The idea that women’s bodies can be allowed to walk the streets, exist in the paid workplace, or appear anywhere in public without enhancement or embellishment is becoming less and less acceptable. Once, make-up and false bosoms were a signal that a woman was either on the stage, haunting the backstreets in hope of a paying customer, or appearing in movies labelled ‘porn’. In the 21st century, they are signifiers of ‘mainstream’ woman.
Intelligence via a ‘team of scientists and psychologists’ from Harvard and Boston Universities and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute says women wearing make-up are perceived as ‘more competent, attractive, likeable and trustworthy’. The study contends this follows whether women are made-up in a ‘natural’, ‘professional’ or ‘glamorous’ style and whether the images are flashed before the studies’ subjects eyes or viewed for more lengthy periods.
Funded by Procter and Gamble, a huge conglomerate making its money through selling cosmetics (mainly to women), the study is labelled ‘independent’ so must be believed – at least, this is the thrust. Hence, comes the message, to get on in business or succeed in professional life, after spending-up at cosmetic counters all over the country women had better get out the make-up palette.
So have we ‘come a long way baby’, or are women inexorably enmeshed in a culture that sees artifice as more acceptable than the reality of women’s physiognomy? Are women’s real bodies ‘out’, whilst contrivances projected as ‘real’ women constitute the ‘perfection’ and ‘beauty’ for which (once) real women must aim?
In the 1970s, a raft of books and articles appeared as an antidote to the rejection by the Women’s Movement of lipstick, bras and ‘step-ins’ (a modified corset or girdle), and the replacement of stockings and suspenders with pantyhose. Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman, selling more than ten million copies, was perhaps the most popular. She advocated that women enfold themselves in saran wrap (a transparent plastic used to preserve left-over food) when greeting a husband just home from work. An alternative was to spread oneself liberally in jam or honey whilst making supper for a husband lying prone on couch or carpet watching evening television. In this context, ‘wife’ was supposed to equal ‘supper’.
Although the book and her accompanying seminars had a massive audience, it is doubtful that many women went to the lengths Marabel Morgan suggested. Yet perhaps a return to her methods of feminine enhancement would be less damaging to women than a visit to today’s beauty parlours, and extraordinary though it may seem even less dangerous or humiliating, as well as less expensive.
A woman doesn’t need to enter a beauty parlour to be regaled with methods and mechanisms for ‘becoming beautiful’. In London, venturing into a large department store in Bond Street means being assailed on all sides by ‘product’ representatives bearing potions, lotions and pastes in tubes, jars and containers of all dimensions, or brandishing hair-wands, lash-curlers or body-shapers of all sorts and sizes. Venturing into the Grand Arcade in Cambridge brings with it a need to avoid salespeople imploring passersby to sample a wide variety of perfume, cosmetics and ‘beauty treatments’. Australian capital cities carry their own brand of cosmetic confrontation, with department store refurbishment seeing the make-up and perfume counter as necessarily at the forefront of luring the customer.
Meanwhile, beauty parlours adopt more and more fanciful methods of pampering the body, more and more ways of ensuring that women’s pockets and purses open wide in the search for the perfect body, the face of beauty, according to conventional diktat.
Want puffed-up lips? This comes not by the sting of a bee, but through the injection of ‘chemical fillers’, or agitating the lips with capsicum or chilli. Collagen and more recently developed products using hyaluronic acid operate akin to scaffolding, although ‘care must be taken’ to avoid ‘creating ridges’ giving the mouth ‘an ugly edge’. Silicone implants or ‘Permalip’ last longer though they cost twice as much: $2,000 as opposed to $1,000 for several months of a protuberant pout. Then it’s back to the beauty (sic) parlour to be relieved of another hefty sum.
What about an end to wrinkles? This requires a good dose of botulism or, as advertised, its commercially named Botox. Rather than the death that follows upon a botulism bout, Botox targets ageing’s most visible facial indicator. Of course, this costs, too. Yet perhaps rather than the monetary outlay, the so-called ‘side’ effects should be centre-stage. Lessening or alleviating frown-lines may cause life-threatening conditions that, once detected, even at their most mild stage, dictate an immediate call to the doctor or the nearest hospital’s emergency department.
- Problems with swallowing, speaking or breathing, caused by weakening of facial or throat muscles;
- Loss of strength and ‘all-over muscle weakness’, as well as double or blurred vision, ‘drooping or swelling’ eyelids, dry eyes, loss of capacity to speak, hoarseness or inability to articulate clearly, loss of bladder control;
- Dry mouth, discomfort or pain at the site of injections, tiredness, neckpain, headaches;
- Allergic reactions including ‘itching, rash, red itchy welts, wheezing, asthma symptoms, dizziness or feeling faint’.
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.