I don’t care that much about my appearance. I don’t waste time chasing after arbitrary beauty standards. I get my hair done, though, and I’ve started to have it coloured since I turned 40, but that’s very low maintenance: four times a year, £150 a time. And it only needs to be washed and blow-dried two or three times a week.
I have a skincare regime, because who doesn’t? Very simple: just wash, serum, sunscreen in the morning; cream cleanser, gel cleanser, retinol treatment and face oil at night. But I don’t wear makeup every day: just a light layer, three or four times a week, which takes about five minutes. (A full face takes 20 minutes, but I’ll only bother with that once a week.)
Leg and underarm shaving is optional — hey, I’m a feminist! Once or twice a week. It’s just nice not to be hairy if I’m going to the gym, which I do three times a week for about an hour a time, but that’s about fitness as much as appearance. It’s not like I’m having fillers or Botox or plastic surgery. I love myself the way I am. I just spend hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds every year to achieve it.
Listing everything I do for beauty makes me sound, I know, unserious. If you’re a man, you may feel incredulous at this litany of vanity. Possibly you’re wondering how I have the time or the money for these commitments. If you’re a woman, though — even if you’re a woman who has opted out of all this stuff — then you will recognise the pressure to go along with it.
Nora Ephron called it “maintenance”, in a 2005 essay: “Maintenance is what you have to do just so you can walk out the door.” More recently, the philosopher Clare Chambers has coined a new word for the daily effort we expend on our bodies. In her new book Intact: A Defence of the Unmodified Body, she calls it “shametenance”.
But what’s so shameful about the unmaintained face? Many men insist that they prefer the “natural look” in women; then again, far fewer men demonstrate a preference for women with grey hair, wrinkles and hairy armpits. When a female celebrity gets papped without makeup, it’s a conspicuous enough event to make the Mail’s sidebar of shame. A bare female face is an invitation to ask: can she get away with it?
This, though, is a time of exceptional frankness about the work of femininity. Maintenance is no longer cloistered in dressing rooms, but out there in Instagram stories and TikTok tutorials. Actresses no longer pretend their extended youthfulness comes only from nothing but sleep and hydration; instead, they try to sell us things.
Being obviously beautiful can now be a full-time job. Very few influencers bother with the tedious fiction that their desirable “skinny-thicc” figures (narrow waist, full hips, big tits and behind) are the lucky outcome of good genes and exercise. Instead, they put up sponsored posts about the surgeon who did their Brazilian butt lift (BBL).
And so, if honesty about beauty can eliminate some feelings of inadequacy, it only replaces them with a shopping list for becoming adequate. If the idea of the “natural look” has been debunked, it’s only allowed the most extreme and graphic plastic surgery to be normalised. Meanwhile, the “shametenance” list grows ever longer. These days you can get fillers at your family dentist.
And the more routine these interventions seem, the more people want them, even at considerable risk. If you can’t afford Botox from a medical professional in a clinic, an unqualified practitioner working in their living room can inject an unlicensed alternative into you instead. Victims of this black market suffer infections, sores and permanent scarring. For every 6,000 women who have a BBL, one or two will die as a result. It’s still the fastest-growing cosmetic surgery in the world.
Maybe there’s an argument that the BBL is at least a rejection of the “waif” beauty standard formed in the Nineties and Noughties. In Sexual Revolution, Laurie Penny writes: “Today, the ideal woman takes up as little space as possible. She is fragile, breakable, thin and hungry-looking.” But that is not what the “ideal woman” looks like in 2022. If it were, women would not be spending thousands of pounds for a big bum and a non-zero chance of an embolism.
If the thinness of the waif was the point, then the skinny-thicc look ought to be liberatory: it’s all about having an ass that takes up as much space as possible. But the difference in the ultimate appearance of these ideals is irrelevant. What matters is that both advertise, through their exaggerated aesthetic, the effort that went into them: a waif is waifish because she scrupulously manages her food intake, a skinny-thicc is skinny-thicc because she’s put in the hours on the operating table.
In 2004, the sex advice columnist Dan Savage was asked about another fashion in female body shape: why weren’t women in porn getting enormous, “bigger-than-your-head” breast implants anymore? And this is what he replied:
“The sudden appearance of women with ridiculously huge boob implants was arousing in part because of its shock value. There was the shock of women with such exaggerated racks, of course, but there was also the more important and, sadly, the infinitely more arousing shock of women finding a novel new way to imperil their health in order to attract the attention of men.”
The point of all these extremes is their demonstration of commitment to being beautiful — to fulfilling the assumption, as Chambers describes it, that “to be a woman is to be sexually attractive, or at least to be sexually available, or at least open to judgement for being or not being sexually attractive and available”. It’s not that these physiques are universally desired by men at the times they become popular. It’s that they become the accepted symbol of a woman’s willingness to reshape her body in order to be pleasing.
Trends are cyclical: an aesthetic gains ascendency, spreads to ubiquity, is pushed to absurdity in the competition for attention, and then collapses under the physical limitations of the body to be replaced by the next standard. When the thing after skinny-thicc begins to emerge, it might feel like an escape, but it won’t be. It will go through the same process, have the same distribution of winners and losers, exhaust itself the same way.
Women’s bodies, in other words, will always be a problem to solve. They will never be acceptable. That’s what makes Chambers’s position in Intact so appealingly radical: she argues that bodies do not need to be modified. Your body is valuable just as it is, because it is you. And I agree — while being enormously grateful that Chambers leaves enough flexibility in her thesis for me to agree without having to change any of the habits I’m attached to.
Intact is not absolutist. Sometimes, writes Chambers, modification is justified — for reasons of health or happiness. So it’s okay to spend £150 getting my hair done, because it’s a pleasure. (I’m a primate: it’s nice to be groomed. The sociological term for this is “the beauty touch”, says Chambers.) It’s okay for me to lift weights in the gym; so long as steroids aren’t involved: “bodybuilding can be good for both body and soul.” My tattoos are perhaps a more challenging case, but they too are defensible for Chambers as acts of “self-expression”.
In fact, any kind of body modification turns out to be acceptable in the end, because “the principle of the unmodified body asserts a premise, not a goal”. This saves her from doing anything as gauche as telling other people what to do with their bodies, but it does set her argument a little adrift: her book is part passionate defence of physical integrity, part “you do you” shrug.
Chambers is also careful to make a fine distinction between “unmodified” and “natural”, pointing out that the latter is an unhelpful concept because “if being natural means being without human interference, then no human and no body can ever be natural”. Everything you consume, every movement you make, can alter the appearance of your body. How can a woman decide what to do with her body when every possible choice is loaded with value?
I’m not as scared of being censorious as Chambers is. As far as I’m concerned, wanting to change your appearance is part of being human, and one of the ways we signal status and group loyalty. But not all modifications are equal, and the ones we should be wary of are, first, the ones that infringe on the body’s ability to be a body: that destroy its capacity for function or pleasure (labiaplasty), that attack its self-reliance by turning it into a permanent patient (fillers that must be endlessly refilled so the stretched-out cavity won’t sag).
We should also be suspicious of modifications that distort our idea of the average. If you want Botox and can afford the good stuff, I do chafe at the idea of banning it. However, and as Chambers argues, we should not pretend the ethics here end with individual choice: if you eliminate your fine lines, you will change how others feel about theirs. When you’ve seen enough strangely ageless faces, your own normal creases begin to feel like deformities.
And finally, we should query modifications that are displays of pure female submission — by which I mean the extreme and dangerous forms of plastic surgery, but which arguably includes a great many of the less intrusive things I do. Chambers describes makeup as the ultimate in self-objectification, because when we wear it, “we see ourselves as others see us, and treat their perspective as the one that counts”.
I baulk at this — my face is a means of communication, and makeup is a fun way to play with the vocabulary of expression — but I should, at least, accept the possibility that I might be wrong. Beauty may be laborious. But declining to do beauty is its own kind of hard. In a society that judges women in particular so harshly on the way they look, it’s an announcement of non-compliance, and it’s often met with hostility.
The point is, even when a woman decides she will not make a statement with her body, she is making a statement. The point is, this is exhausting. The point is, it’s supposed to be: even on the days I’m not spending hours in a salon or carefully painting wings along my lash line, I’m still distractedly thinking about how I look at least some of the time. And if I stopped thinking about it? Someone else would still be thinking about it for me, judging me. The point is, there is no way out. We’re damned if we care, and damned if we don’t.