Women and girls in the United States, and in many other parts of the world, feel enormous pressure to look good to be both socially and professionally acceptable. Conforming to the beauty culture can require that women undergo and pay for botox injections and cosmetic surgeries on faces, breasts, tummies, buttocks, and thighs to either enhance or reduce the appearance of those body parts, along with expensive makeup, skin cream, and hair coloring to hide grey hair. And, of course, clothes and shoes are not cheap. While men also experience some pressure to attend to their appearance, it is nothing like the pressure on women. Where does this pressure come from? It comes from everywhere—from magazines, television, social media, the workplace, family, and peers.
What Are the Costs?There are several ways to think about the costs of the pressure to conform to the beauty culture:
- Time and money—The most obvious costs are time and money. Mika Brzezinski, in her book, Knowing Your Value, talks about the pressure from both viewers and her employers to maintain an expensive wardrobe as a talk show host. She is expected to spend a significant percentage of her salary, without reimbursement, on clothes, while her co-host, Joe Scarborough, is not expected to do so. She is also required to arrive on set two hours before showtime for hair and makeup preparation. Since their show begins at 6 a.m., another cost for her is sleep, since Scarborough only has to roll in fifteen minutes before showtime to slap on a little face powder. Many women, in all walks of life, feel these same pressures to spend time and money that they may not be able to afford on their appearance.
- Health—Surgery always has risks. My niece, a beautiful young woman in her thirties, decided that she needed liposuction to remove fat from her stomach and thighs to improve her appearance. She got a postsurgical infection that became systemic and almost died. She survived but remains seriously scarred and disfigured. Medical complications can occur from any type of elective cosmetic surgery or treatment, including botox injections.
- Body Shame—Recent studies reported by Renee Engeln in the New York Times found that “fat talk” (public body disparagement, such as posting, “I’m so fat,” on social media) has become, “practically a ritual of womanhood.” One study found that more than 90 percent of college women reported engaging in fat talk even though only 9 percent were actually overweight. Fat talk is linked with body shame, which motivates unhealthy eating choices and, in the extreme, can result in eating disorders. This research also finds that fat talk is contagious. In other words, engaging in it may drag others down into body shame with you.
- Role Modeling—We give conflicting messages to the girls in our lives when we tell them that what matters is what’s in their hearts and minds, while at the same time we are spending a lot of time and money on our appearance. Actions speak louder than words.
What Are Our Choices?There is a lot we don’t control as individuals. We cannot change the airbrushed sexist messages that advertisers bombard us with about how we are supposed to look. We don’t have much hope, as individuals, of changing the often unspoken influence of appearance on hiring and promotion decisions in the workplace. Peer pressure is hard to resist, without a doubt. But you can control your own behavior and make a difference:
- Find support. Having other women and men in your life who are willing to question the cost of participating in the beauty culture can help you make the best choices for yourself.
- Be a role model. What is the message that you want the girls and younger women in your life to receive about being girls and women? How can your choices reinforce that message?
- Stop engaging in fat talk.
- Join a book group. Many reading and discussion circles are forming in workplaces to raise awareness of diversity issues, including gender differences. You can form such a group if one does not exist. Many books and articles are available that you can read together to stimulate discussion.