Breaking down beauty, while beauty breaks us

How beauty and femininity cause anxieties in women today

“You can buy your hair if it won’t grow
You can fix your nose if he says so
You can buy all the make-up that MAC can make
But if you can’t look inside you
Find out who am I to
Be in the position to make me feel so
Damn unpretty”

— Unpretty, TLC

Think back to the number of times you’ve been told that looks aren’t everything. You’ve definitely heard it, likely from your parents, media counter-narrative or well-meaning friends. Maybe it was your family (being nice) about your less-than-cream skin.

But, the way this needs to be said so explicitly in healthy doses every now and again, kind of makes one think that maybe, it might actually just be everything, doesn’t it?

Well, yes and no.

There is a dominant idea of beauty in the world, whether we see it or not. This ultimate idea of beauty is the cause of anxiety and other harmful behaviour in women. What makes this understanding of beauty particularly harmful is the fact that this ideal is considered attainable. It also sets in a hierarchy between the haves and have-nots of this currency of beauty — and no other parameter. It sets in place an idea that there are degrees of inferiority in terms of beauty. Today, conventional ideas of beauty are hierarchically organised, socially and structurally shaped to generate experiences of anxiety among women.

Beauty: What we think it is

We all have an idea of what we think beauty is. No doubt these ideas were created from the cultures that we grew up in. Certain Indian children’s’ textbooks are found to perpetuate conventional notions to describe it — fair, thin, medium height, straight hair, tight clothes, while ugliness is linked to curvy, dark, curly haired women. (Jacob, 2018)

Naomi Wolf in ‘The Beauty Myth’ writes,

“The quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it. This embodiment is an imperative for women and not for men, which situation is necessary and natural because it is biological, sexual, and evolutionary: Strong men battle for beautiful women, and beautiful women are more reproductively successful. Women’s beauty must correlate to their fertility, and since this system is based on sexual selection, it is inevitable and changeless.”

When you and I think of beauty, we think of it as an inevitability. An evolutionary function humans attained to find better partners, something it’s a merely natural response to symmetry and genetic viability. These understandings, though might be mildly true, are not the whole story, and in effect provide a justification to something that in reality has more that devastating undercurrents.

Beauty: What it Actually is

In reality, beauty is a form of sociological hegemony that places a certain power in the hands of the ‘aesthetically pleasing’. This power transcends situations and leads to a hierarchy and inequality in situations that are seemingly unrelated to the concept of aesthetic. This concept has been so rationalised and normalised in the minds of the people, that it is unquestioned for the most part.

Back to Naomi Wolf,

“The truth here, is that “Beauty” is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact. In assigning value to women in a vertical hierarchy according to a culturally imposed physical standard, it is an expression of power relations in which women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves”

How it Manifests

The beauty myth is a concept popularised by Naomi Wolf’s book with the same name. In it, she poses the telling question: What makes the affluent, liberated, educated women still not free? The answer is the lack of freedom is subconscious, ‘trivial’ almost. Conventional legal, economic, power barriers have been overcome by these women but what remains is the conventional idea of feminine beauty that is used to control women — The Beauty Myth. This oppression is the link between female liberation and female beauty.

“To every feminism there is an equal and opposite beauty myth”

Naomi Wolf states in this claim that beauty is the controlling factor used to subdue the women that have acquired the third wave of feminism, and are aspiring to equality. This is the way in which an equally paid, equally privileged woman to a man will never be equal to him as the beauty myth will always be there to subdue. In history, as and when women breached power structures, at every stage they crossed, the beauty myth came down stronger on them. (Wolf, 1991)

From the Barbies that we played with when we were younger to seemingly harmless makeover movies like She’s All That, an orchestra of strings are used to keep this in place. Seeded in well-known, glamorous movie stars’ lives, we take away concepts of beauty like Sonam Kapoor becoming fair, Alia Bhatt becoming thin and Rekha transforming almost completely (“From ugly duckling to swan queen: Remembering Rekha’s transformation on her B’day- Entertainment News, Firstpost”, 2018), every glamorous face we see in India has a deep history of insecurity, and anxiety-driven behaviour.

Why did this beauty myth come about?

Wolf said,

“When the restless, isolated, bored, and insecure housewife fled the Feminine Mystique for the workplace, advertisers faced the loss of their primary consumer. How to make sure that busy, stimulated working women would keep consuming at the levels they had done when they had all day to do so and little else of interest to occupy them? A new ideology was necessary that would compel the same insecure consumerism; that ideology must be, unlike that of the Feminine Mystique, a briefcase-sized neurosis that the working woman could take with her to the office. To paraphrase Friedan, why is it never said that the really crucial function that women serve as aspiring beauties is to buy more things for the body?”

The clothes and shoes that are designed for women are often restrictive to their movement. Their beauty regime takes up time, money, thought and effort — all for other people’s visions of what they ought to look like. Young women in particular are the most susceptible to this myth. The pressure to become artifice, an object to the male gaze, is what restricts them, and very often makes them prioritise beauty over accomplishment. As an afterthought of positivity, Simone De Beauuvoir does state that these notions, although ingrained, are rejectable. (Beauvoir, 1972)

What this notion of beauty essentially does is that it creates a standard of everyday beauty that is in reality created with a team of 4 make-up artists, 3 hair specialists, 2 wardrobe managers and one person behind a computer. The problem here is that, although more fabricated than natural, it seems attainable. The background team is hidden and notions of perpetual perfection are propagated through culture, society and environment. This perception drives people to aim to attain that level of perfection — which then leads to cyclical and persisting feelings of inadequacy. This inadequacy then goes beyond beauty as culture stereotypes women to fit the myth by flattening the feminine into beauty-without-intelligence or intelligence-without-beauty; where women are allowed a mind or a body but not both. (Wolf, 1991)

In India, the biggest issue of beauty revolves around skin colour — a kind of colonial hangover where for women, aspirations from jobs to marriages to service in establishments are different based on their skin colour. This may seem to some as just a bias, but it is flat out racism codified in the caste system, as the rich with intellectual occupations stayed indoors while the poor worked outdoors and hence tanned their skin; and colonialism and post-colonialism kept alive through consumerism and advertisements. Cosmetic skin lightening is not the only issue, India’s traditional Ayurveda medical system tells pregnant women that they can improve their foetus’ complexion by drinking saffron-laced milk and eating oranges, fennel seeds and coconut pieces (Abraham, 2017). Indian advertisements for fairness creams also portray people to be loveless, unsuccessful and unhappy before they acquire a fairer skin, that also magically sometimes gives them lighter hair and eyes in images.

The Suffering

The Buddhist notion of suffering, or dukkha, is outlined in the Four Noble Truths, the second of which says that the root cause of all suffering is desire. And this craving to be beautiful plays cognitive games with us, until we end up in a cycle of insecurity-driven behaviours that cause ultimate harm.

There are many ways in which beauty as an institution may cause anxiety. The cognitive domains of status, comparison and competition are ones that add to the social domains of consumerism and patriarchy to form the subtle anxiety that we see in women today. Beauty is a social representation that portrays a homogeneous and coherent view of what the in-group and out-group is (the haves and have-nots of this currency). According to the social representation theory, A social representation is understood as the collective elaboration “of a social object by the community for the purpose of behaving and communicating” (Wagner et al., 1999) Often time ideas get anchored in self-other hierarchy. Whereby in the process of comparison one is always motivated to positively evaluate oneself compared to the other. In that way, ideas related to beauty are also embedded in the self-other hierarchy.. whereby each women is motivated to positively evaluate herself.

According to Fiske’s Stereotype Content Model (SCM), all stereotypes are formed along the domains of warmth and competence. For groups that compete for resources, the out-group is treated with disdain and hostility. The two groups of haves and have-nots in terms of beauty are formed both of outward appearance, and inward sense of self, as they are not explicit groups, and the resources they compete for are male attention. When one group is seen to betray itself, it is seen extremely unfavourable, as is the case in slut-shaming that follows make-up, clothes and sometimes even dieting. Similar to this, in the SCM model, social groups with high social status (here, in terms of beauty) are considered to be more competent. (Fiske et al., 2009) Bruno Frey and Jana Gallus mention the term ‘erotic capital’ to describe the fact that conventionally physically attractive people have higher economic, cultural, human and social capitals (Frey & Gallus, 2013). People rich in the beauty currency experience preferential treatment everywhere, likely a result of the halo effect that makes their high ranking on beauty ‘spill-over’ to other aspects of their personality, making them seem more intelligent, competent, etc.

Gloria Steinem said “All women are Bunnies” — a reference to the necessary beauty qualifications seen in Playboy Bunnies and a testament to the way in which beauty transcends occupations and is made a necessary qualification for progress for women in all sectors. Waitresses, TV news anchors, CEOs, all had standards set for appearance — age, height, complexion, and more — before they ever made it. Naomi Wolf says here, “With youth and beauty, then, the working woman is visible, but insecure, made to feel her qualities are not unique. But, without them, she is invisible — she falls, literally, ‘out of the picture.’ … Age equals not to prestige, but erasure.” (Wolf, 1991, p. 35) What this essentially does is that women are pressured to look feminine, along with deliver the same work as men. More, if one counts domestic unpaid work (which definitely should be counted).

What is interesting here is that within the mental models of women, the outgroup (being the people who are the “haves” of beauty — essentially models, etc.) is treated with hate in this case, but also with envy. In this case, the in-group and the outgroup merge — because of the confounding factor of the sense of self. Thus, group membership is not objective — people who could be considered as haves by some, would have their low self-esteem telling them otherwise, and thus might identify as the outgroup within themselves but be identified as ingroup by others. This is a fascinating thing, also seen in the way in which Indians are extremely racist based on skin colour, racist against themselves. It is no joke that in India, whiteness is power — which is counterintuitive because here the in-group, or so it seems, is discriminated against, a sort of internalised hatred — a dissonance that is devastating. It is one thing to be delegitimised by the outgroup, but being done so by one’s own people, worse yet by oneself is something not only sociologically but also cognitively harmful.

In Susan Fiske’s Envy Up, Scorn Down model, the downward social comparison is treated with scorn while the upward is treated with envy. In this case, though, it seems as if, the upward is treated with both scorn and envy — likely a result of the way in which this institution is formed. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous quote encapsulates the reason for this competitive scorn mixed with envy, “We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men.” (Adichie, 2014) In addition, the phenomenon of Schadenfreude is seen when you hear — oh so often — the exclamations of how fat an actress has become lately. This constant upward social comparison also creates a link between the ideal self and the real self, incongruence between which causes a dissonance that leads to anxiety.

Apart from this, a cognition including the growth mindset, as opposed to a static mindset, is the belief that traits can be changed for the better, and is a self-fulling way to go forward. Whether a malleable belief is beneficial or not may depend on how realistic the pursuit is. Researchers at Oklahoma State University found that women with malleable beliefs about beauty — for instance, believing they could become more beautiful with effort — had a higher risk for appearance-related anxiety and were more likely to base their self-worth on their looks, as compared with those who have fixed beauty beliefs. They were also more likely to express interest in cosmetic surgery. (Tori Rodriguez, 2015)

This anxiety leads to a number of insecurity-driven behaviours that are mostly harmful, and that mostly women indulge in. Before we explore these behaviours, let us just get the one seemingly “positive” consequence out of the way — which is eating clean and exercising regularly. One might think that this is a good result of the beauty aspiration, but the truth of the matter is that while this might look beneficial on the surface, it is in actuality a poorly motivated way to stay healthy, one that requires low self-worth to be sustained. It is this self-worth issue that causes a larger damage than anything else. Many girls have also come forth and provided personal anecdotes that their make-up actually reduces their anxiety and helps their confidence. (Zulch, 2018) On the flipside many cosmetics contain traces of Mercury that have devastating health consequences. (WHO, 2017)

Anorexia and bulimia are female maladies: From 90 to 95 percent of anorexics and bulimics are women. Kim Chernin in The Hungry Self suggests that at least half the women on campuses in the United States suffer at some time from bulimia or anorexia. (Chernin, 1985) The medical effects of anorexia include hypothermia, edema, hypotension, bradycardia (impaired heartbeat), lanugo (growth of body hair), infertility, and death. The medical effects of bulimia include dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, epileptic seizure, abnormal heart rhythm, and death. A shocking culmination of this one-sided imposition of standards is that dieting has become so commonplace that what is now considered “normal” eating by many female adolescents borders on what had earlier been considered to be pathogenic or eating-disordered (Polivy & Herman, 1987). A generation ago, the average model weighed 8 percent less than the average American woman, whereas today she weighs 23 percent less.

Dr. Arthur K. Balin, president of the American Aging Association, declared to The New York Times that “it would benefit physicians to look upon ugliness not as a cosmetic issue but a disease.” This led to an outbreak in cosmetic surgery. This has the obvious consequences of any surgery, but there’s more. Breast implants make cancer detection more difficult. Smoking is on the decline in all groups but young women; 39 percent of all women who smoke say they smoke to maintain their weight. There is a double standard for “health” in men and women. Women are not getting it wrong when they smoke to lose weight. Our society does reward beauty on the outside over health on the inside. Women must not be blamed for choosing short-term beauty “fixes” that harm our long-term health, since our life spans are inverted under the beauty myth, and there is no great social or economic incentive for women to live a long time. A thin young woman with precancerous lungs is more highly rewarded socially than a hearty old crone.


So what do we do now?

“You will never look the like girl in the magazine. The girl in the magazine doesn’t even look like the girl in the magazine.”

The reason beauty stays in its place in society is that, like all currencies, Beauty is an exception to the law of diminishing marginal utility (Gossen, 1983). What this means is that, with every additional unit of Beauty, the satisfaction and therefore the strive for more stays the same or increases (opposite to actual diminishing marginal utility). This cycle of reinforcement goes forth to create and endless chain of striving behaviour that feeds the myth and provides money to industries that thrive on insecurity. The only way out of this cycles is media literacy and awareness.

There has been a trend off-late of a lot of body positivity coming from public figures as well as initiatives by people in communities. One such example is the TED talk by supermodel Cameron Russel, who talks about the insecurities that come with being considered only for one’s looks, and how the modelling industry is not one to aspire to. (Russel, 2013) There are also some examples closer to home, like Sonam Kapoor’s reveal regarding her skin colour and height perils (“I Didn’t Wake Up Like This”, 2018). In school communities, portraying honest beauty is the trend now, like Browngirlgazin’s Instagram page in Ashoka University — who photographs the beauty in people’s insecurities and what is unconventional. (Anushka Kelkat, 2018)

To end with, I would like to leave you with this:

In a world that profits from your self-doubt, accepting yourself is a radical political move.


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UX designer, Psychologist, Reader & Writer. I love to explore ideas in the intersection of design, business and the human experience.

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