In a recent issue, a prominent Bangladeshi daily newspaper attempted to address the epidemic of colourism against women. This feature-filled with outrageous contradictions and fallacies, tries to condition women into believing that society will not take them seriously unless they are heavily made-up and have a thorough skincare routine. Who cares about your PhD if you have a pimple? It singles out successful women of colour such as Kamala Harris, Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé among others, to state that they have broken the glass ceiling not only with their achievements but with their beauty too, given that they were born with such a disadvantage – they were born 'Black'. This is shocking to the columnist, who obviously believes that a fair complexion is the ultimate benchmark of beauty, as she consistently tells women not to be disheartened about the colour of their skin. She makes it a point to inform us that dark-skinned women can be beautiful too.
Acknowledging that women's beauty practices can be both a source of fun and a mode of self-expression, she makes a little detour by telling women they can pull off any colour. She started recommending shades of lipstick because she fears that women might face the agonising dilemma of deciding whether or not to wear makeup. A life-altering decision, the most important one she will ever take.
This mind-numbingly stupid take on skin tone prejudice preys on the insecurities of women. It capitalises on self-hate, brainwashing them into believing that they cannot look good without lipstick and concealer.
In Naomi Wolf's 'The Beauty Myth', we learn that the socially constructed ideas of feminine beauty are a direct manifestation of sexism, designed to hold women back. The pressure of spending time, effort and a fortune on beauty products is put on women so that their appearance accords with societal ideals. This hinders their progress in obtaining equality.
On the other hand, men are not held to the same standards. This leads to appearance-based gender discrimination. If women didn't have to adhere to these expectations, the time spent on pursuing beauty standards could perhaps be used to achieve more significant goals. This would make women a threat to the gender hierarchy.
But men and women are treated differently at the workplace. Research shows that women are 16 times more likely than men to say they suffered employment-related discrimination due to their weight. Female professionals such as flight attendants are even restricted by dress codes and obligated to wear makeup to work. So, it is evident that the elaborate beauty routines are hardly about self-expression. It is rather about not being labelled 'dull', 'lazy' and 'unattractive' and considered likeable and make favourable impressions on potential romantic partners and employers. It is a mandate. It is a survival instinct.
According to the beauty e-tailer, Skinstore, in the approximately $500 billion beauty industry, 80-90% of consumption is by women.
When I was just in sixth grade, a teacher told me that I would never get hired because I am a dark-skinned girl with acne. "It doesn't matter that you topped the class when you look the way you do," she said. And so her words were ingrained in a twelve-year-old's head.
When you shame a woman for the shape of her body, you push her to get sucked into a vortex of disordered eating habits. Your snarky remarks about her skin tone cause her to try out damaging whitening products. "I will be happy and loved when I look like the girl on the magazine cover," she subscribes to such unhealthy narratives. This results in depression, anxiety, body dysmorphic disorder, and dangerously low self-esteem. Insecurity sells in the beauty industry.
Frankly, your obsession with our skin colour and the texture of our hair, your preoccupation with how the female body should look – it's killing us.
Associating a woman's intelligence, competence, confidence and personality with the way she looks does not empower her; it paralyses her with shame and self-consciousness. She is driven insane in constant pursuit of something that is ultimately unattainable. As she is encouraged to obsess over what's on the surface, she loses sight of her dreams and passions, of the aspects that truly add to one's beauty. This endless obsession with feminine beauty is nothing if not a ruse to silence and oppress women.
Why is it essential for us to evaluate whether or not the African-American US Vice President, Kamala Harris, can be deemed 'beautiful' in accordance with the societal ideal? Although the 44th US President, Barack Obama, is African-American, his struggles with racism were addressed differently, with no mention of body-image. Even when a woman has climbed up to the top of the leadership ladder, she is identified more by her looks than her accomplishments.
Gender discrimination exists in the form of pay gaps, lack of opportunity, a culture of gender-based violence and victim-blaming. The beauty industry is no exception. It is an oppressive system that controls and constrains the behaviour of women. "Being yourself is equivalent to not being good enough," is practically their motto.
Society teaches women that they are only valued for their appearance and reproductive capacity. This, however, is not enough, as it further adds that women must spend a substantial amount of time and money trying to 'enhance' their physical beauty. Even after getting that degree while all 'dolled up', women are assigned nonautonomous positions in the workplace. Men with the same qualifications and no makeup are still given an edge: they outnumber women in management and decision-making. The 2017 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum shows that men are more likely to hold management positions in every sector.
Patriarchy reduces a woman, a multifaceted individual, to merely 'beautiful' so that she is deemed only as valuable as she is 'pretty. So, to gain social acceptance, approval and appreciation, she continues to bear the burden of having to look the way she is expected to all the time, even if it is at the cost of her freedom and comfort. Because not doing so has consequences. 'What if no one hires me?' 'What if I never get married?' She, therefore, worships an image crafted by the greatest economic mechanism for inequality – yes, you got that right, it's the beauty industry. In doing so, perhaps she is benefitted professionally and personally to some extent. But, 'We don't see the gender gap in time and money spent on beauty,' explains Renee Engeln in her book 'Beauty Sick', 'But time and money matter. They're essential sources of power and influence and also major sources of freedom.'
The idea is to have us chasing an unrealisable goal and then changing the goalpost. All the while, robbing us of our time and money and solidifying our position as subordinate to men. What a 'beautiful' scam!
Women of all backgrounds are subject to appearance-based gender discrimination. In our Bangladeshi culture, it is quite common to point out women's complexion or their body type to gauge their marriageability or physical attractiveness in general, always associating a light skin tone with superiority. 'On a scale of light to dark, how beautiful am I?'
These ideals are the products of White supremacy and capitalism. The physical features we were born with are not disadvantages or disabilities. We were not born with low self-esteem or a lack of confidence. In 'The Beauty Myth', Wolf notes that scientific evidence supports the theory that today's beauty standards have resulted from the evolutionary process of mate selection; it is yet to be found. Trying to justify how these ideals are constructed trivialises the irreversible psychological damage they cause an entire gender. Women are conditioned to believe that something is inherently wrong with them if the way they look is not a mirror image of the ideal that Wolf calls 'the beauty myth'.
The cruel judgement of family, friends and colleagues is usually followed by unsolicited advice. Everyone has an opinion. 'Turmeric will whiten your skin.' 'You shouldn't go out in the sun.' 'She is so confident for a dark-skinned girl.' 'Don't eat that you'll look bloated.' 'You should straighten your hair.' Society tells us that we are our looks. We must wear our hair, do our makeup and dress the way women in mainstream media are paid to.
A leader is someone who is in charge. Someone who inspires confidence in other people. Someone who is followed by other people. When women are not even allowed to make decisions about their own bodies, when they are forced to follow a set of ideals that strip them of all confidence, how will they ever assume leadership?
A woman is entitled to dress, accessorise and carry herself; however she wishes to, without the social obligation to conform to toxic beauty standards hovering over her head. Her choices are not anybody else's business. Her physical appearance is not a reflection of her strength of character. If you believe that the only thing a woman can showcase her personality through is something as skin-deep as 'beauty, you lack the depth to look beneath the surface. You need to snap out of it. In today's world, the definition of beauty is merely a social construct that fuels insecurity and self-doubt, it is unrealistic and unattainable.
Instead of being proponents of patriarchy and capitalism who endorse oppressive beauty ideals by telling women, they need to look a certain way or use a specific product to be admirable, admire them for being comfortable in their own skin. We don't have to be pale or tanned, voluptuous or skinny, heavily made-up or 'dressed to slay' to be worthy.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.