MY EXPERIENCE WITH BEAUTY CONVENTIONS
It’s funny. I’ve never really thought of myself as beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, I like how I look. But beautiful? That’s always reserved for the exotic creatures that I’m blessed to call friends. As for me? Perky or cute might be a more apt description.
Yet I’m often stopped on the street by random strangers who compliment me on my appearance. Frequently these occurrences happen on the days when I am roaming around town in my Buffy the Vampire slayer ripped overalls, no cosmetics, and with windblown hair. I’ve been called everything from beautiful to exotic to “unusually fresh". And it hit me recently, that perhaps it was the smile I wear as my constant accessory more than anything else, which somehow fools the observer that I am much more attractive than I think I am…
How did that old song go? You’re never fully dressed without a smile?
But this evening I’m scrolling and seeing picture after picture of faces that almost seem a caricature of themselves. It’s not that I don’t like the photos (cause I do), nor would I say it’s unattractive. I think much of it is very artistically lovely. But I certainly wouldn’t have captioned it as “I was born this way”. If human appearances were likened to foods, I would definitely consider this the “processed” version. So I’m curious… what does so called “natural beauty” look like today?
Full disclaimer here. While most of me is as nature and genetics provided, it’s not like I don’t alter myself too. Thanks to a white streak in the front of my hair from a car crash at the age of 19, I’ve dyed my tresses a multitude of colors - some not from nature unless I actually do sprout fairy wings one day. Yes, you heard me right. The beautiful pink locks did not spring from my scalp. Nor did the cobalt blue mane that I sported not all that long ago. And once upon a time, my hazel eyes (which do deviate from brown to green depending on my mood) appeared to have gone rogue and turned a light violet over night. A metamorphosis assisted by the decorative contacts I favored during my Gwen Stefani hair color days.
I’ve even gone so far as to try Botox once a few years back when a dear friend thought it would help with headaches. It did, as well as eliminate the line between my eyebrows that comes from me staring at a computer screen for hours. But after consideration I realized lifestyle changes would probably help the headaches (they did), and that I wasn’t so keen on putting poison (have you all looked at what Botox actually is??) knowingly into my body. I’m even okay with getting some lines on my face. (Admitingly I do prefer what I call “crinkles” - smile lines - to wrinkles. So I’m determined to live the healthiest happiest life possible.)
I also love playing with makeup, getting my nails done, have a few piercings that I adore, and am all for adjusting my body by eating healthy and regular exercise. I’ll happily wear clothes to highlight my best features. I don’t have any ink currently, but a tattoo might be in my future. And yes (gasp) I do use filters on social media platforms occasionally. It’s usually the ones that smooth my skin (as I can’t get pretty lighting all the time) as opposed to the ones that remake my entire appearance. But that’s a personal preference. I’m not opposed to filters on principle. In short, I’m not adverse to the way, we all as a people, seem to want to alter our appearance to be the most pleasing versions of ourselves.
WE WERE NOT BORN THIS WAY
This desire to remold our appearance from our “born this way”look isn’t a new phenomenon. Body enhancements - including the dangerous ones - have a long history with the evolution of humans. Face powder used to contain real lead. And both men and women died from using it. We’ve corseted ourselves to the point of not being able to breath. Girls’ feet were bound so they would remain small - a process involving breaking all the toes except the big one. And although not usually thought about as an appearance matter, genital mutilation on both men and women, whether done for cultural, religious, status, or control, does indeed alter the body from it’s original state.
Even on the lesser of dangerous human remodeling techniques, there is still a possibility for damage to our bodies. Scarification still remains a popular artistic expression, even though the process requires intentional trauma to the skin. Tattoos, which have a long history in human culture, come with risk of infection or allergic reaction. Earlobe stretching continues to go in and out of fashion - with it’s roots tracing to Africa - and may result in the earlobe skin detaching and hanging from one’s head. Let’s not forget tanning - exposing yourself to cancer causing UV rays in a machine, or dying the skin with chemicals as a “safer” alternative. Nor ignore the tooth adornment that resurfaces periodically as trendy. A style often to the detriment of the actual hard, bony enamel-coated structures themselves - resulting in more unnecessary surgery to later remove the decoration. In truth, none of this is new. Plastic surgery itself has a documented history stretching to at least 800 BCE from as far away as India.
IT's NOT A WOMEN'S ISSUE
Lest we let any gender off the hook and claim it is women “faking” our appearance and driving the craze for assisted metamorphosis, I did a little investigating into what self identified men are out there doing. The Robb Report list of the 13 most popular surgeries for men in 2022 included liposuction, chest reductions, swag procedure (to increase the girth of their penis - yep I had to look this one up too), tummy tucks, and nose jobs.(*1) And despite the known dangers of steroid use - both physiological and psychological, it’s still a go to drug for the male population wanting to have a more muscle forward physique. Let’s not forget that men dye their hair too, nor that hair restoration is a multibillion dollar industry still today. And over 85% of hair transplants are done on men, not women.(*2)
The truth is all gender identities are susceptible to the pressures of society to look whatever way is considered desirable, acceptable, and pleasing. But who sets the ideals anyway? And when we each decide to change our appearance - especially the more drastic ones - what are the reasons we are doing it? It’s easy to judge others who may or may not appeal to your individual preference, but have you considered where YOUR preference came from?
WHAT IS OUR "WHY"?
Is the driving motivator to continually alter our original form, innate? Or is there a deeper, and sometimes darker causation, driving the urge to transform our bodies in some way. For the first time in history, we as a species are under pressure to create a curated life viewable by complete strangers, who live anywhere and everywhere, as well as have the ability to comment or judge in writing as they wish. So is the WHY that we look the way we do driven by our particular preferences, or by something sinister?
Bradley University’s Body Project (*3) notes that reasons for changing our bodies are often cultural:
To fit in to the current beauty standards
To show we are a part of some type of group
To indicate we are of a social status or class
To demonstrate our personal qualities or accomplishments
And while I agree with these possibilities, I am also not sure if we even know what cultural standards we each individually identify with in the modern era. Prior to being connected via our phones, tablets, and laptops, our communities were defined by where we lived, who we interacted with in person, or perhaps what groups we associated with thru religions, hobbies, work, or families.
Now our lives are bombarded with so much marketing, that we can’t tell what is pure entertainment, actual news, OR an advertisement. (And so often there isn’t a distinction anymore.) A 2017 Forbes article (*4) stated that the average person is exposed to between 4,000 to 10,000 ads per day, and that was six years ago! The number is most likely double that now.
So what does this mean for our bodies, for our appearances, and even more so, our innate sense of self worth? Can we trust that decisions to enhance, modify, adorn, change, or adapt our bodies, exhibits what we as individuals truly want to do? Or has society convinced us to be in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction with our appearance so that we constantly - and occasionally willfully - inflict severe harm onto our bodies.
THE REAL COST OF BEAUTY
We haven’t even begun to talk about the cost of this manufactured beauty. Botox averages between $250-$600 a session - generally done 3xs a year. Breast augmentation costs vary wildly, but a range of $5,000 to $15,000 is a reasonable assumption depending on the city/country of the surgery. Tattoos, makeup, hair, colored contacts, are all billon dollar industries. With unemployment rates projected to rise throughout 2023, and even the highest minimum wage earners barely making enough to pay rent each month, can we afford the luxury of beauty? Is it actually making us FEEL beautiful?
And what about the mental and emotional costs. One could argue that the health industry has capitalized on toxic projections of beauty by encouraging people to unrealistic standards unattainable by diet and exercise alone. And this has led to some major mental health issues.
A project that the Dove company did, in conjunction with Harvard University, discovered that the economic burden of dissatisfaction with one’s appearance has led to a multibillion dollar public health crisis.(*5) We are literally hating on ourselves every time we stare at our reflection. And that’s AFTER some type of modification -whether superficial or more permanent - has been made to make ourselves FEEL more accepted and acceptable.
Would we be able to look in the mirror and like what we see if we were to strip back down to our barest selves? Do we even know what we look like au natural?
And there’s the rub…I cannot tell if the captions on social media now are ironic, whimsical, or whether the authors themselves believe the truth of the statement. What is “real” anymore?
Would we like it if we knew?
REFLECTION ON OUR REFLECTIONS
In the continued spirit of transparency, I’ll admit it hurts sometimes to look in the mirror. Although I like the reflection staring back, I also find myself a bit critical too. But I wonder if the words I’m hearing in my head are my original thoughts, or the reiterations of advertisements within our society.
I start to pick apart my my image like I’m evaluating it for a contest. Are my teeth white enough? My skin bright enough? My haircut on trend? My clothing showing that I DO care about my appearance? And what does that even mean anyway? If I think I look nice, and feel good in my things, but I don’t look like the mannequins in the stores, models on the runway, ads on social media, am I still relevant?
I’m sad to have these thoughts when I realize that I am spiraling down into a manic mode of depression. Because there are so many better questions I could be asking the girl in the mirror. Like how are you feeling? Do you need more rest? Have you gotten fresh air and sunshine today? Do you need a hug? Or do you need quiet time and not to be touched? When was the last time you did something creative? Are you feeling fulfilled in your life?
Perhaps just as important, does what I see looking back at me, reflect how I feel or who I am inside?
So how do we resolve this dilemma? How can we support a healthy creative approach to our appearance which allows for adornment, improvement, and modification WITHOUT encouraging harm, body dysmorphia, and mental suffering?
MIRROR MIRROR ON THE WALL
I don’t know that I have the solution, but I do know that two things have helped me greatly. One, self honesty is key. I know I like to use filters, cosmetics, piercings, etc, but I don’t try to delude myself into thinking that I showed up on earth this way. I consciously acknowledge that this is a creative expression of who I am. And before I effect a change I ask myself to first contemplate on the reason. Am I doing it to appease a lack of self worth? Have I felt pressured in any way? Or do I genuinely like this alteration because it appeals to my personal sense of beauty and style? (An aesthetic which I understand will inevitably shift over time.)
Two, I really have worked on my own sense of self regard. Several years ago I started the “I Love You” project with some of my yoga patrons while in Costa Rica. The challenge was - in the privacy of your home - to strip down to your skivvies, or be totally naked, and look at yourself in the mirror and say “I LOVE YOU” to what you SAW in the reflection. It sounds simple enough, but a lot of people (myself included) had a hard time with the project. See we don’t look at ourselves a whole lot. We might take a cursory glance to check an outfit, our teeth, look at an aspect of our face while putting on makeup. But view the whole package as it is with no special lighting, no clothing coverups, and to say “I love you” without caveats? Now that’s a challenge.
But if we can’t learn to do that, will our own self image be so distorted that, like the captions noted in the beginning, we won’t know or appreciate what we really look like anymore?
I have a secret hope that, like all fashion trends, this one in which we start to look like caricatures of ourselves will one day go away. (Otherwise we may end up in a world in which Effie Trinket - of Hunger Game fame - is the LEAST reworked version of a human among us.) And I truly wish that one day we can learn to love the actual image looking back. After all, when you say “mirror mirror on the wall” the answer DESERVES to be that YOU - as you are at any moment - IS truly the fairest of them all.
Have something to say? Feel free to comment below. Want to support Tink's writings? Click the Cashapp link here to become a patron of her work!
Tink, world traveler, positivity muse, and adult entertainer, has also freelance written for a number of companies as their ghostwriter. Now talking directly to YOU on this platform, she is also writing two books at her community's request.