How much more could women achieve if they rejected expensive & time-consuming beauty routines?

Individual women may feel they are acting independently when dyeing their greys and getting cosmetic surgery or botox, but in doing so, they put pressure on other women to participate in these practices as well.

Riding in the car with my mother the other day, she remarked that I am judgmental of women who care a lot about their appearance. She told me that she wears makeup every day not because she feels she has to, but because it is fun. She explained that Botox and plastic surgery are things that can help women feel good about themselves. “Your graying hair is making you look older,” she said. Yeah, I know…

I also know that the more women dye their graying hair, the older I will look when I don’t. The more women rid themselves of wrinkles, the older I will look when I don’t. The more women starve themselves, the fatter I will look when I don’t.

This is the tragedy of the commons at work within the beauty and body image industries. Individual women acting independently, according to what they believe is in their own self-interest, are simultaneously behaving in a manner contrary to the common good of all women. As with certain other female behaviors, individual “empowerment” undermines collective liberation.

Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, wrote:

“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

I don’t judge women for acting in what they perceive to be their own best interest, but I do judge them for blind obedience. The crumbs of patriarchy are not worth fighting for, but a political, economic, and social reboot of our culture is. I admit that I like my Pacifica eyeliner from the health food store because it looks nice and doesn’t make my eyes itch. It’s a small capitulation on my part but we all decide what is reasonable and what is too much. So what is bugging me?

It’s that when it comes to beauty routines, one woman’s freedom to adorn herself becomes another woman’s perceived burden to do so, even though that is not the first woman’s intent. Even Hillary Clinton felt afflicted by the 600 hours she has had to spend on her appearance in 2016. (And astonished by her own math). I don’t judge women for wearing makeup, dyeing their hair, or in other ways trying to look prettier or younger for lovers or coworkers or the public (or “themselves,” if that is what they believe). I do, however, want every single woman to ponder how much time and money she spends on superficial matters while the world burns. It is burning.

Have we ever been in greater need of women turning their collective gaze away from their navels and toward their civic responsibility? When the female half of the population in the West is more focused on appearance, youthfulness, and self-improvement than the male half, are we fully invested in the most important aspects of self-determination? In our society, decisions are being made by men for women, about women, and in furtherance of women’s continued participation in their own discrimination.

Last weekend I was in Cambridge, MA, buying a new eyeliner pencil. While I was in the store, I noticed the wide selection of aromatherapy candles and diffusers. I saw a lot of yoga magazines and paraben-free moisturizers. The cosmetics counter where I stood looking at colour choices for my special eyeliner was chock full of cruelty-free and fragrance-free makeup options. There were also hairbrushes with boar bristles, health & wellness self-help books, and shelves full of other products that were organic, free trade, sustainable, locally sourced, and socially just. And I have no problem with any of it! In fact, I love to shop in a way that makes the world better — or perhaps I should say, less awful — when I can afford to.

But do you know what was interesting? How many more women were in that store than men. Maybe women are more into hygge than men this November, so the hand-knit scarves and lavender teas and cozy cat socks have more feminine appeal. I’m not very “domestic,” but I thought about buying a few dozen such products and applying them to myself as an anti-Trump balm while listening to some of the soothing new age relaxation CD’s I saw at the back of the store. Far be it from me to deny women whatever we need to get through an endless #MeToo loop on Facebook as every bad memory that is triggered reminds us of our second-class citizenship. I’m not that cruel.

I am aware the arguments I am making may be polarizing. Call me judgemental and point out my hypocrisy for wearing eyeliner. I also get keratin treatments to smooth my hair. What I’m suggesting, though, is that as women, we take a step back from the media messages and marketing onslaught and stores full of products that claim to make us better wives, sexier girlfriends, more nurturing caretakers, and tidier homemakers. Can we simply notice that the more we look inward, the less we look outward? A subtle shifting of focus — not wholesale abandonment of grooming and hygiene — could make a difference.

What could this mean for the U.S., in particular, at such a historically dangerous time?

Any baby steps that women can take to resist sexist consumerism frees up more of our time and money to resist the death of democracy. I know women “can do both at the same time,” but surely the current emphasis on whether or not our eyebrows are on fleek is both an unnecessary and possibly dangerous distraction.

My eyebrows are ordinary. Fuck the patriarchy.

Lori Day is an educational psychologist with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter and the President of the Board of Directors of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center. You can connect with Lori on Facebook or Twitter.

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  • therealcie

    I have fun using natural dyes such as Henna on my hair, which started going gray when I was 27. I let it go natural for a long time, but with my pasty East European complexion, I look washed out with gray hair. I quit using makeup 10 years ago. It’s a time-suck and tremendously expensive. I do pluck my unibrow, but that requires a low-cost tool. I do wish I could get over the feeling that I “need” to shave my legs. I know I don’t, but I’m super self conscious when I don’t.

  • Ann Pobutsky

    I started using make-up when I was 16….maybe I did it about 2-3 times. It interfered with sports. So, I refused and still refuse to wear make-up to this day. I still pluck my eyebrows and shave my legs. I refuse to color my hair. I used to use henna on my hair, but those hair dyes aren’t really good for your hair, even the “natural” stuff. And none of it covers the gray, really. I don’t care. I’d rather have a natural look and be physically active.

  • Maeve

    I actually love the attention I get from both men and women from not shaving, wearing makeup, or altering my appearance in any manufactured, capitalistic way. Sure, it also saves me time, but most importantly, it’s been a blessing for weeding out the judgers and misogynists. I think people feel safer around me because of my own vulnerability to be myself. They can relax because they know I’m not one to expect others to alter themselves. It also feels empowering to be that courageous woman who doesn’t give two fucks about patriarchal standards of beauty. I’ve read articles about a new “trend” of women letting their body hair grow, which is totally ridiculous because leaving your body as it is cannot be a “trend.” Beware of the “trending” of women’s primal, natural and permanent state of being. We own it, not society. It can never go out of fashion folks, and that’s why it’s so damn powerful!!!

    • Jani

      Madonna’s pre-fame nudes were posted online. She has ALL her natural body hair — underarm, pubic hair “full bush” style, leg hair. I thought she looked as beautiful as nature intended her to be. But the comments! The women were saying how “grossed out” they were by her pubic hair, and one man enlarged a part of the photo and added an arrow to draw attention to her leg hair. Regardless of how we feel about the artist known as Madonna, I was amazed at the negative reaction to her body hair. I couldn’t see what was so offensive. It’s curious, isn’t it? Why is body hair so threatening?

      • Abi Tiki

        Part of pedophile culture? Adult women have body hair.

  • Macarons & Sakura Tea

    I can relate well. I’m not a fan of make-up, but I found myself experimenting with it when I was 20. It started out of coercion during pictorial for my college graduation photo when the hair and make-up stylist totally altered my natural look. I kept up with it. Admittedly, I enjoyed experimenting with my looks in general thereafter. I also got addicted to thinning my brows out until men classmates (not surprising) began noticing that they were close to being completely erased. I also spent at least 45 mins. with my voluminous hair – it always stressed me out. FF to years later, the feeling was liberating as I gradually shed my excessive attention to my exterior. But I still do make-up – though just the bare minimal; I’m anaemic and there are those times my pallor is on esp. if I’m quite fatigued or I forgot to take medication. I also have many grays now, but they’re not visible yet bec. my hair is thick. I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t yet colour hair regularly to hide them. A big kudos to all the fabulously fierce women who confidently and courageously choose to absolutely not conform to the standards.

  • fragglerock

    I think what’s most essential is questioning WHY doing these things makes us feel BETTER. Why do we feel BETTER when we shave this or paint that? What is the value that’s being promoted?

    Perhaps more important is: the focus on women’s looks (whether it be through body-positive campaigns, dying armpit hair, or face yoga) emphasizes that they are objects. Dolls that come in every shape and size are still dolls, not people.

    I don’t expect women to unlearn all the indoctrination they’ve been subject to since birth but I think we can work to raise consciousness. I like to leave notes in beauty magazines that say things like “the beauty industry profits off women’s insecurities” and “your thoughts, beliefs, and ideas are important.”

    If we can encourage women and girls to question their indoctrination and give them alternative modes of thought to consider, I think there is hope.

  • ptittle

    Fifty years ago, feminists said fuck that shit; we stopped wearing make-up, shaving, plucking, perming… I’d like to understand why feminists started again. If we can’t even move forward n a straight line on the superficial stuff, how the hell are we going to move forward on the important stuff?

    • Geraldine Halpin

      As someone once conned by choice feminism it seems to me that dismantling resistance is just built into how patriarchy works and there are always new twists on witch burning to be found. Marketing a new brand of palatable, fun, man-friendly, sex obsessed, consumerist feminism is right in line with western culture through the 80s, 90s and 2000s. It’s a patriarchal reversal of the type we’ve seen before. Now you can be a feminist by NOT being a feminist at all by any previous definition. You can be a feminist by doing the things that men, just coincidentally, want you to do and then telling yourself you like it, you want it and it’s “empowering”. It’s quite a coup and i can understand why the numbers of women literally buying it leaves older feminists astonished (especially when part of the deal is women hunting out and attacking other women who don’t agree with patriarchy’s feminism, i.e. feminists. Witch hunts are never far away.)
      Patriarchy attacks us on the superficial stuff because none of it is superficial! Complying with beauty standards signals compliance generally. We know instinctively that there are penalties for non-compliance, patriarchy understands the danger of a good example. Let a few women buck the trend and other women could follow suit. And if they drop resource draining beauty routines they might decide to drop resource draining social norms and resource draining jobs and husbands and lives and what then?
      But there is another strand here and it’s really important. Patriarchy needs women to forget – to forget incidents so we don’t see the patterns, to forget that we’re powerful and could use that power for ourselves, to forget that men need us more than we need them. And it needs us to forget what the women before us learned. Fifty years ago women critiqued makeup, 150 years ago women agitated for dress reform. But we still have lipstick and corsets and they’re still “sexy” and harmful. This has all happened before, generation after generation of women, and if we can keep that in mind then maybe we can start to fuck shit up.

      • BornACrone

        “Patriarchy needs women to forget – to forget incidents so we don’t see
        the patterns, to forget that we’re powerful and could use that power for
        ourselves, to forget that men need us more than we need them.”

        They do this by convincing women to hate and attack anyone of the previous generation. The youngest women of activist bent are taught to hate women like Germaine Greer and Hillary Clinton to make damned sure that they don’t know their history and can always be forced to start back from square one … and they fall for it. Every. Single. Time. 🙁

  • Anna

    I vividly remember at age 15, when my mum told me I “must” start shaving my legs, scraping away at them and thinking what a colossal waste of time and energy this was. After a few more attempts, and working out how many hours a week, and how many hours over a lifetime, I vowed not to do it again, as a commitment to my young feminist self – that was now 30 years ago. I mostly wear trousers anyway, but even in summer I will go out with my furry legs in shorts or a skirt. I’ve never actually once had any comments from anyone. Try it! It’s really quite liberating! Same with armpits and bikini line. Don’t shave or wax them either!

  • Rachael

    This is one area I struggle with the most. I suspect it started because my mother was hugely judgemental about her own appearance, and mine by extension, as I was growing up. In fact, when I think about it, it’s always other women around me who seem to make comments about what other women are wearing, and what their makeup or hair is like. At least in my experience. My (male) partner doesn’t really notice whether I have makeup on or not and he compliments me the same regardless. Interestingly, the last few years I have become more and more tied up in this area: dyeing my hair, eyelash extensions, and yes – the dreaded botox. And yet I don’t watch TV, rarely watch movies, and my social media activity hardly ever exposes me to fashion or beauty. I’m often the first of the women I know to get the new treatments too, so it’s not like I am following those immediately around me.

    I wonder, if for me it’s about visibility. About not wanting to become invisible. I’m an intelligent, articulate woman, but yet it feels like a constant walking against the grain: living with the sexism, the low-level misogny in daily life. It’s tiring and stressful and I wonder if sometimes I just choose the easy route of beauty: look at me, acknowledge my existence. I can pretend for a while, ignoring the fact that society does not care about my brain, especially as I age. I’m fighting to keep the only acknowledgement I have (my physical appearance) because I can sense the slipping away with each year.

    It’s not something I like about myself.

    And I’m obsessed with my eyebrows.

  • SpecialSnowflake

    And I personally agree with this article. The only objective way to see that is by comparing that to what men do to their bodies (e.g. to swap women with men in your mind), thinking of how damaging certain practices are to our health and looking at that using feminist context. Of course, every human being needs to feel good about themselves, to feel accepted and loved. This is what happens on the individual level and that’s what most of us can relate to and can understand. So there’s this dilema between individual and collective needs.

    It’s up to every woman to decide for herself. I didn’t get an impression that the author wants to push someone out of their current comfort zone without their will. I think it was just a suggestion and food for thought.

    I think when it comes to how women communicate between each other there’s a problem of taking things too personally sometimes (and usually it’s the diametric opposite when women communicate with men). Maybe I’m wrong and I’m overgeneralizing. I’m sorry if I am. I don’t mean that every single woman is like that, it’s just general tendency. It’s something I noticed about myself and some women in my life and also in feminist communities a few times. When these things happen they’re usually energy-draining and that’s not really productive. Practicing or not practicing beauty routines is usually one of the most painful topics.

  • SpecialSnowflake

    I don’t think the author has same thoughts about this picture and what it represents as those men do. They see nothing, but vanity and as if it was women’s inherent diabolic quality. and they’re projecting. The author knows feminist theory and where these things come from and whom and what to blame.

  • BornACrone

    I have to say I’ve never felt like cosmetics were a way for me to be “visible,” but exactly the opposite. When I was younger and either wore them because it was habit, or just happened as I do to fall into the bin marked “hot” through no fault nor credit of my own, THAT was when I was invisible. THAT was when men (and women) saw the exterior, reacted to that in ways I disliked, and never saw ME.

    The older I’ve gotten, I’ve been delighted to have my dark hair start greying. My skin’s pretty good so far, but I’m happy to see the grey hairs come in — and it HAS made a difference at work. I’m listened to. My ideas and opinions are paid mind because damn it, THEY ARE GOOD ONES. They always were, but when a young “hottie” says something smart, magically it’s the stupidest thing everyone’s ever heard until a man repeats it, upon which point he gets all the credit. If you are good-looking and intelligent, you are resented or ignored. It’s only since I passed the 50-mark that I’ve actually become VISIBLE, and I’m loving it.

    I mean think about it — look at how men like Harvey Weinstein treated all those good-looking young women. I never understood how anyone could imagine that men “liked” good-looking women. They hate you when you look good. They want your pussy, but YOU — the person that is YOU — is an annoying obstacle that’s not giving them what they have a birthright to. They want your cunt, and YOU are just in the way. No one loves an obstacle. People hate obstacles.

    It’s a news flash that I’m always shocked no one realizes except maybe other women who randomly fall into the bin marked “hot” — men do not “like” good-looking women, at all. They like us the way a great white shark likes a California grey seal. They like us best shredded into bite-sized pieces with some barbecue sauce in a competitive eating contest. That’s not liking, and it sure as shit isn’t love.

  • FierceMild

    I make all he soap and shampoo for my family for the same reasons (and also because I know exactly what’s in it). I like the freedom. It’s like washing your hair with anarchy.

  • therealcie

    I wouldn’t pay to get anything waxed, especially my pubic area. How does anyone tolerate that? The idea of ripping it out–yikes! No thanks!

  • therealcie

    I forgot about that. I tweeze mine.

  • Hanakai

    Another situation of one step forward, two steps back. The NYT today has an article entitled “Millennials’ Lust for Makeup is the Lipstick on Retail’s Pig” about the boom and increasing profits in the cosmetics and skin care industry driven by millennial obsession with appearance and selfies. Unlike the hippie generation which eschewed makeup in favor of naturalness, millennials are buying cosmetics in record amounts, wasting money and wasting time watching beauty vloggers.

    When I was in high school, there were some girls who would come to school expertly made-up every day. It must have taken hours every day, and all of their spending money. I preferred to sleep late, and spend my cash on books and lab equipment and sports. And today I have a career, money, the ability to travel and sovereignty over my life, while classmates who spent their time and money on appearance live in relative poverty with few options to improve their lives. The girls who focused on their education and mental development became adults with options, while the girls who focused on appearance and attracting boys ended up with truncated lives of few options.

    It is unfortunate that girls get the message that appearance is all that matters and so pour their time and money into external appearance. All that time down the drain, time that could have been spent improving the mind, learning a skill, doing something worthwhile. The millennial generation seems to wholly embrace the patriarchal cultural mandate that women are meant to be mere decorative sex objects tractable to male desires. It also seems that as males become less interested in women (preferring porn or MGTOW), young women make ever more effort to attract attention from males by dress, makeup, appearance. More retrogression.

    In this twisted sick culture, how can girls learn that they are beautiful as they are in the magnificent miraculous bodies Nature gave them?

    • Maria Gatti

      While I agree with you about spending money (if we have it) on books, lab equipment and sport (or other forms of exercise; not all people like competitive sport), I was always focused on art (visual arts and writing) from early childhood on. I knew that there was very little chance of me making much money that way; though I’ve always managed to earn some kind of living. Our worth as human beings doesn’t depend on being decorative objects, but it isn’t determined by our bank balance either.

  • Wren

    Gundog, I like some of the things you say, but when you say things like this:
    “…the statement that men should never tell women what to do – that’s a silly statement.”

    It’s not a silly statement. Are you paying attention? Whether or not what we do is an expression of submission to the patriarchy or not, we have had enough of men telling us what to do. It is not about “communicating wants and needs” when a man tells a woman how to live; it is about him believing he has some kind of RIGHT to tell her what to do.

    Honestly, I like the things you say about your lifestyle (hunting, self-sufficiency, etc.) but are you trying to get readers riled up with statements like this, or are you just completely lacking in prudence? Either way, think a little.

  • catlogic

    I wouldn’t have, in any of my jobs, but that is probably a combination of the time (80s through to a couple of years ago), the types of work, and, possibly, that Australia isn’t so obsessed with women being painted like this. I hope. 🙁

  • BornACrone

    Oh, I’m still not listened to like a man, but yes — men listen more. Once their dicks aren’t hard, they can come closer to interacting with you like a human. But as long as they can look at you and want to fuck you, you’re trash to them. But keep in mind that I’m 51. I felt trivialized and resented all during my 20s AND 30s and about halfway into my 40s, so I had a ways to go at your age. I wish I had something more helpful and optimistic to say. 🙁

  • MotherBear84

    “Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” I always loved that quote. Fatema Mernissi says a similar thing at the end of her book “Scheherazade Goes West”; don’t remember the exact quote but it had to do with the idea that patriarchy’s deliberate goal of making women so negatively body-conscious is to prevent us from fighting for our rights (it went something like “How can I march in the streets and demand my rights when I am worried that I don’t have the right outfit?”)

    I’m always so disturbed when I hear my colleagues talking about their diets. I feel like I can’t say anything, since my natural body type is quite skinny and I don’t “have to” (ugh, eye roll) diet. It’s the pairing of food with morality that I find really bizarre. You have all heard it: “I was so bad today, I ate a piece of cake,” or “I’m being really good, I’m avoiding all carbs.” These are smart, educated, open-minded women who consider themselves feminists! And in the interests of honesty, I confess start I often catch myself holding in my stomach after a big meal… and as I said, I’m skinny, and I also wear pretty baggy clothes. This shit is so damn insidious. It gets in everywhere.