Never before have we been under so much pressure to look a certain way

An entire generation is being brought up to believe that beauty is only pixel deep

31 March 2019 - 00:06 By andrea nagel
Instagrammer Nikkie de Jager has a following of 11.8-million.
Instagrammer Nikkie de Jager has a following of 11.8-million.
Image: Instagram/@nikkietutorials

It's a new age and women no longer need to be so conscious of their physicality. #MeToo, #TimesUp, #BelieveWomen, #WomensReality, #NoMore, #EverydaySexism and especially #EffYourBeautyStandards all point to the same thing - the days of pressure being placed on women to look and behave in ways that are enticing and attractive to men are over. #LongLiveTheRevolution. Yeah, right! Who are we trying to kid?

There's never been a time when measuring up to a certain ideal of beauty has been so important to so many people.

Yes, prior to the French Revolution, Europeans of a certain social standing were required to wear powdered wigs called perukes, clownish makeup, court heels and pantaloons - and that was men and women alike. If you could afford an elaborate poufy peruke you were known as a "big wig".

Ancient Egyptians crushed charcoal to line their eyes, and used malachite as shimmery green eye shadow. Through the ages berries have been used to darken lips, the ashes of burnt wood used to darken eyes, and young Caucasian adults have used urine to fade what they thought of as unsightly freckles.

In Victorian times ladies of leisure would dust on rice powder to hide uneven skin tone and blotches. Zinc oxide and pearl powder were used to create a cosmetic base to achieve milk-white, flawless skin, and beeswax was applied to plump lips.

In China young girls between the ages of four and nine were required to bind their feet because men of that time admired women with lotus-shaped paws which, needless to say, made it close to impossible for the girls to walk properly.

Hollywood cosmetics expert Max Factor (1904 - 1996) takes precise measurements of a young woman's head and face with his beauty Michnometer contraption.
Hollywood cosmetics expert Max Factor (1904 - 1996) takes precise measurements of a young woman's head and face with his beauty Michnometer contraption.
Image: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Foot binding rendered women dependent on men, as they became restricted to their homes. To reduce the size of the feet, the toes on each foot were curled under, then pressed forcibly downwards until they broke. The foot was then drawn down straight with the leg until the arch of the foot was broken, too.

We still wear high heels that damage our arches and crush our toes, so no judgment of practices in the China of centuries ago, please!

Geishas who spend hours applying elaborate makeup to delight and entertain male clients have existed since the 18th century. The traditional white base makeup they once used was made with harmful lead powder.

Today, in a fashion no less extreme than the Geisha "mask", YouTube abounds with tutorials that show you how to radically alter the appearance of your bone structure by applying layers of contouring makeup, and to widen the eyes with lines, shadows and false lashes - all of which also take hours to achieve.


Makeup artist and brow specialist Gillian Lentin says the makeup industry has gone overboard. "Valued at billions of dollars, the makeup industry thrives on weakening women by making them feel insecure," she says. She also acknowledges that social media has changed the game.

"Makeup brands running purely on social media are making a killing by offering solutions to disguise perceived imperfections, and they show you how to do it right there and then. I call it 'Insta-Glam' - and our feeds are being overrun with it. There are so many beauty bloggers and vloggers."

Nikkie de Jager, for instance, and Tati Westbrook are making a fortune from making women obsess about their makeup. According to Westbrook, you too can look like Jennifer Lopez - she's created a YouTube tutorial with JLo's personal makeup artist Scott Barnes to show you exactly how to do it - it's been viewed over three and half million times."

In the last century, skin lighteners containing toxic ingredients, including mercury and hydroquinone, that irreparably damage the skin have been popular among people with darker skin tones. They have only recently been declared illegal. Prolonged use of some of these products is linked to poisoning, skin damage and liver and kidney malfunction.

"But remember," says Lentin, "early modern makeup purveyors like Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein had no foundations for darker skin tones. A few decades ago I had to crush brown eye-shadow into foundation to make a concealer for darker skin."

And plastic surgery, treatments like Botox and fillers, and expensive veneers all in aid of achieving a mannequin-like plasticity of appearance are on the rise.


In an article about the popularity of veneers, Amanda Mull writes: "[Instagram's] cabal of mostly young, mostly female, mostly preternaturally attractive power users, often referred to as 'influencers', are under immense pressure to meet the same standards as their traditionally famous - and often far wealthier - Hollywood counterparts."

Added to this, many aesthetic practitioners and surgeons attest to the desire to look better in selfies all the time, from people in all types of jobs.

Mull adds: "The influencers have different, more intimate relationships with their fans than the celebrities of the past, which has helped Instagram collapse any remaining gap between the things actors and models do to their bodies and what young consumers will aspire to (and spend money on) for their own bodies."

So influencers have begun to normalise a whole host of cosmetic enhancements for a generation of young people.

Is there nothing people won't do to look younger, hotter, more attractive?

"No-one is born hating their body or with an absolute sense of self-deprecation," says clinical psychologist Liane Lurie. "These things are learnt both through the observation of behaviours of others and through subtle and overt messages that we're fed."

Social media is the most pervasive modern driver of these behaviours and messages. "In turn," continues Lurie, "we have an intrinsic need to seek validation and approval, and this often translates into approval based on looks, weight and shape."

Puberty exacerbates self-consciousness. "Kids are bullied or exposed to harmful or inappropriate comments about their developing bodies, as if developing into a woman is a sin. This, coupled with a barrage of images of so-called perfect models and celebrities they idolise too much negatively impacts on self-esteem." 

This doesn't end as we become adults, says Lurie. We're constantly being made aware of ways in which we can improve ourselves, which sets us up for a destructive cycle: "ultimate shame at our perceived lack of self-control and imagined ugliness".


"The proliferation of images on social media has created a trend of comparison with others," says Lurie. "And those comparisons are deficit focussed. You place another person on a pedestal and devalue yourself entirely, all the while not knowing the circumstances behind the image. Many people live with the false hope that if they look a certain way they will be treated differently, neglecting the fact that attractiveness is entirely subjective. This is also reinforced by a free-for-all cyberspace where trolls have tyrannical reign to comment on your appearance."

Facial discrimination is far more overt and shameless than racial discrimination
Writer Sam Leith

Writer Sam Leith puts it this way: "Facial discrimination is far more overt and shameless than racial discrimination: our culture doesn't even attempt to hide its preference for certain arrangements of facial and bodily parts over others. Few of us even pay lip service to the ideal of indifference to physical beauty. If, as a society, we didn't conform to all sorts of norms - many of which are at some level racial and at every level genetic - they wouldn't get anywhere flogging their pills and potions."

Yet despite knowing all this we are all traumatised to varying degrees by our appearance. There's no denying that being beautiful is a big advantage in this world. Without being conscious of it, human beings have intrinsic biases towards certain physical characteristics, and tend to automatically assign favourable nonphysical characteristics to good-looking people.

If you're physically attractive, you're far more likely to be helped by a stranger and people will be more inclined to trust you. Surveys even suggest that non-attractive people tend to get higher prison sentences. So how do we get out of the beauty trap?

"Remember that perceived flaws are the aspects of yourself that make you unique and beautiful," says Lurie.

"Bear in mind that your world becomes smaller and smaller, and time with others is sacrificed for time gazing in the mirror or trying to improve your appearance if you become too concerned with your looks."

Says Lentin: "Healthy beauty is ultimately more dependent on the care you take of yourself, the things you eat, how much you sleep, the things you think, the people you hang out with. We need to regain perspective after the scourge of social media because we're losing our appreciation of the beauty of imperfection."

Instagram influencer Kefilwe Mabote says: "We can blame the media, society or beauty companies for our own insecurities all we want. But in the end we are the ones who make the choices, whether intentionally or not, to believe what we believe about our own state of beauty. We need to get disciplined about what we're looking for on social media. Don't let it dictate what you should look for or look like. Social media is a buffet, you can't eat everything and then blame it on the chef when you get sick. People who feel pressured by social media shouldn't be on it."

In the end, we need to focus on our concept of beauty and redefine it. There's a dichotomy currently at play. While for many, the concept of beauty subscribes more and more to cookie-cutter ideals, with trends in the industry dictating procedures that make us look increasingly alike, like the plastic mannequins in store windows, we are also becoming more tolerant of diversity.

If we tend in the latter direction we will no longer be able to identify the aesthetic ideal espoused by mass marketing and social media. We will, in Umberto Eco's words, "have to surrender before the orgy of tolerance, the total syncretism and absolute and unstoppable polytheism of Beauty" — or else our notions of beauty will only be pixel or scalpel deep.


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