the unattainable power of beauty
and the anxieties and complexities of aging in the world as a woman
Earlier this week I was in the car listening to one of Emily Ratajkowski’s recent podcast episodes, “Why Aren’t Women Allowed to Wrinkle?” and it got me thinking about how women and feminine presenting people are constantly grasping at the coattails of a beauty ideal that has never even been within our reach. And how even then, I can’t stop feeling pressured to keep chasing it, to look as young as possible for as long as I can. Actually, I feel almost compelled to do it. I’m no where near Kim’s level of being willing to eat shit every day in order to look young, but I can understand having appearance-anxiety in our society when things like how much money you make or how seriously you’re taken rest solely on how youthful or beautiful you appear. And a lot of other people understand it, too—a ton of us are regularly damaging our skin over and over, quite literally doing too much of a good thing, to chase down our guaranteed-to-flee youth for as long as possible. We’re reworking our noses and chins in order to look like the filter we used that one time. We’re changing our appearances not because we want to just do it for ourselves, but because someone else said we might look younger or prettier if we did. Will it ever be okay to just be?
Recently, I’ve been debating getting another job in the industry. Just something a little more consistent than the freelance work I’ve been doing for the last decade, something I can do alongside it. And I had a total breakdown over the pressure I feel to land this job now. I was sitting on the bed, explaining to my husband how my time frame to do this and succeed at it felt like it was very quickly running out. That I felt like a rug was being inched from beneath my feet, slow at first and then progressively faster until I fell flat on my back. That a woman starting a new job at 33-years old is not usually regarded in the same way as a man doing it. That a man starting a new career in his 30’s is usually seen as ambitious and brave, while women doing this tend to be branded as lost or unorganized in life. I think about this too often. There are so many new things I want to try—writing a book or a play, designing clothes, putting together a makeup line—but I always think, ‘I’m in my 30’s now so I can’t really do that anymore, I could have if I was younger.’ How asinine is that? Of course I can do these things, and I’ll try to do them regardless of my own worries. But I’d be lying if I said the societal pressure to forge new paths before the clock runs out, or to look as young as possible for as long as possible in order to better succeed at them, hasn’t often put dents in my ambitions.
The fact that so many of us feel socially accepted, powerful, or respected only if/when we’re young, or perceived as attractive or youthful, is a symptom of our distorted beauty culture. Our beauty landscape is one framed by constant chasing and consuming, where rationale often goes out the window, where we go above and beyond in the maintenance of our appearances, and are constantly trying to fix things that are not broken. We spend hundreds per month and thousands per year on treatments and products to try to harness something uncatchable. The desire to do anything to look younger can not only be dangerous, but puts us in the position of being ignorant to unattainable beauty standards. Relying on beauty and youth for validation and success is guaranteed to end in disappointment.
“All of these ideals are distortions that only serve to keep us in a perpetual state of weakness. And we often project them onto each other, trying to curate each other’s physical appearances online and planting seeds of unnecessary change into one another.”
I’m currently reading Renee Engeln’s Beauty Sick, and it’s so not lost on me that I have every symptom of beauty sickness, which she defines as “the chronic focus on beauty that directs cognitive, financial, and emotional resources away from other more important goals.” Working in the digital beauty industry has warped the way I view myself and, coupled with the way society puts an expiration date on women and feminine presenting people, thrown me into full beauty sickness. I’m unlearning it, however, and I’ve found Renee’s book quite healing and affirming. I feel like I’m starting to get a grasp on all the ways that society has cornered me into thinking of myself as less-worthy the older I get or look.
In reading Beauty Sick, two quotes really stood out to me, and for me really define the distortion within our beauty culture. In the first, she says, “Part of what drives beauty sickness in women is the feeling that beauty is some essential ingredient to bringing about happiness. How could we not feel that way, when so much of the media we consume reinforces that idea?” I instantly thought of every beauty campaign ever when I read this quote. It feels like every complexion product is marketed to us on the basis that it will somehow blur, smooth, or eliminate lines and wrinkles altogether. It often feels like they try to tie us to the idea that we’ll be happy when we subscribe to an anti-aging regime, from skincare to makeup, because at least we’ll be taking steps down the (fleeting) path to prolonged youth and beauty.
The second quote, more of an excerpt, talks about body image. “Once when I was in graduate school, I got a terrible case of the flu and dropped a good deal of weight in a short amount of time. When I returned to campus, a professor said, “You look good! Did you lose weight?” When I responded that I had lost weight because I’d been seriously ill, she just shrugged and said, “Well, however it happened, looks good!” I remember that moment as such a clear example that much of what we claim to be health-based concern about other women’s weight is not at all. It’s nothing more than an ill-disguised bit of buy-in to a culture that says our worth is determined by our body size and that less is always more, no matter how we get there.”
Our warped beauty culture necessitates a failure to thrive. It’s always held the power over us, and it tends to keep us from doing what we really want. Legions of us are compelled to participate in the exhaustive chase of beauty and youth in order to feel value and importance in society, while men generally focus on their goals and give fuck-all about how their appearance will cause them to be perceived, or how it could potentially hinder them. Our beauty culture feeds us lies we’re convinced we should strive for—if we want love, it’s easier if we’re beautiful; if we want success, it’s easier if we’re beautiful; if we want to matter and leave a lasting impression, it’s easier if we’re beautiful. It can keep us from wanting to pursue things we enjoy, and can keep us from being fully happy.
All of these ideals are distortions that only serve to keep us in a perpetual state of weakness—and we often project them onto each other, trying to curate each other’s physical appearances online and planting seeds of unnecessary change into one another. We sew the threads of unattainable beauty standards into the edges of each other’s thoughts, when we should be leaning into the real fix of just allowing ourselves, and one another, to be.
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I related to your feelings of time running out on you when you're considering a change because of your age, and I'm 43, but I remember feeling that way even in my 30's. However, I can tell you, that my husband who has pivoted his career numerous times in his life, and will again I'm sure, has never once thought about how his appearance or age played into that decision. If age was or is considered, its only to measure what he's physically capable of. When I feel this negative thought eating away at me I often look towards role models that created something at a later age or time in life to reinforce the idea that it's never too late, no matter what age.
What a great read