If you’ve ever seen Working Girl, then you know how horrific fashion was in the 80s. If you’re a feminist, then I bet you also feel like the premise is kind of messed up. When savvy receptionist, Tess (played by Melanie Griffith), finds out her boss (Sigourney Weaver) stole her business idea, she exacts revenge by pretending to have her job. A whole lot of cat fighting, demeaning old white guys, shoulder pads, and perms ensue and it ends on a triumphant note when Tess secures an office with a window. A window! It’s hard not to feel triumphant when you’ve got Carly Simon singing her heart out, but something feels off when the camera zooms out and you see Tess is only one of a thousand little worker bees in a sad, grey monstrosity of a building. My editor and love-ah, being the genius he is, put together an ending* with a different tune (thanks to Trent Reznor) that I think is better pant-suited for the reality of working girls everywhere:
I still love this movie because it’s so goofy, and it feels like a prequel to Alien—if Alien represents motherhood for Sigourney Weaver’s character. Beauty plays an important role, which is clearly symbolized by the contrast between Joan Cusack’s ghoulish makeup and Melanie Griffith’s toned down make-under. In the movie, the few women who make it to the top physically distance themselves from the sea of secretaries dressed up like buffoons. Women are expected to be beautiful if they want to succeed, but they also need to play down their femininity if they want to be taken seriously. No line encapsulates that better than when Tess cuts off her mullet and says, “If you want to be taken seriously, you need serious hair.” So much for a party in the back.
Joan, always the sidekick.
Which brings me to The Beauty Myth. Since its initial publication in 1991, right around the time Working Girl came out, much has changed and yet so very little has changed. While still burdened by the oppressive weight of an unachievable beauty ideal, women are now allowed to protest it—to a degree. We aren’t immediately dismissed when we argue for change, as long as we look pretty while doing it. The Internet has enabled us to spread our opinions widely, but not without the unrelenting backlash of cruel, hate-mongering trolls. We all feel like we’ve achieved progress when reading insightful feminist essays online, as long as we don’t read the comments below them.
If you still don’t think the struggle is real, read this little gem from 1991: “Photographs of the bodies of models are often trimmed with scissors. ‘Computer imaging’—the controversial new technology that tampers with photographic reality—has been used for years in women’s magazines’ beauty advertising” (83). Oh, Naomi, if only you knew then.
In 2015, there are approximately 1.3 bajillion different products on the market, all promising to make you acceptable by an impossibly narrow social standard. While the 80s and 90s expected us to be thin, blonde, big-chested and big-haired, modern beauty ideals target everything from thigh gaps to armpit hair. There is no end to the variety of beauty articles that announce a new problem we never knew we had. Granted, in the same order I bought The Beauty Myth, I also picked up some purple goo hoping it’ll take the brassiness out of my bleached blonde hair. One step forward, two steps nowhere, because the goo just left me with random streaks of blue.
Here’s my favorite quote from Tina Fey on body image:
Beauty, by definition, is an illusive, temporary quality. By reinforcing beauty as a woman’s only true value, we will constantly disparage ourselves and question our worth.
Beauty, like fear, acts as a means of control. I’m not suggesting one entity singlehandedly oppresses us (like the patriarchy, god forbid), or that women are purely victims, because we do have a part in doing it to ourselves. We read the magazines, watch the commercials, and buy the products the beauty industry tells us to buy. We agonize over our appearance when these products don’t perform the miracles they promised they would. We hate ourselves. We then turn the blame back on ourselves when we realize our self-hatred is futile, feeling even worse for being weak-minded. Then the cycle repeats. I know because I’ve been through it countless times, and it’s exhausting.
Let me attempt to address this in a way that satisfies everyone because the cisgender woman in me always looks to please:
There’s the concern that this argument doesn’t include women of color, poor women, and disabled women because only women of privilege can take on a problem like body image. And it’s true. They haven’t been included, at least not until very recently. In a review of The Beauty Myth, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper from NewStatesman acknowledges that with so many other problems to tackle, modern feminists might “dismiss beauty as a trivial matter” or regard it “with annoyance, even faint embarrassment.” She then raises the important question, though, “How much more painful must the beauty myth be for those women for whom it is even more out of reach, and requires even more alienation from their bodies and identities, than for the white middle-class women Wolf has in mind?”
If I feel like shit all the time and I’m the one the beauty industry caters to—young, white, privileged—then I can’t imagine how someone unlike me—not young, not white, not privileged—would feel. The most marginalized women in our culture are left out entirely, deemed unworthy for their sheer inability to participate. Feeling inadequate is not a trivial problem when it drains our emotional, physical, and psychological resources—not to mention our bank accounts. The average woman spends $15,000 on beauty products in her lifetime. Let’s face it. It’s more expensive to be a woman, and if we continue to get paid less than our male counterparts, that’s really not going to fly.
Oh, and men are affected by the beauty myth, too.
Like this guy.
So yes, of course there will always be bigger problems than feeling inadequate, like simply surviving. Surviving is pretty important. But how much better could we be at surviving if the message wasn’t constantly reinforced that without beauty, we have no value? I’m curious about how much time I would save by not putting on stitch of makeup, or the brainpower I’d have if my insecurities had a weaker gravitational pull. I wonder what would happen if, for just one week, women exercised their buying power by not buying a single beauty product. No lip-gloss, moisturizer, eyeliner, liquid eyeliner, concealer, eye shadow, blush, BB cream, bronzer, or foundation. Nothing. I feel like cosmetic companies would collectively poop their pants. I don’t know about you, but that’s something I’d like to see.
As Naomi Wolf writes, “Women work hard—twice as hard as men. All over the world, and for longer than records have been kept, that has been true” (22). She goes on to cite multiple studies that show how women, from prehistoric times to the Industrial Revolution to today, have been expected to do the majority of the work for little or no pay. In the last twenty years, I doubt that statistic has changed much. As in Working Girl, we’re expected to bend over backwards, working twice as hard as anyone, all while maintaining an attractive, sexy-but-not-too-sexy, feminine-but-not-too-girly, perfectly composed, and seemingly effortless appearance. There’s a lot more to be done in order to dismantle the modern beauty myth, and I have no doubt this generation of women will be the ones to do it. But I’m also in favor of doing less. Don’t micromanage your roots. Don’t obsess over a pimple. Don’t wear any makeup if you want, or do. Don’t for one second think your value depends on what you see in the mirror.
*Disclaimer: I do not claim to own any part of this video. Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, “Allowance is made for fair use for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.” I DO NOT intend to make money off of this video, nor is there a snowball’s chance in hell that I could. Please don’t sue me!