Beauty Practices: An Empowering Choice
for Women or a Harmful Cultural Practice?

Written by Rida Tahir on Oct 24, 2020 (5 minute read)

The society we live in and the media we so voraciously consume have long been endorsing idealistic, even impossible, standards of beauty, which most women use to evaluate their own selves and secretly desire to achieve. We are living in a culture replete with over-sexualized, airbrushed, perfect epitomes of beauty that we so desire to emulate, often overlooking the costs we have to pay in our pursuit of impossible standards of beauty.

This pressure to look beautiful and skinny is probably the worst part of being a woman living in the 21st century because it makes women feel insecure, overweight and inadequate and lowers their self-esteem and self-confidence.

The President of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons himself said, “There is an industry making money out of making people feel inadequate.” 

According to Sheila Jeffreys, the Fashion-Beauty Complex represents the interests of the corporate sector and fashion and beauty industries, which are the main producers and regulators of femininity. This complex is promoted as glorifying the body of women and gives them opportunities to indulge in narcissism, however, its hidden ulterior motive is to belittle and denigrate the body of women and disrupt their narcissism so that they are compelled to buy beauty products. Consequently, women feel inadequate and are made to think that their body needs to be modified or maintained through drastic measures.

In my opinion, engaging in beauty practices is not an empowering choice for women; it's a harmful cultural practice. The United Nations defines harmful cultural practices as practices that are harmful for women’s health, develop as a result of material power differences between men and women, exist to benefit men, create stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity damaging the prospects for women and are acceptable by the society’s standards.

While this definition perfectly fits the traditional cultural practices, such as foot binding, female genital mutilation (FGM), early marriage, birth practices, forced feeding, etc., they are equally applicable to the prevalent beauty practices of the West, such as breast augmentation or reduction, laser hair removal, Botox and cosmetic surgeries. Because the reason these practices have become popular is that the male-dominated society pressures women into accepting and succumbing to the idea that women are sex objects and exist to please men with their beauty.

Cultural practices, from FGM to cosmetic surgery, harm the mental and physical health of women, including their dignity. While many beauty practices prevalent in the West are not a result of physical coercion or compulsion, they are “culturally enforced”. Women seem to choose to engage in beauty practices that actually rob them of their freedom in the name of liberation because of psychological oppression. Women can be oppressed psychologically through cultural domination of men, stereotyping and sexual objectification of women.

Furthermore, not conforming to the beauty standards set by the society can have harmful social consequences for women and affect their social status as well as marriage and employment prospects. Harsh, but true, an attractive woman has better chances of finding a partner and getting married, than a woman who is average or below average in appearance. Similarly, a woman who is attractive is more likely to be hired for a job than a woman who is not attractive, even if she is more qualified than the attractive woman.

Objectification theory suggests that sexual objectification of women may lead to mental health issues such as depression, sexual dysfunction, eating disorders like Anorexia, Bulimia, etc. The impact is twofold. First, sexual objectification directly affects women through experiences of sexual objectification. Second is the indirect and long-term impact on women as they internalize the sexual objectification experiences and start seeing themselves as sex objects that are to be judged on the basis of outward appearance. They start placing more importance on their physical appearance, instead of competence and intelligence and become conscious about their bodies. They become more anxious about their appearance and start fearing how other people will look at them and evaluate them. It may also subject women to body shaming where people measure other people’s bodies against prevalent societal and cultural standards and shame, criticize and mock them for not measuring up to those standards.

The burden of beauty that is neither realistic, nor attainable, has far-reaching consequences and implications for the economic well-being of women. Women of all ages have been increasingly spending more money on cosmetic surgeries and other non-surgical aesthetic procedures. They take drastic measures to modify their appearance, for example, Botox injections, breast implants, waist shapers, hair bleaching, tanning, laser hair removal, labiaplasty, extreme diets and workout regimes, body-piercings, tattoos, etc. Such practices are not only time-consuming, costly and painful, but these standards of beauty define precisely the dimensions of her physical freedom.

Even though women have the right to decide what to do with their bodies and lives, there is a fine line between coercion and choice or liberation and oppression when it comes to beauty practices. The hidden but debilitating pressure from the society to go to great lengths to conform to the unrealistic and unattainable standards of beauty is evident.

The question, now, is not why women and even girls hate their appearance so much, because it is clear that they do so because the society accepts and endorses sexual objectification and women know they are judged on their appearance rather than their intellect, skills and competence.

Neither it is the question of why the society prefers beauty over intellect or other attributes, why our standards are so shallow when outward beauty is only skin deep, because we know evolution is responsible for this. According to a study (2019), judgments of attractiveness are cues of a person’s health and fitness. These cues indicate a person's ability to donate good genes and successfully raise children. In other words, physical attractiveness is significantly associated with reproductive success. The study also claimed that human brain has evolved to accurately assess attractiveness characteristics, like age, health and reproductive potential.

The question is how we can cultivate acceptance in women, how we can make women accept their bodies without having to resort to drastic measures and be comfortable as they are and focus on qualities that matter more in the long run, such as education, intellect and humanity.

It is only when women reject the society’s so called beauty standards and start loving their bodies without wanting to change them, that harmful beauty practices will cease to exist.