Skin deep: the beauty myth laid bare
Just 12pc of Irish women are happy with how they look and many others feel under sustained pressure to tan, tone and wax themselves into something they are not. Deirdre Reynolds reports on a controversial new book that lays bare the beauty myth
Published 26/04/2014 | 02:30
'Human Barbie' Valeria Lukyanova has infamously undergone plastic surgery, survives on a liquid diet and slathers herself in studio makeup to look like the iconic doll.
But this week the 28-year-old Ukranian model did something even more shocking by posting a no-makeup selfie on Facebook.
For many of her young female fans the transformation into a living, breathing doll may have already begun, according to a new book blasting the media's role in perpetuating the beauty myth for the Facebook generation.
Due to hit shelves here next week, The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media argues that while second-wave feminists may have burned their bras, today's post-feminists are just one boob job away from redoing the clasp.
And authors Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are blaming the kind of chewing-gum-for-the-mind magazines, websites and TV shows often aimed at young women.
"Our teens marked the beginning of a lifelong love-hate relationship with the media directed at us," explains London-based journalist Cosslett, who co-founded feminist blog The Vagenda two years ago.
"We consumed an awful lot of glossy trash over the years, and in February 2012, when we were a pair of impoverished graduates, we launched The Vagenda – a blog dedicated to humorously lambasting women's magazines.
"Almost as soon as we launched, hordes of women, from the age of 13 right up to 85, were getting in touch and wanting to add their voices," she adds. "It made us realise we weren't the only ones who felt like crap when we read women's magazines or watched MTV."
Just 12pc of Irish women are happy with their looks, according to a recent survey by beauty brand Dove, which may go some way towards explaining why statistics also show that a third won't leave the house without wearing makeup and four out of 10 wear fake tan.
Low self-esteem is something that psychologist Anne Matthews encounters regularly at Mind and Body Works in Dublin.
"I'm not quite sure that some of the young men around nowadays know that their partner actually grows pubic hair," she says.
"I call it 'the TOWIE effect' [after reality TV show The Only Way is Essex]: teenagers see these stick-thin celebrities who are tanned and hairless and think that's how they're supposed to look.
"First of all, we have to recognise that it's happening," she adds, "and the damage it's doing to young people's body image.
"I see some of the most beautiful girls, who just don't happen to be a size zero, and they think that's not OK. It's leading to things like anorexia and bulimia."
Despite this week being crowned People magazine's Most Beautiful person for 2014, even Lupita Nyong'o admits that growing up she aspired to the standard of beauty set by US television: "Light skin and long, flowing, straight hair.
"Subconsciously you start to appreciate those things more than what you possess."
"[My mother] always said I was beautiful ... and I finally believed her at some point."
Ironically, as the first black ambassador for Lancôme, now the Oscar winner herself has been cast as the new female ideal, and is sure to shift more than a few face creams among the French beauty brand's key demographic of "young, tech-savvy, social media-conscious consumers".
From Botox to Brazilian waxing, 'feminism' and 'femininity' are getting confused, warns The Vagenda co-author Holly Baxter: "We feel as though the media want us to be in a constant battle with our bodies.
"As though they want us to remove all traces of anything natural, such as body hair or crow's feet or freckles, to become a doll-like version of femininity.
"As a result, a woman becomes piecemeal, fragmented," she adds, "a collection of boobs and thighs and bum and waist and calves, as though these body parts are somehow separable from her."
Twenty years on, supermodel Eva Herzigova concedes she's still best remembered for WonderBra's traffic-stopping 'Hello Boys' billboard campaign: "It's just amazing how popular it was and the impact it made.
"It was very smart advertising. It was witty and empowering to women – who cares what the boys think, the girls are in power."
Amid today's tsunami of hypersexualised images, such a campaign simply wouldn't work anymore, argues advertising executive Emer Currie.
"I don't think sex sells as much as it used to," says Emer, business director of DDFH&B Advertising in Dublin.
"We went through a stage back in the nineties where advertisers were pushing the limits, and the Wonderbra ad was probably it at its height.
"Certainly in Ireland we don't tend to use beautiful high-end models [in advertising] because consumers would reject them.
"Saying that, I do still think if there was a beauty ad that didn't feature flawless, skin I wonder would people reject it [as well]," she adds.
"People like to buy into escapism occassionally.
"When I'm flicking through the pages of Marie Claire at the hairdressers, I'm dreaming about who I want to be rather than my daily struggles as a mum.
"For young girls, I definitely think it's more difficult to differentiate between the fantasy and the reality."
Hair removal brand Veet certainly got a dose of reality when it pulled its latest 'Don't Risk Dudeness' ad campaign over complaints that it body-shamed women earlier this month.
Created by New York advertising agency Havas Worldwide, the ad depicted a woman turning into a bearded man overnight because she "shaved yesterday", and finally urged female viewers to "feel womanly around the clock" by depilating.
And the ensuing apology by the brand, implying women had simply taken it up wrong, only added fuel to the online blaze: "We just wanted to let everyone know, we get it – we're women too.
"This idea came from women who told us that at the first hint of stubble, they felt like 'dudes'.
"It was really simple and funny, we thought''.
But not everyone appreciated their sense of humour
"There's a growing trend towards real beauty [in advertising]," says Emer Currie. "You're going to see a more real reflection of women rather than the artificial reflection of women.
"I think what's happening is that females have come through this process over decades and there is a backlash, whereas men are only starting on that journey.
"Young men have become far more body-conscious and some brands are reflecting that in their advertising.
"I suppose it's about what lessons have we learned and what can we avoid."
While Cosslett and Baxter say they're asking "women everywhere to demand a media that reflects who we actually are", many like Laura Bates, whose Everyday Sexism project catalogues the casual sexism experienced by women today, and photographer Ben Hopper, whose Natural Beauty series features models with armpit hair, are already challenging the so-called vagenda.
Ultimately though psychologist Anne Matthews says its up to parents to help stop the Barbification of their daughters, and increasingly sons.
"When someone has a baby girl, they tend to want to dress them in pink, fluffy things," she says.
"Suddenly how they dress and how they are perceived becomes important.
"The conditioning is very subtle and it starts from the get-go.
"Little girls will always identify with their gender and want to dress like Mammy, and I think makeup is fine.
"When you start getting into things like dietary control and intimate waxing it's a whole different area."
"There is an oversexualisation [in media] now, and I think it probably takes something like Miley Cyrus [twerking on MTV] to pull it back.
"Unfortunately many girls have already gone too far with diet before it is pulled back.
"My advice to parents is to confidence build in other areas apart from looks," she adds.
"From very early on, you should be encouraging your kids in sport, art or whatever they are good at, so they learn that image isn't everything."
'The Vagenda' by Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, published by Square Peg on May 1
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