It has been months of social distancing and self-isolation for most of us. My body feels unkempt. When I look in the mirror, I recognize myself as the “before” picture in my own life and I long for a time before it became unsafe to get waxed, plucked, threaded, shaved, made up and more – like clockwork every month.
These days, my eyebrows feel bushy and my leg hair is curling at the ends. Shaving my arms and legs offers some semblance of the ‘pretty’ I am looking for, but still falls short. I have never been this aware and uncomfortable about the demands I have for myself. My body is trapped. Before, it felt normal to feel inadequate. Now, the longer I spend alone in my own house, dressing up for my computer and mirror, the more I question the fantasy I’m supposed to aspire to be. This ‘fantasy’, or myth, is a cage, and quarantine has shown me that I’m still within it, no matter how much I believe I do not need to conform.
I have never been this aware, and uncomfortable about the demands I have for myself.
Naomi Wolf, in her 1991 book, The Beauty Myth speaks about these relentless, insidious ideals of beauty that are used to undermine women, especially at a time when they are breaking barriers in order to succeed. These ideals of beauty — thin, fair, young, delicate – are taught to women every day in myriad ways, which makes it even harder to spot where they truly stem from: large industries that profit from women’s insecurities.
Through her book, Wolf systematically highlights the effect of the beauty myth in numerous spheres of one’s life — work, sex, religion, culture, hunger and even violence. While Wolf uses data and examples mainly from the West, her proposition remains valid across the world. Women are kept subjugated, in part, through a radical ‘myth’ of beauty that postulates unrealistic aims for women and their bodies. This myth is not individualistic, but rather a “cultural conspiracy” in order to profit from and keep intact a patriarchal form of governance and family.
Reading The Beauty Myth feels like having a glass of cold water thrown at you. It awakens and electrifies you. While reading it in 2020 as an Indian woman can feel slightly unrelatable, the overall premise is one that continues to hit where it hurts. Reading it during a pandemic further complicates the story because it remains both true and untrue. On one hand, as I said, my body is now aware of how the myth has trapped it. Watching my hair grow out remains the most uncomfortable feeling I’ve had in a while – one of intense anxiety.
Despite not seeing anyone, I found myself shunning certain clothes, worried that my hairy body was not good enough for them. However, on the flip side, I stopped wearing makeup and have learnt that I remain the same beautiful, confident woman both with and without lipstick. My body can now both sit in its natural state and worry about its disarray in the same breath. Both revelations offer a glance at how deeply complicated the beauty myth that Naomi speaks about can be, especially when it is as deeply ingrained in women as it is today.
Reading The Beauty Myth feels like having a glass of cold water thrown at you.
While these examples may seem too personal to hold true, cultural shifts in the content we consume seems to echo the same tensions. Influencers and social media creators are focusing more on videos detailing hair removal at home or are promoting makeup as a form of self-care — something to apply (and buy) even when home alone. These cultural cues occupy the same space that the beauty magazines of Wolf’s time seemed to. They both inform and influence the ‘normal woman’ on what is right and appropriate.
Looking ahead, this might be a good thing. Forced to eschew their usual expenses related to the myth – women may understand their worth lies not in their appearance alone. While the myth will not be eradicated in just a few odd months; it will be more forgiving and flexible for the generations to come. Sadly, there is no guarantee that this is the future we are looking at. As the pandemic stretches on, industrial marketing approaches may change until a full face of makeup is a prerequisite for every Zoom call or an easing of restrictions may result in an immediate increase in demand, for women will try to make up for all the months they lived without ‘looking good’ in their own homes.
Regardless, The Beauty Myth, as explained poignantly by Wolf, feels tangible and real today, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Recognizing that the myth is ultimately, a myth, that has been sprinkled into every conversation about beauty and the bodies we have and aspire for can be disturbing, but it can also free you. This realization can, hopefully, give us the space to exist without constantly asking for forgiveness for not striving to be the myth at every second. Today, that might mean I don’t shave, and tomorrow, maybe it’ll mean something different. Regardless, my body and its “beauty” will not define me and your body should not define you.