I’m waiting for my Starbucks order, carpooling back from a weekend wine tasting in Santa Maria County for a friend’s birthday. One of my friends sends me a New York Times Magazine article, “The Beauty of 78.5 Million Followers,” shooting dopamine through my slackened neural pathways as I scroll Instagram in the coffee shop. I click, swish, grab my coffee, and read in the back seat of the car:
When Naomi Wolf wrote “The Beauty Myth” more than three decades ago, she chastened the industry for pushing an unrealistic standard of beauty that prevented women from reaching their full potential, much as ideals of domesticity, motherhood and chastity once did. She compared the process of making yourself conventionally attractive to a work shift, or the “third shift” (the other shifts being your professional life and care of the household). But in our new virtual society, the same beauty industry that was once maligned has been embraced as a universal good.
A universal good? Our sunny drive down the Pacific Coast Highway is tainted as I think of Maggie Gyllenhall being turned down for a role at thirty-seven because she was “too old” to play the love interest for a fifty-five-year-old man, or Jennifer Lawrence being asked to lose fifteen pounds in two weeks to prepare for her role in The Hunger Games, or that Victoria’s Secret didn’t show a single plus-size model until 2019. Our new virtual society? Surely not every woman plugged into the Internet is “realizing their full potential” by watching YouTube to learn which parts of their face to contour and highlight as they waist-train in the bathroom.
In Pursuit of “Wellness”
The discordance between the reality of the beauty myth and the treatment of the beauty industry in this article increases when you realize that Vanessa Grigoriadis, the author, references The Beauty Myth in that same paragraph. For context, Naomi Wolf published The Beauty Myth in 1990, at which point the cosmetic industry generated about $4 billion in profit each year. (In 2019, beauty and personal care spending accounted for $92.8 billion in profit worldwide, setting unprecedented growth records for nearly any modern industry.) Wolf published this book as a follow-up to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which is largely credited with launching second-wave feminism. She argues that by the 1980s, after women gained greater social prominence and entrance into the workforce, the limitations once placed upon them socially were transferred onto their bodies, leading to an unhealthy preoccupation with appearances designed to compromise women’s ability to be fully effective members of society. But by the end of the article, I’m not convinced Grigoriadis read this book. Because her writing, ironically, falls into many of the traps Wolf forewarned thirty years ago.
The article covers the rise of TikTok star Addison Rae and spends most of its word count detailing how her popularity has come out of new developments in the beauty industry (mainly, companies’ reliance on partnerships with social media stars to sell products). Despite clocking over seven thousand words, the article seems wary to provide critical analysis of the beauty industry today or close-read anything it touches upon. At one point, Grigoriadis expresses concern over the industry’s potential duplicity, saying that it “seems to be counting on everyone’s agreeing that beauty culture is solely empowering.” Still, she takes this observation nowhere, revealing her trepidation to provide a true criticism of the beauty myth.
She details the breadth of the personal care industry, but rather than consider the root of our beauty obsession—or how narrow our understanding of self-care is, how foolish it is to dump so much of one’s income into appearances, how short the gratification of online shopping—this self-care editorialist engages only in a surface-level discussion. Yet in dangling an observation of the industry’s manipulation of its consumers, her article is no longer a “neutral” study of TikTok’s part in the beauty industry. And her flighty analysis is frankly . . . confusing. She has no thesis for readers to latch onto.
Gridoriadis lauds the rise of beauty as a way to give women tools of self-expression and celebrate human desire to adorn the face. And then: “Applying cosmetics is a worthy lifestyle choice characterized as self-love, self-care and wellness—all positive, healthful qualities, even if you have the sneaking suspicion that ‘wellness’ is mostly a coded word for the pursuit of being skinny and pretty, or tamping down anxiety about not being skinny and pretty.” She ends the paragraph there. No analysis. Is The New York Times Magazine endorsing beauty’s appropriation of wellness? Is she saying that our sneaking suspicions about something more sinister driving the beauty industry are just that—unproven suspicions?
The article’s treatment of the beauty industry as promoting a “worthy lifestyle” represents one of the most terrifying outcomes of all, and one that Wolf predicted back in 1990: that despite knowing the dangers and the falsity of the myth, women would continue to buy into it anyway, justifying their makeup, their dieting, their personas, their manicures, their facials, and their serums by treating their presence as a neutral yet necessary part of life. It is, as Wolf says, a survival skill in response to the rising social pressures to engage in the industry.
The Beautiful Body Book, a popular 1980s book that discussed surgical procedures, detailed breast reduction surgery and “repositioning” surgery for women interested in these procedures. Wolf is critical of the supposedly neutral stance of the book, lamenting that though these procedures can permanently kill the erotic response of the nipple, the author diminishes this side-effect to say that “many women with oversized breasts to have little or no feeling in the nipple area anyway.” Women have been taught for decades to dismiss the negative impacts of surgery, that their benefits far outweigh the risks. And with rising rates of cosmetic surgery each year, it’s clear that this apathy has taken hold of our collective consciousness.
Beauty in the Age of Screentime
Some of the most popular beauty accounts on TikTok are fourteen-year-olds in their parents’ basement, as Gridoriadis acknowledges. And women have not stopped undergoing cosmetic surgery, despite knowing their gruesome procedures and side effects. But rather than question what created the circumstances for an industry to grow twenty-three times in thirty years, Gridoriadis thinks she’s being clever when she surmises that we may be “among the first people in history to be both in the midst of a global pandemic and also obliged to project an attractive image of ourselves to the outside world.” She lacks any critical standpoint on the beauty myth today, instead accepting it for what it is and painting her face with makeup before every Zoom call.
But as Wolf said, our obsession with women’s appearances is an ideology that restricts female sexuality to “beauty.” But I don’t blame Addison Rae or any other social media stars or A-list celebrities for their perpetuation of the myth. I don’t resent their ten-second TikTok dances, their makeup routines, or the money they spend on keeping up appearances (which, we must surmise, is far higher than the American woman’s average of $313 a month). It would be reductive to blame them for perpetuating these standards because they are only victims of the myth’s pressure.
Think of Bill Burr’s stand-up: “Would you rather be forty-five and look forty-five, or be forty-five and look like a twenty-eight-year-old lizard?” Or former Love Island star Megan Barton-Hanson receiving death threats for looking “fake and plastic” after receiving seven cosmetic procedures to get on the U.K.’s most popular reality show. Or even my friend, who got a nose job and permanently straightened her hair in middle school after being bullied for looking “too Jewish” (her critics then pivoted and said she looked “too manly”). These criticisms vilify women for getting the exact procedures they are expected to receive, since “beauty” has such a narrow definition and certainly does not include aging. They do not acknowledge that beauty standards stem from the media or from a profit system that depends on women literally buying into the beauty myth. The solution does not lie in shaming fourteen-year-olds for engaging in the exact culture they’ve been trained to revere.
In her New York Times interview, Rae says she’s living every girl’s dream by coming to Hollywood and making it as a beauty mogul. She’s proud of her ability to cover up a breakout with foundation, believes makeup is another form of art, and says everyone should work on enhancing their features with makeup. Though Rae wants to promote her work as body-positive, she also won’t eat for hours before filming TikToks in an effort to look slimmer. She acknowledges that she’s “figuring out” how to square her promotion of beauty as self-love with her simultaneous self-hate. The answer to her catch-22 was, of course, answered by Wolf thirty years ago: while women need youth and beauty to enter the same soundstage as men (think of news anchors), the qualifications of beauty turn them into clones. Once a woman gets her audience, she learns that what is generic is replaceable. She is made to feel her qualities are not unique, not special to her. But without them, she would be invisible. She would never have gained seventy-eight million followers.
But Rae turns this insecurity into relatability. As Gridoriadis points out, Rae’s true innovation lies in making it clear that she has problems with beauty culture, “but you might as well join her and experience it all alongside her, the highs of achieving a beautiful look, the lows of feeling that you never measure up.” Instead of acknowledging that engaging in the beauty myth does nothing to help our self-esteem, Rae invites us to fall into its trap with her. After all, she launched ITEM BEAUTY in August 2020, a clean beauty line she created in partnership with Madeby Collective. Doesn’t she have a stake in the myth’s continued existence as well? Even Wolf didn’t predict this rebranding of insecurity into relatability.
A Lifelong Blessing/A Lifelong Curse
The industry will only grow if we continue to put our spending power towards it, if we believe it when celebrities like Jessica Alba make a video on their day-to-night beauty routine and tell us that it’s essential to “take the time to take care of ourselves,” as though we’re not doing so if we don’t have a twelve-step skincare routine that changes morning and night, or don’t know how to apply a smokey eye, or don’t make sure to double-cleanse after a day of heavy makeup, or don’t ensure we’re double-masking for the different needs of our t-zone and our cheeks and temples. The beauty industry, after all, relies on our belief that we live in a default state of “unwell” that can only be cured with their products.
And while women are expected to become skincare experts to keep up these rigorous rituals, the industry also depends on our lack of knowledge of what goes into products. “Do people really want to know this?” Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist, asked Gridoriadis when he admitted that the biggest difference between CoverGirl and Chanel comes down to packaging and marketing.
The article lauds companies for becoming more inclusive with their models, which certainly widens the beauty ideal, but the solution to this problem doesn’t seem to end with representation. Because it can’t—if companies were to celebrate all bodies as beautiful, there would be no industry. There must still be barriers to beauty for them to sell products. Creams for under-eye circles, concealer for acne, lip fillers, cellulite removal cream—they all imply certain standards for beauty. And anyway, if there’s anything to be learned from history, it’s that once we have more representation in the industry, the “ideal” only shifts.
We are conceding our unprecedented freedom in our bodies—the right to sexual freedom, to play competitive sports, to relish a lifespan that has doubled since the Victorian era, modern medicine that treats breast and ovarian cancer—by opting into surgery, filters, fillers, diets, and makeup in our collective effort to become beautiful. Or, as Wolf puts it: “the Age of Surgery undoes her immense good fortune. It breaks down into defective components the gift of her sentient, vital body and the individuality of her face, teaching her to experience her lifelong blessing as a lifelong curse.” We must relish the freedom our bodies afford us and not punish ourselves for not living up to beauty ideals that are, after all, inhuman. Today, as in the 1980s, self-proclaimed beauty obsessives hanker after an image of woman that has been developed with an inhuman model in mind. Our activities in pursuit of beauty have extended beyond the realm of physical upkeep and into physical redesign. Women may be expected to have large lips and a tiny nose or be skinny with large breasts, but these features rarely come together. Women were not made that way.
Trading Bathroom Powder for Spending Power
The messaging around beauty has gotten better since the 80s (not so chauvinistic), but the products and the goals have stayed the same: to keep women looking young, to keep them in a narrow definition of beautiful. Is the beauty myth better if its products are sold alongside mental-health awareness campaigns? Are we not ignoring the root issue? Gridoriadis seems to verge on a breakthrough towards the end of the article, saying that, like Rae, perhaps the more her fans rely on the products she promotes to feel beautiful, the more they depend on them to continue to feel beautiful. But then the article ends altogether. Our first glimpse into a critical understanding of the beauty industry, and it’s as though the author malfunctioned once she finally pulled back the curtain to discover the truth about the beauty industry—that it is run by mere mortals pretending to be something they’re not.
I emerge from my reading, still in my friend’s car. I’d almost forgotten where I was. Through newly disaffected eyes, the memories of the weekend take on a distinctly unflattering hue. Flooding the bathroom counter with makeup bags, sharing hair straighteners, trading concealer techniques, asking for advice on what to wear, coordinating outfits before the tasting . . . we were all so entrenched in the myth as we dressed in our bourgeois uniforms and arrived perfectly groomed for a weekend trip. I was ashamed to realize that I, too, don’t usually go outside without something on my brows or skin. Why do I put this powder on my face? Why did I feel a need to paint my nails for the first time in two years for this trip? As we return to a crowded social calendar, we’re in a unique position to change our relationship to beauty: we could refuse to opt back into the myth. At this point, I want to demand that we pull the car over so I can rip out our makeup bags, straighteners, conditioners, and bar soaps and throw them off the side of the cliff and into the Pacific Ocean. But of course, I do not.
Instead, I sit in the backseat quietly, making no mention of my reading as “Peaches” plays for the fourth time that weekend. I stare out the window, keeping these thoughts to myself, which nonetheless form tiny roots inside me, branching out to form a complex web that grows thicker until they are part of me, and then an extension of me, and cannot be forgotten or taken back. This global mass shut-in showed us that we can make demands not just of representation, but an upheaval of the whole system by not engaging in it monetarily. It pulled us out of the bathroom mirror, giving us a unique opportunity to end the limitations placed upon our bodies. As we look towards a “normal” summer outside or prepare our faces before each Zoom call, we can continue to divest our time and money from beauty. Because for the beauty and personal care industry, for TikTok, for influencers, and consumers alike, the beauty myth requires dedication, and most importantly, it requires belief.
BRIANNA DI MONDA received her B.A. in French and comparative literature from Oberlin College. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in The Summerset Review, Cleveland Review of Books, Thin Air, 25YL, and Flaunt Magazine, among others. She was nominated for the 2021 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.