Running to stand still – why fluff is a feminist issue

12Jan07

The Guardian had a fluff piece by Paula Cocozza yesterday which I was reading on the train home from London. It was all about the rise of the “blow dry”. I’m someone who spends a lot on her fine but naturally curly hair (the products I used on it this morning cost a combined total of £50+). I wash it every day with salon shampoos (currently Aveda) and use a lot of product. I also blow-dry it most mornings. So you’d think I’d be a natural audience for this kind of thing.

But I’m not. In fact, I got pretty angry reading the article. And not because I have a big thing against professional blow-drying. It’s no worse than many of the other “grooming” rituals that women are expected to undergo (leg waxes, manicures, teeth-whitening, Botox, facials…). It wasn’t the writing either: Cocozza’s piece was fine, but felt like it should have been in one of the women’s magazines, those purveyors of junk food for the soul, rather than the Guardian. No, what angers me is the way in which the goalposts are constantly shifted for women so that more and more of our time and money is directed towards making ourselves look “good”. We should pluck our eyebrows. We should wax our legs. We should whiten our teeth. We should cleanse, tone and moisturise. We should inject botulism into our faces to remove the wrinkles. The bottom line of what “looking good” means for women is constantly shifting so that it takes more and more effort and money to feel anything other than hideous and unkempt. There’s no way to keep up with it and it’s exhausting even to try. It’s a double-whammy for “the patriarchy” – keep women’s self-esteem invested in an ideal look that is getting ever more difficult to maintain and make money out of them at the same time by getting them to pay top-dollar for it.

The code word for this trend towards ever more restrictive, time-consuming and expensive grooming for women is “glamour”. It is “glamorous” to waste your hard-earned money and time to have hair that looks like Jennifer Aniston’s (a pretty old example but, hey, Cocozza uses it) . It is “glamorous” to have manicures. It is “glamorous” to spend your time and money creating a fake image of yourself that requires constance maintenance. But if the glowing image of glamour beckons you in, telling you you’re gorgeous, stunning, “worth it”, the dark side is the disgust with which women learn to treat their unvarnished, unadorned selves. Without the glamour, we learn, we are nothing.

Women are running to stand still

The extra effort that women are expected to put in these days is summed up in this quote from the article:

The Rachel may have made its name as a haircut, but really it was all about the styling. It required the application of product, straighteners and patience. [my emphasis]

This is not simply about women, although I think it affects women disproportionately. Men are starting to be targeted by the corporations who make beauty products too. But it is women who are routinely expected to wear make-up, take care of their appearance, and this is a burden that is becoming more and more time-consuming and expensive. We didn’t create the beauty standard, but most of us will conform to it – anything else is practically heresy.

This quote from the article jumped out at me as summing up the situation:

[The Topshop bar’s] three chairs represent seats of yearning. Those who take their place in them do so because what they have on top of their heads does not tally enough with what they have in their heads, the hair of their imagination.

Seats of yearning, people! Yearn for the hair that could have been! Because we all know, if you’re not beautiful all the time, you’re not worth anything!

As Cocozza says “On the journey back to blow-drying, hair has undergone an intensive commercialisation”, and earlier in the article, she even more explicitly states, “This is the commodification of hair – hair that has been given a name, turned into something we can buy.” But she doesn’t explore this any further. It simply “is”. Not worth questioning it. Not even worth asking, who benefits when so many women hate the way they look or feel that unless they are spending a fortune on expensive routines, they are ugly.

It saddens me that even the Guardian, that left-wing newspaper which has always been both sympathetic and alert to feminism, has become so unquestioning of beauty and fashion articles. This article was the top story in G2, the Guardian’s features section, but it is as though everyone involved with it was wearing blinkers. The quotes in the article were taken at face value, despite the fact that the hairdressers clearly stand to profit from persuading women to have their hair professionally blow-dried as part of their “beauty routine”. It was a fluff piece – a trend story – quirky and throwaway. But the trend story they should have published is how women have to work harder and harder and spend more and more money to keep up with the demands of beauty, and how this keeps chip chip chipping away at women’s self-esteem until they feel not good enough without it.

That’s the real beauty trend. And, man, is it ugly.

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2 Responses to “Running to stand still – why fluff is a feminist issue”

  1. This reminded me of this past weekend when I needed some new makeup. Being a poor grad student, I no longer have the money to go to the department store and try some out before I buy. No, I am relegated to the aisles of the pharmacy to buy (what is still pretty expensive) cheap makeup that I cannot try out first. The point: every single product talked about natural look, fresh look, just like your skin.

    Am I wrong or is skin without anything on it natural? Isn’t my skin just like my skin? Isn’t a freshly-washed face a “fresh” look? I mean, not that I am all for going around without any makeup, but can we at least advertise a bit more creatively?

  2. Hey jrav – thanks for visiting the blog and commenting!

    As I learned from a brief period working on UK Cosmopolitan (actually, the main thing I learned was how to get coffee in Soho – the joys of work experience), the “natural” look is anything but. Spend a fortune and take hours to look like you’ve spent nothing and just rolled out of bed! I particularly hate the natural look because it says even when you’re genuinely natural you’re not good enough – you have to cover up your real natural look because you need make-up to look anywhere close to normal.

    I actually wrote to the Guardian to complain about this article. Much better written than the blog post – I think I used up my creative juices on that. They published my letter, but I’m not holding my breath for a re-evaluation of their beauty articles…


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