Re-Negotiating Beauty: Configurating the Shape of Womanhood

All these BBL and makeup videos trending on TikTok are hilarious and creative as hell. As a self-appointed party pooper though, we gotta talk about the not so fun side. The boom of the plastic surgery and beauty industry and the impact they have on countless of people has to be addressed. Brace yourselves for tastefully expressed feminist talking points.

First, I’d like to distinguish reconstructive plastic surgery from cosmetic plastic surgery. One is for reconstructing parts of the body to improve standards of living while the other aims to improve appearance. In a world full of ever-changing trends and standards it’s easy to see how corruptive cosmetic surgery and beauty trends can become. However, the question remains: Are women conditioned to internalize what men want or is there an element of personal choice as well?

The male gaze refers to the manner in which masculine heteronormative culture depict women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the straight male viewer.[mfn] This gaze has been observed to be a phenomenon in various visual arts and literature but doesn’t stop there. It is a sign of patriarchal influence on social interactions. Slim thick, heroin chic, pale as paper, sun-kissed tan, the good wife, the ride or die side-chick, the freaky slut, the vestigial ‘virgins’ are but a few of the expectations the male gaze has forced upon women. 

Feminist discourse has allowed women to take back their power and express themselves in a myriad of mediums. It has opened up a newer understanding of the asymmetrical power dynamics between races, genders and differently abled peoples. It has also been divisive among its proponents.

Feminists like Iris Young view beauty as “a cultural practice that is damaging to women”.[mfn] They believe that men are the ones who construct social standards which means women’s choices are a fallacy and beauty is yet another way for the patriarchy to control women. Then you have feminists like Kathy Davis who argue “women are conscious beings and are able to self-determine”.[mfn] They believe that the lifeworld experiences of women compound into valuable knowledge that they use to navigate social constructs of femininity.
             As a woman working in the beauty industry, I fall somewhere between the two. I see how standards of beauty affect women when they sit in my make-up chair and critique their appearance. “I hate the bags under my eyes” “I don’t like how my tummy looks in that picture” “I’m so sorry about my skin, it’s never this bad”. It’s heartbreaking to see just how powerful beauty standards for women make us scrutinize even the minuscule parts of our appearance. How the female form is internalized as something to be looked and acted upon – open to social correction and criticism.

In contrast, I have also seen just how empowering makeup can be. “OMG! Is that really me? Damn I’m fine!” “I look fantastic, look how sparkly my eyes are!” “I don’t want to take this off ever”. My clients come alive before my very eyes, their confidence boosted now that their outward appearance matches how they feel about themselves. That slight changes in their appearance will allow them to express themselves more comfortably now that they have used temporary (sometimes permanent) measures to renegotiate their emotional suffering and pain.

Motives, choice and subjectivity are the cornerstones of empowerment. By viewing the patriarchy (and men) as a omnipotent force, we lose the chance to have nuanced and complex conversations around social pressures and standards.

The history of feminism has been a longwinded road of renegotiating patriarchal ideas of what womanhood should be. It is a long and tiresome process that requires a multifaceted understanding of perspectives. The recent boom of women in media has allowed feminist perspectives to be carried forward and with them newer and varied ways of showing womanhood and femininity.

Footnotes

  1. Diane Ponterotto, “Resisting the Male Gaze: Feminist Responses to the ‘Normatization’ of the Female Body in Western Culture,” Culture. Journal of International Women’s Studies 17, no. 1 (2016): 133–51, https://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1844&context=jiws.
  2. Alessandra Heggenstaller et al., “Reflecting on Female Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery and (Dis)Empowerment,” The Narrative Study of Lives, December 2018, 48–65, https://doi.org/10.18778/1733-8077.14.4.04.
  3. Ibid