How we come to see beauty work as normal, and how it leads to dysmorphia.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way beauty culture has a sort of cascading momentum; how once you begin the process of stepping into femme beauty work, you’re automatically pressured into stepping in further and further.
It’s almost as if by picking up one bit of beauty work, you subscribe to an endless list of individual beauty work tasks, the next one always right there on the heels of the last.
When I first moved to NYC at nineteen years old, I realized almost instantly that it was embarrassing and unacceptable to not have a professional manicure and pedicure. I had always painted my own nails, but suddenly my hands and feet looked ragged and unprofessional. If I ever wanted to be taken seriously in NYC — if I ever wanted to look like I had my shit together — I clearly had to start getting them done at a salon.
So I did.
What I immediately noticed upon making this change however, was that on the days my hands were freshly manicured, it felt weird and almost inappropriate to wear my hair in it’s natural frizzy curls, or to go without makeup. It felt a bit like I had started a project, but then left it unfinished.
My polished hands seemed to call out for a more polished look, so I would blowdry my hair and wear a bit more makeup. It felt like a more evenly elevated look; more consistently professional and femme.
Of course at that point, with my polished nails and face and hair, I would start to feel like the rest of my look needed to be elevated too. My clothes weren’t nice enough, my skin needed to be smoother, my teeth needed to be whiter, and my jewelry game was obviously subpar.
Each bit of beauty work that I invested in myself led me to the next bit of beauty work calling out to be upleveled. In this way, I spent massive quantities of time, energy, and money on beauty work for the majority of my twenties.
This is often what my clients report as well.
Once you start down the path of beauty work, there is always Just One More step waiting for you around the corner; One More flaw to fix, One More body part in need of improvement.
It’s even worse these days with beauty treatments becoming more and more available and commonplace. Once you’ve nailed the hair, the makeup, and the style, there’s always the dermaplaning, the body hair removal, the serums and creams, the lip injections, the face fillers, and the Botox.
Depending on which social circles you run in, more and more invasive or extreme measures start to seem normal or even necessary, because you arrive there so gradually.
Once you’ve already come this far, there is a normalizing effect to more extreme beauty work. If you’re already wearing foundation, why not contour? If you’re already waxing why not get laser hair removal? If you’re already getting botox why not get lip fillers?
Please understand that I am not judging anyone for making any of these choices. If I’d had more money in my twenties I would have spent it all on beauty work. (I desperately wanted a breast lift but just didn’t have $10k. Trust me, I’m in no position to judge.)
I do however want to draw your attention to the fact that there can be a radicalization process to beauty work, which is very similar to all radicalization processes.
Your perceived social circle can draw you deeper and deeper down the beauty work rabbit hole. (And yes, your perceived “social circle” can include the people you watch on TV or follow on Instagram!)
What once felt like “too extreme” becomes normal, fine, required. Bit by bit. Step by step.
Maybe you used to think it was ridiculous to spend $25 on skin cream, but now you now spend hundreds of dollars monthly on skin products and treatments. Maybe you used to be ok with your hair just air drying or rocking your natural color, but now it feels like a bare minimum requirement for looking pulled together to get it colored and blow dried regularly. Maybe there was a time you judged other women for getting boob jobs, and now you feel like you need one.
We see this radicalization play out among celebrities all the time!
Actresses, singers, and influencers who come onto the scene with fresh human faces and natural (if already homogenous) bodies seem to slowly morph into flawless, sophisticated, angular, sometimes even unrecognizable versions of themselves over the years.
-They “enhance” their human brows with microblading. -They “enhance” their human cheeks and foreheads and lips with fillers and Botox. -They sculpt away double chins and eye bags. -They change their natural hair line, and get uber-white veneers over their teeth. -They often develop eating disorders so their bodies all have that same thin, childish look, and then get breast implants to maintain the appearance of womanly curves. -They wear hair extensions and fake nails and fake lashes.
There is no limit to this work, if you have enough time and money, and are under enough pressure to “look good.”
It should be mentioned here, of course, that the pressures to engage in more and more beauty work is an intentional strategy to make money. The beauty industry was worth $532 billion dollars in 2020, and is committed to manipulating everyone into spending their money. This radicalization process does a lot of their work for them.
Pushing the people with the most social status and influence to go further and further down the rabbit hole is a marketing tactic, causing spontaneous desire to spend money among everyday people.
You hardly even need to advertise your product, if everyone who’s anyone already uses it.
It’s worth mentioning here that beauty standards have changed dramatically over the last decade, in part because of how our brains see new things and label them as “weird” or “wrong” at first, but then rapidly adapt with exposure, until that thing eventually reads as normal or even preferable.
For example, even a few years ago it felt weird to see women with botox, lip fillers, full laser-sharp brows, fake lashes, glam eye makeup, and a ton of facial contouring. Nowadays nobody bats an eye at this look because we see it everywhere.
This is how trends change: through increased exposure and a shift in the associations we have with a particular look, what once seemed weird and even ugly can become normal and beautiful, and vice versa.
Our brains are wildly, swiftly adaptable to what we see a lot of.
Sometimes after I’ve been watching a lot of modern American TV show (almost all of which feature hyper-perfected high femme/glam faces), I feel jarred and fascinated by the imperfect “regular” faces in British TV.
“Are they really ok with us seeing their crooked teeth and wrinkles??” I find myself wondering.
But then after I’ve been watching a British TV show for a while, I’ll feel equally jarred and fascinated by the homogeneously “enhanced” faces of female news anchors and social media influencers.
“Do they realize how weird it looks for their foreheads to never move??” I wonder.
We get used to stuff so fast, and without even realizing it.
A wonderful example of this happening right now is how Gen Z looks at my generation wearing side parts and skinny jeans, and see a bunch of out-of-touch old losers. Their specific circle of perceived social influence have led to them seeing center parts and baggy jeans as infinitely more cool and attractive, while me and my millennial cohort see that look and generally think it’s a bit weird and ugly.
This has always been true of trends between generations, which beautifully highlights my point: we find attractive whatever we’ve been conditioned to see as normal and good, according to our perceived social circle of influence.
And whether your social circle includes a bunch of au natural outdoor adventure babes who wouldn’t know what to do with a tube of lipstick if their lives depended on it, or it includes all the most perfect high-glam femmes that social media has to offer, you have probably come to regard those looks normal and good, while simultaneous regarding it’s opposite as… well, weird, ugly, or just wrong.
This is all very well and good, except for the fact that we never see anyone in between. It would strike our brains as rather weird and wrong to see someone with, say, a heavy smokey eye but absolutely no other makeup or beauty work done.
Think about it: frizzy hair, bare stubby nails, pale cracked lips, slightly crooked or yellow teeth… and a full-on glorious smokey eye, with extreme lashes, liner, and shimmer. It would feel off, and make our brains buffer and glitch. What am I looking at? What’s the situation here?
It’s an uncomfortable feeling for us when our brains can’t quite make sense of what we’re seeing, and without thinking too much about it, we generally try to avoid this. When it comes to beauty work, the strangeness of the in-between can explain some of the pressure to keep leveling up bit by bit.
We want to read as “normal and right” to others, to make sense for them, and spare them a moment of buffering (or judgment). So once we begin the process of becoming more high-femme/glam/hot, we often feel like we must keep going deeper.
Body dysmorphia also plays a role here, or “face dysmorphia” I suppose we could call it if we’re talking about the face, which happens in response to getting into beauty work.
The very short version of why this happens is that spending a lot of time mentally zoomed in to a specific body part causes that body part to gain in significance and appear larger, distorted, or out of proportion to the rest of you. It also encourages your brain to view yourself as a conglomeration of tiny unrelated parts, instead of taking yourself in all at once as a whole person.
Body checking also leads to body dysmorphia for many folks (for example, someone who constantly looks at and pinches her small bit of belly fat might start to see her belly fat as huge and horrifying), and the same is true for the face.
If you spend an hour (or more) each day looking at tiny parts of your face, hair, or skin up close, applying makeup thinking about the “flaws” that need correcting, and/or altering their appearance, you will lose all perspective. Your face might start to appear distorted, weird, out of proportion, and ugly to you, and make you feel like you need more beauty work.
The good news here is that facial dysmorphia tends to ease up when you stop engaging in all the habits that led to its development in the first place, and also when you change your perceived social circle of influence. (Many women have reported seeing this happen throughout the work-from-home conditions of the pandemic!)
If you set about the journey to body neutrality, you might discover that this is an important piece of the puzzle — that you have to give up a significant portion of your beauty work and time spent looking at/fixing/changing your appearance, in order to get used to your natural face and body.
Likewise you might discover that your perceived social circle includes a lot of people whose beauty work is so dialed up that you feel like you have to do the same or else you won’t belong. You may or may not be able to change your IRL social circle, but you can sure as hell unfollow other humans who engage in a lot of beauty work, and fill your social media feeds and TV time with real, natural, diverse human faces.
It’s worth noting here that your bare face might appear ugly and distorted to you right now if you’ve spent years or decades zooming in, scrutinizing, fixing, or changing its appearance. But trust me — the less beauty work you do, the more you will become acclimated to your actual face over time.
When I first moved out of NYC and stopped getting manicures and pedicures, I felt like my hands and feet looked so fucking weird and gross and ugly. (It had been over a decade of nearly constant color and polish.) But with time I reacclimated, and I’ve been wearing them natural for many years now.
Recently when I painted them for fun, I was even shocked to discover how weird, jarring, and ugly they looked to me with color on them.
You won’t always think your face looks unfinished and wrong without makeup. Our brains are highly adaptable — a fact which helped get us into this mess, and a fact which can also help get us out.
Sending love, <3 Jessi
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