How Do We Fight a Culture in Which “Pretty Hurts” Workers, From Sweatshops to Nail Salons?

In the past two weeks, investigative journalism has woken us up to the price, in human terms, of cheap beauty. First, John Oliver and his team reminded us about the sweatshops, child labor, and unsafe conditions that go into our “fast fashion.” Now, The New York Times‘ Sarah Maslin Nir has published a long exposé of conditions in New York City nail salons (short answer: they’re abysmal) that is setting social media ablaze. Reactions have ranged from self-flagellation and self-righteousness among salon clientele to questions about the best way to fix the situation: Tip better? Organize? Abstain?

Today is a perfect time to take a look at Jenny Hval and Zia Anger’s video for “The Battle Is Over,” featuring creepy-looking women engaged gendered rituals, and going progressively crazier. As retro hipsters reenact the Betty Draper paradigm, the video’s message is clear: Our battle isn’t over. It serves as a visual and aural equivalent of the recent literary critiques of marriage and parenthood. When I watched the video, I was particularly struck by the woman who begins drawing lipstick on her lips but ends up scrawling it over her face, turning herself from a pleasing specimen of modern womanhood into something grotesque.

Lipstick has been wholeheartedly embraced by this generation of feminists, myself included. We flaunt our new colors in our Instagram selfies and praise each other’s “lipstick game.” For me at least, the video’s imagery was a powerful reminder of the social ugliness that accompanies perceptions of beauty, even of the literal blood spilled by the people who make our garments and tubes of makeup. The video also shows that makeup in a certain place (the lips) is a sign of acceptable self-expression, while going outside those boundaries becomes dangerous, hideous, even a signifier of insanity.

At the moment, cultural feminism is pretty comfortable with its embrace of fashion and beauty — from those lipstick selfies to the enthusiasm with which feminists on social media both ogled and critiqued this week’s Met Gala outfits. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, it can be liberating and arguably advances the project of gender equality to discuss, with seriousness, the kind of feminine-coded interests that were once deemed frivolous or secondary. It’s a sartorial version of, say, promoting childcare and household chores as valuable labor that should be paid. Ellen Willis and other smart feminist thinkers have rightly smacked down critiques of “idle” female consumerism, calling it what it is: gendered labor.

For women, buying and wearing clothes and beauty aids is not so much consumption as work. One of a woman’s jobs in this society is to be an attractive sexual object, and clothes and make up are tools of the trade …When a woman spends a lot of money and time decorating her home or herself, or hunting down the latest in vacuum cleaners, it is not idle self-indulgence (let alone the result of psychic manipulation) but a healthy attempt to find outlets for her creative energies within her circumscribed role.

The pop cultural figures who totally rejected beauty standards in the ’90s are dismissed today as quaint relics of their time (think Paula Cole’s hairy armpits and the Indigo Girls’ notably unremarkable aesthetic). Today, popular critique of beauty comes in a more stylish package: Beyoncé’s self-titled album acknowledges that pretty hurts, and looking flawless is a construction, without ever seeming anything but stunning. Meanwhile, slightly less mainstream artists like St. Vincent and Janelle Monae challenge conventional beauty standards by pioneering their own “looks,” creating personae that have little to do with the male gaze and are more about aesthetic creativity and gender boundary-crossing. These acts push subtly but insistently at the borders of the circumscribed role Willis describes — as do trends like gray hair on young women, which might perversely serve to de-stigmatize aging.

Yet it’s difficult to find the point where accepting consumption of fashion and beauty products as a response to a restrictive role bleeds into accepting that role wholeheartedly, so much so that we’re justifying our avid participation in a project that is built on oppression. We should be questioning who exactly provides the hundreds of hours of labor it took to sew all those crazy dresses at the Met Gala, as well as who will be sewing their imitators in boutiques next year. After all, nail salon workers and the people who make our clothes can’t express their uniqueness through consumerism. Meanwhile, the rest of us are encouraged to do so by choosing “our” color of lipstick, shoe, or nail polish, rather than dismissing those items entirely, or scrawling the makeup outside its proper place, which would in the first case turn us into the object of titters and in the second get us booted from society.

But here’s a thought: if patriarchy creates this particular capitalist problem, then taking the time to think about the labor involved in our aesthetic choices can be a way to push back against patriarchy and capitalism, building up mental resistance. Again, this doesn’t mean handwringing and declaring ourselves terrible for participating in a system to which we currently have no alternative. But there’s also nothing wrong with thinking just that much harder about how much we “need” or want a given product, and whether that need supersedes our scruples. Sometimes we may discover that participation in a ritual — shopping, scrubbing — does help us love ourselves and feel comfortable, while sometimes it is just being foisted on us by arbitrary rules. Willis notes, “We have not been taught to dislike our smell so that they can sell deodorants; deodorants sell because there are social consequences for smelling.” Yet the consequences for smelling are much worse than say, the consequences for refusing to buy into a meaningless trend (culottes!) that will disappear next summer, or the consequences for skipping a planned manicure to give our time and money to organizing low-wage workers or just take a walk.

Embracing an impossible “purity” goal of only wearing hand-dyed, fair-trade clothing made in our friends’ backyard with sustainable hemp is absurd. But being pragmatic doesn’t preclude scrutinizing beauty standards’ effects on their adherents and on the labor system. To paraphrase Beyoncé, it’s the soul (of patriarchy and capitalism) that needs surgery. Rather than turn the scalpel on ourselves, cultural, journalistic, and individual critique can help sharpen it.