January 25, 2024
I’ve started to think of the beauty myth as a product newsletter I never signed up for. It keeps landing in my inbox, spamming me with messages — and I can never seem to unsubscribe.
Rejecting the beauty myth comes at a real cost for women. Refuse to conform to beauty standards, and you might lose out on “pretty privilege”, the social and material benefits women enjoy from being perceived as attractive. Speak out against unrealistic physical standards, and you might be dismissed as sour grapes, taking aim at societal norms when you are too lazy to improve your own appearance. The beauty myth hurts us even when we try to distance ourselves from it.
There doesn’t seem to be an effective way to address it as an individual, and far less clarity when it comes to a collective approach. In my own conversations about beauty culture, I encounter conflicting positions. My friends and I disagree over whether messaging about body size should be divorced from health, whether high heels can ever be signs of empowerment, whether sponsoring your daughter’s cosmetic surgery as a birthday gift is problematic. And all the while, the beauty myth endures.
As with any other issue to do with gender and womanhood, there are multiple perspectives in contention. If every viewpoint is equally valid, and everyone’s lived experience must be affirmed, how do we move forward together?
I saw this conundrum play out, to more serious and immediate effect, while I was living on campus. My final year at the National University of Singapore (NUS) was the same year Monica Baey went viral. As a spate of sexual harassment and voyeurism cases made headlines, the ensuing outrage precipitated some kind of nationwide reckoning about gender inequality.
NUS was forced to respond, albeit belatedly. Most of the measures seemed aimed at managing the optics of the situation, through infrastructural “upgrades”. Security was ramped up, hundreds of CCTVs were installed, and shower stalls were fitted with floor-to-ceiling covers.
Consent workshops were also mandated for all students in college residences. During the hour-long session, we were presented with various scenarios and asked if certain actions would constitute consensual behaviour. In trying to determine the boundaries of consent, though, we were never prompted to interrogate our differences in opinion.
Most male students didn’t want to be there at all, and several grumbled aloud about having to “waste” an evening. Yet, at no point did we discuss why our male counterparts were so reluctant to be part of the solution. We certainly did not broach difficult questions — like, would it be okay to touch someone you were dating if they hadn’t explicitly told you they wanted to be touched? How far does body language, flirtation, or the physical environment come into play? Could someone’s “yes” be coerced, or are we denying their agency by questioning if their “yes” is genuine?
The school’s response offered a case study in treating only the visible symptoms of a crisis, but to be fair, universities are hardly unique in struggling to find an effective response to women’s concerns.
Studies reveal that women report feeling unsafe everywhere in public: in enclosed and open spaces; in busy and empty places; on transit and while walking; isolated under a bright light or invisible in the dark. In cities, attempts to widen walkways and improve lighting have failed to significantly increase women’s feelings of safety, leaving urban planners at a loss. In workplaces, sexual harassment training programmes actually backfire, making men more likely to blame victims than before.
Policies and interventions fall short because they do not account for how complex and varied women’s experiences are, and how difficult it is to change individual psychology and behaviour. They barely begin to scratch the surface.
Another example of how the most well-intentioned efforts go awry is a new condom packaging that requires four hands to be opened, launched by Tulipán, an Argentinian brand. While trying to promote the concept of enthusiastic consent, the product design was inaccessible to people with disabilities, like amputees, and minimised the need for ongoing communication during and after sex, not just beforehand.
Talk about completely missing the point.
It is hard to have honest, open dialogues about gender. At times, it feels frustrating, as well as futile, to follow these conversations. The cultures that shape gender norms — attitudes of male entitlement, beliefs about women’s roles, codes of masculinity and femininity that shape our identities — can seem too huge, too complex, and too entrenched to challenge. So how do we stay engaged in the discourse?