sustainability & feminism

The capitalisation of beauty standards

By Chloe ten Brink


“In a society that profits from your self doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.”


    One of the important tenets of fourth wave feminism, in my opinion, is body positivity and ownership of the self. The fierce and fervent celebration of the body, in all its diversity and natural glory, is the product of suffering the subjugation of the female body to expectations perpetuated by tradition, the patriarchy and capitalistic industry for centuries. As Professor Gail Dines famously puts it: “If tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think how many industries would go out of business”. We can nod, ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’, and simply acknowledge this hypothetical statement, but it does ring true: how does the beauty industry survive, if not by capitalising on stereotypes of beauty? 


    Historically, how one presented oneself, through clothes and make-up, has been a token of class - a visual aid for subjecting others to a class-based hierarchy. As Deborah Rhode writes: “Appearance both reflects and reinforces class privilege." Not everyone has the money to spare on catering to beauty standards that rely on products that come with a cost. These products further often promote Euro-centric features, enticing racial discriminations. A pertinent example is the frequent lack of diversity in foundations’ skin-tones. The racial dimension is critical in the discussion of profiling through appearance. Recently in 2019, certain states in the US passed a bill outlawing discrimination based on race-based discrimination due to natural hairstyles. Beauty as assimilation with norms has huge racial and class ramifications, a discussion which deserves its own article. Why do we seek beauty? Buy the make-up products? Diet kits? Well for one - in society we are fed the idea that the most beautiful are the most valued. The power of make-up and clothes to emulate, and ‘improve’ one’s own beauty is an attractive option in societies where our self-worth is axed on notions of typically Euro-centric beauty. Linda A. Jackson’s study ‘Physical Attractiveness and Intellectual Competence’ found that less attractive individuals are deemed less competent. Those that were more conventionally attractive, did a lot better in job interviews. Another study, ‘Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successfu l’ by Daniel S. Hamermesh and Amy Parker, found that on average good-looking people make about 12% more than average or ‘bad’-looking people. More attractive teachers got much more approval from students, and also on average made 6% more. It’s hard not to equate normative beauty with self-worth, when those that fit stereotypical beauty standards are literally rewarded by society.


    These standards of beauty are often crafted, man-made expectations that are unrealistic products of marketing. For example - making one’s legs and armpits silky-smooth, a process most women know all too well, only emerged in the early 20th century as it accompanied fashion trends where the hemline of skirts got shorter and sleeveless dresses became an option. Companies such as Harper’s Bazaar promoted their razors with ads that unashamedly shamed women: “The fastidious woman today must have immaculate underarms if she is to be unembarrassed.” ‘Immaculate underarms’ and smooth legs are a beauty standard that a large majority of women feel compelled to comply to - resulting in a global razor industry which was estimated to be worth 10.2 billion USD in 2018. 

    Women have become a target consumer audience. When once a woman’s ability to purchase and be part of the global economy was always tied down to her husband’s income, being able to buy and spend as one pleases was an important independent act in capitalistic societies. Companies, especially the beauty industry, capitalised on this new market, churning out product after product aimed at the stereotypical female life. While that used to rely on body-shaming and reinforcement of stereotypes, such as with Harper’s Bazaar razors, as women have become more conscious of their consumer power, the nature of ads have changed. 


    Recently, there has been a shift to inclusivity and a plurality of body types shown in ads. This is an important step forward and representation is deeply needed. However, I can’t help but feel the same discomfort that I do with the flurry of green-washing. For those that don’t know what ‘greenwashing’ is - UnSchool defines it as: when companies are “spending more time and money to be “green” through advertising and marketing rather than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact”. A lot of corporate body-positivity and female empowerment ads are mere distractions from a continued deeply sexist corporate action. Take the company Everlane, that in 2018 carefully placed a plus-size model in their ads without catering to that audience and actually selling plus-size underwear. Or, another example, the shapewear company ‘Shapermint’ had a campaign titled “Feel Like the Masterpiece You Are”, claiming that “while we are all working on loving our bodies, it’s ok if your confidence needs a boost sometimes” - and yet that equates ‘smoother lines’ and a slimer figure with that ‘confidence boost’ from the get-go. Blogger Brianna Huntsman articulates this well: “My struggle with shapewear of any kind has been that it is designed to make the wearer’s body more acceptable. As a feminist, I struggle with my decision to wear shapewear to change my body to fit patriarchal beauty standards.” As companies scramble to make their products fit the emerging market for products that reflect values of feminism, environmentalism etc, we have to pause and wonder where we spend our money in this consumer-driven world. 


    Consumerism rooted in body-image and confidence is inherently problematic from a feminist point of view. Academics Nicki Cole and Alison Dahl Crossely elaborate: “Feminism is diametrically opposed to consumer practices which support the dominance of global capitalism: a system which thrives on the exploitation of labor, theft of resources, and facilitates vast accumulation of wealth among a tiny percentage of global elite, while simultaneously impoverishing the majority of the world’s population”. There is no doubt that this same consumerism is destroying our planet. Remember the estimated 2 Billion razors thrown away every year? These companies that prey on self-doubt are polluting our minds, self-esteem and our planet. 


    Is this a feminist issue? Yes. The term eco-feminism was coined by French Feminist Françoise D’Eaubonne in 1974 and it  has been a growing feild in feminist theory.  It centers on the notion that both the exploitation of women and nature in society are due to systems of hierarchy. Stereotypically, both women and nature have been seen as irrational, and ‘in need of control’ whereas men were rational and put-together; creating dichotomies that allow for one to rule over the other. The beauty industry is harmful to women, and harmful to the environment-with its plastic packaging, still common practices of animal testing, and uses of nefarious chemicals. This is why it is time to rethink our personal relationship with the beauty industry- for our planet, for ourselves and for feminism.


Picture credits: