By Jocelynne Scutt - 11 November 2011 - Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney, Australia. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

The idea that women’s bodies can be allowed to walk the streets, exist in the paid workplace, or appear anywhere in public without enhancement or embellishment is becoming less and less acceptable. Once, make-up and false bosoms were a signal that a woman was either on the stage, haunting the backstreets in hope of a paying customer, or appearing in movies labelled ‘porn’. In the 21st century, they are signifiers of ‘mainstream’ woman.

Intelligence via a ‘team of scientists and psychologists’ from Harvard and Boston Universities and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute says women wearing make-up are perceived as ‘more competent, attractive, likeable and trustworthy’. The study contends this follows whether women are made-up in a ‘natural’, ‘professional’ or ‘glamorous’ style and whether the images are flashed before the studies’ subjects eyes or viewed for more lengthy periods. 

Funded by Procter and Gamble, a huge conglomerate making its money through selling cosmetics (mainly to women), the study is labelled ‘independent’ so must be believed – at least, this is the thrust. Hence, comes the message, to get on in business or succeed in professional life, after spending-up at cosmetic counters all over the country women had better get out the make-up palette. 

So have we ‘come a long way baby’, or are women inexorably enmeshed in a culture that sees artifice as more acceptable than the reality of women’s physiognomy? Are women’s real bodies ‘out’, whilst contrivances projected as ‘real’ women constitute the ‘perfection’ and ‘beauty’ for which (once) real women must aim?

In the 1970s, a raft of books and articles appeared as an antidote to the rejection by the Women’s Movement of lipstick, bras and ‘step-ins’ (a modified corset or girdle), and the replacement of stockings and suspenders with pantyhose. Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman, selling more than ten million copies, was perhaps the most popular. She advocated that women enfold themselves in saran wrap (a transparent plastic used to preserve left-over food) when greeting a husband just home from work. An alternative was to spread oneself liberally in jam or honey whilst making supper for a husband lying prone on couch or carpet watching evening television. In this context, ‘wife’ was supposed to equal ‘supper’.

Although the book and her accompanying seminars had a massive audience, it is doubtful that many women went to the lengths Marabel Morgan suggested. Yet perhaps a return to her methods of feminine enhancement would be less damaging to women than a visit to today’s beauty parlours, and extraordinary though it may seem even less dangerous or humiliating, as well as less expensive.

A woman doesn’t need to enter a beauty parlour to be regaled with methods and mechanisms for ‘becoming beautiful’. In London, venturing into a large department store in Bond Street means being assailed on all sides by ‘product’ representatives bearing potions, lotions and pastes in tubes, jars and containers of all dimensions, or brandishing hair-wands, lash-curlers or body-shapers of all sorts and sizes. Venturing into the Grand Arcade in Cambridge brings with it a need to avoid salespeople imploring passersby to sample a wide variety of perfume, cosmetics and ‘beauty treatments’. Australian capital cities carry their own brand of cosmetic confrontation, with department store refurbishment seeing the make-up and perfume counter as necessarily at the forefront of luring the customer.

Meanwhile, beauty parlours adopt more and more fanciful methods of pampering the body, more and more ways of ensuring that women’s pockets and purses open wide in the search for the perfect body, the face of beauty, according to conventional diktat.

Want puffed-up lips? This comes not by the sting of a bee, but through the injection of ‘chemical fillers’, or agitating the lips with capsicum or chilli. Collagen and more recently developed products using hyaluronic acid operate akin to scaffolding, although ‘care must be taken’ to avoid ‘creating ridges’ giving the mouth ‘an ugly edge’. Silicone implants or ‘Permalip’ last longer though they cost twice as much: $2,000 as opposed to $1,000 for several months of a protuberant pout. Then it’s back to the beauty (sic) parlour to be relieved of another hefty sum. 

What about an end to wrinkles? This requires a good dose of botulism or, as advertised, its commercially named Botox. Rather than the death that follows upon a botulism bout, Botox targets ageing’s most visible facial indicator. Of course, this costs, too. Yet perhaps rather than the monetary outlay, the so-called ‘side’ effects should be centre-stage. Lessening or alleviating frown-lines may cause life-threatening conditions that, once detected, even at their most mild stage, dictate an immediate call to the doctor or the nearest hospital’s emergency department.

These include:

  • Problems with swallowing, speaking or breathing, caused by weakening of facial or throat muscles;
  • Loss of strength and ‘all-over muscle weakness’, as well as double or blurred vision, ‘drooping or swelling’ eyelids, dry eyes, loss of capacity to speak, hoarseness or inability to articulate clearly, loss of bladder control;
  • Dry mouth, discomfort or pain at the site of injections, tiredness, neckpain, headaches;
  • Allergic reactions including ‘itching, rash, red itchy welts, wheezing, asthma symptoms, dizziness or feeling faint’.

Still, says one Botox website, ‘no confirmed serious case of spread of toxin effect’ has been reported from between-the-eyes botoxing. Nonetheless, if these symptoms occur, a sufferer ought not to ‘drive a car, operate machinery, or do other dangerous activities’. Readers may wonder about ‘unconfirmed’ serious cases, and what classifies as a confirmed ‘non-serious’ case, but merely receives advice that the ‘potential risk of spreading viral diseases’ such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease via human albumin, present in Botox, is ‘extremely rare’: ‘no cases of viral disease or CJD’ have ‘ever’ been reported ‘in association with human serum albumin’.

Silicone breast implants have already been subject to extensive litigation, with ‘wins’ and potential lawsuits for those afflicted by splitting silicone sacs resulting in silicone seeping through the body and into the muscles, silicone sac slippage with a consequence of lumps and bumps in the oddest of places, and even more damning consequences said to accrue to babies breastfed from silicone-filled bosoms. 

Apart from these more serious body-beautiful impacts, women are invited to undergo other ‘treatments’ in the name of bodily improvement. Dolly Parton is quoted as saying that the enormously long appendages colourfully attached to her fingers are acrylic nails: ‘Of course they’re not real…’. This involves hours spent affixing, painting, drying, and all essential, now, to cover-up the real nails damaged by the false copies that can never truly be mistaken for the real thing.

Eyes and eyebrows do not escape. ‘If the eyes are the window to the inner-beauty, then the eyebrows are the frame’, is the slogan used to promote eyebrow threading. This is the method introduced to replace eyebrow waxing. Superfluous hairs are removed from the eyebrows to create a shape said to enhance not only the eyes, but the face in its entirety. How is it done? The technician takes a length of thread, manipulating it through the eyebrows with a hand at one end and the technician’s mouth at the other. Those undergoing this treatment must endure a face thrust into one’s own, lips bared in a rictus grin, whilst the thread passes too and fro. Closing one’s eyes is, of course, one remedy. Another is to forgo eyebrow threading at all.

Not only the upper-reaches of the body are a target. Feet do not escape. The latest? Fish therapy. The beauty-seeker is enjoined to place her bare feet in a fish tank, where small fishes are programmed to nibble at the ‘dead’ flesh of the foot. Customers pay by the minute, with fifteen minutes advised as the minimum. Fewer minutes of exposure of feet to fish brings with it unsatisfactory results. Apparently the fish take this long to get into the swing of eating human flesh. For them, it proves to be an unsatisfactory diet: they require feeding on real fish food at the end of each day to maintain their good health and relieve their owners from charges of animal starvation and cruelty.

Body parts in between feet and legs, hands and face, do not escape beauty parlour rigours. The most famous, or infamous, of the temporary treatments is, perhaps, the Brazilian. This is an advance on the bikini wax and the half-Brazilian, all of which concentrate upon pubic hair. Waxing-the-pubes has now travelled beyond the bikini model and ‘Super model’ to the young-woman-about-town and some of her older counterparts. Pubic hair is razored to a quarter-inch, talcum powder is spread over the remaining growth, hot wax is applied liberally with a balsa paddle, then gauze strips are pressed down, to be wrenched off at a rapid rate, taking the hair with them.

A bikini wax takes only those hairs protruding below or above the bikini-line, at the Mound of Venus (depending upon the width of the bikini) and at the groin. A Brazilian (or ‘full’ Brazilian) takes all the hair from the whole of the pubic region, hair is removed ‘in the front, back and everything in between’. A part-Brazilian leaves a ‘landing strip’ of hair bisecting the Mound of Venus. A ‘Hollywood’ takes hair from the pubic region and between legs and buttocks. Fifteen minutes to half an hour is required, and after three to six weeks the whole exercise must be endured yet again. Yet women must not despair: it’s apparently most painful the first time, and thenceforth reduces in pain levels, although painkillers or pills with an anaesthetic capacity are recommended prior to undergoing the treatment.

All these measures are aimed at beautification, perfection, enhancement and, most importantly, anti-ageing. Women are instructed to get on the anti-ageing wagon post haste. ‘It’s never too soon’, runs the slogan. Women in their teens are bombarded with messages online, on billboards and radio and television, as well as through text messages. Facebook and Twitter sites abound with advertisements for top to toe treatments to be applied at home or in commercial establishments. Posters, pictures and images of women tell the story: whether ‘personalities’, ‘stars’ or ‘society’, the more artificial, the more attractive. This, at least, according to dominant cultural norms as relayed through the media.

As women rise on the one hand: prime ministers, premiers, cabinet ministers, secretaries of state and ‘hard’ government departments, board members, chair-of-board, head of conglomerates and personal fortunes, women disappear on the other, replaced by infantilised beings.

As the beauty industry makes its millions out of making women dissatisfied with who we really are, men receive the message that women are really not to be feared as equals. The image of the serious woman, strong leader, person of depth and fortitude, power and presence, is undercut by that of the naked pudenda.

No, you haven’t come a long way baby, or maybe ‘baby’ has. Has baby taken over? The grown woman, wrinkle-free and puff-lipped, hairless (in all the ‘right places), prepubescent or, at most, only-just pubescent. The female bosom is the sole adult signifier remaining. And even this is no longer to be real, but man-made. For women, the message comes loud and clear. Our bodies are no longer to be our own.