In the age of botox and jars of white cream promising the erasure of years spent smiling too hard, youth is a luxury that many are willing to pay the ultimate price for: their life, or, rather, evidence that they have ever lived at all. Women in particular are prone to obsessing over their physical appearance and how “young” they look, as the current culture (especially in America) associates womens’ self-worth, loveability, likeability, career performance and role in society with their beauty – or lack of. With more women, some as young as being in their teenage years, looking for more ways to revert back to the smooth skin and thigh gaps they had as girls, the complex issues tethered between the desire to remain young forever and the refusal to accept aging has grown exponentially since the rise of the “perfect” woman displayed on cosmetic advertisements and television shows. As a twenty-year-old woman myself, I have both fallen victim to and have witnessed the effects of social media & the cultural narrative that women must preserve their youth to be accepted or loved by others. I’m here to explain exactly why the next generation of girls must be saved from what I, and so many other women, have been through.
Madame X-Ray Art by Maria Marfia
In 1934, an ironized yeast diet was the “quick new way to get lovely curves fast,” so women wouldn’t have to worry about getting called skinny anymore. In 1942, in a time where war plagued every home in America, women learned to “guard every bit of Beauty” that the male gaze cherished in them, as seen in this ad from the Palmolive Company. Companies in the 1950’s continued targeting women with this marketing strategy by calling out to them with phrases such as, “If Men Hate The Sight Of You -- Read This.” By the 70’s, women, still learning how they should tear themselves apart so others can piece them together, turned to cosmetics in order to achieve the newest beauty standards: eyeshadows of baby blue and green; lipsticks in shades of the palest pinks; jeweled tones of nail lacquer bought out by every plain faced gal looking to be seen by someone – by anyone. The 90’s brought heroin chic and grunge wear and disordered eating by the empty mouthful. Getting lip fillers and having an hourglass figure ruled beauty standards just a few years ago. Now, in 2023, to be beautiful has now become an amalgamation of all of these past trends centered on deconstructing the female body and injecting women with insecurities for others to profit off of.
Telling women and young girls how they can change themselves – their bodies, faces, and behavior – to be more attractive and likable not only destroys their self-esteem, but it also pushes forward the narrative that the female body must be modified and picked at and transformed into something else, something unattainable without products or procedures, to be accepted. My first experience with not feeling comfortable in my body came when I began playing with Barbies and noticed how small her waist was – in every version of her, from doctor Barbie to the multitude of princess Barbies. Running my small fingers over the smooth contours of her plastic skin, I wondered why my seven-year-old body didn’t emulate the same thinness, the same beauty, as the doll I treasured so much. If Barbie was supposed to be the epitome of femininity, what did this mean for me and all of the other girls who looked nothing like her? As I pinched the sides of my stomach and practiced running in place, I thought it meant it was up to me to do everything I could to achieve her factory-made perfection.
I was wrong – it wasn’t entirely up to me to become beautiful in the eyes of society, it was up to social media and the combined efforts from the beauty and plastic surgery industries to convince adolescent girls that what they want isn’t in the mirror; it’s in the promises they sell in plastic tubes and buccal fat removals. As I got older and my female idolizations shifted from dolls to models – who were, really, Barbies brought to life in some ways – I found myself spending more time obsessing over my appearance than I ever had before. I bought tubes of mascara and lipgloss; waist trainers and push-up bras; an endless supply of magazines telling me how to shrink myself down a size, achieve flawless skin, eat less and get men to want me more. It seemed that every female friend around me also looked for ways to be just like the girls we saw on runway shows and tv. What we didn’t realize then, that so many of us still fail to realize now, is that nothing is ever as it seems through the eyes of women who have been told that their own bodies will never be good enough to house all that they are capable of.
The pressure to be all that the media wanted us to be only heightened when anti-aging was incorporated into cultural discourse surrounding beauty. The rise of products targeted to get rid of fine lines, wrinkles, dark circles, crows feet, nasolabial folds, cellulite and scars sent women a very clear message: preserving your youth is a necessary part of your experience within a female body. Hiding that we have ever lived at all – that we have ever laughed too hard at our friends’ jokes or were long past the days of covering our gray hair with box-dye blonde – was the expectation for how we were supposed to live. Until, of course, time caught up with us, paper thin skin revealing the bluish veins underneath, and death swallowed our broken bodies whole. Women across the world have been conditioned to hide facets of themselves from the public eye in order to avoid judgment or assumptions of not caring about their appearance. The very act of not wearing makeup or letting your hair go gray is now seen as rebellious within a society that discourages signs of aging in any capacity. If one were to believe in this same ideology, then to be a woman in today’s world would be to change your body and strive to look younger than you really are. If one were to, like me, hold a strong aversion towards fitting into any beauty standard, then to be a woman would mean to find which molds have been casted for us by men and by the industries that seek to make us question our beauty – and completely tear them apart.
The women of the next generation deserve to never face the fears and self-hatred that so many women before them did. It is time to change the female experience from one that aspires to always be something – to be someone – else, to one that never pursues anything other than itself; herself; ourselves. In between immortality and death becoming her, we have life begging to finally become her. When wandering this great plain of flowers and dying oak trees we call life, may women not be afraid to ask, and answer, this question: do our bodies betray us with their cellulite and acne; their wrinkles and sunspots? Or do we betray our bodies by allowing our ideals of beauty to outlive what it really means to be beautiful – to be alive ?
“1934 Ironized Yeast Diet Tonic Curve Quack Medicine Ad.” Accessed April 26, 2023. http://ancientpoint.com/inf/33974-1934_ironized_yeast_diet_tonic_curve_quack_medicine_ad.html.
Duke Digital Collections. “‘I Pledge Myself to Guard Every Bit of Beauty That He Cherishes in Me’ / Ad*Access / Duke Digital Repository.” Accessed April 26, 2023. https://repository.duke.edu/dc/adaccess/BH1296.
“History Lovers Club.” Accessed April 26, 2023. http://historyloversclub.com/.
Alexandra Rae (she/her) is a 20-year-old aspiring writer from the U.S. studying Creative Writing and Public Relations & Advertising at Point Park University. She loves exploring all genres, but her favorites are Creative Non-Fiction and Poetry. She is also a content writer for The Young Writer's Initiative (@TYWI on Instagram) and runs her own writing account as well (@theresonationofalexandra). Her biggest writing inspirations are Taylor Swift, Lauren Slater, Stephen King, and Joy Harjo.