a way to keep women in their place

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<p><figcaption class=Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

It’s a pretty mixed message. As soon as a new woman gives birth to the beauty trend, we get in line to make fun of those stupid enough to follow her. You may have heard of the new craze for buccal fat removal, where a surgeon removes a lump from your cheek to give you sharper cheekbones. Chrissy Teigen is the only celebrity known to have “accepted” the procedure, but there is already widespread ridicule about famous women with dimpled cheeks to raise our suspicions. Yes, you heard me. Buccal liposuction inside. But also too much.

This push and pull is familiar. Big boobs were once in vogue, but there was a natural tendency to disparage women who go and get breasts, as well as women who are naturally (giggled) “bestowed”. (Who can take them seriously? Certainly not Michael Parkinson, who famously asked Helen Mirren if her “equipment” made her a “non-serious actress.”) In Hollywood, facelifts are still in demand from older actresses. but watch out for the “unsafe victims” who make them do it. Magazines expressively say, “She looks pretty fresh-faced,” or perhaps sends a more direct message: “What did she do to her face?” They don’t tend to dwell on the howling absence in the Hollywood series: old women who didn’t do anything to their faces.

Now, lip implants are in vogue among young Instagram stars, but they’re also seen as somehow immoral and low-status – those who get their fillers off and post videos about “self-esteem” are highly praised. Girls who get fillers look trendy but also run the risk of appearing insecure – the online beauty culture now assumes that someone with no “inner confidence” should be. Win the beauty contest and lose another one.

What is true for star candidates is also true for ordinary women. Male attractiveness is always completely aligned with respect and power – the “sexiest men” rankings often make suit-clad candidates look like they’re heading to a corner office. But women have to choose. Seductive make-up, tight-fitting clothes, décolleté – all ways to increase a woman’s attractiveness – are also things that won’t reach her on a second job interview. Fire or respect? Beauty culture is clear on this: women can’t have both.

Yes, women can’t win. The phrase is almost soothing in its familiarity, so much so that we can forget to ask “but why can’t women win?” After all, what is stopping a culture of female beauty that is compatible with respect and power as well as the male version? What is beauty culture for anyway?

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that female insecurity is an end goal, not a side effect of beauty culture.

Well, the narrative goes, there’s an element of biological inevitability. Men are “molded” to value the beauty of women as a sign of health and fertility, and this is why societies place such a high value on female beauty. But if that’s really true, why would the ideal woman look so different from year to year? Over the last three decades in the UK, the famous beauty has gone from wildly thin to sultry, from big-breasted to small-mouthed to big-lipped. It looks like it was just yesterday when the bottoms came out (“does my butt look big in that?” women would ask in the 2000s). They’re too much now.

Not to mention that female beauty standards differ across cultures. In Mauritania, young girls are brutally force-fed on a 16,000-calorie-a-day diet to be obese enough to marry, but what makes girls beautiful in Mauritania makes them ugly in many other cultures. A rather tight lower lip in Ethiopia denotes female beauty. Not elsewhere. In contrast, male beauty ideals are relatively consistent across cultures and time periods: youthful, fit, muscular.

All of these trends in female beauty cannot be related to fertility and health, otherwise wouldn’t all nations prefer roughly the same robust type, a woman who looks strong enough to bear 10 children? And where would the “size zero” culture, which has had the effect of stopping menstruation in some women, fit? What does the ancient Chinese beauty practice of foot binding have to do with fertility? Could the culture of beauty – injured, hungry and anxious women – actually be about something else entirely?

On the whole, beauty culture starts to look like nothing more than harassment. He asks women to harm themselves for their own pleasure, then changes his mind – he wants women to harm themselves differently. He wants women to appear a certain way, then mocks them for trying so hard to please them. He wants impossible things. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that female insecurity is actually an end goal and not an unfortunate side-effect of beauty culture. Perhaps it is much easier to push around hungry, anxious, and humiliated women.

That was Naomi Wolf’s claim. Beauty LegendHe had his flaws, but he was right. There are impossible standards to wear out women both physically and psychologically, making them easy to control. Women can’t win because that’s the point.

● Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobbyist.

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