Abby Driver is a journalist who writes on health, wellbeing and women’s lifestyle. She’s particularly interested in where these topics intersect with feminism. Here she discusses the demand on women to look stereotypically beautiful without making any effort whatsoever…
We’re supposed to shave our legs and wax our brows. We’re meant to dye our roots and stop wrinkles. We should eat well and exercise regularly and drink eight glasses of water a day. We ought to wear spanx, have pearly white teeth and walk in heels with the grace of a runway model.
And we should, above all else, not bang on about it. Because that would shatter the illusion. Women are supposed to be beautiful, but it should be effortless.
If any of this work is considered, god forbid, obvious, then there are consequences. Research across seven different studies found that people judge women who engage in certain types of beauty work as having a “poorer moral character”. This judgement is only for beauty work that is considered significant (i.e. noticeably alters appearance) and transient (i.e. only lasts a short time).
And that is the problem (well, one of them). People expect women to look beautiful, but punish them for revealing any of the actual effort involved. But the only way to look effortlessly ‘beautiful’ is to put in a tone of invisible work beforehand.
When I actually sit down and consider my own invisible beauty work, I’m genuinely shocked
Take celebrities. Have you ever noticed they tend to look better than us? Google a celebrity before they were famous, and compare it to a photo of now. Usually they were attractive before, but once they become indoctrinated into A-lister lifestyle, they look… better. It’s because they are putting in a whole load of work behind the scenes that we mostly don’t get to see. From spot-on nutrition cooked by their personal chefs, to an on-call dermatologist to make sure their skin is perfectly plumped and hydrated.
And these days it’s not just traditional celebrities, the advent of social media has given way to a new breed of celebrity: The Influencer. And, you could argue, they are even more dangerous when it comes to perpetuating the effortless beauty myth. At least with traditional celebrities there is a baseline understanding that their lifestyle (and thus looks) are not achievable for your average person. But Influencers are so popular for precisely the opposite reason. They are supposed to be #relatable.
And while the ‘gram is rife with filters, face-tuning and photoshopping, people are waking up to the fact it’s not real. But what is real is the invisible work that we don’t get to see. From elaborate skincare routines and painstakingly applied ‘barely there’ make-up, to botox and fillers. Some 28,000 cosmetic procedures took place in the last year, and women underwent 92% of them. There’s now an app for on-demand botox and you can even get it done at Superdrug.
All of this adds up; a new study has found British women spend, on average, £70,294 on their appearance in their lifetime. It’s not just the money though, it’s the time that it all takes. Another study reckons women spend nine full days every year applying make-up.
being focused on your appearance in a world that rewards beauty could be seen as a rational reaction
When I actually sit down and consider my own invisible beauty work, I’m genuinely shocked. I thought I was ‘low maintenance’ because I work from home and don’t wear make-up. Plus, I’ve embraced my paleness, only remember to get my brows waxed once in a blue moon and have even stopped dying my hair. Yet I’ve spent what undoubtedly adds up to days researching everything from skincare to the ‘Curly Girl Method’, all of which is related to my appearance.
Ultimately, being focused on your appearance in a world that rewards beauty could be seen as a rational reaction. There is no harm with joining in, but it’s a choice we should be making with awareness of the context. It’s important to know that without significant time, energy and money most of us will never look like someone on the red carpet. Or someone with a blue tick. And I’m ok with that.