The Cult of Beauty: At What Cost?

Caroline Hagood's picture

image of lipstick and makeupI had a very strong reaction to a picture of Patti Smith the other day. As I gazed at the fur under her raised arms, I felt guilty and envious.  That peek of hair made me think that when it came to being at home in one’s own skin, I was all talk and she was all action. The feeling was akin to meeting a vegetarian and being forced to reflect on my own carnivorous hypocrisy—lamenting the cruelty of the meat industry and recommending grave documentaries on bestial torture to friends, only to throw back some BBQ during my lunch hour. Staring at the picture, I felt that Patti was the real thing and I was just the synthetic version; as though all the depilatory agents I put between me and my own naturalness had seeped into my pores, making me more chemicals than ideals.

Every day, I’m whacked over the head by the peculiar merger of economics and aesthetics that is the beauty industry, but why don’t I whack it back even harder? When I go to buy shampoo, I’m bombarded by all the things that are “wrong” with me. As I trawl the aisles of my local drug store, I’m haunted by the mantra of capitalist sexual desire – if I want to be a dish, I must buy; I must transform. I’m assaulted with serums to “tame” my curls, torture products to burn or rip off my body hair, shelves of deodorants to police the malodorous, to spritz and swab away all olfactory souvenirs of the real me.

The messages are everywhere in these insecurity museums: my grays need dying, my eyes need lining, my lips need sticking, and my lashes need to be blackened with a magical mystery goop. My fat needs to be siphoned, burned, starved off, dieted away, thrown up, exercised into absentia, or downright scared out with diet pills that could make me turn all Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on you.

I almost always leave the store feeling like there’s nothing natural about my body that isn’t monstrous and in need of “fixing.” It’s as though my drug store is trying to tell me that I don’t even deserve to be a woman if I’m not the poster girl for culturally-sanctioned sexy; which seems to involve being odorless, and by the end of my shopping spree, soulless and penniless. Yet, a lighter change purse isn’t the main issue here.

My real purchasing problems are the shoddy ideals I’ve subtly bought into. If I hadn’t, I would just grab my shampoo, ignore the attempts to systematically deconstruct my self worth, and get the heck out of dodge. But I don’t. I go home, stew about it and then write articles like this one. True, at least I’m giving it thought and taking myself to task about it, but I still feel weak for being another casualty of the beauty machine. How I can tear my body apart and then expect to be happy living in it?

In the oppressive environment of my local apothecary, I’m often seized by the urge to rebel by doing something supremely “unladylike,” like passing gas while waiting in line for the register.  Most of all, however, I long to tell the other pharmacy casualties that there’s something perverse about these shops that harm while supposedly selling healing; and then invite them to join the farty party. I fear that the reason I don’t let a loud one rip, however, is that the images of ladyhood that I’ve been fed have penetrated deeper than I would ever want to admit.

Both as a woman and as a writer, I suffer from an inner split on the topics of sex and beauty.  My dilemma stems from the fact that I embrace sexuality and aesthetics in my life and writing, but witness daily the fallout of these industries that I must rail against. This leaves me straddling two starkly different belief systems; I enjoy watching the beautiful people in films, but bristle when that is all they are valued for; I love fashion photography, but I’m against the promotion of anorexia and insecurity; I’m a supporter of frank portrayals of carnality, but not of the objectification that often accompanies explicit coupling on camera. As you can imagine, these polarized ideals present many challenges.

I trace some of this ambivalence to adolescence. Because they are not the focus of this piece, I will spare you a viewing of my teenage psychic scars; but I will say this: receiving external affirmation of a body that has changed and betrayed you at every turn is deeply baffling.  When someone complimented my appearance at, say, 13, I remember feeling like the real me was some sort of beastie that had everyone fooled, working the levers inside of a normal-looking teenage girl. But, even more than that, I remember the relief in discovering that I did not resemble the ogre that I often felt like because of all the shocking physical transformations I was undergoing. The craving for that spark of recognition became deeply ingrained in my  teenage self and I have been trying to coax it out ever since. I dealt with this by becoming the class clown. I sought to gain the acknowledgment I longed for by making people laugh; but even a clown stands in front of the mirror wondering if she’s ever really seen by the people around her.

I have been trying to make myself stop asking that question since adolescence. This involves discarding the parts of myself that I acquired through the pull of societal imperative and seeing what remains. One clear case of this was my abandonment of the Brazilian bikini wax. The last time an unfriendly woman briskly ripped off my hair down there while I writhed in pain, it occurred to me that it was time to go au naturale. Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that I think any woman with a landing strip is not liberated. In fact, if there’s anything I’ve learned from my own struggles with these issues, it’s not to judge anyone for her (or his) grooming decisions.

The whole Brazilian episode led me to wonder why industry-designated sexy is so sterile and, well, unsexy. We lose so much of ourselves when we’re convinced that we must eliminate all bodily reality in order to be attractive. Sure, I put the kibosh on the Brazilian because it was painful and because it seemed perverse to undergo pain to fit some societal ideal; but there was something else, too. It suddenly dawned on me that if I defined sexiness as embracing the unstoppable forces that are our bodies and their needs, defacing my private areas in the name of sexiness was the pinnacle of unsexy.

With consumer society behind it, the cult of beauty is a stubborn rival. It seems that all this purchased “hotness” is supposed to land me the only perk the world believes to be the provenance of women—sexual power. But what of my potency that doesn’t adhere to that ideal? I remember asking a friend in college if anyone had ever made any comments about her armpit growth.  She turned to me, smiled beatifically, and asked, “Would it matter if they had?” She had a point. It seems that the only way to claim your right to be just-as-you-want-to-be starts by unapologetically being just that; and I admit that I’m still working on getting there. I will keep striving to rebel against my daily dose of beauty brainwashing by examining my beliefs while blasting Patti Smith, but it would be nice to live in a culture that didn’t dose me to begin with. I’ll tell you one thing, if I discover that my pharmacy has a cream or powder for a hairy woman with opinions, I’m revolting.


Caroline Hagood is a poet and writer living in New York City. She received her BA in English from Vassar College and her MA in English from Buffalo State University. She has written on books, film, gender and sexuality for Film International, Film-Philosophy, Campus Progress, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, The Journal of Popular Culture, in her own column on writing for Blogcritics, and in her own blog, Culture Sandwich:

Artwork by Sean Stockton (c) 2009 All rights reserved.