Natural Beauty and Body Image: How’s Yours?
Hello! I’m Virginia of Beauty Schooled, a blog where I investigate the price of pretty. I’m so excited that Alexandra and Siobhan asked me to guest post, because I am obsessed with their book to the point that I carry it in my purse when I go to the store to stock up on conditioner and face wash (that’s not weird, right?) and also, they are totally awesome people.
A little while ago, I bullied these ladies into guest posting on my blog, and we started talking about how cleaning up your beauty routine can lead to you also feeling maybe a little bit free from all those “you MUST look like [insert-whomever-in-Hollywood-here]” beauty standards that we all hold ourselves to, often to a pretty major degree.
And it was a little bit of a light bulb moment for me.
But first, let’s back up: The whole reason Beauty Schooled-the-blog started is because I decided to go to beauty school in real life. This was a bit random of me, because I’m a 29-year-old journalist and we unfortunately tend to assume that people who go to beauty school are just like Frenchie in Grease—the bad girls who smoke in the high school bathroom and wear lots of dark eyeliner. Correction: There are a lot of high school graduates who choose beauty school over college. But there are also a lot of women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who go because they’re looking for a way to bring in extra income, or find a career that will get them out of other (even-lower-paying) service industry jobs. They also go because they really, really love beauty.
I’d written some stuff about what it’s really like to work in a beauty salon. Think: Long hours, bad tips, and a lot of the same health issues we’re hearing about now from hair stylists performing Brazilian blowouts. Meanwhile, like most 20-something women, I was going to salons, getting a lot of these services done, and also spending a fair amount of time obsessing about my hair (too frizzy), my weight (too high), my skin (actually pretty damn good—but more on that next week).
So, I had all of these questions. Why are salon workers getting sick? What could happen to me from using all of this crap? When am I ever going to lose this last 10 pounds? Why do I even think I need to lose 10 pounds? What on earth is up with Brazilian waxing? And why would so many of us rather not make eye contact with the woman we pay to do that for us?
I know. It gets pretty fragmented in there. Stay with me.
I decided to go to beauty school, because I thought by crossing that invisible wall between me (the beauty consumer) and them (the beauty workers), I might find some answers to these questions. I did and I didn’t. (Start with my “Best of Beauty U” series for more on how it turned out.)
But one big thing I realized, after 600 hours in beauty school and hundreds of blog posts and conversations with women like Alex and Siobhan, is that all of these questions are a lot more connected than I first thought. We tend to separate them. There’s the green movement, where we talk about chemicals in consumer goods being bad for our health and the planet. There’s the green beauty movement, where all these great indie beauty companies are coming up with products that work just as well if not better than your old toxic crap, minus the toxins. There’s a (much less well-known) worker’s rights movement, where great organizations like the National Healthy Nail Salons Alliance are fighting to create safer working conditions for service industry workers. And there’s the feminist movement, still fighting against the same beauty myth that Naomi Wolf wrote about oh, almost 20 years ago.
There are some pockets of overlap, but they happen most often in a super extreme activist form that can be a bit of a turn-off for the rest of us, because it all comes with so much guilt. I can only march in so many g-d parades, you think. Or: I know the workers are getting a raw deal, but I still want to enjoy my pedicure and not feel bad about it! Or you start switching over to cleaner cosmetics because you want to avoid the nasty stuff, without asking, hey, why do I think I need to use this much stuff in the first place? (Hint: Lovely green beauty companies still do want you to buy lots of lovely green beauty products.)
I think there’s a way to approach all of these issues as One Big Beauty Problem, without going the hairy-legged, soap-eschewing, overall-wearing route unless that completely floats your boat. (In which case, do rock on. Overalls are mad comfy!) The first step is to start asking all of these questions. And the next step—the part I’m working on now, as a beauty school graduate—is to take control and start asking yourself: What parts of the beauty industry do I want to take or leave? Because it’s up to you whether you buy their products, believe their advertising campaigns, or keep patronizing salons that mistreat their workers. Every one of those issues circles back to the same deal: Do you want to buy into what someone else is selling? Or do you want to figure out beauty on your own terms?
Now, this can be hard as heck. I spend all this time thinking about this stuff, and still have many days when I wake up and feel fat and gross and suspect all of the clothes in my closet have been hatching sinister plots to make me look like an elephant while I was sleeping. Plus, I’m having the hardest time giving up my Retin-A or my silicone-based hair smoothing gel, even though I know, I know, I know there are greener alternatives and I really don’t need them.
And I still get pedicures and am frankly suspicious of women who tell me that they just don’t worry about how they look anymore, or don’t feel pressured to buy lots of products they don’t need. I think they are lying, because this stuff runs very, very deep. And every time I think I’ve given up one beauty industry rule (no more sulfate shampoo! no more uncomfortable high heels!) I run smack into about five more that I haven’t been able to untangle for myself yet.
But here’s the good news: There is a kind of natural progression that starts once you take even the tiniest peek into this rabbit hole. A lot of us experienced it with the Summer Hair Challenge and the No Makeup Challenge. You go from thinking “I must use five products on my face every single day” to “Actually, I look sort of healthy and great without makeup.” And then makeup becomes something you can play around with when you have the time and inclination, or forget all about when you don’t. Which is cool, and so then you start thinking, “What else don’t I need to worry about?” And maybe it’s your $60 eye cream, or the fact you can’t fit into your size 6 jeans anymore, or being so up-to-the-minute on top of your bikini-wax appointments. You realize the world never ended because a woman let her bikini line grow back in. Or didn’t lose five pounds. Or stopped chemically straightening her hair. Or getting pedicures. Or…you can fill in the blank here.
Because, you start to make up your own rules about what pretty is and what pretty does. And oh boy, is that ever beautiful.