A recent magazine article on Girls Aloud proclaimed to "reveal their beauty secrets". But, Michelle Wright argues, all it really did was expose the effects of subscribing to patriarchal, capitalist beauty standards on women’s self-esteem
The smiling, happy faces, the slim, shiny bodies, poreless, glossy, smooth and clean, perfect and proper, beam at us every day. They come at us from magazine covers, billboards, television advertising, shop windows, music videos. We see them and hear the messages they send: “You too can look like this”; “You deserve to be this”; “This is how to look to be happy.” L’Oreal tell us we’re “worth it”; Dove “celebrate” our “real beauty” and the cosmetic surgeon lures us in with the promise of “transforming” us into our “true selves”.
All these seemingly positive mantras aim to make us believe we are empowered and in control when we buy into them, that only when we strive to be like her are we really a woman. It all comes across as innocuous and natural, simultaneously maintaining and creating the myth that the most important thing for a woman is to look attractive.
Of course, it isn’t as it seems. There are some evil machinations at work behind the glossy images and their slick slogans. The beauty corporations and their messengers, the media, don’t really think we ‘deserve’ to look like the women in the adverts. They don’t really want us to feel good about ourselves. What they are really saying to us is that we are ‘supposed’ to be like the women in the adverts.
So what L’Oreal really mean is we’re only “worth it” when we buy their shampoo, because we’re worth nothing otherwise. “Celebrating real beauty” still relies on engaging with our insecurities and attempting to ‘fix’ them. After all, if Dove really wanted us to embrace our real imperfect selves, why would they push firming lotions on us? As for cosmetic surgery, what their promotional banter really means is that you can only be “you” with some help, because “you” isn’t good enough when left alone.
Comparing the advertising messages with the motives behind them exposes just how slick, and even twisted, the corporate beauty and media industries are. They try and get us to think we are looking after ourselves and empowering ourselves, by buying in and selling ourselves out to what they have to offer. However, the glossy doctrines of the beauty industry are really all about making us recognise ‘flaws’ we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise, subsequently making us feel inadequate and insecure, so that we’ll turn to what they have to offer in order to feel complete again.
It creates one big vicious cycle of self-loathing, complete with futile attempts at feeling good again by buying into futile products and practices. Women engage in this vicious cycle every day.
A May 6 feature in the News of the World’s Sunday supplement on the pop group Girls Aloud, exposed quite blatantly just how engaged in this women can be. Laid right out on the page, was an insight into just how insecure and unhappy women can become when immersed in the beauty lies of patriarchal capitalism. The words of Girls Aloud in this article neatly summed up all that is wrong and warped with the pressure to conform to mainstream standards of femininity and womanhood.
The double-page article was headlined: “Girls Aloud reveal their beauty secrets”. Pictures of each member of the group were accompanied by boxes of text which outlined each woman’s height and weight, her answers to the questions “on a diet?” and “consider cosmetic surgery?”, how she rates her looks out of 10, with further text giving more insight into these women’s relationship with their bodies.
With just a quick skim read, the following unsettling information could be gleaned: four out of the five members of the group are 5ft 6in tall, their average weight is 8st, size 6-8. These are slim women, and yet all of them bar one said they were on a diet. Nicola is the only one who isn’t, and on further reading, we discover this is only because: “If I dieted I would die- I’m hypoglycaemic and anaemic.” Otherwise, diet away! All of them would consider cosmetic surgery: perhaps explained by the fact that none of them rate their looks very highly, most of them giving themselves only four out of 10.
What are we supposed to make of all this? If we wanted to prove how far women have come, how the chains of the beauty myth no longer shackle them, then this article wouldn’t be produced as evidence. Instead what we have here is a group of women, all unhappy with their looks, dieting and contemplating cosmetic surgery. Despite being slim, they continue to diet and the anxieties about their size remain. This is only five women, but is it so far-fetched to assume that a lot of women are trapped in a similar vicious cycle? They dislike their bodies, so they try to ‘improve’ themselves by dieting, but that still isn’t good enough, so they remain unhappy and consider extreme measures, meaning cosmetic surgery.
Further reading compounds the assumption that these women are unhappy with their bodies. In actual fact, they come right out and say so themselves. Kimberley: “I’m not at all confident or comfortable with my body.” Cheryl: “I’m not happy with my body.”
These women are constantly dieting, conscious of what is and should not be going into their mouths. Sarah proudly asserts: “I work hard, I eat hard and I diet hard!” She continues: “Sometimes I’m really good at controlling what I eat… I’ve just finished a detox programme… I was advised not to eat sugar or wheat or drink alcohol, but after five days I broke out and went off for a doughnut.” Kimberley: “I’m constantly on a diet… All of us in the band talk about what we shouldn’t eat, then eat loads of it.” Cheryl: “Now I have one day a week when I eat whatever I like. Without that luxury, I’d go crazy!”
Gaining even just a little bit of weight, even if they were still in the healthy bracket, is a no-go area. Sarah implies that being a size 12 is too big: “When I was young I was a pizza delivery driver and ate junk food constantly and was a size 12.” Cheryl: “I put on a lot of weight and at one point was 9st 7lb.” As someone who is size 12 and 9st, how am I supposed to feel on reading this? How are the majority of British women – average size 16 – meant to feel on reading this? That we are fat? That we aren’t good enough, that we could do better?
Size 0 is going too far though. Nadine: “I’d hate to be a size 0 though. I like to look like a woman, with things up front and at the back!” Kimberley: “In an ideal world I would like to be size 8 but I would never want to be size 0. It’s sick and dangerous to be so small.”
But isn’t it sick and dangerous to constantly be on a diet, even if the aim isn’t be size 0? Isn’t it sick and dangerous to think being 9st equates to having put on a lot of weight? Isn’t it sick and dangerous that women have such issues with their bodies?
As for this comment from Cheryl: “I have to watch my weight and really put myself through it, trying silly diets or doing stupid gym workouts.” Here is a woman indicating she knows the diets and gyms are a complete waste of time, she’s frustrated with the fact they don’t work, perhaps even frustrated with her own slavish bond to them. And yet maintaining a trim figure is what our appearance-obsessed society would have women believe is the key to their happiness.
Despite their devotion to dieting, these women remain dissatisfied with their bodies. Is it any surprise then to read that all of them would consider cosmetic surgery? Nadine: “Cosmetic surgery has become as normal as a facial. I might try Botox in a couple of years.” Sarah: “I’d love to have surgery on my boobs with valves in the side so some days I could have big ones and on other days, small ones.” Cheryl: “I would consider cosmetic surgery if a part of my body was really getting me down.”
What about this admission from Nicola? “I would have cosmetic surgery once I’ve had kids. But I’d do it for my boyfriend’s sake, not my own.” Yes, welcome back to 1952, this woman would have cosmetic surgery for her man. The cosmetic surgery industry is a bastion of patriarchy, mutilating women for the benefit of the male gaze (and for profit), but it isn’t sold to women in this way. The choice to have cosmetic surgery is often presented as a choice, and an empowered one at that. It’s a key to self-fulfilment, a way to feel good about ourselves, for ourselves. Nicola’s reasons are the exact opposite, but perhaps she has expressed the underlying motive of many women who opt to be sliced open?
They also conform to time-wasting, laborious beauty practices. Cheryl: “Now I shave my legs every couple of days and have my underarms waxed.” Nicola: “I’m only confident with the way I look when I go out and have all my hair and make-up done.”
Yet despite the dieting, the exercising, the shaving, plucking and preening, none of them rate their looks highly. Is this why they diet and spruce themselves up? To make themselves look and feel better? Or do they feel like this because they are trapped in the cycles of shaving, dieting, yearning to be something they never can or shouldn’t have to be?
What we have here on shiny paper, in a pretty pink font, is how women – even celebrated pop stars – are made to feel by those aforementioned messages and images the patriarchal capitalist beauty and media industries send out to them. Women’s magazines give advice on dieting, because having a desirable figure is what’ll make you happy. Television adverts for shaving razors make out the re-emergence of hair is an annoyance, bordering on an abhorrence, telling women that peace will come when you banish said hair with said razor. Women are sold products that – apparently – get rid of cellulite and wrinkles, so we can leave the house feeling radiant and confident. Yet, women who do buy into this, who do diet, shave and apply creams religiously, are often still left feeling rubbish about themselves.
The article on Girls Aloud critiqued here is perhaps somewhat unusual, in that it doesn’t maintain the glossy façade familiar to beauty advertising and editorials found in women’s magazines. While a current theme of women’s magazines, particularly the celebrity weeklies, is to express concern for famous women shrinking down to size 0, they also continue to run articles and advertising hailing weight loss and liposuction. The magazine which contained this Girls Aloud article also carried a piece headlined “Shape up in 3 days” and its fair share of adverts for cosmetic surgery. But it’s still rare to see a group of famous women all on the same page saying how unhappy they are with their bodies.
Yet, you don’t get the impression that you are supposed to come away from reading this article with the radicalised notion that these women aren’t happy because they are consumed in the patriarchal beauty myth. The article presents the views of these women as perfectly natural, that there’s nothing wrong with the sentiments they are expressing. There’s an air of acceptance, of normality to what these women are saying. These women are saying they’d consider cosmetic surgery. So, that’s just what women do these days isn’t it? They diet. What woman doesn’t? What Girls Aloud are saying here, their “beauty secrets”, while not often expressed so blatantly in mainstream media, are also the “beauty secrets” of many women.
All women know the insecurities and anxieties aka the “beauty secrets” of Girls Aloud. Their admissions that they don’t like themselves aren’t meant to provoke questioning, but instead recognition and comfort in the reader. Girls Aloud are just like you, the average female reader. Feel insecure, dissatisfied, ugly? Hey, don’t worry so do these famous women! So why don’t you all go off and consume, cut open and starve yourselves together? That’s the message this article wants to get across.
This article compounds the notion that women are supposed to hate themselves, are supposed to give themselves low marks out of 10, are supposed to be on diets and consider surgery. We can’t just be, we can’t, horror of horrors, just learn to start accepting ourselves as we are. Any woman who professes not to diet is eyed with suspicion. A woman who doesn’t wear make-up or shave isn’t recognised as someone who is comfortable or at least on a journey of getting to be comfortable with her real self, but a “man-hating dyke.” We’re supposed to experiment with different shades of eye-shadow, not with growing our underarm hair, even though underarm hair is a natural sign of femaleness, where’s an eye-shadow is just a bunch of man-made petrochemicals. Some women will say they wouldn’t go under the knife, but often only because “it’s too expensive” or “would leave a scar”, not because they think they are fine as they are.
So while the Girls Aloud article highlights the anxieties women have with their appearance, it doesn’t question or critique where these come from. It’s not supposed to. Instead, it fulfils the same function as articles and advertorials that want us to believe that patriarchal, corporately produced beauty products and practices can be positive and empowering. They go hand in hand. Articles like that critiqued here serve to normalise women’s anxieties and means of alleviating them, making room for the adverts pushing the lotions, waxing strips and surgery to come along and provide the remedies for these women’s low self-esteem.
So what to do? Some women provide examples of an alternative to homogenous, patriarchal standards of beauty every day by simply walking out the door make-up free and with their armpits unshaven. Such acts consist of simply being ourselves and show that femininity and womanhood doesn’t have to only mean looking like her over there on that magazine cover. Perhaps what we also need is to start encouraging more media literacy, particularly among girls of secondary school age. Imagine the seeds that could be planted, the potential impact that could be had if girls, around the age the beauty myth starts to descend, were exposed to the truth of the beauty lies and beauty secrets. If they were to learn that subscribing to one ideal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, would they be less willing to starve themselves and worry about their looks and instead answer the question “consider cosmetic surgery?” with an emphatic “no way!”?