How to Survive In a World Where Beauty is Currency

Image by Ian Dooley

Image by Ian Dooley

By Evamarie Joubert

The first lesson I ever learned about beauty was that it equaled pain.

I was 10 years old and it was the first time my mother allowed me to get a blowout at the Dominican hair salon (for anyone not familiar, Dominican salons are famous for getting your hair silky straight with the highest of heat settings). As I sat in the chair and felt the heat burning at my scalp, I winced in pain. Then, glancing to my mother for support, she said to me, “beauty is pain.” The other women in the salon smiled and laughed. “It’s true,” they all agreed. 

In that moment, I accepted this seemingly universal rule. If I wanted to be beautiful, I had to accept pain would often come hand in hand.

While it’s not a very unique experience, what has stood out to me over the years is how this belief permeates throughout the experiences of most women. 

Along with the physical pain, for me, the pain of beauty also included battling discomfort with the darkness of my skin while wishing I looked more like my lighter-skinned mother with light brown hair. It also meant feeling frustrated with my thin frame, flat chest, and above average height while comparing myself to my smaller, curvier and in my opinion more beautiful cousin. Lastly, it meant having to accept being overlooked as a romantic interest because no one in my all-white school wanted to date the black girl.

Aside from my relaxer, my response to this pain never manifested in a desire to alter my appearance physically. It did, however, appear in other ways – namely a lack of belief in myself, an extremely toxic internal voice, and a nasty habit of comparing myself to those around me. It was mentally and emotionally exhausting and took me many years to overcome. 

Unfortunately, I am not the only woman to have endured this pain. It’s frighteningly common for women to struggle with deep insecurities in regards to their physical appearance as well as their overall selves. However, due to increased access to cosmetic surgery and non-permanent procedures women are encouraged to cure their insecurities through lip fillers, butt shots and veneers rather than self-reflection and self-love. This is not to shame women who have gotten these enhancements but to question why are these procedures thought to be a resolution in the first place. Why should a bigger butt, lips, boobs, or whiter teeth have an effect on how we feel about ourselves? In an ideal world it wouldn’t matter, but it does. 

In our society beauty equals power, even if it can be a limited power. With this power there exists a strict social hierarchy that must be adhered to. Meaning that those who are thin, white, cisgender, able-bodied, and heterosexual are the sole beneficiaries of the highest privileges beauty can offer. For other women, the nuances of race, sexuality, physical capability, and body type can either elevate or diminish the privileges they have access to. 

As women attempt to redefine old norms and reclaim their beauty – and ultimately their power – for themselves, the hold men have had on its definition lingers. In a man’s world beauty is nothing more than a commodity, something for men to enjoy and exploit. This can be seen in the various forms of media that use the female form to market and sell products. In media geared towards men, women are often voiceless, sex symbols that exist solely to boost the male ego. However, in media geared towards women, beauty is used as a tool to tap into our insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. 

As a result women have struggled to determine what is an acceptable way to use their beauty. For some, claiming empowerment via overt sexuality in defiance of the male gaze is the most appropriate option. For others, it’s embracing modesty and protecting the body from the eyes of men. For the rest, it’s creating a space where the opinions of men are not even a concern at all.

The issue with these means is that they are all endlessly concerned with the physical aspects of beauty and completely disregard the ugly reality that not all beauty is equal, and as a result not all woman have access to the same quality of life that beauty can provide. Regardless of limited social beauty standards, there will always be women whose looks are undeniably attractive and those whose are not. Which-in lies the problem; because when beauty becomes the foundation of our worth it leads us to seek resolutions like cosmetic enhancements that only reinforce the idea that beauty is important. 

For women, this is a harder truth to accept than it is for men, because men are judged on their physical strength, intelligence, cunning and other personality traits rather than solely on their looks to make it in life. Good looks are just the icing on top. Women, on the other hand have been shackled to beauty. Acting as both our oppressor and our savior, it wreaks havoc on the confidence of most. Sure, a woman can be intelligent, strong, and funny, but she needs to be beautiful too.

All of this is why beauty in and of itself is such a frustrating concept simply because it shouldn’t hold as much weight as it does. While I personally believe it’s important to learn to celebrate our physical features and find peace with what we look like. I thinks important to realize that beauty is a fickle investment. 

So how do we survive in this world where beauty means a foot in the door, more opportunity, or cash in hand? In a world where physical beauty is celebrated but can prevent us from being taken seriously and relegated to nothing more than “eye candy”? How can we turn away from traditional beauty standards when we do or don’t fall into them? Is it wrong to use our looks to our advantage and should we fault the women who do? 

I believe the first step is to own our own womanhood, to take control of our bodies, our minds, and develop our own honest feelings about the women we know ourselves to be. A step towards understanding that character, charisma, intelligence, and skill is the essence of what makes us valuable, not clear skin, long hair and how good our butt looks in that dangerously tiny bikini. 

Finally, it’s to understand that we cannot judge ourselves and other women as we struggle to navigate a society that rewards the effort women put into their bodies and makeup rather than in their minds. Only then can we learn to understand that our physical appearance has no real merit in our lives, and that beauty is a complexity that we all have the strength to bend to our will however we choose.