Selling (The Same Old) Beauty

Beauty is complicated. It has been enslaved by corporate interests; selling is effortless when you target your audience’s self-image. Culture has corrupted beauty into a differentiator. In an alliance made in hell, culture and corporatism have utilized their massive power and resources to create a cycle of mass consumerism and exclusiveness.

To be beautiful is to be “in,” included, etc. To be beautiful, you are required to buy acres of products and services. To stay “in” you must continue buying.

An alliance made in hell.

It is hell. As evidenced by low self-image, depression, and a lack of fulfillment, society has reacted negatively to this cycle.

Nevertheless, advocates still attempt to reform our perceptions of what is beautiful and what it means to be so. Feminists of various stripes and colors have had their way with beauty standards. The body-positivity movement is a well-known example of this. However, the movement has already been co-opted by corporate interests. This is the conundrum faced by beauty reform activists: push for change in a consumer based culture, and you end up having companies like Dove take advantage of women, again.

It is not so much corporate interests co-opting the movement, but the beauty status quo itself. Think about every body-positive campaign you have seen. What is the common denominator? They are all models. They are all beautiful according to society’s standards. Amanda Mull sums it up nicely at Racked:

“An alarming percentage of the public conversation about which bodies our culture values or rejects pivots around models, actresses, and other professionally beautiful people reassuring what they seem to believe is a dubious public that they are, in fact, super hot.”

These conversations are happening with people society has accepted as objectively beautiful. The irony of pop-culture’s discussion of beauty is how beautiful and perfect it is visualized. Crisp and trendy Instagram accounts, ads, and movies. We are not revolutionizing beauty standards. We are merely enlarging the consumer base. Now we can sell soap and trendy dresses to plus size women. Progress!

Some movements try to create a healthy balance between the beauty industry and real beauty. Makeup, jewelry, and trendy clothes are a part of how we personalize ourselves. They are an extension of us. As healthy as this balance may seem it still upholds rigid societal beauty standards. We are judged by our physical outlook. With or without makeup, you are still being judged by how you look against cultural beauty standards. Makeup-no-makeup comparisons strengthen rigid beauty standards. They play the game, changing the rules ever so slightly. To posit a plain version of you up against a “beautified” version without any serious cultural criticism or alternative mindset is dangerous. It is ignorance. Enjoying a well-groomed and stylized self is not bad in itself. It is the perceptions and standards behind it that dictate how healthy it is.

To be unaware of the cultural perceptions and values that have permeated your perspective is to work without results. Advising women to take care of themselves by engaging in emotionally satisfying but substantively flat activities — like finding complementing makeup, or cozying up with a latte and a journal — is to whitewash the problem. You cannot find truth, or anything of substantial value in a description as vapid as beauty. As much as you wish for beauty to be this absolute standard from which you draw self-worth, it is just a collection of subjective cultural biases and values.

A beautiful website, photography, typography, and event dinners will not heal the wound. Positioning materialism — personal style, household goods, and food — as part of this package of your own beauty is to buy into the consumerist lie. Companies make money off you believing that this or that is necessary to make you feel or look beautiful.

Convincing women they are uniquely beautiful, harping on the subject night and day; it reinforces the cultural viewpoint that women must be beautiful. Your style is (has to be) beautiful; let’s not forget your style is not neutral or free of harmful cultural influences and biased perceptions. Your hardships — have to be, in a sick Stockholm syndrome way, beautiful. Your story — has to be beautiful.

Who wants an ugly story? To not see hardship and loss as beauty is to fail to have a beautiful life story. And everyone’s life story is beautiful. Keeping a smile on while your loved one dies of cancer is a sick result of this pervasive cultural parasite.

Beauty should not define who you are. But for these groups aiming to make women feel beautiful in every facet of their lives, it looks like it is the opposite. Every conversation, article, Instagram post, and inspirational interview highlights a little bit of how they see the world: beauty is important, and women have to be beautiful. No matter who you are, or how you look, these beauty reformers claim you are beautiful. They have morphed the definition to include everyone, even the ones who were content on the outside. Even if you are not beautiful according to society’s standards, you still have to play the game thanks to your sisters in Christ. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex, “the feminine body is expected to be flesh, but discreetly so.” A tyranny that enslaves us all is the pinnacle of hell on earth.

Why must women feel beautiful? Every time a woman is doubting her beauty, the answer is always for her to modify what she considers beautiful. Beauty is inside you. Beauty is what lights your soul on fire. Beauty is this light-force emanating from your eyes…or something like that. The response to “I don’t think I’m beautiful” is never “why does it matter?” Heaven forbid we question the expectations society places on women, especially young women. Is beauty beneficial to self-confidence? Is beauty a healthy avenue to self-confidence? Our mass produced and consumed beauty standards — both pervasive and addictive — require a healthy alternative. That alternative should question the power beauty holds over us.

Culturally, beauty represents superiority and advantage. Physical attractiveness benefits you socially and vocationally. It is a form of privilege. To change the representation of beauty is to reduce its power. Beauty matters because social standing matters, an evolution of how beauty played in ancient mating practices. Right now, beauty is an accepted pathway to climb the social caste system. A healthy perception of beauty necessitates the exclusion of social power dynamics, effectively limiting its influence.

Beauty has upheld the notion of woman as flesh. The feminine and masculine body have been utilized to lock women up in a cage of inferiority. Women are fragile, needy, and restricted by their regiments. Men are tough, unrestricted, and simple. This facet of beauty’s power dynamics has segmented beauty as a chiefly feminine act. One that builds on and signifies the inferiority of women. Gendered beauty posits men as the subject, and women as the object.

Christian attempts at reforming beauty standards fail because they continue power dynamics. Women are supposed to be seen as beautiful so as to attract potential husbands, promote a rosy picture of Christian life, and fulfill their duty as the fairer sex. If women are purveyors of love, mercy, civility, delicacy, etc life must reflect that. This is why you see gag-inducing motifs communicating the beauty in life’s troubles and tribulations. The need to make every little aspect of their lives, no matter how depressing and painful an image of beauty. It verges on psychosis. Lessons can be learned through the hard times; we can grow. But do we have to describe them as just another beautiful chapter in our beautiful lives?

The blame partially rests on the mantra “the true, the good, and the beautiful.” A theological and philosophical theory now turned sub-cultural membership card; it reeks of subjective preferences. It is a calling card for the raging storm of vapid inspirational spirituality that has settled over American evangelical Christianity.

Devotionals, prayer journals, pastor authored books, and glorified bloggers posing as mature Christian influencers support and gain from this trend. They position Christianity as this feel-good, heartwarming monstrosity of smiles. Hard times exist. They exist as rain clouds in the aesthetically pleasing perfection that is “life;” they pose no serious harm, only a minor gloomy mood. Should Christians expect to glean any substantial knowledge of their faith and the intricacies of life when the biggest challenge these influencers face are cliché struggles of raising children? Raising children is difficult and world-changing. It reorients your priorities. It should rock your world. To focus on the miniscule issues of child-rearing without addressing any substantial fears, hopes, or behaviors from a critical perspective is to offer up baby-food to an adult. This is especially troubling when you claim to provide a safe space for women to alter their observations and standards. Recommending bubble baths might provide a safe space. However, a safe space with no critical analysis is a recipe for denial and isolation. Sure, five minute breaks scattered throughout a boxing match is nice. Rest before you go back into the pummeling. But is the beating healthy? Maybe you need to leave the match altogether, or question why you are participating in the first place?

Getting beaten to death without a clear picture of why it is worth it is not beautiful. It is insanity.

Couching the ups and downs of life in the language of beauty is inauthentic. Culture is obsessed with shiny objects. Inspirational rambling is shiny; it is easily digestible, skimmed, and felt. You might cry, but they are always tears of happiness and joy. Every cloud has a silver lining, because — you guessed it — life is beautiful. Social media allows anyone to shape their life into this shiny attractive story. We hide the depression, rage, disgust, unknown, and rejection. Mentioning sterilized bad times to highlight the beauty of ups and downs is not a reversal of the trend; it is an insidious version of it. To hide your troubles from others is one thing. To barely mention them in the service of making your life look attractive, is worse.

Is beauty inherently worthless and inauthentic? Of course not. The issue lies in a culture that has fashioned beauty into a weapon of manipulation and regimentation.

The issue is promulgated by faux-women-empowerment groups who offer nothing new. Wrapping up cultural beauty standards in Christianese is to cover up the poison in sugar. Jesus had plenty to say about those who relied on external signifiers to create a positive image of their life.

Beauty standards must be significantly deconstructed and rebuilt before we can safely incorporate them into our mindsets.

“Selling (The Same Old) Beauty” was originally published on Medium