The Financial Harm of Beauty Standards
About five years ago, I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants. It came at a time when I was already feeling perturbed about how expensive and ridiculous it can sometimes feel to be a woman, and hearing Fey’s retrospection of growing up a woman felt like vindication to me. I’d never felt more heard than by her summary of the body parts women feel obligated to own, buy, or reverse engineer: “Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, Michelle Obama’s arms, and doll tits.”
In one chapter, Fey parodies beauty standards and their accompanying treatments, referring to them as her “Rules of Beauty.” In Rule #11, “Aging Naturally Without Looking Like Time-Lapse Photography of a Rotting Sparrow,” Fey bestows upon us commoner potato humans a few *insider tips* on how to fight back the bodily decay that sets in at around age 40: “You may need to “pluck your patchy beard daily. Your big toe may start to turn jauntily inward. Overnight you may grow one long straight white pubic hair. Not that this has happened to me because every six months I get a very expensive Japanese treatment that turns my pubic hair clear like rice noodles!”
I remember reading this and thinking: Huh. Wow. The expectations for pubic hair removal for women are so God-damn ridiculous that this very well may be the perfect joke. While Fey’s process is utterly farfetched, it is equally as ludicrous to think about what women actually do with their pubes. If you’re not hip to the latest in lady-muff maintenance, allow me: Many, many women spend $50 to $100 every month or so to have broiling candle wax poured all over the most sensitive skin on the human body—including the butthole—to then rip each thick-headed hair straight out from the root. It is more twisted than a pubic hair, and this poll states that almost 60% of women are going bare.
With each passing year, my patience for beauty standards grows thinner. Part of it is because I now really, really consider how I spend my money. Part of it is because I’m growin’ up and looking older myself. Part of it is because I’m so tired of social media. Part of it was reading How to Be a Woman, another comedy memoir and feminist manifesto by the delightful Caitlin Moran. (If you can’t already tell, everything I know about being a woman I learned from female comedians, so there’s that. Comedians tend to sniff out the shit piles before everyone else.)
Moran’s delicious rant on Brazilian waxing sums it up: “I can’t believe we’ve got to the point where it’s basically costing us money to have a vagina. They’re making us pay for maintenance and upkeep of our lulus, like they’re a communal garden. It’s a stealth tax. Muff excised. This is money we should be spending on the ELECTRICITY BILL and CHEESE and BERETS. Instead, we’re wasting it on making our Chihuahuas look like a skanky chicken breast. God DAMN you, mores of pornography that have made it into my underwear. GOD DAMN YOU.”
It’s not just about pubic hair!
Although I’m pickin’ on hair removal today, ‘tis but one bitsy fragment of what is an ever-expanding cosmos of unnecessary beauty treatments/surgeries/systems that many women feel are an “essential” part of a beauty or weight loss routine. We rarely question them, yet there is nothing normal or inevitable about American beauty standards. Thigh gaps? Pantene Pro-V hair that’s thick as an Afghan hound’s and shiny as an oil slick? Having to look like you’re Dakota Fanning when you’re actually 54 years old? Baby-soft…armpits!!??
And while American beauty standards are unachievable for 99% of woman, they’re particularly perverse for women of color. Not only must women be skinny and youthful, but also white or look beautiful “in a white way.” Eurocentric beauty standards have deep and racist roots and worst of all, are legitimate grounds for discrimination of women and girls of color. (Want to get woke on the subject? Read this.)
Never, ever forget, this nonsense is manufactured by businesses to sell products, period. Insecurity is a major business play and yields big money results. Beauty, fashion, and weight-loss are multi-billion dollar industries; industries that thrive only when normal women get stuck in the hamster wheel of spending money to chase some image of what they’re not. (The cosmetics industry alone is worth $460 billion.)
Fashion magazines, which are really just 150-page advertisement digests, aren’t the only ones to blame here. Standards of beauty are enforced by Hollywood and by pornography, and then perpetuated by the culture of capitalism and advertising, social media, men, and of course, women: In particular, women who “buy in” and far worse, women who encourage other women to adhere to the same standards—whether or not they’re doing it on purpose. I’m guilty as anyone. And I don’t feel bad admitting it because it’s hard not to be complicit in what is such a pervasive system of values!
Okay back to pubes
Of the beauty standards, hair-free errrythang does strike as particularly sinister. Bald cooch really took off within the porn industry, which isn’t itself necessarily troubling until you consider what happens further downstream. As Moran points out, hardcore pornography is now where every young boy learns about sex. So we’ve got preteen boys who have never seen a woman with pubic hair and preteen girls so terrified of rejection they’re getting their lil’ baby vaginas waxed—seriously, this happens!—resulting in “a combination that—with its overtones of infantilization and impetus in hardcore pornography—is pretty creepy, whichever way you look at it.” (This is to say nothing of the fact that porn is an industry designed by and for men, with scant consideration of what women want. This is a heady topic; we’ll save it for another day.)
Every young woman remembers the moment she first learned that her naturally-occurring vagina is appalling even to those who will never see it. For me, it was in eighth grade. I sat at a lunch table, eating my ham and cheese Lunchables like the friggin child I was, when one of the tall, popular boys claimed he could tell “just by looking at a girl” whether she shaved her pubes or not. One by one, he marked each girl, exclaiming his diagnosis for all to hear. Internally, I panicked. My goofy, underdeveloped ass had been so consumed with neon gel pens, living in the dELiA*s catalog (which by the way, was completely whitewashed) and looking up instruments of the world on Microsoft Encarta (that didgeridoo was so dope), I had never even considered such a thing. His methodology for determining the pubic hair maintenance habits of his subjects was simple to decipher: The pretty girls must shave their pubes, and that the less pretty girls—including me—must not.
The message was clear: If I wanted to come close to competing with the much prettier girls in my middle school class, I would have to be a bare crotch vigilante, no matter the cost.
From middle school on, I never really questioned the tenets of pubic hair removal. Like lots of women, I don’t want to bungle a chance at true love because of an improperly-maintained muff. This is a legitimate threat, considering that 56% of men in a Cosmopolitan survey said they prefer a woman to be hair-free and 40% have asked their partner to change their “style.” 30% of men would dump someone with pubic hair. That’s right; one-third of dudes in the world have a zero-tolerance policy on something that grows—naturally—every single fucking day, on every single woman, EVER. Jeezus. Might as well have a zero-tolerance policy on the seasons, or death. THEY HAPPEN, YO.
And can you imagine men putting up with this shit?????? HAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!
While I am deeply sympathetic to the unique pressures boys and men deal with (can we please teach boys that they don’t need to win everything?), it rankles to think of both the legitimate pain—fiery, itchy pain!—and the money and time women feel obligated to spend on beauty treatments as compared to men. I am not arguing that some women legitimately like the look and feel of a fresh wax, but I don’t know too many women would get the fur peeled from her vaginal lips for $80 a session if she believed that men truly didn’t care.
My real concern
I do not care what people want to do with their bodies and time. I wish I never had to write a blog post about friggin’ minge and please don’t take this as a judgment of your personal decisions. It’s not. It’s this and only this: Unattainable beauty standards put women at a huge financial disadvantage. If you’re getting a $50 wax every month for your adult lifetime, you’re spending tens of thousands of dollars. That’s just on bikini waxes. And do we really want our girls growing up feeling like they need to spend all of their monies on depilation services? As an alternative, Moran suggests we “save enough money from not waxing to bugger off to Finland and watch aurora borealis from a five-star hotel while shit-faced on vintage brandy.” Don’t know ‘bout you, but that sounds a helluva lot more fun than gettin’ the lettuce ripped off my taco.
This is hardly a new topic, yet very few folks in the finance industry talk of hegemonic beauty standards in terms of money. First and foremost, those in charge have historically been men who are juusssst fine with the existing flow of money and power structure. That is changing, slowly. But even within enlightened financial circles the conversation often starts and stops at “spend money only on what makes you truly happy!” And while I agree with this in theory, the advice assumes a pretty pollyanna view of decision-making in a complicated world. Our culture is omnipresent with influences welcome and unwelcome, detectable and undetectable. Concluding that decision-making is always straightforward or easy does an absolute disservice to the unique pressures some women feel to spend money.
I write this because I personally know what it’s like to spend money in order to inch my way closer to some mindfuck image of a supermodel in a magazine or worse, every fourth woman I see in a bikini hashtag throwback on the Explore page on Instagram. I feel caught in an eternal tug-of-war between a) worrying about my tummy or pale skin or thin lips because sadly, I do believe that even moderate improvements in these domains would increase my chances of getting “hit on” and b) saying FUCK IT ALL because I don’t ACTUALLY dislike these things about myself!! Society just tricks me into not liking ‘em, so that I rush to empty my pockets at the altars of insecurity.
So while I am NOT promising that I won’t get a wax ever again and I DON’T have plans to set ablaze my mascara, razors, and military-strength Victorian corset (j/k), I would like to throw my hat in the ring as someone that supports women who are tired of unachievable beauty standards. I offer my support not as someone with a solution wrapped up in a big pink bow, but as someone willing to have an honest discussion about how we avoid letting systemic pressures jeopardize our financial success. It is simply no secret that existing power structures thrive in silence, so let’s talk.
And as I’ve said before, I mostly care to discuss financial success in the terms of how it allows us to be free: Freedom from having to work forever and with the time to pursue whatever it is that gets our rocks off. I care only about our precious time.