The Contradictions of Beauty

Pickled Politics has a 100 comment debate on the politics of skin whitening, after Bollywood superstar Shakrukh Khan endorsed a product (h/t Tyra). The paradox is that white people spend money getting a tan to make them look browner, while brown people buy these creams to make themselves whiter. The grass is always greener, yet equally cancerous, on the other side of the fence…

Other beauty paradoxes I have noticed: Hair straighteners for those with curly locks, sold next to hair curlers/rollers for the straight locked.

Oh yes, and of course: Women in the supermarket who put make-up, and make-up remover, into their basket… without so much as a bat of an eyelid to disturb their mascara. I’ve always liked this verse from the London-Brazilian slam-poet Hoberto Afiado:

This is the girl who is under age
So she works at the shop for a minimum wage
Who took the job to earn some cash
So she could buy a makeup stash
Who smears the lipstick on her face
So she can go to the drinking place
And when each night is at an end
She’ll rub the make-up off again

7 thoughts on “The Contradictions of Beauty

  1. Well, yes. As long as representations of women are based on some “ideal” rather than a normative standard, then the vast majority are going to “fall short” in some way, and many will feel the need to “correct” themselves.

    If there is a particular skin shade which is intermediate between dark and light that is viewed as being viewed as “ideal”, then large numbers of people are going to fall on either side of this ideal.

    Also, I do not so much think it is a case of the grass being always greener, but of having control over one’s appearance. One thing I have noticed is that “attractiveness” seems to have less to do with actual beauty and more to do with grooming. Hence, what matters is not whether your hair is curly or straight, but whether you have gone to any effort to make it what it is.

    Similarly, make-up which you cannot take off rather removes the element of choice/control, doesn’t it?

    It’s funny how women’s autonomy still attracts comment, especially in a world where women are rewarded or criticised for how they look, where physical appearance affects people’s behaviour towards you, and where women’s bodies are viewed as being so plastic and malleable as to be subject to the whims of fashion.

    Whatever the particular fashion is, one rule seems pretty constant: a woman in her natural state as god made her is unacceptable and must be cosmeticised to make her so.

  2. In post industrial societies, a tan is a signal that you can afford foreign holidays. In industrial/agricultural societies it is a signal that you spend a lot of time outdoors and are therefore peasant/working class. The reverse applies to pale skin, which is a signal that you don’t work, or work indoors and are therefore middle class. In less developed countries, people still see lighter skin as a marker of higher social class. The fact that the baseline skin colour of the populance is already darker is irrelevant (unless you are a white racist) ,the application of whitening/tanning products is nothing to do with racial politics, but everything to do with class division and aspiration.
    Since the advent of the package holiday and the budget airline, the modern paradox is that 2 weeks on a beach in the costas is much cheaper than a week in the rain on an English campsite, inverting the meaning of a tan and making it a marker of chavdom.

  3. Clarice – do you honestly belive that men are not subject to some idealised standard as well ? Do women find men with greasy unkept hair, 2 weeks of stubble, wearing an old string vest with the remains of their breakfast dribbling down it, and smelling as nature intended remotely attractive ? Because that is our “natural state”.
    I’m not saying women aren’t subject to pressure, but they are more sensitive to negative comparisons with idealised beauty than men are. As an undergrad I did a dissertation on gender representations in the media and based on content analysis of images in a well known womans and a well known mans magazine, there were, and this surprised me, equal numbers of representation of idealised versions of both genders in both magazines. In other words women are fed the idealised, objectified man as much as vice versa.
    The differences in response (the reason why women seem more sensitive to individual shortcomings against the ideal) are due to the construction the viewer attaches to the representation, not the representation itself. Otherwise men would feel equally inadequate when exposed to pictures of Brad Pitt, and the fact is, on the whole, they don’t.

  4. No, Matt, you will notice that I didn’t mention men at all! It’s funny how men so often make the point that you have, when the point they are responding to had nothing to do with men! I’m not saying it’s not a worthy topic, but it just wasn’t one I was addressing. I was talking about women, and not saying anything about men at all!

    I’d be interested in how you operationalised the concept of “idealised images”. 3rd year project was it? I’d love to read it.

    The difference you refer to, I would say, is largely economic, but then what do I know?

  5. I do think it is a case of grass is greener. There is no single idealised image, but many, and the interesting/amusing/utterly insane thing is how often people choose the exact opposite of what they already have. Hence people of Asian origin choosing to whiten their skin even in then UK, where a browner look would be desirable; and hence there being a market for both hair-straighteners, and hair curlers, in the same shop.

    That women should have control/choice over their appearance is of course not in question. I am commenting on the fact that if they always choose to change, and if there is a social sanction for not changing, then it is not really much of a choice at all.

  6. Yeah. Maybe I just don’t find it very amusing or insane. Just sad.

    I really don’t think it is a case of the grass being greener. To apply this metaphor seems to me to be missing the point of the motivations behind women’s cosmeticising, and the kind of societal set-up that we live in. It’s more a case of never being afforded full and equal respect or value, of always feeling somehow judged/criticised/compared/undermined on the basis of one’s physicality/gender
    whatever one’s hair or skin colour.

    I’m not explaining it very well, but the grass-greener metaphor seems to imply that the grass is in fact green everywhere, only the person is too stupid/insane/greedy/vain to notice this.

    In fact, that elusive green (equal status/pay/value/etc) does not exist. It’s more a case that the grass is never green no matter what we do, although our society keeps implying that if only we changed something about our appearance then it would be.

    Being, as a group, constantly (both ambiently and less ambiently) objectified and judged, and punished or rewarded on the basis of one’s attractiveness (implicitly or otherwise) kind of implies that it is one’s appearance that is the problem, that the grass would be green if only you looked different. Which of course is not true, as long as women’s appearance is scrutinised and fetishised, rewarded and punished, and valued above all else. Or as long as women (as a group) continue to care.

  7. I agree about there not being one ideal – some girls strive to be Kate Moss – others want to be J.Lo or Beyonce – how different are they?
    I also agree with the grass is never green enough maybe?

Leave a Reply