“Have you considered Botox?” asked the clinician clearly looking at the grand canyon between my eyebrows.
“No,” I told her puffing up. Nearly 50 and no needles for me!
I was getting some facial hairs electrolysed – a beauty treatment I don’t question because my hairs are so long and strong they could pick up sushi – but as I needed a distraction from the pain of said hairs being violently assaulted out of their follicles, I asked to hear more.
Most details I’d heard from friends until she told me that if I got Botox continuously for the next 10 years then my face wouldn’t age in that time underneath the injections.
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Wait, what? “If I get it for a decade then, at 60, if I stop the Botox I’ll have my current 50-year-old face? It won’t just crumple like a sinkhole?”
She nodded, visibly calculating the commission she’d get if I signed up for that long.
Tempted, and thinking of my upcoming 50th birthday party, I asked how long it would take to kick in.
“Two weeks,” she said.
And suddenly I had an excuse not to part with my cash. “My party’s in a week,” I breathed. My grand canyon forehead would have to attend the party and my 60-year-old face would have to cope when it arrived in due time.
As I wandered out into the sunlight I wondered what the hell had happened. As a writer and advocate against narrow beauty standards for women I have been raising my fists and calling out businesses, magazines and advertisers for years, so why did I nearly cave to one of the biggest moneymakers of our time? Botox – which feeds on a woman’s primal fear that she might inspire that most damning of comments: “Ooohhh, she’s aged.”
We read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth in 1991; we have the #bopo (body positivity) movement; we rally against beauty standards and gender norms; we have Lizzo! But after reading the new take on the beauty myth in Dr Renee Engeln’s seminal 2018 book, Beauty Sick it’s hard to feel confident we’ve made progress.
“Historically, beauty has always had a stranglehold on women’s lives but those fighting for feminism in the 60s could never have imagined the hours 11-year-old girls will spend watching make up tutorials,” says Engeln.
Naomi Wolf posited in The Beauty Myth that a culture fixated on beauty is not really about beauty but control. I ask Engeln about this and she tells me over Zoom, from her basement in Illinois, “I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory but it’s a way of controlling women.
“The issue of focusing on how women look is that we’re not open enough about how often it’s wielded as a weapon, like it’s a compliment. The minute we don’t like what a woman is saying or if she challenges our beliefs, we insult her appearance – “you’re fat and ugly” – I wonder how many don’t run for office because of that. How many shut down their social media accounts? How many lose their voice because they will be attacked for how they look?“
If women freely choose to embrace beauty with curled hair and lashes, cosmetics, corsets, heels, filler, injections, surgery and diets – because beauty really does open doors, get a table at restaurants or onto super yachts as Amy Schumer jokes in I Feel Pretty – then they’re doing so from within a system that elevates beauty above all other qualities.
Says Engel: “Your choices around beauty and appearance are never going to be completely free because you never get the chance to make them in a culture that treats women differently. Most of us have never lived in a world where our appearance wasn’t paramount. Who knows what types of choices we would make if our looks weren’t such a major source of social and economic currency?”
Engeln’s been in lockdown for five months and we both have trackpants on and joke about how, given the chance that nobody is going to knock on the door, we don’t even wear jeans because they are not as comfortable.
But beauty is more complex than “should I or shouldn’t I forgo comfort?”. There’s the double trauma if a choice is consciously made. If a woman who knows about the narrow, youth-focused, standards of beauty but succumbs and gets, say, Botox, they then can feel ashamed for not resisting.
Director of GenderTick, which advises organisations about group equity, Dr Kaisa Wilson, says: “We are first victimised by the system where we have to [expensive beauty procedures], then we have to shame ourselves that we have been influenced by it. We can’t win.”
This pushes beauty expenditure underground and slaps guilt on top of that plumped up skin. Shame and secrets do not breed confidence. Feminist writer Caitlin Moran says she received more flack admitting to Botox than anything else, including an abortion and masturbation.
Women in the public eye get the triple trauma: knowing about beauty standards and succumbing to them anyway, feeling the shame of not resisting, then finally being ridiculed or gossiped about in the media for not resisting, even though they work in industries that create the narrow beauty standards in the first place.
Engeln and I rattle off the articles we’ve read where a woman is reduced to her beauty treatment in the headline, “Debbie Harry says facelift is like a flu jab”, “Nicki Minaj gets a butt lift”, “Adele’s diet shreds sizes”. Jon Stewart summed this up in an interview with Caitlyn Jenner: “Caitlyn, when you were a man we could talk about athleticism and business acumen and now you’re a woman your looks are really the only thing we care about.” Rather than patronising women who spend funds on beauty products we’re better off, says Engeln, “focusing on factors that make women feel obligated to spend”.
With 85-90 per cent of surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures being performed on those who identify as women (internationally) and nine out of 10 young people with an eating disorder who also identify as women, we can’t ignore it’s a gendered issue. The beauty industry is worth US $532 billion – that’s a lot of salaries disappearing faster than grey hairs into a bottomless industry that feeds off creating insecurities in the name of glamour.
Engeln gets angry when industries pretend to be selling empowerment. “There’s nothing empowering about wearing shoes you can’t walk in. That is not power. Or at least not yours. The beauty industry does not have your self-esteem, your well-being in mind. In fact they want you to feel vulnerable, they want you to feel unattractive because when you do, you buy, buy, buy. Our best science suggests beauty has always mattered but for millions of years of evolution no human ever saw a face as beautiful as what we might now see in everyday ads. We didn’t evolve to handle this much!”
It can, as Engeln’s book title suggests, make us sick. “Beauty sickness causes someone to see their bodies as something for other people instead of themselves. Those who shame women for their appearance feed beauty sickness,” she says.
“Those who praise girls and women only for how they look do the same.”
Feeling like you’re constantly under evaluation for your appearance affects you cognitively and physically. You’re more likely to miss kicking the ball in soccer or your brain doesn’t function as well – Engeln’s proven it with simple maths tasks in her lab at Northwestern University.
“We cannot live our lives fully. We cannot make progress toward our goals if we believe that possible success and happiness hinges on the result of that evaluation.”
YWCA Auckland and (my own organisation) Pretty Smart recently conducted a survey and found three out of four young women feel negatively about how they look on a daily basis and 68 per cent said they avoid participating in events (socialising and sports in particular) when they don’t feel good about their bodies. Beauty sickness means missing out, not going. This is not how we want any person to feel, especially from a beauty system that’s set up to make everyone fail.
One of Engeln’s early studies looked into what women thought they would get if they looked like their culture’s idea of beauty and more than 70 per cent said they would be treated better by others.
“Beauty does offer a type of power over others,” says Engeln, “but let’s be honest about what kind of power. First, beauty is not democratic. It’s not handed out to those who most deserve it. Second, the power resides on unstable ground, it exists only if others are there to acknowledge it. Even worse, it’s power you don’t get to keep.”
I tell her about the beautiful 28-year-old who blasted my chin hairs and how’s she been getting preventative Botox since she was 22.
“If we tie our power to our beauty, we risk letting it trail away with our youth,” she says.
“It’s a grotesque kind of power that begins to disappear just as a woman starts to find her footing in the world. It’s a twisted power that makes women terrified of ‘showing their age’.”
It’s hard living in a selfie-obsessed world, especially for young women. Knowing they have to exist in the beauty system, should we tell our daughters they’re beautiful when they seem to need it?
“I’m not saying you can’t give a compliment,” says Engeln, “but when we talk about how women and girls look all the time, that affects their psychology, their well-being, as it’s an expression of our values. You can tell your daughter she looks beautiful but compliment them on something they can control. Reinforce the idea that being focused, kind, creative and generous matter. None of these qualities require any particular body shape or hairstyle. Tell her she inspires you and explain why.”