It was International Women’s Day this week and while I wish I could bring my readers a rousing call to arms in the name of feminism, like many women, I’m frankly exhausted. And it’s only March.
So instead, I find myself ruminating on all the insidious ways the patriarchy influences our lives. Sometimes it’s the things that seem the most banal that have the most frustrating impact, and lately I’ve been noticing a creep of new body image concerns on my screens.
Hit your 30s as an Australian woman and watch the way targeted advertising slowly changes course from promoting holidays and fashion to suggesting last-chance dating sites and options to freeze your eggs.
While I am generally amused by the attempts of advertisers to point out society’s disdain for a childless woman in her final fertile years, there’s one category of advertising that stuns me every time – the cosmetic surgery ads.
I get bombarded with ads promoting the life-changing impact of Botox, lip-fillers, breast augmentation, and laser treatment to tighten my skin. Where previously I was able to shrug it off and assume that plastic surgery was the remit of Hollywood stars and the very wealthy, it turns out that cosmetic procedures are more common among my peers than I thought.
While undertaking my nightly TikTok doom-scroll recently, I paused on a video of a young woman looking like a burns victim, with large brown patches above and below her lips.
“Lots of you have been asking what’s on my mouth,” she began, and I waited for her to say she had an unusual skin condition that she was raising awareness of.
But no, she had in fact recently undergone a laser treatment where the skin above and below her lips was burned so it would tighten as it healed and “lift” her lips, making them appear bigger and fuller.
I was bemused, but it turns out these types of procedures are common. In fact, the lip-lift is apparently growing in popularity among women in their 20s and 30s, something that is reinforced anecdotally by the number of young women I know who have artificially enhanced lips.
Where many of us still think of major operations when we think of cosmetic surgery – nose jobs, facelifts, breast augmentation – these smaller and less invasive procedures are more accessible and more popular than ever before. Which leads me to my next question, when will the patriarchy run out of things to make women hate about the way they look?
I had no idea I was meant to hate my lips for not being plump enough. I also didn’t realise how many women were tortured by the thinness and straightness of their eyelashes, until everyone around me started getting extensions.
And apparently there are a lot of specific characteristics we should be aiming for in our butts – big is good, if you have a small waist. But if you have a big butt and carry other weight, it cancels out the appeal of the big butt. AND if you have a small waist but a small butt, this is also no longer desirable.
If you’re wondering how to achieve this mythical ratio, it turns out corsets are also back – but now we call them “waist trainers”.
Having escaped my 20s largely unscathed by the trauma of really bad body image, I’m not about to start obsessing over my lips/waist/eyelashes/butt now, but I am very aware of how pervasive the beauty and cosmetics industries are when they can beam their promises straight to your phone.
Of course, when we continually accept and promote the message that the most valuable thing about a woman is how she looks, it’s easy to trivialise women’s capabilities and contributions to society on a more meaningful level.
If I try and look at it from the other side, I can see that it could be patronising to suggest women who undertake cosmetic procedures are unwittingly being controlled by the patriarchy. There’s an argument for bodily autonomy and the right for women to choose to undertake whatever treatments or procedures they want if it makes them feel good. I would just note that what we consider to look “good” is not defined in a vacuum, so the values we place on appearing a particular way are not objective.
To some degree, beauty standards will forever be with us, and there’s little to be gained by creating another set of punishing expectations for women to show how little they care about their appearance, as some sort of counter measure.
But even as we make progress on so many areas of gender inequality, it seems the time women spend hating their bodies has not decreased.
As for me, I’ll be taking recommendations for a better ad blocker for my web browser.