I admit, when I first heard about this programme on channel 4 I was sceptical; We are thrown so many ‘freak show’ programmes where the main aim seems to be ‘point and stare’ and then congratulate ourselves on being relatively normal that I expected this one to be pretty much the same and my preconceptions put me off massively. Channel 4 states that ‘this series investigates the extremes of discrimination by bringing together two people often defined by the way they look: one has a facial disfigurement, the other an intense preoccupation with their appearance

I don’t want to do a review on the programme; plenty of other people have done that, and better than I could. What I am concerned about though are the issues raised in it. Leo was very spot on when he said that the beauty industry was a ‘beast’ who survived by preying on vulnerable individuals. The global cosmetics industry is worth £6.2 billion a year; there is a ‘solution’ for every ‘problem’ we could possibly ever have out there and that terrifies me. Every day we are subliminally fed this message through the media that we need to be perfect, that we need to fix ourselves, that we are lazy if we don’t and that we are wrong if we won’t comply or choose to subvert traditional notions of beauty. Those that do conform are celebrated and those that don’t become ‘other.’ Actually, it is more than just subliminal messaging; forget newspaper articles tinged with hidden meanings when they discuss a celebs appearance or adverts that promise cures to problems we didn’t know mattered – most of the time we are full on smacked in the face with this idea that we need to be better than we are: Make up that promises to make us glow, highlight our features and minimise the bad bits – when did pores become bad by the way? when did it become a crime to blush or have dry skin or be pale or to have eyelashes that didn’t skim our fucking knees when we blinked? We have beauty products that promise to polish, buff, refine, smooth, cover up and soften. We have magazines full of tips on how to look like a more glossy, shiny, thinner, tanned and toned version of ourself and my question is what the hell is wrong is wrong with us in the first place?

If Beauty and the Beast does anything, please let it show the world how fucked up this whole system is. Most beauty products are full of ingredients most of us can’t even pronounce and those that can, the people that create them, are laughing all the way to the bank. In sociology  we look at the idea of society creating ‘false needs’ in order to keep people occupied and obsessed with material gain, thus forgetting the real issues of inequality and error around us; the beauty industry is a massive example of this. Everywhere we look, we are told how we should be. When a newspaper criticises a star for ‘letting herself go’ because she isn’t decked out in full war paint; when they then tear a girl apart for wearing too much make up ( as The Daily Mail does today with Katy Perry); when a magazine documents the contents of a ‘normal’ woman’s handbag or make up collection or wardrobe, encouraging us to compare ourselves; when those celebs who conform are heralded as ‘the nations sweetheart’ or celebrated in some way or another  winning awards for ‘most attractive soap star’ etc); when every single advertising campaign documents the same look, over and over – thin, glossy, ‘beautiful’; when those who don’t conform become ‘other’ and are paraded in programmes for us to gawk at and laugh over – see we are bombarded with examples of how we must be and what we definitely should not be all the time and it is scary how easy it is and how often it works.

So many of my friends are always on a diet. They hate their bodies because they don’t look like women’s bodies on tv or in magazines. I know people who want plastic surgery because their nose or thighs or breasts or bums are ‘wrong’ This isn’t imaginary – these issues affect all of us; we all know someone on a diet or who wants to change something about themselves – hell, it’s probably you. And the whole time, no one really stops to think where the images of perfection we long to look like come from. The beauty industry is a market, like any other. It exists to make the people involved money – and make money it does. Billions. Every penny of that is squeezed out of women who are told, everyday, that they aren’t good enough as they are. The industry exists, and survives, because women are made to feel vulnerable and unsure about themselves constantly and then, in the cruellest twist of irony, turn to the very sector that perpetuates these ideas, to fix them. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.

One of my favourite books of all time is The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf; she talks of how women are kept in a constant cycle of striving for physical perfection in a  male dominated world; men create roles for women to fulfil; sexual, beautiful etc to limit and control their power. Because, as women, we have a shit load of power and keeping us busy with contouring cheekbones and highlighting our cupids bow means we ignore the injustice that surrounds us and that works well for the patriarchal society we inhabit. Naomi states ‘A woman can never be truly happy with her appearance because advertisements are constantly aiming to disrupt the notion of female beauty in order to raise statistical sales and profits. Society has taken advantage of lashing out at female beauty in order to reap the financial assets and benefits.’ Even more worrying, ‘Society deems it appropriate to determine a woman’s worth based on the extent of her physical beauty and maintenance of her body.’ Whilst this is true, the beauty industry will continue to put a comforting arm round our ever shrinking shoulders whilst smacking us in the face with the other. And we will continue to let it.

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  • This program sounds fascinating–I’m in the States and our reality programming tends to be…not as interesting, I suppose? There was a briefly-lived show investigating beauty ideals across the world, but other than that we just have those horrible plastic surgery makeover shows, awful! (Though I just read about “Vanity Lair,” which, without having seen it, seems sort of exploitative in the same vein.)

    I do a blog that interviews beauty professionals (and others) about beauty, and it’s been fascinating–I’m very much from the Naomi Wolf mind-set as well, but to talk with other women about their experiences in beauty I’ve come to see the beauty industry in a more multi-dimensional way. Plenty of women do take an exquisite pleasure in cosmetics and other beauty products, while others feel chained to them–I don’t like many of the tactics used by the industry but I also feel like there are ways for us to take pleasure in their products. It’s funny, I’m transcribing an interview right now with a beauty editor who is all “yay beauty industry” but hates the fashion world for making women feel bad about themselves! Fascinating…

    • em

      That is really interesting! I am definitely going to be checking out your blog so thank you so much for commenting. I agree that sometimes putting on make up can be a pleasurable experience but I think it needs to be that and not a necessity for girls to feel good or even just a bit better about themselves you know? Right now it seems like more people are chained to their make up bags than anything else xxxxx

      • Agreed–I was just about to say that like anything, it’s about moderation, but really it’s not about moderation in behavior but about moderation of attitude. I was unhappier thinking about makeup as something I had to do to look presentable and cover my flaws (I had a very “natural” look–concealer, mostly) than I was when I decided to try wearing bright red lipstick. Then it became about, “I’m not trying to cover up any flaws; I’m doing something totally unnatural and fun and I love it.” It became something I could opt out of instead of something I felt, as you wrote, chained to. Because you hit it: That’s the problem, not the makeup.

  • Even though I’ve been aware of feminist/ beauty industry issues for several years, I remember the moment, relatively recently, that it dawned on me that hating your body is NORMAL nowadays. I mean, I’m not new, I’m totally in the poor body image camp, but considering the amount of self-hatred in the majority of women, the western world over, I’m surprised people aren’t more outraged.

    Riots not diets!

    • em

      Riots not diets is my favourite quote! I say it all the time! I know what you mean; I teach about feminism and body image; I did a Sociology degree with a unit about the body and yet it is only recently that I’ve noticed how prevalent and, like you said, ‘normal’ for there to be this self loathing and self conciousness. It is so horrible. I don’t know a single girl who is happy with their body except my sister. It really does feel like we are being bombarded with images and messages that encourage us to feel bad about ourselves. xxxxx