The seeds of this article were planted a few weeks ago, when I met a dental care entrepreneur at a “networking” event. He cheekily suggested that the high percentage of women undergoing surgeries at their clinics was probably because they have a lower threshold of pain and, therefore, seek more surgeries to cure ailments. I couldn’t be bothered to “enlighten” him (ummm… childbirth?), but what I found relevant was that a majority of all surgeries at their clinics were cosmetic. This indicated something most of us already know—women have a very high pain threshold, especially when it comes to looking ‘better’.
Why? Why do we regularly do things that *HURT*? Waxing, threading, chemical peeling, heels… The list goes on, and keeps getting more bizarre. If aliens invaded earth and were told that we regularly burn the top layer of our skin for a new one to grow, or wear painful daggers on our feet…Well, you get the picture. When I ask myself, and those around me, this question, I hear: ‘I do this for me, not anyone else‘. That’s great—humanity has made some progress where we feel we aren’t literally dictated by beauty standards. But are we subliminally?
I’ve begun to question what ‘for me’ means. Do I truly love my arms more when they don’t have hair on them? Or does looking at my body hair remind me of the first time someone in class teased me about them—making me see them in a whole new light, a light that never changed strength or colour ever again?
The answer to this is based on my reality, and I shall make no attempts to generalize on behalf of anyone.
As I’ve started questioning and understanding my own motivations, and separating them from conditioning, I’ve found some answers. I genuinely like soft cheeks, so will put in the effort for certain (painless) beauty routines—weekly scrubbing, nightly rose water, daily sun screen and the likes. Perhaps once in a while I’ll remove blackheads which can be a b*#!h. But eyebrow threading? It makes my eyes water, and I’ve realized I’m really quite okay with bushy eyebrows. Yes, some of you may quip that I don’t have ‘hideous’ brows to begin with (though my ex-beauty parlour would give anything to convince me otherwise, and gain back a customer), but my question remains—who decided that thin pointy lines on top of eyelids are the definition of perfection? You, or someone else?
It gets murkier when expectations of beauty are mixed up with standards of professionalism, as is the case with high heels—that’s a topic I’m currently stumped (or stabbed?) by. There is the beauty-vs.-sense argument: I recently read an article that laid out the horrors of wearing heels quite explicitly, and called out the stupidity of doing so. While I wouldn’t go that far, there is a point here. Do I truly believe that my legs look better when attached to 4 inches of very painful shoes? Or is it that I am conditioned to view long legs with arched feet as sexier? And is ruining my back (which already has issues), my ankles, and my ability to decide whimsically to walk home in nice weather really worth this perceived beauty? But it gets more complex: when you already look like a helpless young girl, and heels are yet another definition of ‘power professional’ dressing, especially in power-heavy male-dominant sectors as anyone who read this distressing article about PwC’s wonderful hiring norms can attest, what do you choose?
So, even though I’ve stopped wearing heels pretty much anywhere, yesterday, while packing for a small conference, I was confused about my choice of shoes. I put on my heels, admired the effect, and then realized – it’s Just. Not. Worth. It. So I wore flats. Yes, I was short, but at least I was able to stand the whole night and didn’t die of pain once I got home.
But what when the stakes are higher? Will I skip heels on a job interview? Or my first day of work? Or a fancy cocktail dinner where I need to “dress to impress” (why god why do we have phrases like that)?
I don’t know to be honest. At this stage, all I can do is think about my decisions as objectively as I can, question how much I link self-esteem to perceived beauty, how much I view beauty as my own definition rather than shaped by society, whether I am willing to question social norms, and at what cost. And the decisions I make will be based on the pressures I feel about specific beauty standards—you may have others.
My wish is that we all do something similar—a small exercise in self-awareness, if you will—to truly understand how we define ‘for me’, and maybe in the process, uncover biases that have conditioned us to define beauty a certain way. Maybe one day, if we keep uncovering and fighting them, we’ll be able to pull the definition of “beauty” in so many directions that it won’t be able to stand imposingly enough to convince anyone to undergo physical and mental hell—for no good reason.
Article by Rushil Prakash