, 10:46 pm

    Conversations about weight make me feel really awkward. I’ve always felt out of place when women discuss what they need to change about their physical appearance, not because I don’t feel bad about my appearance sometimes, but because I think those conversations make people feel worse. I can’t really answer if the beauty pressure is really that bad because I have a huge amount of thin privilege. I’m also gay, and most of the writing about beauty pressure focuses pretty heavily on straight women feeling pressure to be thin/conventionally attractive for men which I don’t relate to at all.
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