Beauty regime change: the lost art of NOT looking good

The launch of YSL’s Forever Youth Liberator earlier this year presented me with a familiar conundrum. I’m always on the look-out for a non-invasive solution to the problem of my ageing skin, but I remain suspicious of pseudoscientific talk of “ground-breaking technologies”. I was brought up to question claims that the beauty industry make and not to accept the assurances of men in white coats.

At first, I felt patronised, not reassured by YSL’s claim that the cream has been 20 years in development and has the backing of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Berlin. But my cynicism was dispelled by science writer Philip Ball’s assessment. It seems what I took for marketing hyperbole did have some real scientific basis. Ball explains that it does appear the active ingredient of the Forever Youth Liberator “binds the glycan receptors on the cell surface and stimulates them to start making the molecules needed for healthy skin”. To put it another way, daily application of this serum may well fool my middle-aged skin into acting as it did in my 20s (although Ball ultimately reserves judgment).

The beauty industry no longer needs to lie about the benefits of the vast majority of products and procedures. Because these days, many of them may actually work – for the first time the miracle creams are miraculous. The surgeons aren’t lying when they say surgery improves your appearance and enhances your attractiveness. To see how far the industry has come we need only remember what facelifts looked like in the 70s and 80s.

Many feminists still feel compelled to expose the “beauty myth” – UK Feminista’s letter in this paper last week about the mendacity of cosmetic surgery advertising shows it’s a hard habit to break. But now that for many women beauty is achievable though technology, I believe we need a new rationale if we’re to argue it’s not an achievement worth pursuing.

Whenever this debate is aired, there’s an underlying presumption that we all want to look nice. It’s an assumption shared by those feminists who believe it’s possible to challenge beauty norms while still looking hot, such as Caitlin Moran, who looks every inch the sassy feminist in opaque tights and biker boots in the picture on the back cover of How to Be a Woman. Conveniently, she’s only against depilating the bits of the body you can’t see. But I still wish she’d tell us whether she feels at all self-conscious in swimming pools or other places where the decision not to wax her bikini line will make her stand out like a sore thumb. She never admits to discomfort, just untrammelled delight in displaying her furry “minge” at every opportunity.

I have to confess, I’m on first-name terms with my eyebrow threader, and I often wonder what would happen if I just stopped doing it – would I revel in my Gallagheresque monobrow, or just avoid going out anywhere too brightly lit? Unfortunately, you can’t wear opaque tights on your face.

It is often the lot of the modern feminist to deny or disguise the consequences of our objection to normative beauty regimes. Opaque tights give us the freedom to seem sassy without testing the hairy limits of our feminist convictions. But as long we are avoiding the embarrassment that must inevitably flow from the decision not to look conventionally nice, we will eschew only those products and processes that don’t further our aesthetic goals. I am happy to take a stand against liposuction, but rather more nervous about saying that eyebrow threading is a form of female oppression.

Staying within our aesthetic comfort zone, we claim feminist credentials with none of the discomfort. Apart from being cowardly, this approach misses the point. Andrea Dworkin never asserted that her double chin looked fabulous or wrote paeans to her pubic hair. For her, the point was not to invert conventional beauty norms, but overthrow them.

I can imagine the old Rosie Boycott extolling natural female beauty before she came round to Botox following an experiment conducted for a newspaper assignment investigating fillers. When I look in the mirror at my unmodified face and body, I can see that they embody the life they’ve led, but also that they are undeniably less attractive than those of my friends with beauty “regimes”. The essentialist feminist line is harder to maintain now a certain airbrushed youthfulness is the norm. Those who refuse – the unpretty – will stand out, so it’s important to establish the choice is political, not aesthetic.

When feminists first advocated it in the 1970s, unprettiness was a statement of resistance to being seen as sexual objects. Although they seem bolder than us, radical feminists didn’t stand out as much in their age as we do in ours. Most 1970s women were blemished and hirsute to a greater or lesser extent. My mum never plucked her eyebrows or gave a second thought to her skin type. She washed her face in soap and water and put Astral on her chapped hands in the winter. It wasn’t done for thinking women such as her to focus on their appearance – Susan’s bare face and cheesecloth shirts signalled her seriousness of purpose.

In those days, unprettiness equated savviness – visible evidence that you didn’t buy the beauty myth. Since the beauty industry often was lying back then, it was rational not to heed their warnings about what would happen to women who went their whole lives without cleansing and toning. Unprettiness no longer signals seriousness, just extreme poverty or stupidity. The unpretty are castigated on the grounds there’s no excuse for going out looking crap. There’s so much information everywhere about how to look good, you’d have to be stupid not to manage it, or mad. Thinking women mostly do have elaborate beauty routines – now the industry’s promises are credible, it’s rational to invest money and energy chasing radiance and “forever youth”. We have internalised their edicts – I cleanse, tone and moisturise, but don’t recall ever deciding to.

In this context, the decision not to look nice is even more radical than it was when it was first advocated in the 1970s. Now it signals something different – a resistance to commodification. When my friend in UK Feminista threw away her razor, it was a conscious attempt to avoid being marketed as a sassy feminist in the media, as well as a rejection of the beauty norms that have been shaped by porn. Unlike Moran, she admits it’s been hard. The looks of distaste she gets from other women at the swimming pool have seriously tested her feminist resolve.

In the olden days, putting on some slap and a nice dress on a special occasion was quite an innocent pastime. Even women who always “made an effort” came across as sweet rather than sinister. I picture Margot from The Good Life in a dramatic kaftan, fully made up yet still visibly human. The likes of Margot dressed for men – and themselves. For my mum’s aspirational, middle-class friends, looking good was a hobby, like fishing or football.

Now it’s a tedious full-time job. You work on your appearance in order to create a marketable image that can be bought and sold. Women are willingly turning themselves into commodities we can trade for our own and others’ gain. It looks more alienated because they are exploiting and using themselves in exactly the way men used to.

The photograph of Louise Mensch on the cover of the Guardian’s Weekend magazine a few months ago exemplified this shift. It is immediately obvious the image was a bit of marketing – a means to an end, not an end in itself. It helped sell this paper and all the other papers in which the “debate” about whether she’d had surgery was aired. And, of course, it also increased Mensch’s currency. She was everywhere suddenly, looking inappropriately sexy on panels discussing the euro, clearly relishing the fact. Prior to this, Mensch never came across as a vulnerable woman seeking a surgical quick fix to her low self-esteem. This old feminist viewpoint definitely needs updating now that surgery is a way of attracting investment, rather than maintaining youthfulness.

If it was true, Mensch’s decision to have what is known as a Chicago facelift at such a young age was probably motivated by grandiosity rather than insecurity. Understandably, Mensch wanted her exterior to confirm her inner conviction that she is an alluring political valkyrie. When I was growing up, female politicians looked blandly smart. I couldn’t say what Shirley Williams looked like in the 1980s. She probably wore skirts and trousers, and had her hair cut rather than done. By contrast, the Guardian picture of Mensch is unforgettable.

If it were just politicians or celebrities commodifying themselves, it wouldn’t really matter. But ordinary women have also become adept at the dark arts of self-branding. To a greater or lesser extent, everyone is consciously working on their image. This is no longer a harmless diversion – old-fashioned vanity has been superseded by a Menschian will to social and economic power. My seven-year-old daughter Anna will soon learn that her social currency depends on the amount of youthful radiance she evinces in the photograph on her Facebook profile. Devising a look is no longer an innocent pleasure either – if Anna wears opaque tights and biker boots when she’s a young woman she’ll look as though she has self consciously created the image of “sassy feminist” (rather than simply being one).

In this climate, being photographed for this article without makeup is nerve-wracking, but I suppose the logic of my argument is that I have to live with this discomfort. My unadorned face doesn’t reveal my essential self, but the wear and tear of the past, and my social role. Sleepless nights with two young children and the stresses and strains of sick relatives are partly responsible for its haggard appearance.

We all know how to look good, but not how not to. I am determined to revive this lost art. Today, I pledge I will go and pick up daughter without changing out of my husband’s cat-hair-covered fleece, proud to be seen as someone with something better to do than de-lint. Some day soon, I’ll give up the time-honoured ritual of taking the bus down to a West End salon on a Saturday morning to get my eyebrows “shaped”. It’s not a pleasant process – I’m inured to the physical pain but not the emotional stress of being pinned to a chair while the threading lady castigates her competitors and moans about her weight.

I can’t complain about the complaining, because she is the queen of threaders. When she was off sick, I travelled the length of London for the sake of 10 precious minutes in the improvised treatment room in her flat. I know from bitter experience unprettiness will free not just our time but our consciousness – an act of resistance in a commodified world.

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