It’s nearly the world of tomorrow, and women have managed to waft in a few rights. I’m kidding of course; we ladies in the western world are totally kicking ass! We do all kinds of things. We run Germany with a blonde bob. We are hoping to make the American presidential race… with a blonde bob. Aside from being blonde politicians, we do banking and construction work and we drive buses and even inherit things without the permission of our spouses!
You know what else we do? Use fillers, and blusher and manically apply mascara on the way to Canary Wharf. We get laser hair removal on our lunch breaks. And if we’re talking about waking up to a new and improved world – what’s the first thing we do when we get out the shower? I do my eyeliner.
In the 50s and 60s the cosmetics industry was only just really taking off; sneaking its way into the house, into the varnished dressing tables of housewives; keen to look pristine for hubby. Make-up was mandatory, militant, a thing men told you to wear, and how. The Mad Men designed the adverts to put in ladies’ mags, and they told us what brands to use. Companies that employed women in those days issued regulation make-up; for example, air stewardesses at Pan Am were given a cosmetics set along with their uniform, and if you wanted to swap the shade of your lipstick you had to write in with a special request explaining precisely what it was about coral that didn’t quite gel with you.
Then in the 70s and 80s, we started breaking out; women went all shoulder-pads and bra-burning, and feminist writer Naomi Wolf penned a book called ‘The Beauty Myth’. Amongst many of her interesting points, she works with the idea of female oppression being reimagined by the powers that be. Something that specifically caught my eye was when she pointed out how women at the peak of their glory; as powerful, working, magnetic women were being put down and belittled by anti-wrinkle cream, by ads with skinny young girls, with labels like ‘spinster’ or ‘cat lady’. Wolf’s argument was that some over-arching patriarchy was trying to oppress us once again, though this time not from the outside, but from the inside. The idea was to make us spend so much time worrying about our appearance and feeling threatened by younger women, that we’d falter and fail.
Naomi was mad angry about this. She didn’t want women to feel like they had to do anything to look good for anyone but themselves. She thought we’d internalised some pretty damaging stuff about how we were only valued for our looks. And it was only getting worse, with plastic surgery coming onto the market and all kinds of other procedures, making us worry more, waste more of our time and without a doubt; spend our newly earned money.
But I have this theory – before the beauty industry, what was the longevity of The Woman? A woman typically got canned around 30. After a wedding and a couple of kids, it was all over. She was invisible, no longer relevant to the social conversation. Take a few examples; Hollywood famously shunned actresses after they got married, refusing to dish out parts when they could hire younger women who weren’t likely to get pregnant. The term ‘spinster’ was officially used on marriage licenses in England until 2005, and applied to any woman who hadn’t previously been wed. Divorce was uncommon or illegal, frowned upon and in favour of the man, and so without job prospects and sexual value, there was little hope of life after marriage. Women were disposable.
What did the beauty industry give us? Life again. Rebirth after birth. It meant we could still be attractive to husbands and compete with younger women. It gave us power. In that bygone era, the beauty myth and it was, of course, a myth (make-up is nothing if not a flattering falsehood!) – produced enough of an illusion to convince the world to give us a second chance and to allow us to feel confident enough within ourselves to get back in the fray. What if the beauty industry, instead of being a huge consumer conspiracy composed by men playing on women’s insecurities to sell us the unnecessary, is in fact, the magic potion we harness to keep ourselves going and ahead of the game?! This is all just an idea, but I sure think it helped put us back on the page. Even if it didn’t – why shouldn’t we start seeing it positively, as a tool and a skill?
I think that’s just what we’ve managed to do. Somewhere in the past couple of decades, a different, yet curious shift seems to have taken place. Women are no longer ‘past their sell-by-date’ in their 30s; more like they’re just hitting their stride. We look back at teenage girls and instead of lusting for their figures and lustrous hair, we feel sorry for the pressure they’re under and how much they’ve got to learn about life. Nowadays we’re much more aware, and therefore unlikely to be belittled by advertising or Avon.
But how many women have never used a cosmetician? How many of us completely ignore make-up, forgoing even the tiniest bit of concealer? The ‘beauty myth’ is an idea that needs reapplication. What we have now is a prescription, except all the things that made us feel bad; the creams, the hold-in knickers and the surgeon’s scalpel; are now our weapon’s of choice. We are not threatened by them anymore, we use them to our advantage, to keep us looking great and keep us feeling good. It is the accessory to new-age power dressing. But what have we done here exactly, ladies? Are we dancing with the devil and encouraging an industry that feeds off insecurities, or have we taken power back?