(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe.)
As referenced in my last article about dating and sex, the second wave feminist movement of the 60’s and 70’s is often framed as a “burning bras” movement. The feminists of this time are often not remembered or portrayed as women fighting for the basic rights of economic and bodily autonomy, the women to which we owe Title IX or Roe v. Wade or other wins in the occupational and educational sector. Nope. Often these women are portrayed as the stereotypical “ugly feminist” trope. The throwing away of razors and setting fire to bras is shown as silly, frivolous, and obnoxious. Opponents of women entering into male-dominated spaces and gaining autonomy framed them as ugly back then, and we still do it now. Because only ugly women don’t want to be seen as objects for male desire. Only ugly women don’t want marriage and children to be the only life path available to them.
The era of feminism we are in today has branched off in a different direction. We saw the rejection of beauty standards of women past, and we said, yeah, I agree with you philosophically and all, but I don’t really like when you make me feel bad for wanting to have smooth legs and glittery eyelids. Cognitive dissonance was created by the opposing beliefs that we do not only exist solely for male desire and consumption, but we also want to participate in the behaviors that make us more palatable for the male gaze. How did we remedy this dissonance?
Easy! We said that we weren’t performing beauty or femininity for men. We said we’re doing it for ourselves. We said that wearing tall heels that damage our feet, using skincare products that wreak havoc on our skin health, and getting injections, nips and tucks that alter our body semi-permanently or forever are all a part of our own empowerment.
We don’t do these hours upon hours of bodily labor, pain, and modification for you, we say. We do it for us.
Humans have been wearing makeup, adorning themselves with tattoos, piercings, clothing, jewelry, and other temporary and permanent beautification rituals since… always. We’ve always done these things. You might think I’m headed in the direction where I tell you the women of the 60’s were right and we should go back to burning our bras, but I’m not going to.
I do think that the women of the 60’s were more right about why we shave and wear makeup than women today. I think the whole “plastic surgery is empowering” ethos is grossly misunderstanding the word empowerment, which is not something that can be gained through external means but something that must be found within oneself and our connection to each other. Does that mean women who participate in beauty standards should be ridiculed or shamed? Of course not.
We all participate in social norms and standards; we always have and we always will. Humans are intensely social creatures, and being accepted by our community is a part of our overall health and wellbeing. Humans have historically engaged in body modification and decoration to send important social signals to each other—about one’s role in society, relationship status, gender, religion, or even the respect and reverence we have for each other and our communities. If you show up to a date unshowered and in a wrinkled, dirty T-shirt and gym shorts, then that could be perceived as a sign of disrespect. It might tell your date that you didn’t care enough about her to put effort into your appearance.
Wearing particular clothing and fashioning ourselves in certain ways for others is not inherently good or bad. It’s just what makes us human. I do think we need to be more honest about why we’re doing the things we do, because pretending that getting botox isn’t about the fear of aging, death, and being perceived as ugly and irrelevant, makes it so that we never actually come together as a society to discuss why we treat the elderly so poorly, why we treat aging as a medical problem to be overcome and the antithesis to joy, sexiness, and beauty, or why we’re so focused on staying “ageless” while the world crumbles all around us. When we pretend that we’re cutting parts of ourselves away, smoothing, peeling, accentuating, carving, shaving, and painting ourselves for ourselves, we never have an honest dialogue about increasing rates of body and face dysmorphia, the harmful messaging of the beauty industry, or the ways in which patriarchal capitalism still dictates which features we see as desirable and which we see as ugly. Because our desire for smooth legs does not exist in a vacuum. We now know that the roots of feminine shaving was a marketing tactic by the razor industry to appeal to the untapped 50% of the population who wasn’t shaving yet. The media lent its hand, we’ve all policed each other into submission, and now having natural hair as a femme person is seen as fringe or alternative at best.
It’s easy to hear these things and get defensive. We all want to believe we have free will in all ways, that our choices, preferences, and desires are completely our own. In reality, they’re a complex interplay between our inner world and our social environment. We still have agency. We still have choice. But we will never be free of the pressure and social consequences that come with eschewing norms and rules about our bodies. When we reject beauty standards and decide not to engage in gender normative ways of presenting ourselves, then there will always be something to lose. Sometimes what we lose is our safety. Sometimes it’s our access to jobs and housing. Sometimes it’s simply our desire to be perceived as beautiful, worthy, and youthful. Being a woman who wants to attract men is not bad, and we must stop thinking about these things through such a harsh black-and-white lens.
At the same time, recognizing the ways in which our preferences are influenced by our external environment is an important and noble task. Because our attractiveness is not innate. It’s negotiated. And unfortunately, the people at the forefront of deciding what’s attractive on our behalf have never had our best interests at heart.
I do think that beauty standards should be dismantled. I don’t want my future children to grow up in a world where they feel they must alter or change themselves in order to feel confident and worthy. I don’t want my daughter crying in front of a mirror because she doesn’t look like the women she sees on TV or the Internet—the women who don’t even look like themselves as portrayed on social media. I don’t want my friends and me to reach our 30s and feel like we have to get injections and treatments just to keep up with everyone around us. That’s what we’re headed toward, though. Because when we frame beauty standards as decisions we collaborated and agreed upon, rules that we accept because they empower us, we ignore their insidious roots: the notion that power can and should be purchased in little plastic bottles, that the most important thing about us is our beauty and attractiveness, and that we are not inherently deserving of anything just as we are. We ignore the message that the body is a project that must constantly be maintained and improved, a canvas upon which we must expertly and diligently paint so that our brushstrokes may show our worthiness of not only love, affection, and sex, but also of professional, creative, and social merit.
The body is not a project. The body is a body—a vessel that works tirelessly to keep us alive and in an optimal and balanced health state, no matter how much poke and prod and scream at it to be different. The body will always do what’s best for us, even when we don’t want it to.
We strive and we strive and we strive and we strive. Sometimes we gain something from our efforts, but most of the time we lose.
We cannot ignore the ways we are being spoon-fed narratives about our bodies that reap plentiful economic benefits. We are told a story of lack, of ugliness and unworthiness, and to make ourselves feel better we buy from the very people who sold us that insecurity in the first place. We are cruel to each other when we don’t conform, and we are cruel to each other when we do. “Naturalness” is fetishized up until the point of hairy legs, drooping breasts, and makeup-less skin. Plastic surgery is the object of everyone’s scorn and desire in equal measure. Our standards of beauty have become increasingly digitally and surgically manufactured, just as much fiction as our notion of perfection will always be. The result of all of this is a sharp increase in anxiety, depression, and body dysmorphia, especially among our most vulnerable: our children.
Our children hate themselves. Our children cry when they look in the mirror. Our children dread getting old.
Today I will end with a recent Substack piece by Jessica Defino, whose writing and work dismantling the beauty industry has impacted me tremendously:
Yesterday marked the the 248th mass shooting within the United States in 2022 alone. It is only May. In lieu of a newsletter, I present: a poem comprised of copy-and-pasted subject lines and sentences, each pulled from a different email I received this week — sent by news outlets, by beauty brands, by PR reps angling for press coverage. A snapshot of the times.
our nation mourns the innocent victims of the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas
personally victimized by dead skin and clogged pores.
I’ve had enough.
If only I could
turn back the clock!
reverse skin issues,
19 children and two teachers,
An arsenal of weaponry,
an arsenal of skincare products—
Read those last four lines again.
(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe, like, or leave a comment. This newsletter is currently 100% free, but if you want a way to support me you could always share my posts with your friends or Buy Me a Coffee. Or you could buy my kinky witch books!)