#59: Beauty anxiety

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Good morning!

A few weeks ago I interviewed beauty critic Jessica DeFino for my podcast. I first spoke with Jessica via email after she replied to my request for examples of pseudo-progress (for this newsletter) with this banger: “Botox superficially eases age anxiety for the user but compounds the issue for the collective.” I usually publish my podcast eps within a week of recording them, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write to coincide with this one. Or maybe I wanted to make sure I wrote the right thing, because I have so many feelings about the beauty industry and most of them are complicated. Below is what I came up with. It’s one of those essays I feel like I could work on and tweak forever until suddenly it’s fully a book and I’m 97, so I’m just going to release it in its current state, knowing that my thoughts will continue to evolve and that’s a good thing.

Deficient

When I was 18, I wrote a letter of encouragement to myself and then accidentally left it in a textbook that I sold back to my college bookstore. In a parallel universe, this might be a charming story about a lost, handwritten pick-me-up that a stranger comes to cherish. Unfortunately for me and for the stranger, the letter I actually wrote was encouraging me not to gain weight. Below the words, I’d pasted a photo of myself, 10 pounds heavier, that I believed was so hideous it might prevent me from ever over-eating again. For months, whenever I thought of the missing note, I’d feel sick with shame.

My disordered relationship with food, which peaked during my college years, was not borne of my interest in health but in my belief that my body was deficient in its natural state. This belief extended to most aspects of my appearance—my proportions, my hair, my skin, all of my facial features, including how my face moved. It’s hard for me to communicate just how much time and energy I spent over the course of my young life worrying about whether other people might find me attractive in spite of these flaws, or if I could change enough to pass muster. The pursuit of prettiness was so alluring to me, so existentially preoccupying, that it became synonymous with my mood. When I was unhappy with how I looked, I felt worthless. When I passed some unspoken test of attractiveness, optimism became available to me. And yet even as I became increasingly aware that this was a perilous framework—that the world was cruel for placing such an emphasis on something most of us had no control over and, on top of that, calling us vain for caring—that knowledge did almost nothing for me. Actually, it made me feel worse. The only thing that made me feel better was to do everything in my power to make that standard less threatening. To become more beautiful.

In this way, all the advertisements and media narratives telling me that the pursuit of beauty could empower me were right. Trying to look better was the only way I could dull the powerlessness that conventional standards inflicted upon me. That I happened to fall closer to the Eurocentric standard of beauty as a thin, cis, able-bodied white woman and still felt awful about myself is only proof of the absurdity of the standards themselves, which are designed to be unreachable, more violently so for those who fall further from them. And so spending hours every week putting on makeup and counting my calories, straightening some of my hair and shaving the rest of it—these became sources of pleasure for me because they relieved my self-hatred. I knew the relief wouldn’t last, but the fact that it came at all was enough. It was like living paycheck to paycheck, only the labor was self-beautification and the currency was self-worth.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I started wondering whether these practices were making me love or hate myself. It was sometimes hard to tell, and the more I educated myself, the more it became clear this was by design. The two-pronged approach of the beauty industrial complex—to make us feel bad then to make us feel good—is very effective at playing with our emotions. Even after giving up most of my “beauty” regimens years ago and developing a dramatically less anxious and time-consuming relationship with my appearance, I sometimes still long for the comfort they used to bring me. I miss that blissful concentration of relief.

In Marxism, that yearning might be referred to as “false consciousness,” the idea that, under the right (exploitive) conditions, people will adhere unconsciously to value systems that don’t serve them. This was first applied to the labor force: the ruling capitalist class manipulates the working proletariat into believing their value is in their financial productivity. Through this process, workers become invested in their own oppression—they avoid resting, for instance, or prioritizing non-lucrative interests, even if those things would improve their lives. It was Simone de Beauvoir who, in her book The Second Sex, applied this framework to sexist oppression, helping incite a new wave of feminist thought.

It’s easy for me to see now that makeup and weight loss made me feel better because I felt deficient in my natural state, but I rarely questioned whether my perceived deficiency was real, imagined, or imposed. At 18, it just was. When I first read Femininity and Domination by Sandra Lee Bartky, a seminal feminist text that builds on de Beauvoir’s ideas, I was stunned by her frank position that my “feminine” desire to “look my best” was not only learned, but possibly violent to my humanity. That it presupposed my natural form was inherently wrong, or that “the ordinary standards of hygiene would be insufficient.” I’d never thought of it that way, and immediately felt sad and angry. In the book, Bartky posits that women are indoctrinated with this belief at such a young age that they come to see it not as a standard imposed upon them by others (such as society or men), but as a standard of their own. “Knowing that her life prospects may depend on how she is seen, a woman learns to appraise herself first.” The gaze of the other is internalized so that a woman becomes both “seer and seen, appraiser and the thing appraised.” A consciousness split.

De Beauvoir initially examined this as a patriarchal tool, then Bartky layered in capitalism: Self-hatred not only makes women feel inferior by nature, but it’s highly lucrative. Bartky compares the fashion-beauty industrial complex to the church: “The church cultivates in its adherents very profound anxieties about the body, most particularly about bodily appetite and sexual desires. It then presents itself as the only instrument able ... to take away the very guilt and shame it has itself produced. The fashion-beauty complex refines and deepens feminine anxieties... [and] like the church, it offers itself, its procedures and institutions, as uniquely able to diminish these anxieties. Magical physical transformations can be accomplished by the faithful like the spiritual transformations promised by the church.”

The result is that many of us who become dedicated to our own salvation through these tools—products and treatments and operations—experience a temporary sense of pleasure predicated on our own inherent wrongness. Bartky calls this “repressive satisfaction”: a twisted reward for meeting false needs, which are produced through “indoctrination, psychological manipulation, and the denial of autonomy; they are needs whose possession and satisfaction benefit not the subject who has them but a social order whose interest lies in domination.” While she focuses primarily on womanhood in the book, Bartky also examines how these shared myths proliferate violently for all people who aren’t part of the ruling class.

Feeling bad, feeling good

The picture in my “letter of encouragement” was taken at a group dinner my senior year of high school. In it, I am smiling happily, unaware of what my expression would mean to me one year later as I weighed myself in my college dorm room. What’s strange is how normal it all felt to me. I may have been secretive about just how much I cared, but there was an unspoken understanding across most girls on my floor that being thinner would make us more beautiful, and that becoming more beautiful was mostly worth the trouble. We would drag ourselves to the gym most nights, cheering each other on, sometimes getting back as late as midnight. Our mini-fridges were stuffed with low-sugar and low-calorie snacks. When we partied we knew it was 100 calories a shot. Only when we got home drunk at 2 a.m. did we lose ourselves in the oblivion of the vending machine.

This was 2007 and we were studying Business Administration. We were ignorant about history and politics and political movements. Fourth-wave feminism wouldn’t go mainstream for another five years, but we still saw ourselves as modern, independent women. We wanted careers, we wanted passion, we knew it was correct to say our minds were more important than our bodies, even if we didn’t believe it in our bones. This was the era of the manic pixie dream girl, when it seemed vaguely progressive that waifish women in movies were being appreciated for their quirky personalities, nevermind that they had little agency or goals of their own. Their beauty was presented as incidental, but we knew it was a prerequisite. Feeling beautiful, then, wasn’t so different from feeling loveable. And feeling beautiful started in the gym.

In an essay called “Against Exercise,” Mark Grief writes that, “Exercise means something other than health to a young person who conceives sexual desirability as the truth about herself most worth defending. … The body itself becomes the location of sexiness, rather than clothes or wit or charisma. Yet this is probably less true for society—which values personality still—than for the exerciser herself, who imagines an audience that doesn’t exist. Saddest of all is the belief that an improved body will bestow bliss on the unloved.”

We didn’t make these ideas up, they’d been reinforced our entire lives. And while that reinforcement is packaged differently today than it was in the early aughts, it generally has the same effect: profit. While preaching around self-love and awareness around harmful standards are at an all-time high, the beauty industry is more valuable than it’s ever been, growing by the billions every year. More people are getting cosmetic procedures like Botox, filler, and nose jobs than they ever have. And while some corners of the makeup world are increasingly resembling forms of art, the full-face norms continue to reinforce sexist, racist, and fatphobic ideals: eyes widened, jaws sharpened, noses narrowed, lips plumped. For those less interested in a full-face, skincare and wellness companies offer several-step regimens to help you look like an ageless, porcelain doll: makeup brought inward.

It’s probably too simple to claim that all pleasure gleaned from participating is, as Bartky put it, repressive satisfaction. For many people, especially those living in the margins, beauty products and communities offer a path to regaining control over a stolen or harmful narrative. For trans people, it could even mean survival. The audience isn’t always as imagined as Mark Grief’s essay suggests. I saw a TikTok the other day of a 60-something woman talking about how differently she was treated after a facelift. The effects are real. Sometimes, they’re fun. But what I think is often left out of these empowerment narratives is that coping creatively (or expensively) with harmful conditions on an individual level is not the same as addressing those conditions for everyone. These solutions don’t scale; in fact, they’re exclusionary by design. The beauty industry, and capitalism more broadly, thrive on creating and proliferating false needs. To defend them simply because some have found pleasurable or communal ways of meeting those needs is to miss the point of the critique. As beauty critic Jessica DeFino has written, “The fact that makeup delivers such a powerful confidence boost should start a conversation, not end it.”

It’s complicated. Adornment and decoration and storytelling are human traditions. And I have no doubt that many beauty, fashion, and exercise obsessives operate on a level of genuine hobbyists, seeking out inspiration, creativity, and escape through these practices. But as DeFino puts it on my podcast this week, the impetus to “feel good about yourself, for yourself” is a modern, individualistic phenomenon. In historical societies, decorating yourself was something you did for others: to commune or communicate. Justifying our modern practices as forms of pure and harmless self-expression (by the self, for the self) functions more like an explanation as to how we got here than a reason to continue without question. And it might explain why alienation from our own humanity—a consciousness split between seer and seen—has become a given for most of us, as anxiety and depression soar to unprecedented levels. Something isn’t working, no matter how empowered we supposedly are.

I don’t know how we unravel this; I haven’t even unraveled it for myself. While I’ve ceased participating in many beauty and dieting practices and feel more accepting of myself in general (a cause and effect, I’m certain), I still want to feel conventionally attractive. I still prefer when my nose appears smaller in photos, my face more angular, my body thinner. Sometimes it feels like there’s no antidote strong enough to counter this poison. And I say all this from a place of privilege, having not faced nearly as many consequences for divesting from certain practices as others have, do, and will. None of it’s fair. Which is what makes this conversation so fraught: critiquing a system we’re all participating in, that many have bent to their will in fascinating ways, that can even be fun and self-creative, can seem like a shaming, wet blanket of an endeavor. But shame is what powers this profitable engine in the first place, and by embracing our coping mechanisms as wholesale solutions, I’m afraid we solve nothing at all.

On the podcast this week: The politics of Botox

As I said, this week I invited beauty critic Jessica DeFino on my podcast to talk about beauty. I wanted to dig further into her Botox perspective and examine some popular attitudes around beauty with her through both a critical and empathetic lens. We cover a lot that’s not covered above! I also wanted to ask her: What might it look like to start addressing these problems outside of the market? I think we need to fight for more than just increasingly inclusive products and advertisements.

No 15 things this week—sorry! This newsletter took me forever to write and I forgot to read a single thing aside from Sandra Lee Bartky. I did watch The Great Pottery Throwdown though, which is randomly on HBO Max? I endorse its erotic aesthetic. Also one day I’ll have something to say about my bonkers trip to Atlantic City last weekend, but this week it’s simply not the vibe…

Thank you for reading this week. Have a nice Sunday!
Haley

This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be redistributed to Transgender Law Center, a trans-led organization grounded in legal expertise focused on community-driven strategies to liberate transgender and gender-noncomforing people.

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