The Breakthrough Voice 9th July, 2021

“Not Just A First World Problem”: Reflections On The Politics Of Beauty.

I was moved by one of my Professor’s lectures in Delhi University when he told us that capitalism no longer sells products, it simply has a conversation with us. While the world fights a larger battle against COVID-19, I see another battle against and within the self, taking shape. Fanned by social media and societal pressures, teenagers fall prey to eating disorders just to squeeze into a pair of tight jeans, bringing back nightmares of the history of the corset. 

Capitalism no longer sells products, it simply has a conversation with us.

There is an ideal body type that collective aesthetics seem to be pandering to. The body of a woman is everyone’s topic of discussion: from some countries editing textbooks reflecting our natural selves, to the beauty industry whipping up miracle potions for problems never before known or experienced. The cosmetic industry just steps in like an extra pair of helping hands, leading us to our collective ruin.  Had this been a free choice activity, this conversation would never have happened. What is troubling is not just this clamour for a particular body type, but the sheer lack of attention mental health and spiritual wellness receives in the process. Along with this, ageing is perceived as a fearful predicament that must be ‘nipped in the bud’. 

“…..In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises towards her day after day, like a terrible fish.”

– Sylvia Plath, Mirror

Sylvia Plath’s poem Mirror throws light on the first signs of ageing that plagues women. Today, as I see advertisements about firming creams, I’m reminded of this poem and the ever-potent attack on ageing and the beauty norms that are far from gone. This has grown through time and now, with technological sophistication and patriarchy, it translates into economics when we uphold heightened standards of beauty: ‘sparkling teeth’, ‘a million-dollar smile’ and more!

Our bodies often become sites of contestation. When Martha Nussbaum spoke of objectification that commodifies women, she highlighted the related processes and politics at play that create passive bodies without agency. 

A Google search on the word ‘beauty’ brought back these images:

This was not the case a few years ago and instead, a complex mix of cosmetics and women with a particular body image would return as results. What is this change we’re looking at and how far is it real? Is this just an algorithm or a politics to simply essentialize a new model, a new aesthetic and a new ‘ideal’? 

As more and more people get drawn into the vortex of the beauty industry every year, spending more on beauty than on education and pumping resources and generating supply to match the demand, I cannot help but wonder if the beauty culture is truly liberating or oppressive? 

Our bodies often become sites of contestation.

Some observations, both promising and dismal, help capture the heart of my argument:

The researchers, Leeat Ramati-Ziber, Nurit Shnabel and Peter Glick, published their six studies on the motivations of beauty, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. When intense social pressure turns pursuing beauty into a mandate rather than a free choice activity, it is clear that it is more than a form of self-expression alone. It is also true that workplace discriminations on the basis of appearance forces norms on all women.

Another aspect of the beauty industry and the way it functions is that while the primary consumers are women, very few of them receive management positions and are in that sense kept out of the boardrooms and C-suites. According to the LedBetter Gender Equality Index, L brands and Coty had no women at all on their executive teams, as of 2016, though Coty hired a woman as President since then. This raises a question about gendered leadership.

When intense social pressure turns pursuing beauty into a mandate rather than a free choice activity, it is clear that it is more than a form of self-expression alone.

A third aspect is about desirability, biases and the design of the “ideal”. When in 2013, Joseph Harwood who identifies as a non-binary transgender person, won a talent contest jointly organized by Simon Cowell and YouTube, there was very little publicity and not even a follow-up interview for a contest that stretched over a year. While there’s great progress in the presence of trans, genderqueer and non binary beauty gurus landing campaigns with MAC, Sephora and more, Harwood notes that a campaign called ‘Boys in Makeup’ seems to implicitly convey that despite the effort, an erasure of gender demarcations don’t take place and makeup is essentially for women.

Campaigns like CVS Pharmacy going Photoshop-free; Babor, the skincare brand’s collaboration with the All Woman Project which focused on ‘non-traditional models’, including a 57 year old model, Isabella Rossellini to bridge the norm of beauty and age; CoverGirl teaming up with Amy Deanna to name a few, have created positive ripples. Today a lot is changing with new names turning tables, but it is yet to make scalable progress.

A look at some case studies:


Two case studies I take into account in assessing the perils of the beauty industry are first, the Kardashian Phenomena and second, the internet culture of trolling and policing women, both of which are absolutely despicable realities. The Kardashian family of the United States, who have taken the world by storm, have also in many ways shifted the beauty dynamics in a big way. They seem to have helped in overturning the beauty ideal from a glorification of the Eurocentric beauty ideal to a more ‘Kardashianized’ body that young women seem to be buying into. While this turn seems to have changed the ideal, it doesn’t make it any less exclusionary. Far from democratizing the beauty industry, true change would come in when we can finally move away from an ideal body type. A body project that commodifies women against the background of rising wage inequality and poverty needs to be examined carefully.

The second is about trolling and policing and the negative impact it has on the grain of humanity that feminists aim to foster. Self proclaimed fashion watchdogs like Diet Sabya are instances about how easily we tend to bracket and size up women. Priyanka Chopra was recently at the receiving end of trolls over her choice of attire for the Grammy awards and even in the past over her skin and clothes. This is an unhealthy and repulsive trend. Rating meters on best and worst dressed, airport ‘casual dressing templates’ that in reality are more calculated and meticulous than anything else, raise important questions that we must have conversations about. 

A body project that commodifies women against the background of rising wage inequality and poverty needs to be examined carefully.

The fact that we still grapple with body image issues, the rise of augmented reality filters and applications, brings up the question: Are we truly moving towards an acceptance of our diverse bodies or more of a segmented society, upholding certain ideals of what a woman must feel like, look like and aspire to be like?

The way forward would be with a focus on health and informed choice over heightened beauty standards. We must care about our bodies in all forms and not valorise any particular body image. A world with a more forgiving aesthetic and focus on sustainability, health, environment and the Sustainable Development Goals is a world to aspire for. 

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