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the beauty myth exposed

i-D Features Editor Bertie Brandes wants to know why we're so enamoured by the rituals of the beauty industry when smudged eyeliner can make us as happy as aesthetic perfection.

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In 1991, as I vomited into a muslin somewhere, Naomi Wolf launched an attack against the industry she identified as a tool of “social control”. The Beauty Myth, Wolf’s widely celebrated analysis of the beauty industry as a widespread form of female repression, became the go-to book for the socially active 90s woman, and over two decades later it remains crucial reading. Though concepts of make-up were far from new when it was written, there had been a change in atmosphere since the women’s liberation movement of the 70s; Wolf picked up on the slow and steady infiltration of a manipulative rhetoric into the mainstream, and wrote a damning review of how women were increasingly being taught to quantify their worth through their appearance. She argued that women were being offered a rum deal; the promise of transcendence through aesthetic perfection, an ideal you could dedicate endless time and money to with no hope of success. Wolf saw the exploding beauty industry as a veiled form of gender segregation, a way to engage 50 per cent of the population and simultaneously condemn them for their superficiality. The book is a masterpiece of cultural analysis that hinges on unpicking the rituals you find yourself performing as a girl or young woman with little understanding why or what for.

After finishing The Beauty Myth I shoved all my pilfered, dried-up make-up into a box at the back of my bathroom cupboard and vowed never to be a puppet of the patriarchy ever again. I gladly renounced my bristly red and black hairbrush and scrubbed my face bare, ready to embrace the world with bright, un-clumpy eyes. And I did. For a while. But over time the lure of drawing uneven lines all over my face grew too strong to withstand, all of a sudden there was a smudge of eyeliner here or a smear of glitter there. Lip balm was replaced by a subtle stain, which in turn acted as the gateway drug for all manner of regrettable lipstick experiments (the orange-reds, never forget). Out of nowhere my absolute determination to boycott an industry engineered to strip women of their personal freedoms had been rinsed out and drained away along with my £35 “Scientifically-Proven Miracle Thickening Hair Masque”. There I was, if anything more interested in feminism than ever before, but apparently falling back under the spell of the myth, with its long grasping fingers of self-doubt.

The further my memories of The Beauty Myth slipped into the past, further too slipped the idea that beauty was something I needed to take seriously. This was a routine our mothers, sisters and friends performed every morning, and they certainly weren’t automatons - my distant memory echoed Wolf’s assertions of “social control”, but in the forefront of my mind was the reality of a few metallic tubes and some “invisible sealing powder”.

It seemed as though Wolf’s assertions of sexual and political oppression being facilitated by “beauty” had been rendered irrelevant in the face of apparently widespread gender equality. The pursuit of beauty felt like an entirely harmless pastime, assisted by a demand-driven industry.


Unfortunately, I was missing the point. Scratch the skin of the beauty industry and it bleeds pure 001 Luminous Radiance profit. Why? It’s complicated. While there are so many brilliant, useful and ethical products on the market, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff with far less noble intentions too. Like so much big business, the beauty industry might smell sweet but there are sides to it that are far from blemish-free. As Wolf highlighted way back in the 90s, there’s an ugly side to beauty, too. Judging by the anti-ageing serums, cleansers, pore-tightening toners and softening balms, you’d think we were made of an entirely different fabric to men, who somehow make it through life only having to fend off a few shaving foam adverts (which undoubtedly feature slim, partially nude women as an incentive anyway). We live in an age of advertising and airbrushing, the time to underestimate the power of the beauty industry it is not. If anything Wolf’s book feels more relevant now than ever before as women are consistently being pitted against one another and judged by appearance. You only need to spend three seconds on the internet to realise that women are fetishised and categorised by their beauty choices: heavy eyes and a thick base make you a “porn-star”; hairlessness is “neat and tidy”; no make-up is “brave”.

What it took me a while to realise was whether or not I was wearing hideous orange-red lipstick was irrelevant because I’d stopped thinking about how and why women are affected by our society’s obsession with female appearance, and that was the real problem. Reducing your opinion on beauty down to whether you do or don’t wear make-up is as tribal and irrelevant as calling somebody a bad feminist for shaving their armpits. The right to choose how we look is a fundamental freedom, yet that right is still being exploited and influenced by certain strands of a beauty culture which propagates the idea that women should “make an effort” with their appearance if they want to be treated as equals.

Well how about this; let’s make an effort to stop tolerating this anachronistic nonsense. Let’s make an effort not to judge or stereotype women by their make-up choices, and to embrace freedom of expression. Let’s stop feeling like make-up is there to mask our imperfections, and start taking notes from people who use it as a form of creative and cultural discourse. Women like the “Queens” who travelled with Nigerian musician Fela Kuti and who painstakingly painted their faces with dots and sweeping strokes of rainbow until they embodied the vitality of the music itself. Dig out your old Star Gazer eyeshadows, rub eyeliner on your lips (we’ve all done it) or stick with your tried and tested beauty balms.

Just whatever you do, make sure you’re doing it because you want to, not because somebody told you it was the only way to “love the skin you’re in”.


In 1971 the Women’s Liberation Movement distributed a flyer that read, “Women have been in the Miss World contest all their lives.” If it’s a worldwide beauty pageant this industry wants, they can keep their tiara - I’m perfectly happy with my smudged eyeliner and “oily T-zone”. Oh, and my copy of The Beauty Myth, of course.