During my first semester on campus, I was always late. No doubt apprehensive about making new friends, I would dally in front of the mirror for what felt like an eternity, scrambling to arrange the frizz on my head just right or apply yet another layer of mascara. Very often the mirror in my room felt like a deceptive trap, a false sense of comfort, control, and empowerment that would draw me in and latch on, refusing to free me from its grasp. Almost a year later, I discovered the song “Brand New City” by indie singer-songwriter Mitski, and heard the lyrics that simultaneously punched me in the gut and rewired my brain (as Mitski lyrics tend to do): “If I gave up on being pretty I wouldn’t know how to be alive.”
Since hearing those words, and realizing how deeply they resonated with me, I’ve tried to be more actively critical of my relationship with beauty. It didn’t take long for me to come across the term body neutrality: the idea that we should feel neutral, rather than positive, about the ways our bodies look, and emphasize their function and utility instead of their appearance. Immediately upon learning the term, body neutrality seemed like a radical, almost impossible mentality; I knew deep down that it would be much easier for me to convince myself that I love the way my body and face look, with all their “imperfections,” than completely abandon the warm glow of the beauty ideal. It was then that I realized how deeply the beauty ideal was ingrained within me, and became determined to, if not escape it, at least closely examine the role it played in my life.
In her essay titled “Always Be Optimizing,” Jia Tolentino discusses the ways that beauty operates under capitalism and the patriarchy as a modern-day mechanism of control, especially for women. Tolentino builds upon the concept of the beauty myth, developed by Naomi Wolf in her 1991 book of the same name. According to Wolf, stringent beauty standards developed as a patriarchal form of control in response to women’s liberation; grueling domestic work, a form of unpaid labor that kept women’s time occupied for most of history, was merely traded in for beauty work. The beauty myth operates by remaining elusive, so, just like house chores never end, neither does the chase for the beauty ideal. It convinces women that dedicated hard work grants beauty, beauty grants access to power, and with great power comes an even greater standard for beauty. Tolentino applies this framework to its modern-day equivalent: the lifestyle myth, “a paradigm where a woman can muster all the technology, money, and politics available to her to actually try to become that idealized self, and where she can understand relentless self-improvement as natural, mandatory, and feminist—or just, without question, the best way to live.” Looking back, it’s hard to imagine what was going through my head before I became exposed to this idea. Was I conscious of the ideal image of myself that I was continuously chasing, or did I consider every instance of lifestyle work as isolated and independent? Did I wholeheartedly believe that I would one day achieve this image, or did I understand that as soon as I got close the image would shift, remaining always out of reach?
Mainstream feminism gives us the illusion of control. It rebrands lifestyle work (from splurging on skincare to drinking green juice) as self-care and convinces us that we’re doing it for ourselves, that the endless time we spend fixating on how to improve our self-image is our own enthusiastic choice. Oftentimes, it even insidiously equates self-improvement with moral goodness, shaming us for refusing to engage. I feel this illusion of control every time I catch myself turning to my mirror when I feel overwhelmed in other aspects of my life, telling myself that now is the perfect time to excavate my skin with tweezers or try that new eyeshadow look I saw online. Capitalism and mainstream feminism combine to make the lifestyle myth invincible to critique by putting “such a premium on individual success, so much emphasis on individual choice, that it is seen as unfeminist to criticize anything that a woman chooses to make herself more successful.” Many attempts towards progress have only made the myth stronger, like the exposure of Photoshop usage in media which only placed greater value on “natural” beauty, or the influx of body positivity for all body types, which again only emphasized the importance of beauty in our society.
When quarantine first started I was exposed to yet another mutation of the beauty myth: the idea that in order to be beautiful, one must feel beautiful as well. Like most iterations of the myth, the intentions of this one were good, starting out as an attempt to inform others about the power of confidence and not caring what other people think. “If you simply believe that you’re hot, you will be. Just be confident and the rest will follow,” I heard as I scrolled through TikTok after TikTok of people showing their before and after photos. It didn’t take long before I was playing mental games with myself, pushing away any negative thoughts when they came up, staring at myself in the mirror when I felt confident so I could capture the feeling and use it to manifest a new reality for myself. The mental beauty work became just as taxing as any physical beauty work could’ve been. Though I eventually found that this type of practice was not sustainable, I still see evidence of this myth in the media around me: wellness campaigns commanding me to feel my best rather than look my best and lists of beauty affirmations that I have to write down in my journal five times every morning.
One of the reasons that the beauty and lifestyle myths run so deep is because they do, in fact, feel really good. There’s a common sentiment that people look forward to getting ready for an event more than the event itself, and for valid reason. There’s something rewarding and pleasurable about carving out a chunk of your day to focus intently on yourself, about iteratively developing a self-care ritual. It feels productive. Of course, the payoff is appealing as well. It’s hard not to notice when people treat you differently after you’ve put in the work; it’s hard to pretend like you don’t enjoy it, even if that enjoyment is tinged with a bit of guilt. These are the primary ways that the beauty myth operates. But most don’t realize how it can be a double-edged sword, how for every time you get a powerful emotional reward from engaging in the myth, you can also crash just as hard (like those nightmarish nights out when none of your outfits look the way you envisioned and your makeup isn’t sitting right on your face). As Tolentino states: “I like trying to look good, but it’s hard to say how much you can genuinely, independently like what amounts to a mandate.”
But other than the toxic benefits which are inherent to the myth itself, there are some aspects of beauty that seem genuinely good and important. For instance, fashion and makeup serve as vital forms of self-expression, a way of communicating one’s identity to the world, as well as a source of art and culture. On a similar note, I value beauty purely in the aesthetic sense as well. I take pleasure in admiring beauty, whether that be in a painting, sunset, artfully made sweater, or person. Historically, beauty and aestheticism have been portrayed as frivolous notions attributed to femininity, with masculinity favoring “logic” and “reason” instead, which makes vilifying beauty feel like a betrayal (even if this association developed because of the use of beauty standards to subjugate women in the first place). It’s also true that beauty work is a big part of my female friendships; there’s something special about getting hair care tips passed down to you from your mom, or frantically rummaging through your roommate’s collection of tops before a night out – something that I don’t necessarily want to miss out on.
So the question then becomes if it’s possible to separate the bad from the good when it comes to beauty (and if so, how). When I think about the ideal version of myself now, she can play the drums really well, gets around via rollerblades, and has a cool collection of vintage clothing. This image has more to do with skills and hobbies than the way that I look, but I still have goals for my appearance as well. For instance, while I’ve finally moved away from the idea of working out to lose weight, doing it to feel good physically and mentally instead, I would still prefer to look more muscular. I’d like to think that through educating myself on the topic of the beauty myth, I’ve naturally come closer to adopting a body neutrality mentality; after all, it’s hard to want to play a game that you know is rigged. But it’s also hard to tell whether my loss of interest in beauty is genuine or simply due to my avoidance of the issue. Do I look in the mirror less because I’m finally letting go, or because I know my reflection will only upset me? One approach that I’ve tried is overcoming traditional beauty standards for women one small challenge at a time, like finally becoming comfortable with not shaving my armpits, experimenting with looking more masculine, and exploring what the word “handsome,” rather than “pretty,” means to me. But there are still some days when I want to look conventionally pretty, and it’s hard to find fault in this feeling. Should I not take pleasure in looking good, whatever that means to me in the moment? Should my goal be to not care what I look like at all? Or maybe it’s possible to find a middle ground, to simply care “less” and learn how to separate beauty from my personal morality. Maybe there is no definitive answer, maybe I’ll be old and wrinkly and on the brink of shriveling up, still wondering when I’ll finally give up on being pretty.