In Feminist debateswe pit feminist arguments about power, sex, work and love against each other – and unpack the gray areas.
Last month, a London-based plastic surgeon named Julian De Siva released his annual list of the world’s most beautiful women – according to ‘science’, allegedly. Her technique includes mapping 12 points on the face and using the Greek golden ratio of beauty, ‘Phi’, to mark them. It is based on the Greek idea that the human form must conform to a divine mathematical ratio which is perfect. A list of predictable names has been retained: Zendaya, Bella Hadid, Deepika Padukone, Kim Kardashian, Ariana Grande, among others. But the winner, supposedly, was Jodie Comer – who apparently has a proportional face, and knocked Amber Heard out of the post.
That beauty continues to be justified in this way is bad science. But feminists nevertheless continue to attack it. Plastic surgery, cosmetic procedures, filters, makeup, and skincare are all giant industries that are only getting bigger. And they are all based on a fundamental and shared premise: there is a way to be beautiful, and it is possible to change to achieve it. Going through any of these processes is therefore reframed as emancipatory – it is a way for women, in particular, to take control of their own self-image and have power over their bodies.
Inevitably, however, the ideal we aspire to converges on some version of the women on De Silva’s list. And in their search for trust in a world designed to undermine it, women often end up reverting to the same oppressive norms that caused the problem in the first place. So isn’t beauty itself feminist? Or can it ever be recovered?
There is no single definition of beauty – that’s what we want it to be.
Before, beauty was a privilege. But over time it became democratized – with “beauty salons” and cheap cosmetics, everyone could control their own appearance in a way they weren’t able to before. This means beauty standards are constantly evolving and inclusive. Additionally, many feminists began to view beauty as a skilled female pursuit and an “evolutionary force.” This means that beauty is not an ideal, but a skill — where the “right to be beautiful” is for everyone. In other words, feminism is now post-beauty, where features once excluded from beauty – like fatness, darkness – are reclaimed as beautiful.
The flip side: the world still shares a proprietary understanding of beauty, which affects how we are treated.
Beauty is always white supremacist and colonialist. Sandra Lee Bartky and Susan Bordo argue that the fact that some women choose female beauty independently does not contradict its role in perpetuating gender inequality. Additionally, the idea of beauty exclusion leads to a phenomenon called pretty privilege, in which some people are granted more legitimacy and access simply because of their appearance. And beauty remaining racialized and exclusive, it is the historically privileged who have access to it.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to improve our appearance – it gives us more control and confidence.
Feminist scholar Kathy Davis, in her treatise on cosmetic surgery, noted how many women who undergo painful procedures nonetheless do so as “embodied subjects” — with will and intent. And they come out feeling more in control and confident.
Moreover, some feminists have also claimed that beauty, and the experience of femininity itself, tends to be focused on pain. Beauty, as a shared experience, is more about finding pleasure in commonalities. Some even argue that it provides space for feminist solidarities and brotherhood – based on the shared experience of participating in beauty together.
The other side of the coin: “improving” inevitably means adhering to a problematic ideal.
Who “considers” us beautiful? Increasingly, social media is mediating our understanding of beauty – and it’s becoming homogenized. Cultural critic Jia Tolentino notes that we are in the age of the “Instagram Face” – which is a post-racial fusion borrowed from many different cultures. But it inevitably benefits whiteness to the detriment of other cultures. The same characteristics that marginalized women have been demonized for – plump lips in black women, thick eyebrows in South Asian women, etc. – are aestheticized and celebrated on white faces. This ambiguous era of beauty is therefore inevitably still Eurocentric.
Beauty standards have changed now – makeup can be used subversively.
Marginalized people have been kept away from beauty for generations – when it was still defined by the privileged. But this is no longer the case: beauty is constantly in the process of being claimed by the very people it once excluded. “For me, the experience of ugliness was a self-inflicted pain, a self-inflicted, worthless punishment… After all that, it turns out that the people most rich in beauty are those who once felt like me,” Tom noted. Rasmussen in Dazed. In fact, everything we deem beautiful today we owe to drag culture. Beauty is therefore strange, subversive and playful – and insisting on defining it in a traditional way only reinforces an oppressive norm rather than liberating us from it.
The other side of the coin: often, we are forced to wear makeup to exist in the world.
Beauty is a construct created to take advantage of women’s insecurities and in doing so also creates insecurities, as feminist Naomi Wolf argued in The myth of beauty. As a result, beauty remains an expectation imposed on women to occupy space. This, in turn, forces women to navigate beauty through consumerism – almost creating a “tax” on beauty to be seen as both professional, credible and desirable. It is the ultimate membership in the status quo — and therefore, to the patriarchy itself.