I was at Target yesterday when I was reminded of my issues with the cosmetic industry. Looking for just one tube of lipstick for our Halloween costumes, my friend and I struggled to navigate the numerous rows of the “Beauty” section. Every row (there were six of them, I believe) was a blinding white and filled with exorbitantly priced beauty products. The cheapest lipstick we could find was five dollars. The most expensive was eighteen. EIGHTEEN. For lipstick. Quickly we made our way out of the store with our single tube of lipstick, astonished by what we had seen.
Maybe for frequent make-up shoppers the scene wasn’t so shocking. But as someone who more or less does not wear make-up (save mascara now and then), I was truly appalled by the variety of products that women supposedly “need” to be beautiful. By the way, there is no male beauty section. Men’s toiletries include shampoo, soap, shaving tools, and deodorant. Maybe some aftershave, but that’s about it. Women on the other hand, need these things and more. Make-up. Wrinkle cream. Moisturizer. Tweezers. Waxing. Hair dye. Exfoliating face wash. Morning face wash and evening face wash. Acne face wash and gentle face wash. The list goes on and on…
So here’s the problem: academics calls it the feminine beauty ideal. Women are bombarded with advertisements insisting that they need these products to succeed. This cream will erase your wrinkles and instantly improve your quality of life! Because if you’re pretty, then you are doing femininity correctly. You are a real woman. And real women wear make-up and wax their bikini lines and shave every day. Females are held to this beauty ideal through mass media images and social interactions with other women. This teaches us that our most valuable asset is our appearance, and therefore we should dedicate a significant chunk of our time towards attaining the ideal. This is where it gets sinister…because we are encouraged to spend so much time on our appearance, we are implicitly being discouraged from pursuing other activities, activities that value our skills and intelligence. I’m not saying there is some grand conspiracy going on, but the more that women are encouraged to spend their time buying cosmetics, applying cosmetics, and obsessing over their appearance, the less productive they are going to be in the working world. It’s a way to keep women out of the male sphere – meaning high-profile occupations.
Personally, I just don’t have the time to obsess over my appearance. I don’t brush my hair and I usually wear no make-up at all. I feel that my time can be better spent. It’s not that I am in adamant opposition of make-up, it’s just that I don’t like to see my best friends, who are beautiful people, dependent on cosmetic products. Not only do they spend extensive amounts of time putting their faces on, but they feel that they are not beautiful unless they take these measures. This is where the problem arises. Women are told constantly that we need to improve ourselves. Our hair is not shiny enough, our skin is not smooth enough, our eyelashes too short. And so we work towards an ideal that is essentially unattainable unless you are a photoshopped magazine model.
Which brings me to my most recent purchase: an issue of Cosmopolitan. Don’t judge me – I didn’t buy it for my own personal reading pleasure. I’m planning to use the images for a gender workbook that I’m working on in my sociology class. However, it contains some very intriguing stuff. Probably 5o percent of the magazine is ads, the majority of which are cosmetic ads (surprise surprise!). While I will admit that the magazine does have some parts of substance (an article on women and politics), the primary message that is being transmitted is the importance of beauty and the steps we should take to reach it. The prevalence of this message in advertising cannot be denied – and it is clear that men are not targeted in the same way.
We have got to start valuing women for their intellectual strengths and abilities and stop pressuring them with the feminine beauty ideal. Especially young girls, who are particularly susceptible to media portrayals of women. This is a serious issue, although people will say that it’s no big deal. Girls are wearing make-up more frequently and at younger ages and they are being sexualized rather than taught to value their internal strengths. I refuse to ignore this issue, and I hope that you will too.