The XX Factor

The Beauty Standards Backlash

Are escalating beauty standards a response to women’s growing political and economic power? Michelle Goldberg asks this in The American Prospect , and her answer, unsurprisingly, is, “Quite probably.” It’s hard not to be stunned at the exponentially growing number of procedures that women are expected to submit to, and exponentially growing number of flaws we’re expected to worry about and attend to. I’m in my early 30s, and in just the years since I graduated college, the list of beauty treatments that went from unheard of to seemingly mandatory is shocking. And “mandatory” is no exaggeration. Female friends even a few years younger than I seem to think the Brazilian wax is as much a given as I grew up thinking pit-shaving was. There’s a whole generation of men and women who think seeing a pubic hair on a vulva is as weird as seeing a face tattoo.

But is there a steady trend over time? I adore the show Mad Men for many reasons, but one of them is that it reminds me that in many ways, beauty standards relaxed significantly between my grandmother’s generation and mine. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, you had the frequent beauty parlor trips, the sleeping in rollers and otherwise spending at least an hour on your hair, and the elaborate underwear and clothing requirements just to be acceptable to be seen in polite company. Many women who submit to having all their pubic hair yanked out by its roots recoil at the idea of a bullet bra and a corset, which shows how awful and invasive those items really were.

And even when I was young, I recall that the pressure to spend a great deal of time on your looks was higher, at least in our rural community that was at least a decade behind the times. I often wonder at how the women in my family would have to take so long to get ready to do something simple like go shopping or go to work. Every day, it was at least an hour and a half of make-up application, hair-doing, perfume application, and probably some steps I’m forgetting, since my idea of a minimum standard to leave the house is a shower, combed hair, and deodorant.

Of course, one could point out that all these older beauty standards have been turned into newer, more oppressive ones that require you to take all the artifice of old and make it your actual body . Those padded underwire bras that haunted my adolescence have given way to breast implants, which basically put the padding and lifting into your chest. Hated pantyhose has turned into complete body deforestation. Piling on make-up may not be required anymore, but only because you’re expected to have a glowing, perfect face rolling out of bed. And while I’m completely out of the loop on what are considered minimum standards for hair, I’m sure that there’s some massive amount of work many women feel they have to put into having naturally beautiful hair to replace the curlers of old.

But honestly, the only reason that we feel that beauty standards are escalating is that for a long time, they were declining. 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. Perhaps this economic decline will represent a new era, where women’s contributions to society are genuinely respected instead of undermined at every turn by the cellulite patrol. We can all play a role. 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?