Women shouldn't buy into constructed idea of beauty

Surya Deva says their co-operation only profits the beauty companies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 4:02am

Recently, one of my students started her presentation on The Body Shop by saying: "I am a girl, so I have to use many cosmetics." This was quite telling - not merely about the images created and sold by companies, but also about how such images have become ingrained in our day-to-day lives.

How could one otherwise explain the substantial fee paid by four middle-aged Hong Kong women to a DR beauty clinic to undergo blood transfusion therapy?

Calls have been made to introduce or tighten regulations governing such clinics. While legal regulations are necessary, they might not address the real problem, which lies in the social construction of beauty as a uniform standard. As Naomi Wolf argues in her book The Beauty Myth, the objectification of women's bodies to satisfy an objective and universal standard of beauty is inherently problematic and disempowering for women.

A look at the adverts at any MTR station provides many examples of a woman's body presented as a product which can (and should) be perfected. "Body sculpting" is promoted as if women's bodies were a piece of art. Then there is "contouring" to achieve a "V-shaped face" or augmentation of different body parts, and Botox injections are used to tighten skin. It is a common in Hong Kong to see women applying multiple cosmetics on the go. This is beauty obsession at its best.

If ageing and wrinkles are natural and irreversible, diversity in body shapes and sizes is evidence that humans are not produced in factories. Different stages of life and the uniqueness of physical attributes should be socially acceptable.

Nevertheless, many women still feel tempted or compelled to spend money on slowing down or reversing these attributes. What for? To meet a beauty standard set by "others" - usually men.

The whole exercise becomes a trap. Women strive to achieve the impossible and the resulting failure lowers their self-esteem and confidence. Even if they achieve a goal, there is always another target to aim for. That's to say nothing of peer pressure or the desire to stand out from the crowd.

Women are told to believe in and enjoy the empowerment that flows from attracting the attention of men. There is nothing wrong with this basic human instinct. The problem lies in the fact that the tools to draw the attention are selected by men.

Historically, men exercised control over women by confining them to the private sphere and covering up their bodies. In the modern day, both are difficult to justify, even in the Arab world. So control is now exerted by uncovering a woman's body or by imposing on women unrealistic expectations of physical "perfection". What may seem liberating superficially may actually be a recipe for enslavement.

Women's "freedom to choose" is also used by companies to sell beauty products and services. But one should not forget that choices in a free market economy are often conditioned by the surrounding environment. The choice argument is just another myth perpetuated by businesses to derive economic benefits.

Companies basically want women to become what they are not. If you're Caucasian, then you should use tanning products. However, if your skin doesn't need tanning, the industry bombards you with a vast array of whitening products.

The victims of DR clinic offer women a timely reminder to reflect on the power dynamics behind the multibillion-dollar beauty industry and break out of the beauty cage.

This is too important a goal to be left only to feminists to pursue. Each and every woman should ask whether it is worth chasing an illusory ideal of beauty that dehumanises women by seeking to convert them into stereotyped dolls.

The concept of beauty does not need to be physical, invasive, harmful, objective, universal, externally dictated and competitive.

Surya Deva is an associate professor at the school of law of City University of Hong Kong