It’s Time for a New Beauty Backlash.

Beauty U goes on winter break tomorrow, so I’m gearing up to take the next 12 days off from blogging for Christmas, New Year’s, and the plentiful eating of real chocolate. It’s all good — we’re gearing up for advanced facials after break, and my skin needs some rebound time after a class effort to extract every comedone (that’s spa speak for pimple) currently erupting on my face.

But before I go ice my face, I’d like to direct your attention to “The Beauty Standards Backlash,” Amanda Marcotte’s fantastic post over on Double X. She argues that our culture’s current obsession with Brazilians and Botox (and pore excavation and everything else I’ve been obsessing over here for the last two months) is a backlash against the feminist movement:

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.

Remembering the 1990s as a “feminist paradise” might be a bit of a stretch (water bras, Biore strips, the flip side of grunge being Kate Moss skinny/heroin chic), but you need only compare the original cast of 90210 (which first aired in 1990) with the remake to see Marcotte’s point. It’s not just the lack of mom jeans — thighs and eyebrows alike have been downsized.

You can try to make the case that we’ve come so far with women’s rights that it’s the CW Network’s prerogative to shrink their starlets or not — and fluffy window dressing issues like these shouldn’t play into the real problems, like equal pay, and how many women we’ve elected to public office. In fact, I’m sure there are some people running around calling themselves feminists (or more likely, prone to starting sentences with the phrase, “I’m no feminist, but…”) who see it as a sign of progress that a former beauty pageant queen can finally be a serious candidate for the vice-presidency.

But I agree with American Prospect writer Michelle Goldberg, who says the message Sarah Palin and friends really send is “it’s fine for women to do everything men do — as long as they stay skinny, sexy, young, and soignée at the same time.” That double standard is alive, well, and on a diet. And what’s really interesting about the current anti-feminism backlash and the ever-more-absurd beauty standards it promotes is that We. All. Know. This.

We (the media, blogs, people at dinner tables and water coolers everywhere) talk about how crazy beauty makes us all the damn time. I almost didn’t post those then/now photos of the 90210 casts because I thought, “gee whiz, everyone from Us Weekly to Oprah talked about that last year when the show first aired.” But then I realized: We got in a lather, and absolutely nothing happened. We’ve convinced ourselves that these extreme beauty norms can’t be all that dangerous because we’ve gotten so good at identifying them all around us. What we’re ignoring is how we’re sort of accepting them at the same time.

And that means pretty soon we won’t be shocked or scandalized by the onslaught of “waxed anorexics with plastic parts.” They’ll just be normal.

Unless: We do more than just talk about it. Marcotte says that we can fight oppressive beauty standards by doing less: “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?”

But if you want to take it a step beyond easy, it starts with asking hard questions about our own notions of beauty, as we’re trying to do here. Then we need more boycotts when brands like Ralph Lauren screw up. And, we need the environmental movement to join forces with women in a way that doesn’t involve us taking our clothes off and does push beauty companies to make safer products. Maybe we don’t need to go cold turkey on facials or even bikini waxes, but we do need to think a little more critically about why we think we need them.

I’m just saying, it would be nice if this next decade doesn’t end with us waxing nostalgic for 2009 as that more innocent time when that ever-shrinking 90210 cast was at least worth mentioning.

PS. Just in case you’re thinking, “oh the aughts weren’t SO bad for beauty,” check out BellaSugar’s Trends of the 2000s gallery. Trout pout? Celebrating extensions? For serious, people.

PPS. Another great take on this backlash/epidemic by DoubleX’s Claire Gordon.

See you back here in 2010!



Filed under Beauty Labor, beauty standards, For Extra Credit, week 8

12 responses to “It’s Time for a New Beauty Backlash.

  1. Marian

    I think there is a layer of complexity about all this that makes it hard for the average woman to rebel. It isn’t just about how we look but what that signifies. For example,if you are over 50 and still want to have a career in any large corporation you are constantly fighting for your job and upward mobility against a large range of male and female 35 to 45 year olds with a similar skill set. Age-ism in corporations is rampant – towards women. You can admit to turning 50 but there the honesty has to stop. A woman of 62 reporting to a man of 45, mostly reminds him of his stay at home mother. So the hair dye becomes the norm, the anti-wrinkle creams become a way of life, all as part of the way of staving off job elimination. In today’s economy, early retirement meaning 62 is a thing of the past. Over 50 we are not trying to look like the models in beauty ads, we are trying to keep a job.

  2. I think weight-wise, the 90210 cast has become much, much thinner. And that’s sad and it’s a problem for women. But in terms of makeup, I think Brenda and Kelly and—my god, Donna with the lipstick—wore TONS of makeup. If their eyebrows were bushier, it’s because bushy eyebrows were in style at the time (and big brows are coming back again, right?).

    Not sure what my point is in mentioning this, because I don’t disagree that there’s a problem with the way women are portrayed on TV. But I guess I’m not convinced that there is a backlash against *feminism* manifesting itself through beauty standards. I think standards of beauty, what’s in style, what’s not, change through the decades. And often, there’s a backlash against the *standards* themselves. So . . . skinny jeans immediately followed the return of the bell bottoms. Wide-leg jeans followed skinny jeans. Thin eyebrows followed thick eyebrows. Red lipstick followed that ugly pale frosted stuff. Bangs followed no bangs.

    The problem, I think, is how people react to the women who don’t become slaves to what’s in style. And, p.s., what’s in style can be flannel shirts, converse sneakers, messy hair and little to no makeup. Do you think a woman who walked into a room full of hipsters wouldn’t be frowned upon or made fun of if she were wearing a pink tube top dress, acrylic nails and loads of makeup? Of course she would!

  3. Chandler

    I agree with Patti — I think the key is just tolerance of other women, regardless of what they look like or what role beauty plays in their lives. No matter what the “look” is, it’s always going to exclude someone: perms are no more authentic than hair straightening solutions, and as much as I like curvier models, the fact is not everyone has the requisite curves. As someone who dresses like a cartoon character and didn’t shave my legs for almost 10 years, I think the key should be that we wear what we like because we like it — not because we’re trying to imitate some sort of culturally sanctioned norm. Which is tougher than it sounds, I guess.

  4. Bio-geek

    One of the bellasugar beauty trends was the “rise of the metrosexual” and I think that’s true. While guys can certainly get away with doing a whole lot less beauty-wise than women, I think men in our generation are expected to look good now as well. Maybe I just date men who are a bit more “in touch with their feminine side” but many of them shave or trim their body hair, spend a lot of money on designer jeans (and yes, honey, your bum looks cute in those. still.) and make an effort at finding the perfect hair cut. The guys I know obsess over weight (and even further, muscle definition) just as much as women. While a man can have a tummy and gray hair and still climb the corporate ladder with ease, while women teeter up in in heels, I feel like things are evening out. Maybe it’s not in the “right” direction (making men jump through the same hoops doesn’t make my life easier) but I like the way I feel when I look nice… and I like the way my boyfriend’s butt looks in those jeans.

  5. I agree that there has been some leveling, though male body image is an utterly different conversation, and much more complicated than one might think. A student of mine wrote a fascinating paper a year ago about gay body image among cancer patients (whose symptoms, like weight loss, almost immediately trigger assumptions about AIDS). And one might make the case that the guys concerned about designer-butt jeans are actually responding to the influence of gay culture on the mainstream (i.e., Queer Eye for the Straight Guy). Which is cool on some level and ridiculous on another.

    Despite all of those ironies, I don’t think there is any pressure on men to be anorexic or to seriously threaten their health. And that is where the feminist imperative comes in. That’s where men boycotting Ralph Lauren for the sake of the women they love might up the ante.

    I’m still mulling over Marcotte’s point about “training men” aesthetically. I would argue that most of this training is done even before adolescence. I’d probably need some evidence to make this case persuasively, but just as a hypothesis I wonder if the impact of the new 90210 cast is actually greater on preteen boys who are figuring out their sexual identities. It’s the ten-year-old (boy or girl) in the back seat staring up at the Ralph Lauren billboard that we ought to be concerned about.

  6. Naomi Wolf warned 15 years ago in “The Beauty Myth” that our culture’s unreasonable standards of beauty would get ever more intense as women gained more economic and political power. And so it has — as we see in the Ralph Lauren ads, the 90210 photos, the “extreme makeover” head-to-toe plastic surgery reality TV shows. The culture has gone mad with a backlash against feminism.

    “After the success of the women’s movement’s second wave, the beauty myth was perfected to checkmate power at every level in individual women’s lives … The myth is undermining — slowly, imperceptibly, without our being aware of the real forces of erosion — the ground women have gained through long, hard, honorable struggle,” Wolf writes.

    “If we are to free ourselves from the dead weight that has once again been made out of femaleness, it is not ballots or lobbyists or placards that women will need first; it is a new way to see.”

    Stacy Malkan
    Author, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry”

  7. PS: For anyone who thinks this isn’t a backlash against feminism — a deliberate push-back against women gaining too much political and economic power — I encourage you (beg you) to read “The Beauty Myth.” You’ll never look at the world in quite the same way again. The current portrayal of women isn’t just about “what’s in style” — foot binding used to be in style too.


  8. These are all extremely thoughtful comments & food for thought, thank you! I personally feel completely frustrated by the beauty industry, yet completely influenced by it as well. I doubt I’d have the constraint to not dye the grey in my hair when the time comes…I’m always reaching for those whiter teeth. I’ve done the botox (actually had one of those rare, botox NIGHTMARES where my entire face ended up distorted, crooked, my vision became impaired & I couldn’t smile…& I only had a little bit near the eyes!) Now I’m very anti-botox of course, but I still fight feelings of pressure to appear in a way society deems youthful, attractive, professional, etc. Thank you for raising questions & challenging the status quo! I truly hope we raise a new generation of girls who aren’t puppets of the contrived media’s image of beauty, but truly find value from having a sense of self, a respect for education, thoughtfulness, service, evolution. One can hope. 🙂
    Candy @

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  10. I agree that some men are holding themselves to higher standards, my recent ex spent just as much time preening as I do, and then some. He also wore designer jeans, trimmed body hair, etc. (He was raised by mother and sister). However, his best friend who hunts and drives a pickup truck grew his hair out into a mullit for a redneck fair (his words), and you know what? People still liked him, girls still, somehow, found him attractive!
    If a girl grew a mullit, and displayed it at the bar, hot guys would not be throwing themselves at her any way. My point? Men are choosing to buy in to beauty, with little punishment if they don’t partake.

    I am a natural blonde, and for teh first time in my life, colored my hair brown. Why? I was interviewing for jobs, and trying to get into grad school, felt I wasn’t being taken seriously. Colored brown, I was accepted into my school of choice and hired into my current position. No more ditzy blonde jokes for me (I’m getting my hair done next week, to start the conversion back to blonde). I believe this to be a sad story, I should have been able to stay blonde, as I always have been.

    I don’t wear makeup to work, but when I am networking I do. Why? I began watching successful business women who I aspire to be like (people in my community), and noticed that they were ALL brunette, wear makeup (not too much, but some), wear high heels and business suits, and always seem perfectly coiffed, put together, and unruffled. I am still working on creating that image for myself, but if I were a man, I wouldn’t have to do quite so much!
    As for the ex, I can’t stand being with someone so shallow. I prefer my men hairy and real.

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