There's a spectrum of feminist responses to the beauty myth. At one end, there's the dour ladies who feel that any concession to the idea of beauty compromises women. And at the other end, there's the idea that women should be able to do with our bodies whatever we wish - whether that be wearing lip gloss and labels or having hairy legs and jackboots.
I have to admit that I'm much closer to the dour end of the spectrum than the do-as-you-please end, although I mean no disrespect to those feminists with other beliefs. It's not that I don't support women's right to autonomy over our bodies. Rather, it's because women and men alike can use our individual rights and autonomy in ways which cause harm to others. I feel that if we as feminists focus too much on securing women's personal freedoms, we might lose sight of the collective issue - in this case, how our individual actions feed a beauty culture which is unhealthy for women.
Case in point. In my early twenties, the chronic despression which has been a permanent feature of my life landed me in the acute psychiatric ward of the local hospital (another post for another day, perhaps). I shared my ward room with three other women; each of us had a quarter of the room surrounded by a curtain. One of my roommates was a woman in her mid-twenties called Lauren.
Lauren was terribly ill with anorexia. She had deprived her body until she was pencil-thin and shapeless like a twelve-year-old boy. During mealtimes, she and the other patients with eating disorders - all of them young women - sat in their own segregated area, where their eating was scrutinised by a nurse. Each of these women had a tray containing the sort of lunch you might feed a preschooler: tiny sandwiches, a miniature package of fruit juice. Eating was a source of anguish and humilation for these women. They sat hunched miserably over their children's servings, with their bony spines and ribcages protruding, hoping I think that the nurse might relent and leave them be. They looked like they felt they were being tortured.
I had an altercation with Lauren one day. I'd decided that I needed to add orange hairdye to the greyness of my life, and left a godawful mess in our shared bathroom. Lauren told me angrily to clean it up. Later, she tried to apologise. This wasn't easy for her, not for reasons for pride or anything like that, but because she was so consumed by the pain of her illness that communicating coherently with others was truly difficult for her. I knew what she meant, though, and she gave me the only smile I ever saw from her.
From that point, Lauren and I had the closest thing to a friendship which I believe a person as ill as her could possibly have. One night, as each person was in bed in their curtained quarters, Lauren asked me calmly if I would call her a nurse. I knew something was horribly, terribly wrong. After fetching the nurse, I listened fearfully from behind my curtain. The nurse attending Lauren called out to another, 'It's in almost three inches - call surgery'.
I later found out that Lauren had taken a pair of scissors and silently tried to cut away the 'fat' from her emaciated stomach. That's how much she hated her own body. Miraculously, she had missed her internal organs.
It's too simplistic to say that the beauty industry causes eating disorders, but I don't believe it helped Lauren to live in a culture in which dissastisfaction with ourselves is mandatory for women. Feeling beautiful and sexy can be fun, an aesthetic thing to be enjoyed and celebrated. But I feel strongly that beauty is harmful when it sets women in competition with one another, or with ourselves, in a race towards goals which stay ever out of reach. Who hasn't said to themselves or others, 'If I just lose a couple more kilos I'll be happy with the way I look', 'Oh my God - look at her hair', or 'I may be a bit chubby, but at least I'm not as fat as her'. Because, as Lauren's story shows, every competition must have a loser.
A couple of years ago, I opened a newspaper to find a story about Lauren. She had succeeded in starving herself to death in her mid-thirties. The sadness I felt was not for her death, but for the unhappiness and self-hatred of her life. Mostly, I felt relief that her suffering was over.