If you are alive at this very moment, chances are you have participated or regularly participate in the beauty game. The beauty game, just like every game, has its rules. Be thin, eat healthy for your skin, straighten your hair, wave your hair, eliminate every hair that is not on your head, make sure you don’t lose the ones on your head, get yourself some freckles, eliminate cellulitis, wear heels to make your legs longer, use anti-wrinkle cream, look natural, look healthy, look sexy, don’t eat sugar … I could go on and on. The beauty rules change slightly with time, but they are always this: impossible to satisfy.
80% of women have tried dieting at least once; many say they are too self-aware to exercise; others confess they drink to feel comfortable with the way they look; 50% of girls smoke to suppress their appetite — is it enough to suggest that these things, these anxieties, are slowly killing us? This craziness has been around for a very long time. Ursula Le Guin wrote:
I think of when I was in high school in the 1940s: the white girls got their hair crinkled up by chemicals and heat so it would curl, and the black girls got their hair mashed flat by chemicals and heat so it wouldn’t curl. Home perms hadn’t been invented yet, and a lot of kids couldn’t afford these expensive treatments, so they were wretched because they couldn’t follow the rules, the rules of beauty.
Have you ever been wretched because you couldn’t follow the rules of beauty? If it was impossible in the 40s, how could it be possible now, in the era of Instagram and an overwhelming body-related perfection? There is this new stream of ‘love yourself as you are’ but then there are many more closer to ‘if you get thinner, you get happier’ and ‘the success wears size S’. Continuing with Ursula Le Guin:
Beauty always has rules. It’s a game. I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt. I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves. Most of the time I just play the game myself in a very small way, buying a new lipstick, feeling happy about a pretty new silk shirt.
I also play the beauty game in a very small way, or at least try to. And I hate the people who make fortunes out of body-related anxiety in our society. I also hate the luxury fashion industry, since they try to make you believe that your worth is proportional to the price of your handbag. Not only this, but it is probably the most harmful industry, not only to humans, but also to the environment.
Did you know that in 2019 Burberry burned $37 million in products to prevent “the wrong people” from purchasing them? Burning merchandise is a common practice for luxury brands. Now try to zoom out and think about the global situation and the world in general. Do you really think it is freaking normal?
Then there are the emissions. The fashion industry pumps out more carbon dioxide than international flights and shipping combined, according to a 2017 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report. But that would be another story.
Have you ever heard that people won’t take you seriously (especially in certain industries) if you don’t wear at least 3K on you? It’s just as absurd as it sounds. But when you are 20 years old, you are easily convinced. It is a great excuse to actually enter this disgusting game: I need it for my work! Obviously, it is complete nonsense. I have worked in the fashion and film industry for 10 years and I have always used fabric bags and second-hand clothes, and I know many people who did and were not less successful because of it.
But it’s not only about a certain group of people. The beauty game is for everyone, as long as everyone watches TV, reads magazines, uses social media, and looks at physical advertising on the street. You cannot escape it. New Year’s resolution circles around exercise more, eat healthy (which often gets understood as don’t eat at all), give yourself a gift and buy liposuction, give somebody else a gift and get them a juicy detox plan.
There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place, and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other. — Ursula Le Guin
So there is a beauty ideal that is somehow universal — where the body and spirit meet. But this is surely not what we see everywhere around us. Today the web ensures that we are drowning in fake visuals: we’re no longer comparing ourselves to “real images” — our friends — apart from magazines. We’re comparing ourselves to social-networked strangers, celebrities, and other Photoshopped images, of which we see around 5,000 a week.
Are today’s diets — the way we are encouraged to eat cognitively — to blame for our anxiety as well? The specialists claim that the problem is not eating disorders but disordered eating. Disordered eating includes competitive dieting and eating in secret — it can lead to both eating disorders and obesity, but more commonly just adds to the eater’s anxiety. Rates of depression in women and girls doubled between 2000 and 2010; the more women self-objectify, the more likely they are to be depressed. Does it seem related?
We hate how we look because of our new, complicated, post-edited visual culture, because of a fashion industry that has not adapted, a media that forensically analyses women’s bodies, and because we have to eat smart. Our bodies define who we are. So we punish ourselves for not meeting some unreachable and most importantly, unreal, ideal.
Social expectations surrounding beauty have reached the point where the ideal is no longer a tangible aesthetic, but a desire to look different than you do; the “grass is greener on the other side” rule is a key tenet of socialized beauty standards.
Let’s finish with a statement I wish all of us could repeat every morning:
After all those years as a woman hearing ‘not thin enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not this enough, not that enough,’ almost overnight I woke up one morning and thought, “I’m enough.” — Anna Quindlen
PS: You have probably already seen the brilliant video “Be a Lady, They Said” but in case you haven’t, you should: