Where Do You Draw the Line? In Beauty, What Enhances and What Oppresses?

One of the most important and popular issues Lexie and I write and speak about is the idea of “physically Photoshopping ourselves out of reality” by changing our appearances to fit profit-driven beauty ideals. Because of this unique aspect of our work, we get asked regularly what is acceptable regarding beauty — is makeup OK? Is hair dye appropriate? What about leg-shaving or Botox or breast augmentation or manicures? When people see pictures of us or come to a speaking engagement, they see that we do, in fact, wear makeup and shave our legs. We make conscious decisions regarding our beauty routines and have been careful to take inventory of the things that do or do not serve us, which includes foregoing aspects of those routines when we feel it is necessary.

Taking inventory of our own beauty-related choices is crucial in a world that generates new “flaws” for women every week. Insufficient eyelashes? Unsightly underarms? Too-pale skin? Too-dark skin? The list is endless. Consciously answering this question for yourself is an extremely useful exercise. You can take inventory in your own mind, with no one to answer to but yourself. We ask that you do not use this a platform for blaming, shaming or hating on anyone else.

  • Could anything be taken out of your routine? Is anything unnecessary?
  • Do you rely too heavily on any aspect of your beauty routine to look like or feel like “yourself?”
  • Is there anything you especially enjoy or appreciate about your beauty routine? 
  • What standards have you set (or would you like to set) for your own appearance-related routines and choices?
  • Where do (or could) you draw the line between what is “physically Photoshopping yourself out of reality” and what is appropriate for you?
  • Are there any future options for physical “enhancement” or cosmetic procedures that you plan to forego in order to be an example of a more beautiful reality?

Critically and consciously answering these questions for yourself is particularly necessary as we go through major body changes, like having babies, or gaining and losing weight. Aging in today’s mediated world brings a set of beauty expectations unmatched in history. Pressure to prevent and erase any signs of aging is a cultural expectation force-fed to us by media at every turn. Olay, the anti-aging skin care brand owned by Procter & Gamble, spent more than ANY OTHER COMPANY in the U.S. on advertising in 2011. That’s more than any company in any industry. They spent $357 million, up 8% from 2010, and led P&G to its massive total revenue of $82.6 billion that year*.

A 2009 Oil of Olay eye cream ad featuring then-59-year-old Twiggy — one of the world’s biggest modeling/fashion icons for more than a decade.

Olay’s misleading (a.k.a. lie-filled) advertising bombards us with ageless, wrinkle-free, pore-free, glowing “older” women who have been freed from the ugliness of aging by the company’s magic creams. The UK’s advertising watchdog was smart enough to pull Olay’s ads for being “misleading,” including this eye cream ad featuring Twiggy, after hundreds of complaints were gathered by Democrat MP Jo Swinson in 2009. Amazing! Obviously, Olay isn’t alone in this anti-aging lie crusade, but their new title as #1 advertising spender in all categories makes them a useful and familiar example.

Getting older isn’t the only thing that puts a woman at risk for feeling pressure to physically photoshop herself out of reality. Procedures and products that were unthinkable just a decade or two ago are now so commonplace that they start to feel like a full-on expectation for women of all ages. Whether it’s eyelash-growing, cellulite-lasering, chemical hair-straightening or makeup-tattooing, our expensive, painful and risky “beauty” options are endless. Plastic surgery is the most profitable industry in the U.S., and Botox is the No. 1 cosmetic treatment, with patients getting younger and younger. In just the last decade, there has been a 446 percent increase in cosmetic procedures in the U.S., which raked in $12 billion in 2010 alone.

But what about totally taken-for-granted ways we physically photoshop ourselves every day? Where do you draw the line between what is acceptable, appropriate and harmless and what is oppressive and harmful? From makeup and tanning to hair weaves and regular manicures, what everyday beauty choices do we make without even thinking twice? Since Lexie and I get asked so regularly about why we wear makeup or how we maintain a balance between enjoying some aspects of beauty and fashion, I’m offering a variation of the response we usually give as a way to provide context for your own thoughts.

I respond somewhere along these lines:

It’s an important issue that each woman really has to confront for herself regarding where to draw the line between what’s oppressive, harmful, “physically Photoshopping,” etc., and what is acceptable, comfortable and appropriate. Lexie and I both wear makeup (although quite minimal generally) and enjoy fashion and shopping. We shave our legs, pluck our eyebrows and love clothes/jewelry shopping. For both of us, those commonplace routines fit in with our paradigms of what is appropriate — though we both readily acknowledge the double-standard that exists between male and female expectations.

I think there are two important points of this issue I’ve considered:

The reality we’ve grown up in and are surrounded by, where makeup and leg-shaving is a routine and unquestioned expectation. I started both in 7th grade and it became part of my regular routine. In many ways, that choice to wear makeup is influenced by cultural pressures like looking put-together and well-kempt (which unfortunately affects opportunities for speaking engagements and media appearances in some cases) and even attracting dating partners. I readily acknowledge that I am influenced by that pressure. However, to make sure I’m not relying on makeup to make me look like “myself” or letting it stop me from going out in public, I often go makeup-free to places like the gym, the pool, and shopping just to keep myself in check. I skip wearing eyeliner regularly to  make sure I’m not relying on it. I stopped highlighting my hair more than a year ago because I realized I don’t need to have light blonde hair in order to be myself or feel good. In that vein, I do consider my role in physically Photoshopping myself and what influence that has on others. Every guy I’ve dated and friend I’ve ever had has seen me with no makeup and looking pretty dang real on a regular basis, and my future children will see my own reality more than anyone as I try to set that example for them.

I posted our sticky notes all over NYC, including this Broadway theater vanity mirror.

The other thing I’ve strongly considered on this issue is the “if beauty hurts, we’re doing it wrong” slogan that we’ve used frequently. For me, I do avoid the beauty routines and procedures that hurt me. I use that as a measure by which to judge any appearance-related options. The makeup I wear and the other beauty routines I engage in do not hurt me, so they don’t cross that mental line I’ve drawn. For some, my line might be way too strict, and for others it will be way too far into oppressive patriarchal forces territory. For now, I’m comfortable with my own choices, but I’m fully in support of anyone who chooses to forego beauty routines and expectations in their own lives! I also don’t blame or shame anyone who makes choices that don’t reflect my own on the other end of the spectrum — like cosmetic surgery or other procedures. Our research shows women’s perceptions of their appearances, and the choices they make because of those perceptions, are heavily influenced by profit-driven beauty ideals and objectifying media that leads girls and women to self-objectify, or view themselves from an outsider’s perspective. We must consider these powerful influences on our own choices, as well as how those forces inevitably influence others’ choices.

Not everyone is going to agree with where I draw the line or my reasoning,and that’s OK. We don’t need to approve of each other’s choices or police any one else’s personal beauty routines. That’s not helpful. What is helpful is having an open discussion with ourselves or even our loved ones about our own individual choices. These are important questions every woman must consider, and we have to do it in advance of increasing pressures (with age and beauty “innovations” becoming more commonplace and expected in some circles) in order to be prepared with our own solid stance on how to avoid physically Photoshopping ourselves out of reality. Again, I’ll pose these questions for your own personal consideration:

  • Could anything be taken out of your routine? Is anything unnecessary?
  • Do you rely too heavily on any aspect of your beauty routine to look like or feel like “yourself?”
  • Is there anything you especially enjoy or appreciate about your beauty routine? 
  • What standards have you set (or would you like to set) for your own appearance-related routines and choices?
  • Where do (or could) you draw the line between what is “physically photoshopping yourself out of reality” and what is appropriate for you?
  • Are there any future options for physical “enhancement” or cosmetic procedures that you plan to forego in order to be an example of a more beautiful reality?

For further insight into this topic, please read these important pieces:

The Case of the Disappearing Women Over 40

Physically Photoshopping Ourselves Out of Reality

More than a Body? PROVE IT.

You Had a Baby? THIS is How You Get Your Body Back

* Source: http://adage.com/article/datacenter-advertising-spending/100-leading-national-advertisers/234882/

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