The pressure to look good

Social media has done many wonderful things for women, and for writers, and for activists, and for women writer-activists. It’s allowed us to connect. It’s given us a virtual soapbox, a ground-up way of taking a stand, making a point and getting our message out when newspapers and magazines might have ignored us. It’s let us lead movements from our smartphones.

But, in terms of beauty, it’s really bitten us on the bottom.

The visual footprint of a writer was until recently limited to a postage-stamp-size author photo. Yes, you’d get dressed up for your book tour, if your publisher was generous enough to fund one, and for television appearances if you were lucky enough to have them. But in terms of your day-to-day work life, your looks didn’t matter. That made the job extra-appealing for those of us who realized early on that the path of the supermodel would not be ours to walk.

Then along came cell phones with built-in cameras. And blogs and Facebook and Twitter. Suddenly, you weren’t just that one tiny picture, you were every picture anyone might happen to want to snap, and to post and pin and share, images that would be tweeted and retweeted, scrutinized and commented upon and invoked to dismiss you as jealous, overweight, bitter, sexually frustrated and, maybe, illogically, also a sexually promiscuous hag. For some critics, a woman’s looks remain the first place they’ll go when they disagree with her opinions.

And it’s not just the almost famous. Regular women, too, are feeling the pressure.

It used to be that we needed fancy clothes and attention to hair and makeup for weddings, graduations, birthdays, bar mitzvahs. We knew the cameras would be out, and we knew, for the most part, who’d be seeing the pictures.

It used to be that, generally speaking, we all knew the occasions that required us to look good.

Now? Every day is Class Picture Day. Every phone is a camera. Every picture, or video, ends up on the Internet. Everyone, from your eighth-grade classmates to the wife of the guy you worked with 10 years ago, can see. And for every news story about Spanx giving up its grip (only to be replaced by slightly more forgiving yoga pants), or every real-size heroine be it Kylie Jenner, Kangana Ranaut or Amna Illyas on the cover of InStyle, Vogue, Bazaar or Rebel Wilson topping the box-office charts, it seems that here in the real world, the beauty culture has only gotten more demanding.

We are all locked in an endless loop of “Hot or Not” that plays out online and feeds off the growing amount of help that’s both accessible and affordable.

Once, we believed that stars’ appearances on the red carpet, perfectly gowned and coiffed, were magical, and, for mere mortals, unobtainable. Now, not only do the tabloids tell us that stars are just like us, but the stars themselves concur, unbuttoning the emperor’s new clothes, exposing what lies beneath and posting behind-the-scenes shots of what it takes to get from here to there. Go online and you’ll find them Instagramming shots from the spray-tanning bed, tweeting selfies with their glam squads while having their makeup applied, Facebooking as they’re sewn into their gowns, helped into their limos, and finally ready to smile for the camera.

It’s sexist and depressing, and expensive, costly in terms of both money and time. There have been entire afternoons that I could have spent with my daughters where I’ve been in the salon instead, getting my gray covered up and my calluses scrubbed, because I was going on TV, or because I was going on book tour, or because it was Tuesday. Some of it is just liking to look good. Some of it is knowing what could happen online to me, or any woman, who doesn’t.

How do you preach the gospel of body positivity when you’re breathless from your Spanx? How can you tell your girls that inner beauty matters when you’re texting them the message from your aesthetician’s chair?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m getting my hair color done on Saturday, which gives me a solid three hours to try to figure it out.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.