Are you coquette or alt? Clean, vanilla, or grunge? Indie sleaze or heroin chic? A cigarette skinny tumblr fleabag 2014 girl or an Aritzia, Lulu slicked back bun, basics girl? Standard pretty, model pretty, or popular pretty? Dark feminine or light feminine? Are you doing the right workouts to fix your hip dips? I’m so glad I just picked up my anti-aging cream, but I don’t know if it's enough - should I try Botox? Your lips are thin - have you considered injections? Well what about lip liner? Is that not in your makeup routine?
This is a snippet of what millions of young women hear every day in the echo chamber that is the Internet, and the hundreds of videos that flitted across my For You page over Christmas break. On average, I spent 1 hour 52 minutes a day on TikTok, and despite that being significantly below the average Gen Z user (3+ hours), I still came away with new products to waste my paycheck on, a Notes page full of workouts, and the sinking feeling that I was doing everything wrong. Through astronomically expensive hauls and 15 product GWRMst, there is a veritable flood of products and routines that send hordes of us to the nearest Sephora or Target in search of the golden ticket that will unlock the next level of beauty. On their own, they seem harmless - bronzing drops here, a new workout to slim your thighs there - but it all coalesces into an unerring message: as you are, you are not enough.
We hear these criticisms, and we internalize them. A Glamour magazine survey found that 97% of women say they have at least one negative thought about their body image every single day, and a survey by Dove, the toiletries and beauty industry giant, found that only 4% of women worldwide consider themselves beautiful. And it’s not hard to see why. The societal standards for women’s bodies and appearances are ever-shifting. The heroin chic of the 90s gave way to the washboard abdominals (often fueled by liposuctions) of the 2000s, then the hourglass figure and beat face of the 2010s. Every year brings with it new imperfections to overcome and new ideals to achieve, such that every time you near the proverbial goalposts of good looks and glamor, they shift a little farther away.
The craziest part is that before we were told we had them, we didn't know these imperfections existed. Case in point: buccal fat. The first few times I saw videos about buccal fat removal, I was confused. Upon Googling, I discovered that the procedure is meant to give you a contoured, “chiseled, or defined appearance,” which is achieved by removing the fat pads in your cheeks. These pads are responsible for the “roundness” of the face and “chubby” cheeks, making their slimming desirable by current standards, but they are also the tissue that preserves your jaw structure in preparation for the more sunken, gaunt appearance of old age. The Cut warns that around age 40, many surgeons are asked to reinject the fat that was removed because the fullness of youth has fallen away. Somehow, the thing that helps us age gracefully has become an insecurity, because right now, it prevents us from having the sharp cheekbones and the model-esque jawline that we’re told is desirable.
Once an insecurity takes root, it becomes a problem. One that naturally, companies have a solution for, so long as you buy their product! Taken to the extreme, perfect skin, a big butt, and a slim jawline all require the erasing of the self and the pursuit of a perfection that can’t be achieved. It’s an inexorable march to nothingness, and all the while, the beauty industry profit - and profit they do.
By the end of 2023, the revenue of the US cosmetic industry is estimated to reach $49 billion. Dollars of facial cosmetics sold will total $1.8 billion, which is a staggering number, but not even close to the $16.7 billion or more that will be spent on cosmetic procedures. Of these procedures, women will account for 92% of customers, and their top five surgeries by number performed - nose reshaping, eyelid trimming, facelifts, liposuctions, and breast augmentations - are focused on altering the face. All this before we even begin talking about the millions of units of botox, soft tissue fillers, and chemical peels that will be administered. Our insecurities are manufactured and then sold to us, and I can’t help but wonder why we can’t just be left alone.
The scariest thing might be that there is no end in sight. The industry has made aging - the only process that is lifelong - into the monster under the bed, and I’ve been conditioned to flinch at every line that appears on my face. Yet this is at odds with everything I’ve been raised to believe about the elderly. We’re told to respect those who came before us, to listen to their wisdom. An 85 year old today would have been born in 1937 - in time to have seen the Space Race, the invention of the Internet, and the rise and fall of entire countries. Yet, the beauty industry doesn’t celebrate the years they have put in to get there. Instead, it sells us the promise of eternal youth, a pipe dream contained within a shiny bottle that promises an antidote to aging. I wish I could look at my grandfather and see the creases around his eyes as a sign of a life well lived, but the beauty industry has ruined that. The pursuit of youth is an essential selling point, and sometimes, I wonder what happened to make it be this way.
I do not have a way to escape the monstrous parts of this reality, but I do have questions as to how they came to exist and when we lost control of the industry. Nothing about any single product is inherently bad; no workout is designed exclusively to prey on insecurities. Many women, including myself, draw confidence and strength from the very same industry that tears us down, and I don’t know where to draw the line. What I do know is that we have reached a point where the way it is marketed and the way it consumes our online presence has serious potential to cause harm, and there is no end in sight. There will always be new trends, new products, and new routines, each more promising than the last, yet none of them will propel us across the goalposts. By tomorrow, those will have moved a bit farther away.
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