Faut (il) souffrir pour être belle (?)

Hair I am!

Hair I am!

When in 1999 Julia Roberts let her armpits return to their natural state (and then had the audacity to show them off on the red carpet), there was uproar.

Reactions ranged from disgust to admiration. With, in between, a recurring label for the other female stars who dared to bare their hairs: insurgents.

Thus TomorroWoman, musing on Drew Barrymore’s underarm hair in their excitedly-titled 15 Famous Women Who Refuse to Shave!, put it down to rebellion:

Capture d’écran 2015-07-26 à 22.10.55

But what, pray tell, is Drew rebelling against? Has beauty become defined by certain unspoken rules?

And if so, how has hair-removal become one of them?

Here’s a little anecdote, while we’re on the subject.

When I was about twelve, my father’s best friend came to call one summer afternoon. He ruffled my hair, and chuckled at how dirty my legs were; what a little tomboy! I looked down, confused at the comment.  I remember even now the strange sense of shame when I realised that what he thought was dirt was in fact hairs.

I started shaving. I did it in secret, using one of my father’s disposable Bics, shredding the skin on my legs like a butcher slicing ham.  When I realised that my leg hairs were fighting back, I saved paper round wages and bought one of those rip-each-hair-individually-from-root Epilator things (@jackbauer: look no further for your next coerced-confession tool).

It promised long-lasting super-smooth skin (and probably a complementary Prince Charming).  Alas, all I got was hours of excruciating pain at each time – since I would persevere, in tears -masses of red spots, and a decade of ugly ingrowing hairs.

Looking back on it now, I cannot believe that at such a young age I was ready to put myself through all of that so unquestioningly.

That, and the rest.

How about some beauty bingo, everyone? Scorecards ready? Strike off if you’re familiar with:

  • diets (…two fat ladies)
  • constrictive/impractical clothing, including high heels (…legs eleven)
  • cleavage enhancing (…was she worth it)
  • make-up (…never been kissed)

How did you get on?

Now, when I floated the idea of this article to my husband this week, he didn’t get it.  At all.  ‘But you like going to the hairdresser’s,’ he objected.  ‘And you don’t mind wearing make-up.  And you choose yourself to wear heels.’

All of that is true (except for the hairdresser, since in France they sniff at the state of your awful hair before doing the opposite of whatever you dared ask them to do): but is it simply because that is what I have been brought up to like?

Et alors < gaullic shrug >. Where’s the harm in any of it?  Women are happy prettier.  Men are happier with pretty women. Beauty/fashion industries are happy with pretty turnover.  Win-win-win situation. How can she write an article one week about maternal mortality and follow it up with something as paltry as this?

Essentially because it all is part of the same thing: inequality.

It is the difference between the healthy pleasure both men and women feel at looking nice v. fundamentally (and daily) altering appearances in order to fit in with some invisible and impossible standard. The difference between all of us working out for healthy, trim bodies v. developing an eating disorder because every role model on tv or in magazines is an airbrushed size-zero.

Now, you’ll be quick to point out that men, too, are under pressure to look good.  I fully agree.  I’ve already written about gendered advertising; of course that includes society’s preferences for muscly bodies, shiny (dandruff-free, please) hair, clean-shaven faces (to attract that caress from the admiring female in the bathroom, presumably girlfriend), and much more.

La preuve: my waxing lady (: confession) tells me she has more and more male customers coming in for that flawless Edward Cullen-type chest or back. And for the first time ever in 2013, men spent less on shaving gear than they did on male beauty, sorry, grooming products – thanks to clever rebranding and manly grey/black colour schemes, such as the one below:

I will kick your ass... just as soon as I've moisturised

I will kick your ass… just as soon as I’ve moisturised

(Because men couldn’t, you know, just use the same moisturizer as their women-folk. That would be as ridiculous as suggesting that we should all use the same toothpaste. Oh, wait…)

But even with the advent of mamperingmetrosexual men, androgynous products, and those rebellious women exposing their body hair: when we talk about beauty products and services, it’s still a woman’s world.

So: why?

Are these obligations a left-over, from the days when women did not have independent finances, and depended mostly on their looks to catch Prince Charming? Or, au contraire, is there actually some empowerment in being the “fairer sex”: power suits, heels to make us taller, make-up to cleverly hide the signs of late night drinking sessions?

Whatever the reason, it starts early. For example, I have relented to let my five-year-old daughter wear nail varnish (as a summer-holiday-only-treat, I hasten to add).  But will I let my two-year-old son paint his nails, when he is five?  What about if he wants to pierce his ears? Or wear make-up?

Or heels? (Just FYI, did you know high-heeled shoes began with men, back in the 17th century? Women began copying them then; but modern-day heels were really launched by 1950s pornography. Or so this interesting article argues).

Anyway.  What will I say to my daughter and what will I say to my son, about why she can, and he can’t?

I can’t find any satisfactory conclusion to these dilemmas.

Once again, feminism is not about making men and women the same.

But feminism is about men and women being equal.  And where is the equality in women coming under such pressure to cover their blemishes in foundation; add inches to their height, eyelashes, or breasts; take inches off their waists; rip out their leg, bikini or armpit hair?

Why, in short, do we try so constantly to conform, especially when the definition of beauty is so subjective? Look, for example, at how the notion of female beauty has varied within in the US and elsewhere over the last century (if you don’t have time to read it, just ponder the photo below).

Credit: rehabs.com

Credit: rehabs.com

So.  My husband didn’t get the point of this article: why do you need to ask why? 

The answer is: because.

Because it’s a piece of the puzzle.

Because the saying il faut souffrir pour être belle (=beauty is pain) only applies to women, apparently.

Because the more I think about it, the more blindingly obvious it seems to me that beauty should be a celebration of diversity, and not discomfort, not a constraint.

In the eye of the beholdee. More than skin deep.

Tout simplement about being …

…. images-9


2 thoughts on “Faut (il) souffrir pour être belle (?)

  1. Sara

    It is interesting to look at this from the social anthropological point of view. All civilizations (old and new) across the globe have rules/protocol/social norms (or however you want to term it) on esthetics for men and women which are part of fitting into society. It’s a social/societal framework and exists in tribal communities, developing countries and developed countries. Unless those norms are in any way cruel/inhibiting/restricting, then I don’t see the problem.
    Men and women are different. So the fact that we wear different things and have “gender” differences (eg your son not wearing nail polish) is surely ok? Otherwise where do you draw the line? Let’s all be transgender?!
    As for heels and cleavages, I’m afraid I don’t adhere to that. I feel no pressure to wear heels or to show my cleavage (or what I have of one ;-)). That’s a choice?
    Shaving is the one “norm”/”rule” which I also find a hassle, but until everyone else stops, I’m not going to walk round looking like a gorilla.
    I just think it’s about choice, sorry. I think you can feel as pressured as you want to feel. I also think men are under enormous pressure to look like Brad Pitt. And they can’t cover their blemishes with makeup, so that’s actually an advantage for us.
    Not surprising that there are moisturizers on the market for men; they have different skin (drier/thicker), and obviously pharmaceutical companies want to make money out of the new branding. But if we all want to share moisturizer than we can?!
    I’m afraid I’m not convinced this is worthy of too much worry compared to many other issues you have addressed.


    1. zefword Post author

      I fully agree – but my points are a) beauty regimes often ARE restrictive, and in some cases the pressure on young women is much greater and more damaging than on young men and b) why are those restrictions on women? As it happens, I did my own Julia Roberts experiment for three weeks, and gave in this morning and went to get the armpits waxed. I feel much better for it – found myself hugging my arms close to my body for most of the last week, in shame. But that doesn’t stop me asking the question of: why (including looking at my own reactions/assumptions)? As to your feeling that this is less worthy of worry compared to other challenges, I can understand that – totally feels a bit #middleclassproblems compared to maternal mortality or fistula. But for me, everything that can be turned upside down should be, and inequality is interesting (and damaging) in all its different forms. There are things that I feel very strongly about and others that are just intruiging and worthy of being poked at with a reflective stick. Depending on where and what “beauty” costs us, this is perhaps falling into the latter category. But I’m glad you commented, and hope you’ll keep reading new posts, even if this one didn’t do it for you 🙂



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