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Thanks to the transparency of social media, it’s easy to observe an increase in our culture’s obsession with beauty. A casual scroll through Tiktok or Instagram may include not only a multitude of heavily filtered and edited photos and videos, but also content created by those eager to share their before-and-afters of current beauty trends, from casual routines such as “slugging” to more extreme measures such as laser facials and plastic surgeries.

The latter has recently soared in popularity, with plastic surgeons in 2021 reporting performing 600 more procedures than they did in 2020: a 40 percent increase. Most in vogue are “non-invasive” procedures, namely, Botox and facial fillers. From 2000 to 2020, the number of annual Botox injections increased by nearly 459 percent. This, along with lip and face filler, are now a standard for women of a certain age. For women in their twenties, there’s been an uptick in promotion of “preventative Botox,” a procedure undertaken with the assumption that once there’s a crease in a piece of paper, it’s impossible to smooth it out.

Not your mother’s plastic surgery

The general take is that if something makes a woman happy or feel confident, she should do it—advice that doesn’t discriminate between buying a new lipstick and getting elective surgery. This supposition is based on the feminist sentiment that judging any woman’s individual choices is tantamount to internalized misogyny. To criticize a woman for prizing her appearance is but sexism in another form. After all, historically a woman’s appearance was one of the greatest tools in her arsenal, one of her only paths to agency and power in a world of men. Despite the drastic increase in equality today, women are loath to surrender the valuable asset that is beauty. This seems fair, considering the myriad of smaller injustices and burdens women still bear.

But to dismiss any criticism of beauty practices as mere misogyny falls short. We can thank women’s beauty for the purpose it served in our collective past while also acknowledging its shortcomings. In addition to the practices of surgical alteration, the ante continues to be raised on beauty appointments, self-care, makeup, and hygiene. Lash extensions, gua sha massage, twelve-step skincare routines . . . the recommendations on how to enhance a woman’s appearance are boundless. (Meanwhile my husband insists he only needs to shower every three or four days.) What conversation are we avoiding when we refuse to ask why women are altering their appearances now more than ever, even though we have more options in the modern age?

Distracted by our looks

Cosmetic practices and procedures are not limited to, but mostly marketed toward women. Men only make up roughly 6 percent of all Botox procedures. There are clear patriarchal benefits of keeping women fixated on their looks, besides the companies (and their male CEOS) that fixation keeps profitable. I can’t help but wonder what more could women have already accomplished, were it not for the hours and energy we’ve spent on our hair, our skin, our clothes, our bodies.

This isn’t just an issue about individual women’s personal choices. The increase in cosmetic practices and procedures raises the stakes for other women, particularly the younger generation. Our individual choices have ripple effects on our communities and culture. We also need to acknowledge that enhancing appearance can quickly become an obsession. Research shows increasing rates of body dysmorphia in adolescents. This, as well as eating disorders, are dangerous diseases, making the sentiment that “if it makes a woman happy, she should do it” downright cringe-worthy.

When so many women go under the knife or needle, young women internalize beliefs that alterations are standard and necessary, that their natural beauty is not enough. By virtue of how much energy, effort, and money older generations spend to stay young and beautiful, they imply that a woman’s first and primary responsibility is to be physically appealing, despite our societal accomplishments. How long can we, as women, blame society and the beauty industry before taking responsibility for upholding these standards ourselves? We must acknowledge our shared obligation to other women, especially younger women, not to create our own ideal bodies and faces artificially.

With such money to be made from women’s insecurities, no one is coming to save us. These practices and products will continue to be sold as long as there’s a market for them. And yet we women continue to play victim when it comes to beauty standards, lamenting these expectations while also willfully participating. We accept aging in men as part of the natural order of things, but pity or deride our own sex for any loss of youth and beauty.

Perhaps we can accept this fact in women as a whole by first accepting it in ourselves. Perhaps, like the feminists who came before us, we are the only ones who can free ourselves from an exploitive system, though ours be comprised of beauty standards and sales, rather than voting and financial rights. Perhaps we change the system simply by being ourselves, by creasing the paper of our faces with a story of laugh lines and contentment wrought in the wisdom of age, rather than beauty.