The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Travails of beauty

Posted by Nic Heath on August 6, 2009

The beauty industry, and how much money women invest in it, has popped up on my radar a couple of times recently.

‘Because I’m Worth It’, in the July 25 Good Weekend, runs through the expenditure of four women on maintaining their appearance. The article’s author, Maggie Alderson, posits that in one school of thinking, 

‘…adequate personal care is – like doing your tax return, being punctual and saying thank you – an adult responsibility.’


 ‘…leg-hair is a complex grooming issue, requiring military-precision planning to be smooth on key dates…which is why I invested serious time and money having mine permanently lasered off.’

 And final advice:

‘Choose a significant person – an ex, a work nemesis, the other woman, or the one who got away – and be exactly as gorgeous as you would like to be if you happened to run into them by chance. Every day.’

I have two major concerns with this ‘belief system’. One – the expense. Multinationals’ profits depend on women feeling insecure about their appearance. Canna Campbell spends $17754 a year on beauty, Wendi Snyder $19016, Mary Shackman $11187 and Vina Chipperfield $19090.

The second is pain and/or discomfort. Canna Campbell is my age – 28 – and has been having Botox injections for 18 months. Vina Chipperfield, 39, says:

‘I loathe having Brazilian waxes, which I get every two months. I really have to psych myself up.’

 And then, ratcheting up the pain/discomfort scale, last week ABC2 screened The Ugly Truth abut Beauty, a documentary charting journalist Kate Spicer’s dalliance with cosmetic medicine. Spicer approaches her mission with equal measures of enthusiasm and cynicism – while like many women ‘not 100% happy with her appearance’, she is not the stock-standard candidate for cosmetic medicine. In an article published in The Australian she writes:

‘Previously, I had found cosmetic surgery curious, fascinating, not for me. Instinct told me it formed the deepest, darkest recesses of the misogynistic capitalist system that is the beauty industry.’

On ABC’s site:

This film follows Kate as she immerses herself in the wide range of bizarre, radical and invasive procedures now on offer to normal women willing to undergo a gruelling quest for exquisite, youthful looks. Just how far is Kate willing to go? And will it be worth it?

With a personal interest in improving her looks and a beauty industry cynic’s interest in exploring just how easy it is to be sucked into the world of cosmetic improvement, Kate wants to find out what’s really involved in our quest to look beautiful. “I’ve got two motivations here,” says Kate. “One is can I get to look better? Can I get to look hotter? But there is a more earnest desire – to try to be the guinea pig that illustrates just how ridiculously seductive that world is”.

After a few rounds of Botox, the final procedure on Kate’s face is performed with Fraxel laser technology. It makes for singularly disturbing vision. Metal plates are put over Kate’s eyeballs, while her voiceover tells us she was so medicated that this didn’t bother her, and the rest I couldn’t tell you because I couldn’t watch it. The immediate effects were bloody; she looked as though she’d been punched in the face or worse, a number of times.

Describing a photograph taken straight after the treatment, Spicer says:

‘It’s of a glassy-eyed woman, drugged up on Xanax and morphine, with eyeballs that appear to be weeping bloody tears, her skin red, oozing and bruised, and her eyelids glossy and raw like tuna tartare.’

It wasn’t Kate Spicer’s face though that was the most affecting consequence of the procedure. In the clinic, she’s laid low. She clearly feels terrible. She speaks of feeling depressed – the woman attending to her suggests it could be from the drug cocktail she’s ingested. And yet as the doco finishes, Kate suggests she likely hasn’t had her last Botox injection.

Writer Emily Maguire, delivering her speech ‘The Accidental Feminist’ for the Pamela Denoon lecture earlier in the year, says it pretty simply. It is that women are constantly being given the message that they are not good enough just as they are. A woman needs to cleanse, pluck, tone, wax, scrub, moisturise, bleach, alter, amend, enhance etc.

Kate Spicer certainly hasn’t glamourised cosmetic surgery, but she shows how hard it is for (some) women to resist the constant pressure to look a certain way – and to go to great lengths while trying. With so much money invested in the beauty industry – made clear by the lists of products and treatments upon which Good Weekend’s four featured women spend their money – I can’t see the pressure to look younger/better/different lessen anytime soon.


9 Responses to “Travails of beauty”

  1. marcys said

    Whew! That description of Spicer’s procedure was grueling. I’m going thru a thing trying to leave my hair gray/silver. I hate dying and I hate the toxins, but people, including my haircutter, criticize me for letting myself look older than I have to. The pressure’s hard to deal with.

  2. Kat said

    The amount of money mentioned seems obscene (and I usually try to avoid making judgements on how others spend their money).

    No doubt a lot of people read that article and felt better about the amount they spend on beauty being in the thousands rather than tens of thousands.

  3. lilacsigil said

    Adequate personal care is bathing often enough so that you don’t smell, cleaning your teeth, getting your hair out of your face and dressing in a way that’s appropriate for your workplace (or, if not working, to cover your body). Anything beyond that is part of a massive beauty (and “health”) industry designed to assure all women and an increasing number of men that they are never good enough.

    One thing I really love about being fat is that I can dress up, dress down, do fancy hairstyles or not, wear makeup or not, and know that it really is for me and how I feel because no matter what I do, everyone sees the fat first. It’s remarkably freeing, and, as I get older, I find it’s applying to grey hair and wrinkles, too. Not that I have many wrinkles, because I’m fat! I am “exactly as gorgeous” as I want to be, every single day, Maggie Alderson.

  4. Natasha said

    The obsessive hair removal is pretty dire. Although where do you draw the line? Despite mostly leaving my legs and armpits alone, I still shave them if I’m going to a wedding, and I lean into the mirror to pluck strays from my eyebrows about once a month. And I wear make-up and have always enjoyed playing with my appearance.

    I’ve also been visiting a dermatologist to have treatments for my skin, which has been problematic with mild acne for years. According to the ‘you’re fine as you are’ philosophy, this is an indulgence, but I am genuinely interested in trying to present an attractive visage and have resented my bad skin and prefer to think of it as an abmormality. But the dermatologist clinic is really creepy, with pamphlets and promotions for lipo and botox and lord knows what else. I feel disgusting whenever I’m there, and tell myself defensively that my treatment is much more legitimate.

    So, in short, I like beauty. But I think that women need to be extremely self-reflective to navigate their own standards and expectations (and those of their loved ones, and the population in general, who in my experience don’t mind wobbly thighs nearly as much as you’d be lead to believe) in terms of finding them attractive, and those that are imposed from outside and exploiting their vulnerabilities.

    Of all the crap that’s pedalled, it’s the obsession with youthfulness that really pisses me off. While I’m happy to pathologise my bad skin, I hate the pathologising of age. Clinging to youth is so obviously futile it still astonishes me that anyone would buy into it.

  5. gemma said

    This is a tricky subject, because to assume that all women who expend more than the minimum amount of money and energy on their appearance (which is, as Lilicsigil says, maintaining personal hygiene) are unwitting victims of the misogynistic beauty industry is far too simplistic and paints a picture of female consumers as entirely passive, which makes me uncomfortable. I consider myself fairly low key when it comes to beauty – I only occasionally wear makeup, but I do shave and (as someone who knows the self-consciousness of teenage acne) take good care of my skin – but I don’t feel it’s anti-feminist to care about your appearance to a reasonable extent. You do have to be critical of your motivations, but it is very hard to disentangle where ‘it makes me feel good’ ends and ‘unfair social expectations’ begin – I’m sure most of the women getting Botox and lipo are telling themselves that the end result of the procedure ‘makes them feel good’ too.

  6. berryblade said

    The beauty myth is alive.
    Not that it ever died.

  7. au revoir said

    I, too, have read the Beauty Myth and agree with many of the sentiments expressed here. However, I shudder to think that I would be judged by other women based on my expenditure on beauty products; its my money and I can spend it how I please.

    I believe that ‘freedom of choice’ trumps everything, so allow me the freedom to dress/spend/play with my appearance as I wish. Please, there is nothing worse than being ‘prescriptive’ about what is or is not appropriate for women to wear. It becomes a slippery slope that leads to ordered burqas etc.

    From Mollie the horse, who enjoys her sugar and ribbons.

  8. Emma said

    Natasha makes a good point that a large proportion of the general public (as opposed to the media) actually don’t give a damn what their friends/loved ones look like. Generally, people are smart enough to realise that real people are nothing like the ‘ideal’ we see in magazines or on tv. There is, however, ridiculous pressure on women to look ‘beautiful’ – whatever that means. Waxing is torture and I am glad I have seen the light and abandoned the practice. The Good Weekend article was appaling and depressing. It had nothing to do with ‘taking care of yourself’ – it was about vanity and the complete internalisation by some women of the idea that appearance for women (there were no men in the article, but this went unmentioned) is supremely important.

  9. I read that article in absolute horror. The neurotic vanity competition that women engage in is incomprehensible to most men. As a hetero (though not heteronormative) man I find it mystifying why women do what they do to their bodies. I think they’re primarily doing it to compete with other women for status and attention; it’s not about looking a certain way to please men. The irony is that many of the things women do in the name of beauty have no affect on their inherent physical attractiveness or actually make them less attractive to men. Neurotic vanity is seemingly not about beauty at all but social status, ie how rich am I that I can waste $20,000 on this rubbish?

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