Writer Barbara Bourland, 32, was obsessed with her appearance, spending thousands of hours and pounds on treatments and products. Then it dawned on her — she was getting very little in return…
Several years ago, one of my close friends admitted to me that she prioritised Botox above her rent, because if she didn’t, she was afraid of getting fired for being ugly.
Naturally I understood. Actual years of my life have been overshadowed by the pursuit of beauty. Like many women, I’ve spent countless hours turning compulsively through women’s magazines like this one, learning the invisible rules and regulations, imagining myself in the clothes on the page and painted in the make-up to match. What joy to feel these glossy pages beneath my fingers, to see broken eyeshadows and smeared lipsticks and the upended handbag contents of a woman so wealthy we would likely never set foot in the same building unless it was an airport. But she’s trying, too, to be beautiful, I’d think, and that would be sweet comfort. I’m not alone in this. The obsession with our exteriors — whether that means wearing a full veil for modesty or having our labias trimmed in a cosmetic surgeon’s office (or both) — is a universal rule of adaptation among women.
Exactly how universal is a story told best by money. The personal care market (a catch-all phrase for skincare, cosmetics, haircare, fragrance, toiletries and oral care) is predicted to clock a crazy global value of more than £355 billion (about $463 billion) in 2018. This number, which doesn’t include the comparatively tiny £15.5 billion (about $20.2 billion) annual global market for cosmetic surgery and injectables, is a near 300% increase from the end of the 1990s, and nearly the size of Australia’s whole GDP. It seems that women everywhere, myself included, have been sold hard on the belief that the management of our personal appearance and preservation of our youth is every woman’s priority.
So why do we believe this so deeply? It’s not just marketing and advertising; culture, too, forms some of it. An old Millennial, I came of age at the millennium — that tanned-abdomen-breast-implantstraightened- hair period of peak female empowerment doublespeak — when teenagers waxed Brazilian and bodies from pornography became the shapely reef upon which third-wave feminism was temporarily shipwrecked. My own mind was still malleable, when Rolling Stone shouted from the news-stands, month after month, that real music journalism meant images of hypersexualised teenagers lying prone on the ground in a pool of their own hair extensions. For men it was a different story — the men held instruments and wore clothes, and stood upright on their own two legs, and talked about music. Britney, Christina, and even Beyoncé were all presented as giggling simpletons in hot pants.
I don’t think that, at the time, I even had the wherewithal to be disappointed. "I have to be hot" is what images of women from the decade surrounding the Millennium made me think. I have to be beautiful, and thin, and tanned, and have big breasts, or I will have no value, even if like Britney Spears I make millions of dollars for myself and for others.
Was that the beginning of my own merciless obsession with my appearance? Was it before, maybe the first time I held a Barbie? Was it the first time I saw my mother go on a diet? This is perhaps a deeper topic for therapy, or fiction or, in my case, both, but however it started, I’ve tried to change my appearance in every way possible except for surgery. Since Britney appeared on Rolling Stone in 1999, I’ve been a tanned, honey-blonde, abdominal muscle, like she was. I’ve also been a pale, soft redhead — and an athletic brunette — and a platinum princess after double-processing my hair with bleach until my scalp bled for three years. I’ve done a cat’s eye, a smoky eye and a strong lip. I’ve done orange eyeliner and overly bronzed cheekbones, long nails and short ones, a shaved head and hair extensions. I’ve had manicures, pedicures, facials, waxes and microdermabrasion and bought, a thousand creams and potions, some prescription, some snake oil, all of it expensive. I have worked on being beautiful. I have worked really hard.
And now, after a lifetime of trying to change my outsides, I’ve suddenly… stopped. I woke up earlier this year, put on dungarees, dry-shampooed my hair and went about my life. I stopped caring about my looks so much that I looked in a mirror and forgot, for a moment, that I was looking at my own face. Part of this change is certainly due to the completion of my first novel, I’ll Eat When I’m Dead. In that book, a murder mystery set at a fashion magazine, half-satire, half-tragedy, I worked through a lot of the messaging that would prompt £355 billion-worth of appearance-related sales. I worked it out like an exorcism, like a nightmare, like a joke you can’t stop laughing at, and that was helpful — but I think that most of this new apathy about my appearance is because I finally figured out what beauty costs. Beauty costs more than it could ever deliver. It costs your time every day, when you’re drying and curling your hair while men are playing squash and shaking hands over drinks. It costs the money you earn every week, those precious 86 pence to your boyfriend’s pound — thanks to the pay gap. It costs the self-esteem you have spent so long trying to retain while you battle to meet the standard someone else photographed and you kept on your Pinterest board.
After paying all that out, the time, the money, the self-esteem, beauty gains you... absolutely nothing. Because we no longer live in a world where beauty provides economic security. A devil’s advocate could argue that being beautiful helped me get married (which is to vastly underestimate and misunderstand the connection I have with my partner), but even married, I have to work for a living. My friend who prioritised Botox? She was fired for taking medical leave for the complicated abortion of an ectopic pregnancy. Just like that, her fear of being ugly turned out to be wholly irrelevant. In the hardest fights — the ones for our most precious rights, like medical leave or access to safe, legal abortions, to name but two (especially in the US) — the power of beauty is not a compelling argument, because beauty is not a real weapon.
Faces don’t launch a thousand ships, don’t stop bullets and don’t make strawberry-nosed, grey-faced old white men sign legislation to protect you. They’re window dressing. Right now, my hair is short, natural brown with incoming streaks of grey. My skin is smeared with sunblock. My eyes are darkened by the occasional swipe of eyeliner. I’ll wear lipstick, later, maybe, if I remember. I’ll Febreze these dungarees, have dinnerwith friends, and I won’t worry about whether or not I’m beautiful. After a lifetime of wasted time, I’m finally letting go of beauty. And I think it looks absolutely perfect.
I’ll Eat When I’m Dead by Barbara Bourland (£12.99, riverrun) is out now