For years I’ve hated my chin. It’s a weak chin – the sort of chin that that doesn’t have strength of character enough to stand up for itself against the bossiness of my neck. It’s the first thing I look out for in any photograph I have taken. I notice it in shop windows as I’m hurrying to work, and I worry that behind my back I might be referred to as The One Without The Jawline.
So what if I got it fixed? What if I had a little work done so that I could free my mind from worry about where my lips seemingly merge into the rest of my body by sorting out the one thing that bothers me – really, truly troubles me – about the way I look?
Hold on – sorry. I can’t hear you over the little voice in my imagination telling me that to do so is, somehow, anti-woman.
It’s always seemed straightforward to me: dumb girls worry about how they look, and clever women have better things to do. As a female of the species who classes herself in the latter category, I’ve always taken pride that I would never be one of those girls. In some twisted version of “proper feminism” I rode my very high horse past women modeling themselves on plastic figurines, because I was “intelligent” and independent, and to primp and preen and was inherently “stupid”, done only by those who have to embody the pretty ideal of the men they need to support them.
But, after accidentally working in the beauty industry, I was been forced to rework my warped version of feminist dogma – not to justify cosmetic enhancement, but to understand it.
I arrived to the game thinking I was “above” most of it – enzyme peels and lip fillers and extreme weight loss programs. I celebrate being female, and feminine – I get nice haircuts, and occasional pedicures, and I wear make-up. But I’d file my beauty efforts under making the most of what I’ve got. Cosmetic intervention to change what I’ve got? That’s different.
The more I learn about women whose lives have changed after losing 50 pounds, or on filling out their brow creases, the more I understand that actually, very little separates those who have cosmetic enhancement from those who do not.
With the gender divide in cosmetic enhancement closing rapidly, Feminist benchmark Gloria Steinem seems, to my relief, as ambiguous about the issue as I do. She suggests that “If things are equally divided they are much less likely to be political in nature,” and thus the issue of altering appearance becomes a societal one, independent of gender.
She further comments that we should perhaps be questioning “a society that makes us change ourselves, instead of changing society.” It’s not really that easy though, is it? From worshipping the kind of genetics that magically make faces like Angelina Jolie’s, to peacocks seducing one another with the prettiest feathers in the forest, we’re always going to consider some attributes more attractive than others. It’s biology.
Discussion about what beauty actually is has come a long way. The NU Project celebrates women of all shapes and sizes, and nobody can fault the intention behind Dove’s Natural Beauty campaign. Lifestyle journalist Liz Jones writes in her memoir, “I wish someone had told me, not that I was beautiful because I know I’m not, but that I was normal and acceptable” and that’s exactly what these projects set out to do – normalise all women, all people, as totally acceptable.
However, when Adele, a UK 16-18, is vocal that in her plus-size status “I represent the majority of women and I’m very proud of that” then my own insecurities find a false friend. She’s not actually that average. Closer analysis of her red carpet styling reveals the sort of make-up application and hair manipulation that us mere mortals could never hope to mimic, with shading and contouring and highlighting seeing the voice of an angel acquire a face to match. The way Adele looks is not without work, and I’m struggling to define the kind of physical alterations that are acceptable, and those that are not.
Is it setting back the advancement of women to get cosmetic treatment, even if I’m quite sure I’m doing it only for myself? Is it giving in to media pressure? Can we all just agree that actually yes, my chin is, in fact, a bit of a shit hand to have been dealt?
I don’t know what the answer is. I write this only to say that what I once thought was true emphatically isn’t – it’s not a case of “good feminist” vs “bad woman”.
… Is it?