Discussions on Beauty & Ageing / No.003

Discussions on Beauty & Ageing / No.003
Irving Penn, Vogue, April 1965

This discussion originated from previous posts at the TIG Substack (you can find parts One and Two there). However, we’re continuing the conversation here to avoid overwhelming our subscribers with the rather sobering findings about the beauty industry’s impact on mental (and sometimes physical) well-being.

This introspection began when I noticed the pervasiveness of skincare, makeup articles, videos, and product promotions online—it felt overwhelming. That prompted me down a research path, beginning with an article about lip balm addiction, which opened the door to Susan Sontag’s 1972 essay “The Double Standard of Aging” and eventually Rae Nudson‘s book All Made Up: The Power and Pitfalls of Beauty Culture, from Cleopatra to Kim Kardashian. Pamela Anderson’s understated, makeup-free appearance at Paris Fashion Week last year forced me to confront my feelings about going bare-faced. Could I do the same? I’m not so sure.

What follows is a compilation of my research findings from around the internet on this topic. I’m documenting it here as a reference point while further exploring the concept of makeup as a social construct designed to divert us from what truly matters in life…


Lookism is a term used to describe prejudice against the unattractive

Pulchronomics is the economics of beauty or physical attractiveness.

“The way you look or see yourself can have a big impact on your confidence or self-respect. But when there’s a price tag on your looks, it becomes so much more, taking over your entire life. It could get exhausting. This ‘price tag’ was conceptualized by Daniel Hamermesh and is called ‘pulchronomics’ a.k.a. the economics of beauty. He believes that the way you look directly affects the amount of money you make, and your level of job satisfaction. With dozens of existing pressures for women to look a particular way, this theory has only magnified what most of us already know — looks matter.” (Read more)


Megan Nolan’s article, “Why Do We All Have to Be Beautiful?“, was an eye-opener for me. When I was little, I did not aspire to be beautiful. I wanted to be an archaeologist. And then a ballerina. And then a detective. But her words made me realise how deep-rooted this patriarchal construct of beauty has become:

When I was younger, I wanted to be beautiful so badly that I could taste it, and it tasted like blood. It was a hard, painful desire. I didn’t want to be cute, or pretty. I didn’t want to be more attractive to men. I didn’t want to be sexier. I wanted only to be beautiful, and the fact that I was not beautiful hurt more, not less, for the fact that I so nearly was. What I wanted was to be undeniable, to be all clean lines, to not be debatable.

And in the same vein, Farrah Storr’s article, Survival of the prettiest

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag’s essay, “The Double Standard Of Aging” (1972) made a huge impression on me. Below, I’ve gathered some of the thoughts from her work that resonated most:

This revaluation of the life cycle in favor of the young brilliantly serves a secular society whose idols are ever-increasing industrial productivity and the unlimited cannibalization of nature. Such a society must create a new sense of the rhythms of life in order to incite people to buy more, to consume and throw away faster. People let the direct awareness they have of their needs, of what really gives them pleasure, be overruled by commercialised images of happiness and personal well-being; and, in this imagery designed to stimulate ever more avid levels of consumption…

But the objective, sacred pain of old age is of another order than the subjective, profane pain of aging. Old age is a genuine ordeal, one that men and women undergo in a similar way. Growing older is mainly an ordeal of the imagination—a moral disease, a social pathology—intrinsic to which is the fact that it afflicts women much more than men. It is particularly women who experience growing older (everything that comes before one is actually old) with such distaste and even shame.

Large amounts of women’s energies are diverted into this passionate, corrupting effort to defeat nature: to maintain an ideal, static appearance against the progress of age. The collapse of the project is only a matter of time. Inevitably, a woman’s physical appearance develops beyond its youthful form. No matter how exotic the creams or how strict the diets, one cannot indefinitely keep the face unlined, the waist slim.


There are Instagram accounts that will tell you that transformations like this one are possible to sell you a dream. In truth, there is no way for you know if the results are real or if the post-op photos are misleading, or worse, false.


“Above all, midlife is about letting go: about necessary lettings-go. Letting go of illusions, letting go of Shadows. Sometimes, letting go of people and places and jobs. Letting go of the wounds we allow to define us, as well as those we’ve forgotten or repressed. We’re often taken over at this time by a longing to shed excess baggage: all the things which once defined us, we now begin to reject. The things we wanted most in the world might be offered to us – and we find that actually, we don’t want them any more.”

Dr Sharon Blackie


From All Made Up: The Power and Pitfalls of Beauty Culture, from Cleopatra to Kim Kardashian by Rae Nudson:

“Generally, attitudes about what makeup looks are acceptable in certain settings reveal more about society’s prejudices than about makeup itself or the individuals who choose to wear it.”

“However, women were still judged by their beauty—outward appearance was meant to indicate the goodness within. And if a woman’s worth was dependent on her looks, it’s likely that some women used cosmetics to subtly achieve that “naturally virtuous”glow. Makeup trends encouraged women to wear cosmetics that quietly enhanced natural features instead of heavy makeup. Use of any cosmetics was hidden as much as possible, so that a woman could claim that her beauty was all natural—and her value all the greater as a result.”

“Women chase respectability-often just out of reach—using tools like makeup because they are trying to work within a system that doesn’t value their bodily autonomy or self-worth without a polished veneer.”


There’s a great article in Teen Vogue from all the way back in 2017 called, “What You Should Realize About Society’s Aspiration for Big Lips” that discusses the beginning of a now-ubiquitous trend:

While cosmetic procedures were once something people only whispered about, now augmented lips are viewed as a status symbol, no different than a pair of Gucci loafers or a Chanel Boy Bag. But there’s also a downside to that, says Patricia Wexler, a New York-based dermatologist. Chasing an unrealistic standard of beauty can have long-lasting psychological effects as these procedures can “feed body dysmorphia,” says Dr. Wexler notes, which is an anxiety disorder that causes people to have a distorted view of their appearance. The temptation to alter your appearance is stronger than ever, thanks to a constant stream of alluring artificial pouts on Instagram.

From the article “How Tehran became the world’s nose job capital”:

A sharp rise in cosmetic surgery procedures is alarming doctors in Iran, with the mostly female clientele citing insecurities fuelled by social media and the attraction of perceived prettiness. 


“Every generation has had their own iteration of these destructive beauty ‘self-improvements’. In the 2000s, there was the horrifically damaging diet culture: the Special K diet, the Heat magazine Circle of Shame, the slew of television shows like Supersized vs Superskinny, Fat Families, and How to Look Good Naked. These constraints on women’s bodies and lives never cease; they just morph into new forms of containment and oppression. But back in the 2000s, there were at least a few more obstacles in the way to stop total self-hatred. We would have to log on to slow dial-up internet or go into a shop to buy a magazine to inflict ourselves with unnecessary body-shaming damage.”


“…the beauty industry positions itself as this empowering force, this force for self-confidence, self-expression, self-care and self-love, but when you look at the data, it’s having the exact opposite effect on us. Instances of appearance-related anxiety, depression, facial dysmorphia, body dysmorphia, disordered eating, obsessive thoughts, self-harm and even suicide are rising in lockstep with the amount of beauty products and procedures that are available to us. So I hope the thing that people take from my work is that beauty isn’t delivering on its promises. And although it can confer a certain power, it is disempowering us on an existential level. I think if you are at least aware of the ways in which the beauty industry is siphoning your time, money, effort, headspace and personal sense of self, then you’re more likely to make considered decisions about when you want to participate in beauty standards and when you want to put in the effort to divest from them.”

Jessica Defino


Kim Kardashian in a corset

And because we couldn’t have a discussion on beauty without the people who have played a major role in shaping beauty standards over the past 15 years: “The influence of this family can be traced in plastic surgery trends, in beauty-product categories, in magazine sales, and in scholarly discussions.” (Allure)


It’s a vicious culture that valorizes curves on wealthy, racially ambiguous white women, but stigmatizes these traits on Black women; one that plays into a longtime fascination with the aesthetics of Blackness and an unwillingness to engage with the ugliness of anti-Black racism at the same time. And it’s in the Kardashian-Jenner sisters’ wholehearted embrace of this tension that their family has forever changed the ways society thinks about bodies and beauty, forging the standards that have defined the past decade.

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