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Do Beauty Norms and Practices Subordinate Women?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2520 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Do beauty norms and practices subordinate women? Discuss in light of the work of One of the following authors: Susan Bordo, Sheila Jeffreys or Sandra Lee Bartky



A conversation surrounding the reasons why women engage in beauty norms and practices is noticeably absent. Nevertheless, those who do participate in this conversation, exhibit beauty practices either as the subordination of women or as empowering tools. I will present Sheila Jeffreys’ argument for the claim that beauty practices are harmful cultural practices, that they do subordinate women, specifically focusing on makeup. From this, I will display the choice rhetoric objection; beauty practices are empowering. I will defend Jeffreys’ argument by claiming that conceiving of make-up in merely positive terms miscomprehends the role makeup plays in women’s lives, ignoring the deeper message that it subordinates women.

Sheila Jeffreys’ argues a condemnation of beauty norms and practices as a key source of women’s subordination. She claims that western beauty practices such as makeup are ‘harmful cultural practices that damage women’s health, are performed for men’s benefit and help create gender stereotyped roles that are justified through cultural tradition’. (Jeffreys,2015,102)

Firstly, I will explain Jeffreys’ notion of sexual difference, which she maintains is perpetuated and endorsed by beauty practices, as they “create as well as represent the difference between the sexes” (Jeffreys,2015,7). She claims that our society is “founded upon the notion of sexual difference” (Jeffreys,2015,18) The beauty practices that have formed from this are fundamental in the classification of the sexes, as our culture requires that the sexual difference be publicly demonstrated. Consequently, this sexual difference is reinforced in these beauty practices in order for the “dominant sex to be differentiated from the subordinate one” (Jeffreys,2015,7) The patriarchy is sustained when someone is identified as a man or a woman, this difference is created in our culture, but is regarded as natural and biological. It is assumed that it is natural for women to be interested in beauty, that part of what it is to be a woman is to be beautiful in that they are eager to ‘put in the time, money and pain to be beautiful’ (Jeffreys,2015,18) According to Jeffreys, this is what marks women out as obedient due to their willingness to do their service and to put effort into them when engaging in the practice (Jeffreys,2015,21) Thus, for Jeffreys, these practices don’t just show women as different but rather as “deferential”. (Jeffreys,2015,21)

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I am now going to demonstrate Jeffreys’ argument for the claim that ‘beauty practices are harmful cultural practices’ (Jeffreys,2015,101) with a concentration on makeup. Makeup is worn by many women daily, however Jeffreys’ makes the important observation that there has been little to no examination on the “reasons why women wear make-up” (Jeffreys,2015,101) As a result she makes the analysis that, due to there being an absence of this research, this illustrates the societal shared assumption that these beauty practices are natural for women, so they are not viewed as deserving of an explanation for them.  (Jeffreys,2015,101) Society has constructed the idea that women participate in wearing makeup because it is inherently a product of being female. Further, implying that because these practices are viewed as natural this entails that they are justified. (Jeffreys,2015,102)

Jeffreys notes of research on one area of the use of makeup and that is in the workplace, an area which is inherently male dominated. She uses Dellinger and Williams’ 1997 study to exemplify that wearing makeup is an expectation of women.

One finding was that the participants who usually wore makeup, found that when they went to work without it, they were questioned by others about their health. Makeup eliciting to a healthy appearance, illustrates that society works as if it’s possible to know a woman from her physical appearance, in particular her face. (Dellinger & Williams,1997,156) Additionally, the women felt that wearing makeup at work increased their perceived credibility, here makeup is being used as a method of judgement, demonstrating that women are being incorrectly evaluated. (Dellinger & Williams,1997,165)

Moreover, society’s assumption that sexuality can be read from an individual’s body arose from the study, that makeup works as a tool to mark them as heterosexual. (Jeffreys,108) One of the participants explained that wearing makeup made her job easier when working with her male counterparts as “men tend to work easier with someone who is easy to look at” (Jeffreys,2015,108) Highlighting that women should engage in beauty practices to serve “men’s sexual fantasies” as it will make their lives easier (Jeffreys,2015,108).  Thus, women are being required to conform to strict rules in how they should present themselves everyday such as in the workplace. (Jeffreys,2015,108)

This study reinforces the claim that beauty practices are created by men and are there for men to be sexually gratified. It is unattainable to avoid the objectifying male gaze. Thus, subordinating women. Jeffreys upholds this by claiming that women cannot be said to be freely choosing to participate in these practices in a society where “men have the power to enforce their requirements” (Jeffreys,2015,112)

However, with the emergence of the liberal focus on choice, the question arises; whether women are subordinated by these practices? This rhetoric of choice suggests that beauty practices don’t subordinate women, because they exercise their free individual choice in whether to engage in the practices or not. Choice here, acts as a justificatory transformer. In this view, no further analysis of a woman’s actions or circumstances is needed if they’re understood to be as a outcome of her own choices. In the context of beauty practices, engagement in them is understood as an act of empowerment, they’re pleasurable devices of self-indulgence.

Despite this liberal rhetoric of ‘choice’, Jeffreys’ argues that it has assisted in normalising

disempowering beauty practices. Deeming it as a choice is self-deception. Heather Widdows acknowledges this paradox of choice, with the typical assertion used to justify engagement in these practices ‘I chose this for me’ (Widdows,2018,5). The language here is regarded as acceptable for considering “why we continue to insist that these practices are chosen and for ourselves even when we know they are required” (Widdows,2018,5) Consequently, this concept of choice combined with women wearing makeup is only an imitation choice, directed by larger forces beyond her control, which Jeffreys’ argues that this liberal movement doesn’t acknowledge. Jeffreys questions, that if for women putting on make-up has this feature of empowerment, then what renders being bare-faced disempowering? The answer lies in the restrictions that are imposed by external forces that stem from male dominance. Here, women are subordinated as they have anxiety about going out into the public world without makeup on, preventing them from living their everyday lives. (Jeffreys,2015,108)

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This view that wearing makeup is a choice is undermined by the cosmetic industry’s promotion of makeup to young girls. (Jeffreys,2015,111) A dominant feature of the beauty industry’s marketing is creating this concept of sexual difference, which assumes women should be concerned about correcting their appearances. For example, this expectation begins at a young age with the marketing ploys that cosmetic companies use to make children consume their products (Jeffreys,2015,111) Makeup manufacturers target girls at such a young age for example, Toys R Us sell make-up kits labelled being suitable for children aged 5+. They also market their products by using popular characters from TV and films such as Barbie. As a consequence of young girls being exposed to make up at such a young age, first as a toy, as a form of play, where they know no different as haven’t had the chance to reflect. This will go on to produce the choices of their adult selves (Jeffreys,2015,111) Also this exposure, will help teach the appropriate gender roles and that make-up should be viewed as a form of ‘self-fulfilment’ (Jeffreys,2015,111) As a result, this has assisted in normalising makeup as a harmful cultural practice. (Jeffreys,2015,111)

I will strengthen Jeffreys argument with the case of YouTube beauty culture. ‘Beauty gurus’ sell the beauty norms and expectations online. Tutorials such as ‘no makeup makeup’ illustrate society’s paradoxical perception of natural beauty. This makes women feel that they’re confined, that they have an obligation to apply makeup but still appear that they aren’t wearing any. Additionally, it demeans those who don’t engage in wearing makeup because it is not meeting the requirement of society to publicly demonstrate the sexual difference. Society has generated its own concept of natural, which doesn’t contain a single flaw. The YouTube tutorials perpetuate this by conveying the message that women should cover up but also, they shouldn’t allow the world to know that it isn’t their real faces.

Let’s suppose we apply this notion of choice, that the decision to wear makeup is genuinely an individual form of expression. If so, then there shouldn’t be any social repercussions for someone who chooses not to wear makeup but as I display, there are. For instance, if we look at how the media portrays celebrities without makeup. This strengthens Jeffreys’ claim that beauty practices are seen as inherently female and thus natural for women. The media ‘exposes’ female celebrities who choose not to wear makeup when performing everyday mundane tasks. Articles using words like ‘shocking’ or ‘spotted’ reinforces the societal constructed idea that makeup is natural for women. For example, Daily Mail article “Love Island’s Ellie Brown is unrecognisable as she goes makeup free leaving the gym with boyfriend Charlie Brake” (Daily Mail,2018) The word ‘unrecognisable’ implies that we should be shocked by this. The fact that we are supposed to be shocked by this, results from us being so used to viewing makeup as an inherent part of women.

As a consequence of beauty norms and practices, women are presented with the impossible decision where either option perpetuates their subordination. Firstly, as a society we now claim that to wear makeup is the individual’s choice. However, this supports a society which objectifies and discriminates against them, thus they are subordinated. Yet, as society we also humiliate others who choose not to engage in wearing makeup being caste as unattractive, so women remain subordinated. Widdows reinforces this with depicting conflict between non-engagement and engagement. We cannot accept the claims that engagement with these beauty practices are voluntary and chosen. The term choice, that they are proposing implies that you have the ability to engage or not to engage without suffering repercussions. However, as I have exemplified, the costs of repercussions in choosing not to engage are substantial. Widdows distinguishes between how women will receive “external sanctions (being judged as ugly) and internal sanctions (feeling ashamed and disgusted)” (Widdows,2018,2) What is going on both externally and internally subordinates women.

Alternatively, I acknowledge that Widdows may believe that she can rectify this issue of subordination with her mechanism of the imagined self. This is the idea that the reason why we engage in these beauty practices is because we are so invested in our imagined self. The imagined self is what we aspire to become, visualising ourselves to look in a certain way. It is unattainable. Yet, Widdows claims that then engaging in beauty practices such as makeup are then “experienced as less demanding because we imagine our ideal selves” (Widdows,2018,10) rather it is a ‘positive and empowering experience which will be worth it in the end’ (Widdows,2018,10) However, I argue that re-framing beauty norms and practices positively by using this imagined self doesn’t hold. It ignores where this imagined self will stem from, the beauty norm that has been created by patriarchy. For instance, women will likely conceive of their imagined self with flawless make-up, again suggesting that make-up is viewed as natural for women. This means that not only their actual self is subordinated but also their imagined self too. 

Concluding, beauty practices, in particular makeup do subordinate women. I have exhibited this in virtue of Sheila Jeffreys’ claims, they are harmful cultural practices. Although, under the liberal notion of choice these practices are viewed as empowering, I have provided cases where this notion of choice is undermined, strengthening Jeffreys’ argument. Additionally, I have acknowledged Heather Widdows’ possible rectification of subordination, but argued that to reframe beauty practices positively ignores the greater message of subordination.



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