Trading in the beauty economy

Society may baffle at the high cost and time commitment of women’s beauty products and services, but these are the standards that society sets: the expectation of hairlessness other than that which grows on our heads and around our eyes, four different types of skin scream for daily use and the mystery of contouring, just to name a few. Women are rewarded for trading in the beauty economy that charges us more for services and insist we look more than merely presentable at all times. If we don’t subscribe to this high cost, we’re overlooked, told to wear more makeup or take better care of ourselves. “How can you expect someone to love you when you don’t take care of yourself?” is a comment on this Facebook post about misogynist microaggressions.

Let’s not forget the other side of the coin that is critical of women who wear what is deemed to be “too much” makeup or appear too styled. Amy Schumer skewers these “you’re beautiful without makeup but actually maybe just put some concealer on?” mansplanations in her “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful”-esque Inside Amy Schumer sketch. Meanwhile, Janet Mock defends high-femme black feminists, particularly Beyoncé, against bell hooks’ comments that their appearance negates their credibility. These seemingly frivolous aspects of femininity point towards and simultaneously distract from the larger inequalities facing women at every turn.

Women of colour, queer women, older women, trans women, non-­able bodied women, poor women and other minorities have to go to much greater lengths than I—a white, middle class, cis, het, able bodied, conventionally attractive woman in her mid-twenties—to get a semblance of the recognition I have. (Mock has some further insights on the lengths women of colour have to go to trade in the beauty economy in her book Redefining Realness, while Laverne Cox and bell hooks pre-empt her takedown of Beyoncé’s LEMONADE when they talk about “fakeness”, presentation and black women in their conversation at The New School)

Unlike Beyoncé, I certainly didn’t wake up like this and my hair and makeup routine are more involved than most other women I know, but if I didn’t subscribe to these rigid guidelines on how to be a woman I would have to struggle that much harder for power and attention. For example, I’ve been told that certain men wouldn’t give me the time of day if I wasn’t attractive. Still other men (and people in general) ignore me when I’m dressed down but pay attention when I’m actively performing my femininity with certain clothes, makeup and hair. (Street harassment doesn’t fall into this category as I’ve been catcalled and followed in both track pants and tight clothes; with no makeup and plenty of it. I also know women who might not be deemed conventionally attractive who experience street harassment just as often, if not more.)

The phrase “pay attention” is interesting, indicating that there’s an economic relationship between men and women which is obvious in the perhaps outdated notion that men pay for dates and lavish women with flowers, chocolates and jewellery. What do many women do (or are told they should do) to qualify for the mainstream dating scene? Shave, wax, pluck, exfoliate, moisturise, brush, spray, style, polish, straighten, lengthen, define, bronze, contour and whatever other adjectives you can think of. So men may “pay” attention and money for dinner and a movie, but women end up forking out a lot more to be “worthy” of it.

I used to work in television, a role which I largely (and reluctantly) inhabited because of the way I look. I worried more about what I ate, how often I was visiting the gym and the clothes I bought as, being a community TV gig, I had to provide my own. Though my role involved a large amount of mentally taxing behind the scenes work, including writing my own lines, researching the storylines and being involved in production meetings, I knew my primary value to the show was physical and I wasn’t sure how to change that perception. As a female viewer myself, I’m hyper aware of TV’s tendency to make its audience feel like shit and, as one of the only women on the show, I knew how important it was to be visible.

But even if all my trimmings didn’t explicitly result in visibility from society I would still probably play up my femininity because I enjoy it. The beauty economy may be yet another way the patriarchy ensures women are tied up in frivolities instead of living up to their fullest potential (the very fact that I’ve spent my brain power writing this article could be held up as an example of that by those more cynical than I). As one of the primary ways we are given power, attention and value, we should be able to choose to participate in it if we so desire. As we continue to call it by its name we may have a chance at dismantling it from within ourselves and society at large.

Image: Alysa Bejenaru

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ScarlettHarrisScarlett Harris is a freelance writer and blogger at The Scarlett Woman where she muses about femin- and other -isms. You can follow her on Twitter at @ScarlettEHarris.

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