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Thursday 1 August 2019

Gender equality

Lipglossed lies

Have young women been liberated from unattainable beauty standards, or are they still trapped?

By Helen Pankhurst

“How far have we come since the suffragettes were pounding the streets to bring the vote to women?” “What would they make of the lives and attitudes of 21st-century women?” “What would they say about us all if they were here today?”

These are probably the most common questions I get asked as a Pankhurst, the granddaughter of Sylvia and great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, who were leaders of the suffragette movement of the early 20th Century. Last year saw the centenary of (some, not all) women winning the right to vote in the UK and I have spent much time since travelling up and down the country, speaking with many people including children from primary school age upwards, in both state and private education, as well as their teachers and parents. 

It is these conversations that I would like to share here because they urge important reflection on the way girls see themselves, the way others see them and, through this dialectic, the way they learn to be women.

In 1991, Naomi Wolf published The Beauty Myth. In it, she said that once women gained the vote and some degree of power, patriarchy found a new way to control them – through their bodies. Capitalist consumerism bred self-doubt in women over their appearance, and marketed the fantasy of better hair, better skin, a better body, as a way to achieve success and social acceptance.

American author Naomi Wolf

Insecurity, in Wolf’s theory, was key: women had to feel that they were a few steps away from perfection and that the latest beauty product or fad would get them there – at a cost, of course. This myth was peddled through countless overt messages as well as a bombardment of subliminal ones targeted at girls and women from the day they were born. “The social order defends itself by evading the fact of real women, our faces and voices and bodies, and reducing the meaning of women to these formulaic and endlessly reproduced ‘beautiful’ images,” wrote Wolf.

So what’s changed since then, if anything? And how are girls navigating the beauty myth now?

We know that the beauty industry has grown and grown since 1991; the global cosmetics market was valued at $532 billion in 2017, and is expected to reach a market value of $863 billion by 2023. Cosmetic surgery, meanwhile, is set to rise to over $27 billion around the world this year – an increase of $7 billion in the past two years.

While the girls and boys I met were concerned about the political and economic sphere, the cultural world and experiences of violence, it was the discussions around female identity and image that were by far the most lively – and the most worrying. These conversations revealed how girls as young as seven were being influenced by Instagram-ed images of women and girls whose faces had all the touched-up unreality of a doll; they also revealed how boys, up to a certain age, seemed eminently open to gender equality but then gradually closed up. A lot of men in audiences have highlighted that the beauty myth increasingly affects boys as well.

Beauty power blogger Yu Xiaoxiao from China speaks during a live make-up show

Here is a sample of anecdotes I heard. They form a map of some new, some old, beauty myths that condition girls in how they ought to look, act, behave:

  • In Winchester, a 14-year-old girl was asked by her first boyfriend to share nude pictures because she didn’t want to take the physical side of the relationships too quickly. His request – nay, demand – for increasingly explicit images was his compromise. She spoke of how incredibly difficult she found navigating her own emotions and his expectations.
  • Someone in Seaford made the observation that seven-year olds have learned how to pout for selfies.
  • A senior school teacher in Todmorden shared her findings from a questionnaire to her students in which 80 per cent of the girls sought to “detox from social media” as something that would reduce their stress. Not one boy in the class felt this.
  • There was a comment in London about how almost every beautician now offers lip fillers, which are popular with teenagers, to give a continuous pouting effect, which is evidence of just how thoroughly pornography has infiltrated our everyday life.
  • A girl in Year 10 in Bromley talked about the relentlessness of the attention to and conversations around looks, explaining that almost all the girls wore makeup at her school. She dreaded parties above all else because there the focus on looks is in overdrive.
  • A doctor in Sheffield talked about the number of women who now shave their pubic hair and apologise if they haven’t done so. Similarly, a beautician in Sheffield talked about the women – and even teenage girls – who came in requesting a complete wax or a particular pubic hairstyle because their boyfriends have asked for this.
  • The father of an eight-year-old in Yorkshire went upstairs to chivvy her on as she was late for school and found her in tears because she couldn’t find dark tights to put on. She was worried about her legs being too hairy.
  • A man in Suffolk talked about how, at parties and family events, young girls were routinely asked to “give us a kiss”, but not the boys. “What are we still teaching them?” he reflected.
  • A young woman in North London noticed a pattern of behaviour among grandparents who asked their grandson what he wanted to be and quizzed him about his studies but asked their granddaughter whether she has a boyfriend yet.
Influencer Patricia Bright is one of the biggest beauty names in the industry

There are many more symbolic and telling anecdotes that people have shared, but in summary they all point to how society focuses on girls’ looks and personal relationships. By contrast, it is what boys and men do and say that matters. Social media, the music we listen to, the music videos we watch, the television and the films we view, the books we read, all of society and culture continuously feeds into this distinction. In an age of non-stop social media, these messages now hit us 24/7.

And what’s worse is that, although the arts, the media and the beauty industry is clearly invested – and investing – in this obsession, we women and girls are central players and not just passive victims of the construct. We do it to ourselves, one generation to the other, friends and siblings, mothers and daughters, colleagues judging each other, feeding insecurities.

So what can we do? Here are some of the ideas I have also come across in my travels:

  • We need initiatives that systematically address gender bias in schools, looking at subconscious bias of staff, lesson plans, books in libraries, school uniform, use of playground space, as in the case of Blyth School in Northumberland and Torriano School in North London.
  • The Girl Guides centenary badge (a badge that marks the 100th anniversary of some women gaining the vote in the UK) was initiated by a mother of two daughters in Rhiwderin, Wales, as a way of educating them and giving them strong female role models. We want more of this kind of initiative-taking!
  • In Wigan, an elderly woman made the audience laugh by showing how she responds whenever she sees a man objectifying women: by ogling him and turning the tables on him. So a lesson here in using humour and being an active bystander in young people’s space too.
  • Why not encourage girls to dress up as suffragettes when the theme is superheroes (rather than princesses), as was suggested in Edinburgh and Ironbridge?
  • A recommendation (which always has strong support in the audience) that all Photoshopped images should have a warning just like cigarette packages highlighting damage to your health. Likewise support to the models, actors, companies that are refusing to endorse Photoshopped images.
  • Give greater credence to the idea that all women should be braver about not wearing makeup routinely, and following the sentiments of millennial musician Jess Glynne in her hit ‘Thursday’, in which she sings: “I won’t wear makeup on Thursday/  ‘Cause who I am is enough.” What better, truer, message for girls grappling with the beauty myth?
  • Learn from the visibility and success of the 2019 Football Women’s World Cup, with the semi-final watched by over 11 million – hopefully a marker in the sand. Think of the role-models these young women can increasingly become for girls. As one of the Lionesses tweeted after their defeat in the semi-finals, a tweet that was “liked” by more than 38,000 people, “This thing that is happening, doesn’t end here.”

While there is absolutely no guarantee of this, I hope when historians look back on the 21st Century, we – women and girls – will have more successes to celebrate on the scoreboard of history, including better representation at all levels and in most political, economic and cultural fields.

As well as this, my dream for my future grandchildren and their generation all over the world is for their looks to be given far less attention than what they say and do. And that the beauty myth is abolished altogether so that today’s girls, tomorrow’s women, can be exactly who they are. Because, like Glynne sings, they really are enough in all their glorious diversity.


Helen Pankhurst’s book Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now is out in paperback

Additional reporting by Ellie Jacobs

Further reading

Laura Bates’ Girl Up (2016) focuses on the pressures surrounding body image on young girls.

Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, first published in 1991 and more relevant than ever.

Audres Lordes’ Sister Outsider (1984), on diversity of identities.

Helen Pankhurst headshot

Helen Pankhurst

Helen Pankhurst CBE is an author and activist working as an advisor to CARE International, as a Visiting Professor at MMU, and as the First Chancellor of the University of Suffolk.