Helen Razer’s beauty myth

The mantra of self-esteem is everywhere these days. So Helen Razer’s recent diagnosis of a widespread tendency to write ‘as though the “right” to “feel beautiful” were something endorsed by John Locke and on a par with reproductive autonomy’ has real force.

Consider Target’s current marketing slogan, ‘Every Australian has the right to look good and feel good about the way they dress and live’, which debases the language of human rights by commoditising it. Well might the sceptical conclude that ‘self-esteem’ often has more to do with consumer capitalism than it does with any genuine improvement in the lot of human beings of any gender.

Razer is correct that articles about body image attract clicks and revenue, so there is more behind their publication than a benevolent concern with female wellbeing: ‘Write about The Pressure to Look Good, and you’ll find a wide and uncritical audience. Hold forth with any degree of earnestness about ‘body image’, and your thoughts will ricochet around the internet …You might even profit’. This statement of the shallowness of much contemporary commentary rings true, and the point extends further. Mark Fletcher suggested recently that owing to the touch of the ‘invisible hand … opinion writers (by and large) are not necessarily successful if they are clever or insightful’ but if ‘they generate a lot of traffic, either in the form of newspapers sold or views of their website’. It’s a dynamic that underlies the ‘Outrage Economy’.

There is much, then, in Razer’s article with which one might agree – the packaging of the personal problem into the sellable screed is near-omnipresent. She takes a peculiar turn, though, when she floats the concept of a boycott: ‘What we might think about doing instead of writing horrible op-eds … is taking a literal pause in buying beauty. Don’t buy it.’

This statement, and Razer’s article more generally, seems irrelevant to Annabel Crabb’s column to which Razer was responding. Crabb’s piece concerned the obligations imposed on women who appear on television, noting that in order to do so

without attracting howls, boos and vicious letters from members of the viewing audience with internet connections and superfluous time on their hands, a lady must first be coated thoroughly in the facial region with costly creams …

Crabb may well be criticised for focusing on a problem generally experienced only by women in elite professions, and indeed liberal feminism more broadly suffers from a limited perspective. As bell hooks noted recently: the dominant definition of feminism ‘begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system … the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged.’ The desire to succeed within a flawed system seems, at best, an unambitious goal for a liberation movement. At worst, it’s a privileging of individualism over the collective and a dismal failure to engage with class, race, and sexuality as well as gender.

However, Razer does not focus on these concerns. Instead, she expresses disappointment that a writer she respects would write ‘a piece on an idea so hackneyed’ as body-image woes. This conclusion overlooks what appears to be Crabb’s central point, which was not about how ‘a lady’ might feel about being made up or how it might affect her sense of self-worth, but the sheer amount of time and energy poured into presentation for women in certain professions. Crabb applied her experiences to former PM Julia Gillard, hypothesising:

assuming she had to spend an hour a day being made up, let’s say five days a week, that’s 750 hours over the course of her prime ministership that the most powerful woman in Australia spent having someone colour in her face. How much is 750 hours of PM time worth, anyway?

This question goes to the material (as distinct from emotional) impact beauty standards have on women’s lived reality. This is because time is a valuable and limited resource – hours consumed by the application of cosmetics cannot be devoted to other pursuits. In his paper ‘Tertiary Time: The Precariat’s Dilemma’, Guy Standing argued that:

time is a basic asset. Throughout history, class struggle has been about the redistribution of the assets that are vital to the good life of the era, largely defined in terms set by the dominant social formation. Like any other asset, time is distributed unequally and inequitably. Some individuals and groups have more control over how they allocate their time and have more ‘free time.’ The way the maldistribution occurs is not mainly the outcome of merit or hard work. But however it comes, it is unequal. Consider the everyday life of a single mother and observe the time squeeze’.

Standing regretted that ‘we have no politics of time’. The absence is an ongoing problem, and it’s notable that our last Labor government glorified ‘the dignity of work’ rather than emphasising the interests workers might have – as parents, friends and members of communities – in spending less rather than more time in paid employment. Gillard again invoked the concept to justify cutting welfare payments to single parents, as though caring for children innately lacked dignity.

But back to Razer’s article: it is also too pat a response to state simply that women ought to stop consuming beauty products, as though notions of ‘professional attire’ did not dovetail so neatly with indicia of conventional attractiveness. Razer argues that although choice is ‘largely illusory’, one can ‘choose not to buy things’. Yet if there is a correlation between one’s chances of career advancement and financial reward and one’s physical appearance, ‘choice’ become markedly less clear-cut.

Of course, feminism must not limit itself to outrage on behalf of professional women seeking to ‘lean in’, and the oppressiveness of makeup is hardly a first order priority. It is worth recalling, though, that notions of beauty have real-world impacts and that truth lurks behind the old saying that ‘time is money’.

Sarah Burnside

Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and writes about history, politics, policy and culture. She tweets at @saraheburnside

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  1. Great piece. It is fascinating how thoroughly beauty maintenance regimes have become entrenched in women’s daily lives. It does seem to be intimately intertwined with middle-class, aspirational feminism, which imagines the way to gender equality is through the accumulation of money, which is gained through the performance of professional occupations and marriage into the professional class. I am more in love with idea of women’s liberation, myself. Such a liberation would be both from the time constraints of beauty maintenance and financial dependence on patriarchal structures, be that enacted through jobs or through marriage.

  2. Hi Peter – I guess she’s back! Which I am pleased about, because she is always thought-provoking.

    Helen, thank you for that thoughtful comment. I agree – Greer’s line about the folly of settling for equality instead of liberation rings true for me. Regarding class and aspiration, I regret that I only read this fantastic piece after I’d already submitted my article: http://tressiemc.com/2013/10/29/the-logic-of-stupid-poor-people/

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