When I was little, and didn’t want to sit through getting my hair brushed or styled, my nana would say “It hurts to be beautiful”. It’s a statement I’ve known all my life and one I still say to myself.
And to my own daughter.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged and accepted. If you’re a woman, it hurts to be beautiful.
We color our hair, wear make-up, wax our eyebrows, our lips, our bikini lines. Totter around on stilettos that make our feet bleed and bruise. Cram ourselves into spanx and forego food for a day to fit in one specific dress. Inject our faces with botox to eliminate wrinkles. Undergo surgery to lift our boobs, tighten our necks, smooth our tummies, all to defy the effects of gravity and motherhood.
I’ve done most of those things. In the end I’ll probably do them all. If I leave the house without at least a bit of make-up on, you can be pretty sure the only place I’m heading is to the gym. I’ve got a fair bit of grey in my hair, and I will continue to cover it up with dye for the foreseeable future. I own — and wear — shoes that bruise my toes so badly that I can only wear sneakers for the next three days after a single night in them, and spanx that squeeze the thickest part of my thighs so hard they leave indentations that last for hours after I’ve taken them off. I have worn clothes that made deep breaths difficult and eating impossible. I regularly have hot wax smeared on my face and ripped off to remove the shadow on my upper lip and the caterpillar eyebrows I inherited from my dad.
I participate in my own torture, willingly, because I have been conditioned to believe that I am only beautiful if I do those things.
I hate the concept, but continue to play the game. And I’m teaching my daughter to play it as well. I wrestle with the messages and the practices, both as a mother and as a woman. Am I doing the right thing? Am I teaching her the right thing? I’m uncomfortable with it all, but we live in a society that says “this is what it takes to be pretty” and so we follow along.
Some of it I can paint as pretty harmless: I like make-up, and it’s fun to play with and it certainly doesn’t hurt. Coloring my hair isn’t painful, just time-consuming, and I like changing my color to suit the season or my mood. I enjoy getting dressed up and I don’t really mind sucking in my tummy for a while to make the line of a dress lie more smoothly.
But there’s nothing fun about getting the hair ripped off your body with hot wax. Nothing fun about wearing shoes that bruise and pinch and underwear that squeezes and compresses and clothes that hinder your movement and breath. I can’t pretend there’s any message but self-torture in there. And yet I teach my daughter.
Society places a high premium on looks, and the standards to which men and women are held are comically different.
Why doesn’t daddy look bad without make-up on? Because society hasn’t told him that he does. His skin isn’t a blemish- and blotch-free poreless canvas, highlighted and contoured in all the right places. He has circles under his eyes because he didn’t sleep great last night, but he doesn’t need to hide them. His eyebrows are a bit scraggly. He has grey in the hair on his temples. He’s definitely not clean-shaven. And yet all he has to do is run a warm wash cloth over his face, comb his hair, and he’s done. Handsome even.
Can you IMAGINE if men had to undergo the physical modification women regularly submit to in the name of beauty? Good lord would our standards change quickly.
I have no answers, only questions. I will still dye my hair and wear make-up. I will still wear shoes that hurt and underwear that squeezes. I will continue to have my hair waxed off. And I will forever ask myself why I do it, what would really happen if I didn’t, and whether I’m teaching my daughter the right lessons.
It hurts to be beautiful.