Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Vibe Credit Union.
No? Me neither, until I sat down to watch Amy Schumer’s “Saturday Night Live monologue,” and was treated with a lovely Vibe commercial. It features a woman as she applies make-up with bomb-disabling concentration. Her presumed boyfriend stands behind her, taking pictures and complimenting her as she preens. Suddenly, we discover that he was never taking pictures of her — he was using Vibe’s convenient mobile banking app to deposit his checks online! Our intrepid makeup-applying protagonist pouts, until he looks up and comments in shock at how good she looks. Malibu Barbie giggles, and says, “Finally.”
“You are beautiful.”
The words I slur at my friend as she cries about a boy, post-Rick’s. The phrase my grandma coos over the phone, unprompted and unnecessary. The sentence that crosses my mind unbidden when I watch television, or look at women across the street or walk into my own goddamn house. As a woman, I am constantly confronted with the idea of beauty. Not its relative definition — we all know the beauty ideal exists, and that it’s a problem — but its crushing importance.
Even as I sat down to watch Amy’s monologue — which skewers the Kardashians for “taking the faces they were born with as a light suggestion” and compares her own body to a lava lamp — a poorly lit commercial from a third-rate credit union reminded me, yet again, that above all else, I am supposed to care about looking beautiful all the time.
In the ’60s and ’70s, Helen Gurley Brown was one of the most critical harbingers of second-wave feminism. The writer of the groundbreaking “Sex and the Single Girl” (a direct influence on “Sex and the City”), and the first editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, she was vital in introducing female sexuality into the buttoned-up zeitgeist. She transformed Cosmo from a literary magazine edited by men into a guidebook for the modern single career-oriented woman. She spoke candidly about sex and status. She was a revolutionary in every way.
But Helen had at least one fatal flaw. Though she once wrote, “Beauty can’t amuse you, but brainwork — reading, writing, thinking — can,” she was also prone to telling women that they should never eat more than 1,000 calories a day, and that, “If you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble.”
This, coming from one of the most valued white feminist voices of her time. Even in the context of feminism, female beauty has always been a sticking point, perhaps because beauty gets caught in the murky in-between of self-esteem activism and sexual liberation. Perhaps because even the most progressive of feminists (myself heartily included) fall prey to the strictures created by a beauty-obsessed society.
Even Mindy Kaling, creator, writer and star of the first sitcom starring an Indian-American woman on primetime and author of two bestselling books, felt the necessity to spend multiple chapters of her memoir “Why Not Me” discussing the way she looks. This is not to blame Mindy — she works in an industry where she is valued for her looks above all else, and because she doesn’t fit the Hollywood mold she must constantly be proving herself. Her chapters on both her own insecurities and her hilarious portrayal of self-care as a celebrity were honest and relatable. But as a purveyor of many a celeb memoir, I can attest that no man who I’ve read has felt the need to write about his looks. And every woman I’ve read has.
Legend has it that Connie Britton flips her hair and a small woodland fairy comes into being. So when a friend sent me a video touting that it revealed Connie’s beauty secret, I was all ears. Her great beauty secret: feminism. Connie explains the many ways in which feminism has helped women, from the passing of Roe v. Wade to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Wage Act, to the non-profits that work to fight domestic violence. As I watched it again and again, thrilled that my two favorite things were together in one three-minute clip, I kept getting stuck on my initial reaction. Part of me still wanted to know Connie’s beauty secret. I hated myself for it. Why is the need to be beautiful oftentimes the one patriarchal ideal that feminists can’t quit? Why do we still live in a world in which a woman is valued for her looks above all else, and even the women who should be fighting that fall into its trap?
To the shock of most people who know me, I spent my summer working at a beauty company. I saw firsthand the time and money that goes into helping women reach for an unattainable level of perfection. I was told — by friends I respected and cared about — that I should wear more makeup or that my hair would look great with highlights. I tried to engage in discussions of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition and instead we talked about how hot she looked on the cover of Vanity Fair. To be woman is to be beautiful.
I told myself it was empowering — self-care engenders confidence, which develops self-esteem, which all women should have. But I never really believed it. Because it’s not just a problem in Hollywood, or in the fast-paced New York beauty industry. I sit with my roommates as we talk about wanting to lose weight, as we compare two women’s relative attractiveness — “You are so much hotter than her; he would be lucky to hook up with you!” — as we choose the perfect lipstick that will fade after two minutes anyways.
As an editor for The Michigan Daily, I have been privileged to edit stunning personal essays from a diverse range of people — on love, loss, insecurities or moments of pride. As I look back on the stories I have edited, so many — too many — of women’s deepest personal stories have revolved around the way they look. Mine included.
I offer no solution. Even as I rail against the omniscient pressure to be beautiful, even as I yell in exasperation at the men in my life who have never given this a second thought, I’m a part of it. I want to feel beautiful. I want to be beautiful. I could list off all of the other great qualities I believe I possess, but beauty is that great albatross I can never get rid of. It’s the one unifying goal. It’s the assumption that’s made if you are a woman in our world: You are woman, therefore you must ache to be beautiful. I guess the only thing I can do — so small, so insignificant — is to stop talking about it. That’s my pledge, that from here on out, in every column I write, I will never discuss the way a woman looks. Not even to call her beautiful. I know it won’t make a difference, but it might make me feel just a little bit better.