A litte disclaimer, this post was made with a Brazilian audience in mind. Some of what is written here might not accurately portray the reality of other countries.
The pressure to maintain a feminine attitude and appearance is a constant reality of women’s lives, and we are all very aware of the consequences we can face for defying the gender role imposed on us by society. Such consequences can affect our family life, our romantic relationshipt, our career. Women who refuse to present themselves in a feminine manner are considered immature, lazy, slobbish, or even – the worst of all insults – lesbians. This gender policing is even stricter when we are talking about black women, fat women, or any woman who does not fit into the unnatainable eurocentric standards shown in the covers of fashion magazines.
This constant policing of our own appearance is costly for women in many ways. First of all, it is important to point out the significant investment of time needed for the maintenance of femininity, deemed the “third shift” by American author Naomi Wolf in her book “The Beauty Myth“. Together with the first and second shifts, referring to paid out-of-home labor and domestic labor, Wolf points out that the way women are pressured to attain an impossible beauty standard is a tool used to exhaust women and rob us of our leisure time, as it can be seen in this excerpt from the book:
Throughout the West, women’s employment was stimulated by the widespread erosion of the industrial base and the shift to information and service technologies. Declining postwar birthrates and the resulting shortage of skilled labor means that women are welcome to the labor pool: as expendable, nonunionized, low-paid pink-collar-ghetto drudges. Economist Marvin Harris described women as a “literate and docile” labor pool, and “therefore desirable candidates for the information-and people-processing jobs thrown up by modern service industries.” The qualities that best serve employers in such a labor pool’s workers are: low self-esteem, a tolerance for dull repetitive tasks, lack of ambition, high conformity, more respect for men (who manage them) than women (who work beside them), and little sense of control over their lives. At a higher level, women middle managers are acceptable as long as they are male-identified and don’t force too hard up against the glass ceiling; and token women at the top, in whom the female tradition has been entirely extinguished, are useful. The beauty myth is the last, best training technique to create such a work force. It does all these things to women during work hours, and then adds a Third Shift to their leisure time.
Besides the cost in hours, we also need to consider the psychologic cost of the requirement of submissive behavior and the constant vigilance of one’s own appearance. For example, in her thesis for the Occidental College, Kate Handley described the way women alter their behavion when accompanied by men. Handley’s research, made from the observation of 18 tables at a restaurant during a ten hour period, shows that women, when in presence of male company, tend to order food that’s lower in calories, gesticulate less, consume the food slower and take smaller bites. The researcher also observed that, when in company of other women, they tend to eat faster, talk louder and even speak with their mouths full. Though the research was not made in strict scientific fashion, with a very small sample size, the constant self-policing of one’s own femininity is a tendency that has been pointed out by other studies. Scholars from Brigham Young University and Princeton University found out that women tend to speak less when outnumbered by men, and a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that women tend to minimize their career aspirations when speaking to a possible romantic patner, believing that professional ambition and a high salary would make them unnatractive. I believe most of us can observe similar situations on our day to day life.
The third cost of femininity is the easiest to measure: the financial cost. Data from the Commerce Federation of São Paulo shows that brazilians spent 20,3 billion reais in beauty-related services in 2012. While this piece of data is not available, it’s reasonable to assume that most of this money comes from women’s pockets, as men are not usual clients for manicure and pedicure services, hairdressers and body hair removal services.
For a little thought experiment on the financial cost of the performance of femininity I’ve decided to do some informal research. I entered the closest drugstore available to me, in a middle class neighborhood in São Paulo, Brazil, and took note of the prices of some items related to beauty and femininity.
To create a parameter on which we can judge the prices of those items, I’m going to post here some reference values, keeping in mind that they all refer to São Paulo, Brazil, in January 2017, and are in Brazilian reais.
Minimum wage, one month salary: R$ 937,00
One train/bus/metro ticket: R$ 3,80
One liter of gasoline: R$ 3,20
Five kilograms of rice, “Tio João” brand: R$ 16,69
One kilo of dried beans, “Camil” brand: R$ 5,19
One Big Mac: R$ 16,50
One 500ml bottle of dish soap, “Ypê” brand: R$ 2,02
One 3 liter container of laundry soap, “OMO” brand: R$ 36,96
With these values in mind, I’ve also took as a rule to always consider the cheapest item among the ones available in each category, and I did not include fancy cosmetics, sold in shelves separated by brand, which are significantly more expensive than average and are not an usual purchase for the average Brazilian woman.
Let’s move to our first item: razors.
Body hair removal is one of the most stringent impositions society does to women, and this is specially true when we’re talking about Brazil, internationally known as the home of fully bald genitalia, deforested by hot wax. On a daily basis, though, the most convenient option is to shave in the shower. Sold for R$ 9,90, the package with two razors looks like a good deal, but with the hot Brazilian climate and the frequently-exposed shins that come with it, shaving becomes pretty much a daily activity, and the razor blades soon become dull and useless.
And if you have legs like mine, those razors are single-use and you’re gonna spend one on each leg.
If you are a woman who uses razors to remove your body hair, chances are you will also take home a can of shaving foam. The cheapest option I found was sold for R$ 13,99, adding to a total of R$ 23,89 for the razor + foam combo.
Another option available in the drugstore is cold wax sheets, which are less effective than hot wax but just as painful. The
self-flagellation wax sheets are sold in two versions, one for the body, for R$ 15,99, and one for the face, for R$ 9,99. The chemical composition of the two products is exactly the same, as it can be verified on the manufacturer’s website here and here. Which means they are effectively selling you the same stuff twice.
The third option available are chemical depilatory creams, a solution made out of thioglycolic acid and potassium hydroxide that destroy the keratin molecules that form the hair. Again, there’s one version for the body and one for the face, sold for R$ 23,49 and R$ 15,79 respectively. Unlike the cold wax, the chemical composition of these two creams is not identical. The face version contains more ingredients. I do not know enough about chemistry to know if these ingredients make any difference, but in case someone wants to take a look, the composition can be seen here and here.
By the end of the day denying our hairy mammal nature might not be the best idea when health is concerned. Hair removal, specially waxing, can cause ingrown hairs, foliculitis, contact dermatitis, wax burns, among other skin problems. Complete removal of hair in the genital area, a practice that has become more common due to the widespread presence of pornographic imagery, can have even more serious consequences. The genital area is hot and moist, a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, who can cause infection due to micro-lesions caused by plucking out the hair or small cuts caused by a razor. There is also evidence that removal of pubic hair may increase the chance of infection with an STD.
As for the myth that not removing your body hair is unhygienic, if you believe this at least be coherent and shave your head. And your eyebrows too.
On the topic of hygiene, we have here an example of the infamous “feminine soap”, AKA soap for your pussy, which was on sale and was sold for R$ 14,99.
Though the package proudly displays claims that the product is recommended by gynecologist, doctors actually recommend caution when using the product or even completely disencourage the use, as at best the product will not work, and at worse it can damage the vaginal flora or cause allergies. The overall recommendation is to wear loose clothing, avoid synthetic materials for underwear and wash your vulva with water.
In short, this is a questionable product that owes good part of its sales to the idea that the female genitalia is naturally dirty and smelly. The constant use of perfumes, soaps and other substances that mask the natural smell and secretions of the vagina will also prevent a woman from knowing the natural state of her own body, therefore preventing her from identifying changes that can actually signify a health problem.
There is no real need and no benefit in masking the natural smell of our vulva with flowery perfumes. We need to ask ourselves who benefits from our lack of self-knowledge.
Still on the genital area, I’ve found this product for washing underwear specifically. A lot of women handwash their underwear, in part to prevent damage to a delicate or expensive item that can’t be machine washed, in part for believing that the dirty panties will “infect” the rest of the wash load – I was raised believing on this second one -, but what really got my attention about this product was something else.
The first point that made me raise an eyebrow was the price of the product. The laundry soap I used as reference above is sold for R$ 36,96 in three liter containers, for a total of R$ 12,32 for one liter. This panty soap comes in a 300ml bottle and costs R$ 7,89, for a total of R$ 26,30 per liter. The manufacturer does not provide the chemical composition of this soap in its website, but I seriously doubt it is something distinctive enought to justify costing over twice as much as regular soap.
Also, notice the pink-labeled bottle next to the one I photographed. It’s another version of the same laundry soap, claiming to be ideal for washing teen underwear. On the manufacturer’s website I also found a version to specifically wash bikinis and another for gym clothes. Again, I cannot confirm if each of these products has a different chemical composition or not, but to me it seems like a simple market segmentation tactic, a marketing technique that divides a target demographic in smaller segments in order to sell more products of the same kind. For example, in the panty soap case, a woman who goes to the gym and has a teenage daughter who likes to swim might buy four bottles of soap instead of one.
This market segmentation technique, in specific gendered segmentation, is well explained in this video by The Checkout, on YouTube.
Now let’s check some skin products. We have here a cream that claims to reduce cellulite, sold for R$ 54,99, and one to reduce stretch marks, for R$ 55,99.
Let’s start with cellulite. I consider cellulite treatments a particulary nefarious way to separate women from their hard-earned money, because cellulite is not even a health condition. It causes no damage to the body, and is merely caused by the way fat cells organize in the female body.
The diagram above represents the differences in the layout of fat cells in male and female bodies. In men, cells are organized in a crisscrossing net of collagen threads, and when this man accumulates fat the cells expand and push the skin evenly. In women fat cells are organized in cube-like structures, and when these expand they push against the skin in specific points, causing the “orange peel” effect known as cellulite. This biological distinction allows women to store a larger quantity of body fat, essential in case of pregnancy.
Cellulite is a secondary sex characteristic, and the great majority of women has it. How visible it is depends mostly on genetic factors and on the quantity of subcutaneous fat one specific woman stores, though cellulite is very common in thin women as well. You can use every cream in the market, exfoliate every day, or even get invasive treatments done, like liposuctions and chemical peelings, but if you have a genetic predisposition to visible cellulite none of that will help. And this is true for pretty much every woman, from 85% to 98% according to a 2014 study.
Is it worth it to spend money on ineffective treatments to solve something that’s not even a problem?
As for stretch marks, they are created in situations where there is a rapid expansion of cutaneous tissue and skin cells can’t grow fast enough to keep up, resulting in the creation of scar tissue. It’s common during pregnancy, puberty, rapid weight gain or even during rapid muscle mass gain. Health-wise, they are just like any other scar, leaving the skin a little more sensitive but not affecting its integrity or regeneration capacity in any other way. Like other scars, stretch marks tend to fade away with time. They are a purely aesthetic concern.
The efficacy of stretch mark treatments is questionable.
Still on skin products, I’ve found this cream, sold for R$ 64,99, that claims to minimize “wrinkles and expression marks”.
Discrimination against elderly women is a dire reality. Forgotten by policies that combat sexual assault, disproportionatelly affected by unemployement and, in a society that values women almost exclusively for their appearance, their youth and their reproductive capacity, they are affected even more than men by poverty in their old age. In this scenario, it’s perfectly understandable that a woman may want to avoid any sign of aging.
Like others in this list, the efficacy of anti-aging products is questionable. While clinical tests show change in the skin appearance and the minimization of wrinkles after treatment, similar results were achieved with regular moisturizing cream, and with less side effects. The manufacturer does not provide the chemical composition of the product on its website, preventing me from doing more specific research. They line of anti-aging products has seven more items for sale.
By the end of the day, aging is inevitable, and wrinkles are part of the process. The existence of such great variety of anti-aging products is due to us living in a cultural environment where elderly people are devalued, elderly women in special. This pressure to mantain a young appearance is particulary strong in a country like Brazil, which, despite being in the middle of a political and financial crisis, registered more than a million of plastic surgeries per year in the last few years.
And finally, we have some makeup products.
The combined price of the five products displayer here is R$ 77,44. Makeup by itself deserves a whole post, not only being one of the biggest symbols of the performance of femininity, but also because of the recent marketing trend of appropriating feminist language and rhetoric to sell cosmetics, using terms like “empowerment”, exalting women’s bravery and selling an image of freedom and professional success.
The act of painting one’s face has existed since the beggining of humankind and presents itself in diverse ways, from the ritualistic and religious to pure artistic exploration. However, these elements are not present in current makeup culture. What’s there is a constant pressure for women to hide each and every imperfection in their skin, to use shading tricks to disguise the shape of their faces and make them fit an eurocentric beauty standard – the popular “contouring” -, and hide any sign of aging, expression or exhaustion.
Despite the feminist rhetoric, edifying imagery, and the promise of “empowerment” and improved self-esteem, what happens in reality is the heavy implication that a woman should hide her natural facial features to be socially acceptable, and that stepping outside with a “bare face” is shameful. Tabloids and gossip magazines all over the world publish pictures of celebrities with no makeup in a mocking, derogatory tone, as if they were caught in a serious social faux pass. Considering all of this, how can makeup be empowering?
And of course, the major point of this post, in whose pockets do the millions of reais spent in cosmetics by Brazilian women every day end up? Do these companies actually have the well-being of women in mind?
At this point I’ve had to leave the drug store because I had two employees following me around and staring me down in a very hostile manner, so I couldn’t photograph some other commonly worn makeup products, like foundation, blushes and eyeshadow, but if anyone else wants to repeat this little experiment, let me know what you find out.
The total value of the items registered here is R$ 411,13. It’s the equivalent to 108 bus tickets, 79 kilograms of dry beans, 128 liters of gasoline, or almost half of a month’s minimum wage. And while beauty products and services are marketed evocating ideas of self-care and self-love, we can see in the studies linked above that a good amount of them does not even work as promised, and others cause pain and/or have damaging side effects.
In a country such as Brazil, where a significant wage disparity still exists and where women perform a disproportionate share of domestic labor, it is necessary to stop and think about how we are spending our money and our free time, and if the choices we make are really the best for our physical and mental well-being.
And yes, it its undeniable that there are negative consequences for anyone who tries to deviate from society’s norms. It would be naive, or even malicious, to deny that women that refuse to wear makeup, remove body hair, or act in a feminine manner, suffer discrimination or even violence. But we must have an honest, reality-based view of our current situation: these companies want to sell us products that do not bring us any real benefit, and for that they tell us that we are ugly, foul-smelling, lazy and messy if we don’t purchase and use their products. Turning on the television and watching advertising for beauty products is to be constantly insulted, degraded and condescended to.
Though we sometimes have to work with the current system to survive within it, we have to keep in mind that we are enough. We do not need to be in pain or discomfort to realize our own beauty. We don’t need to spend half a salary every month to love our own bodies. We don’t need to look in the mirror and see ourselves as a permanent work in project, always subject to scrutiny and in need of corrections and improvements. We do not need to pluck and paint ourselves to please people who see us as sub-human.
None of that is necessary. It is part of our current reality, but it’s not necessary. Real self-love is to allow yourself to rest, feeding your body without guilt, accepting yourself with all your imperfections, scars, hair, and other features of a flesh-and-blood living creature, without expecting yourself to aim to become some sort of impossible ethereal beauty. Let’s keep this in mind.
One last thing, specific to Brazilian law, if your employer demands that you wear makeup during your work hours, they are legally obliged to either provide the product or to reimburse the employee for the purchase of the items, since Brazilian law obliges the employer to provide uniforms to workers and the mandatory nature of makeup puts it in the uniform category. An example of a lawsuit on this matter can be seen here. I understand the legal system in the US doesn’t seem to favor the worker in this kind of situation, and whether the employer is required to pay for uniforms varies from state to state, as well as the definition of what is actually uniform. It’s something worth researching. Get to know how the law works in your country and/or state.
To end the post in a funny note, this photo below shows the weirdest product I’ve found in that drugstore. It’s a set of four disposable moisturizing boob-stickers, used to glue your breast up so it looks “perky” without a bra, sold for almost double the price of a good quality sports bra.
Food for thought.