The Vagenda

Making the Choice to be Beautiful

For twelve years, I was pretty much a little boy. Then suddenly, I had breasts – and immediately, I was expected to lock them up in a bra (pretty much a token nod toward social acceptance, considering that they weren’t exactly falling over my shoulder as I ran, and still aren’t.)BAM – suddenly my vagina existed, which had basically never occurred to me but now had to because I was bleeding profusely from it. And people were telling me to stick tiny little cylindrical cotton buds up it to stop that happening. What the fuck?

Just as I was reeling from the pure oddity of all of this, I started getting body hair and being told that it had to come out immediately. Thus followed two years of ritualistic masochism, ranging from eyebrow threading to bikini waxing to armpit shaving to ankle epilation. A mysterious world of popping Paracetamol before heading to the beauty salon opened up before me, beckoning me, siren-like, with a song and sending me away with compulsions towards suicide.

The stress of bra-fitting, tampon insertion, and endless hair-related obsession sent my cortisol levels into overdrive, and I got zits. Straightforward spot cream wasn’t enough – I had to source the perfect oil-balancing, thick-enough-to-pretend-I-don’t-have-acne-but-thin-enough-to-not-be-that-girl foundation, which, it turned out, had to be paired up with the perfect concealer and the perfect blusher to reinstate natural-looking structure to my suddenly flattened face.

Needless to say, my hair had got thicker and more unruly in my old age, so I had to invest in a room full of expensive products and the best straighteners. Because I was 14, I paid attention when Mizz magazine told me that flat hair was in, and then curly was. Gone were the days when I ran a hairbrush through whatever grew out of my head and threw on a T-shirt – people basically openly vomited if I wore what I wanted and didn’t invest in a Proper Hairstyle.

Then the day came that I stopped eating candy because I was watching my figure (‘heroin chic’ was in.) The boys at school had only just stopped saying ‘would you wear a hat if you didn’t have a head?’ and then pinging my bra strap pointedly, but now my curves were sort of too big and kept breaking the zips on my high-waisted jeans. When I refused that first chocolate chip cookie in lieu of a salad and an empty stomach, I knew that childhood was definitely over.

So here I am, a fairly normal-looking twentysomething girl-woman with a pair of GHDs, an eyeliner correction pen, a vial of tea tree oil, and a set of lavender-scented home waxing strips. As soon as I realised that they were basically my own tools of self-oppression, did I cast them away and declare myself out? Of course not. This is just the story of every teenage girl. I’m a reluctant convert to carrying tweezers around in my handbag and wearing shoes that you can’t run in and curling your eyelashes with a contraption that would look more at home in a dental surgery or a torture chamber. Cosmopolitan and Grazia snap at my heels every time I walk into Superdrug, reminding me ever-so-slyly that I need blemish cream and primer and whatever the hell else is in vogue because GUESS WHAT, the playing field has re-levelled itself even more unfairly and now you have to look ten times more beautiful than yesterday to even be able to qualify for a minimum wage job in KFC.

I fell for this culture hook, line and sinker when I was twelve years old, and now I’m bonded to it inextricably. I wear heels to work and ‘top up’ my lipgloss and own a push-up bra and Spanx. Deep down, I’m sometimes unforgiving towards other women when they don’t adhere to this ridiculous policy. And before I apply my Chanel mascara in the bathroom mirror and slip on my five inch heels in the morning, I know that I’m making a bonafide choice to wear these accessories, to pour myself into increasingly uncomfortable clothes, to spend more than 20% of my pay cheque on highlighting my hair.

So how come it feels like, ever since I was twelve years old, ‘choice’ was really only a technicality?

Image credit to adamr

9 thoughts on “Making the Choice to be Beautiful

  1. Reality check: You’re not 12 anymore, and you cannot change social norms.

    Now comes the choice part. No-one is going to reward you for following the norms and continuing to suffer. And no-one is going to reward you for turning your back on the norms either. All choices have consquences, and no-one said this stuff would be easy!

    “The reward for conformity is that everybody likes you, except you.”

    Here’s a tip. Not all 20-something women live in London or work in the magazine or fashion industry. In all likelihood there’s a whole bunch of other sets of norms out there that you haven’t experienced yet.

  2. I’m a 21 year old girl living in London, and I would have been tempted to scoff at your compulsion to ‘groom’ yourself, but I do understand what you mean. I have never worn any make-up apart from eye-liner, but since an increasing number of my friends have begun ‘to put on their faces’ everyday, I’m beginning to wonder whether I should, too. I still haven’t, because, honestly, it’s too much effort, and I have a strange aversion to make-up. But I am sometimes told that I have to ‘make an effort’ in order to meet men. Maybe your profession is such that you have to dress that way everyday, but after a certain age, it really is a choice. And most women are far more beautiful without all that gunk on their faces.

  3. Why are we assuming she works in the magazine/fashion industry? The point is once we hit puberty we consciously make the choice to choose, or not choose this.
    I chose not to for a fair few years (didn’t own a razor, tweezers or makeup til I was 15, go me) then moved to a mixed school and got sick of the abuse.

  4. “and you cannot change social norms” – well I’d say you can’t easily change them, though they do change gradually, but there is no requirement to conform to them, although failing to comply leads to friction and makes it harder to fit in (should you care about that)

    I think for most of us that want to relate to other people, we want to make the most of the looks we have – but it is a real choice just how much effort we put into that!

  5. “But I am sometimes told that I have to ‘make an effort’ in order to meet men.”

    what? You wanted it to be easy – for them to fall at your feet unbidden ? The trouble with tarting yourself up is that if you subsequently want to stop you lose the glamour. But not all men want perfect presentation – in which case effort is still required, though perhaps intellectual or artistic or physical instead – and not necessariy easier than a bit of slap…

  6. This was a great article that got ruined by the last sentence. Certain choices conflict, and you just have to prioritize. You might not want to dress glamorously, but if you want to work in fashion you probably have to. Conversely, you might want dress glamorously, but if you want to work in nursing, or on an oil rig, that probably won’t work out so well. I know I’ve picked two fairly polar examples, but the point is still valid. What matters more? There’s no right answer to that question – I’m just making that point that occasionally choices you’d like to make are mutually incompatible, and that’s just life. Heels are probably an exception, as they are just awful for your body and should be avoided at all costs; anything that mandates them almost certainly isn’t worth the damage they will cause. I remember back when I was selling mountain boots seeing hordes of 20-30 year-old women with feet in worse condition (bunions, excesssive pronation) than many 60-year-old men.

    On the dating front, IMO a big minority – if not the majority – of men actively dislike superfluous presentation (“top-up lipgloss”, Spanx, and heels all qualify). This is true no matter what Cosmo says.

  7. “Now comes the choice part. No-one is going to reward you for following the norms and continuing to suffer.”

    Um… Yes, people are rewarded for their choices all of the time. People that are considered more traditionally attractive are rewarded in a myriad of ways. They are more likely to land jobs, and once landed, earn better pay. People are nicer to them, they receive better service, and have a higher chance of meeting an attractive mate (who might similarly earn more). All of these effect the self-esteem of the individual. I think there are many forms of privilege associated with conforming to norms, especially societal norms of beauty. To say that women aren’t coerced into this conformity is to deny the strength and pervasiveness of patriarchy.

  8. “This was a great article that got ruined by the last sentence”.

    The whole article is *about* the last sentence: The choiceless choice. When you feel forced into living a certain way, it doesn’t feel like choosing. Above commenters are right that there are all sorts of groups, milleux, cultural streams that don’t prioritise false hair, height, nails, tits, slap and surgery. You just have to find them. If you are being bullied for not wearing make up or heels, get the hell out and find your people.