The commercial world of beauty is a well-oiled machine, with the cosmetic, beauty and fashion industries all colluding to get women looking a certain way and buying things they didn’t know they needed.
Now it seems the paradigm is shifting. Femininity is going through a new revolution and allowing women to reclaim their own image. This is the subject of American author Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s fascinating book, Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives. Whitefield-Madrano digs deep into the industry that launched her own career, investigating the world of beauty from a scientific and sociological perspective. We asked her the question, is beauty relevant anymore? The answer was more complex than we expected.
Why did you start to write such a book, Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives?
The title actually packs in a lot of what the book is about. It’s about how beauty dictates women’s lives. We have this idea of how beauty affects women. We talk about it a lot, but when we talk about beauty we tend to talk about the negative side of beauty. There exists this impossible beauty standard for women and that can cause women to not feel great about themselves. This book does not dismiss that, because that is very real, but it examines the positive and also unexpected ways that beauty shapes us. How does it affect our self-esteem? How does it affect our relationships with others? Our friendships with other women and romantic relationships. How does it affect how we view media? I wanted to use a combination of existing research and interviews, sitting down with dozens of women and listening to what they had to say about beauty.
And do men come under investigation as well?
They do. I suspect that for male readers this book’s primary value will be in enriching their understanding of the women they know. There are definitely parts of the book that focus on men and their changing relationship to beauty, and sort of the increased self-objectification which we’re seeing in men specifically. This is tied into the way social media is increasing objectification in all of us.
"There are so many resources being poured into determining the science of beauty; what exactly the human eye finds beautiful."
Take us through what surprised you. What were you looking to prove or disprove? And looking back on it now, how far from your original idea did you find yourself?
I think I came into it with a bit of naivety and maybe even, I don’t want to say arrogance exactly, but I grew up my whole life a feminist. I moved to New York City to intern at Ms. magazine, which is this flagship publication of the feminist movement. Then I started working in traditional women’s magazines, you know, Glamour, Cosmo Girl. So I thought I had this really unique perspective because I was a feminist surrounded by all these traditional ideas about beauty. I thought I was unique in that. But what I found in my interviews was that I was not unique at all. Every woman I talked with had this level of contradiction and complexity about her relationship with beauty. So that was a wonderful surprise for me.
As far as things I learnt, the biggest surprise for me was that there are so many resources being poured into determining the science of beauty; what exactly the human eye finds beautiful. I found that so fascinating. There are studies out there about the exact angle from the bottom of your nose to the top of your upper lip. It’s incredible. We’re talking to the millimeter. It’s amazing how much research has been poured into this. A lot of the findings contradict each other. I just found it such a rich area to explore and so that was very surprising.
Your background is very contrasting in that you have the ideals of a feminist but have worked in what would be called a shallow part of the beauty/media spectrum. Also a lot of these beauty magazines are full of women as well. How have you reconciled that?
Women’s magazines still have so many contradictions that I cannot reconcile. I would say that the biggest inherent contradiction in women’s magazines is that they are funded by advertising, which is a capitalist system and has an investment in making sure that women — well everyone, but women in this case, spend money on things that they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise. So yeah it is women in the media putting the stereotype out there. That said, I think there is more complexity in the pages than we give credit for. There’s a sharp contradiction a lot of the time between the images in women’s magazines and the words in women’s magazines. The words tend to be a lot more constructive and inclusive, and the images are struggling to catch up. I don’t understand where all that comes from and I know that they’re trying to make media images more inclusive.
It was extremely interesting at Glamour. They ran a small photo of a woman, she was nude and the way she was situated you could see that she had a little pouch on her belly— you know, like a normal amount. She was a plus sized model but if you saw her on the street you wouldn’t think she was “plus sized.” I’d just started working there at this time, and it was just a small throwaway photo, but people responded enormously. Readers were writing in by the dozens saying, “oh my gosh this photo is amazing, thank you so much!” And from there Glamour launched a campaign to include more plus sized models in their pages. But the thing is, it didn’t increase sales. In fact sales dropped in that quarter. I don’t want to attribute that to the plus size model initiative at all, but there was this media outlet making what I see as a genuine attempt to be more inclusive, and people were responding with their hearts and their thoughts but not with their purchases. So that’s a contradiction. What do readers actually want to see?
"Women’s magazines...are funded by advertising, which is a capitalist system and has an investment in making sure that women— well everyone, but women in this case, spend money on things that they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise."
You say that telling children they’re pretty is not going to give young girls the tools to navigate the beauty obsessed world. What tools do you think young girls need? How can they feel more accepting about themselves?
I think parents would need to look at the individual child and ask themselves what she might want or need. My parents very much did not. They didn’t want me to have much stock in my looks so they just didn’t acknowledge how I looked. That was successful in some ways, in that I never thought, “Why don’t my parents think I’m pretty?” I just didn’t think about it. But I was really interested in beauty and I was getting all these messages from the world saying that I should look a certain way and I guess I felt sort of adrift. I don’t think them telling me I was pretty would have helped but I wish they’d engaged with my interest in the field.
I’d love to know what you make of this proliferation of self-adulation through social media, the selfie. It really seems that people are more obsessed with themselves now than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Teenagers today are growing up in a different way. How do you think that will contribute to what beauty means for a whole generation?
Right, is this going to help people or hurt people? Surprise, I think it’s not going to be that simple. I think it’s too early to tell. I’m hesitant to look at someone who doesn’t think twice about posting selfies on whatever social media channel they’re using and think about how that’ll affect them when they’re thirty, because that’s like saying the person that I was when I was 15 is the person I’ll be when I’m 30. We all change. But I don’t want to underestimate young people’s ability to make creative use of media. So it’s hard to say. I’ve seen it used in both ways.
If there’s one particular phenomenon which fascinates me, it’s this thing called an ‘am I pretty?’ video. There was a trend for a while where young women would go on YouTube and chat into the camera, show pictures of themselves and say, “okay, so, am I pretty?” And users were meant to comment whether or not they thought she was pretty. That sounds so amazingly troubling, and it is. But that said, a lot of people want to be affirmative of other people, so it turns out to be a nice way to hear a lot of nice things about yourself and how you look. I’m not saying it’s a good thing by any means but it’s not necessarily the tragedy it looks to be on its face. You know, it might be a form of connection for young women. So it’s not easy to say, “We shouldn’t be posting selfies.”
"If there’s one particular phenomenon which fascinates me, it’s this thing called an ‘am I pretty?’ video. There was a sort of trend for a while where young women would go on YouTube and chat into the camera, show pictures of themselves and say, “okay, so, am I pretty?”
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano on the beauty industry
This is a very large and maybe quite vague question, but what do you think the mood of women is right now, in terms of how they feel about the word ‘beauty’?
I would say right now that what I’m seeing is a lot of resilience and even defiance about beauty. When I was writing the book we were sort of immersed in this, in terms of advertising campaigns, picking up from the Dove beauty campaign; campaigns encouraging women to love themselves. I think women sort of began to go against that. They were like, “wait a second, why are you telling us how we should be feeling about ourselves? I actually feel pretty good about myself in a lot of ways.” So I’m thinking of #flawless which I think came out in 2014. Women really jumped onto that and were posting selfies with the hashtag. That to me was an acknowledgement of the ways that women were meant to meet beauty standards, but also being a bit, “fuck you, I’m going to show my own beauty standard.” I find that really intriguing. Also I’m seeing a lot more play in beauty than I was even five years ago. For example I see this everywhere but especially in New York City, this trend of really fantastical coloured hair. I mean, when I was growing up, if you had blue hair you were a punk rocker. But now you can be working at a bank and have blue hair. There’s a lot more playfulness and I find that really interesting. I also find it to be a sign of resilience and ownership, particularly among young women.
Perhaps you could take us through some of the science. What are some of the most revealing findings you’ve unearthed about women and beauty?
It’s interesting because I couldn’t really find one single trait that universally was research supported and said – no this is what people find beautiful. What I will say is that traits that are what people call sexual dimorphism, things that separate the male of the species from the female of the species – those things tend to be seen as attractive. Which is why women tend to like a little bit of facial hair on men, and of course the most obvious example for women is breasts. Men like breasts because they don’t have them. It has its evolutionary basis there. But within that, I think that we are very eager to over-attribute the importance of those things. The biggest example here is the waist-to-hip ratio. For centuries, in pretty much all communities, the idea of the woman’s hourglass figure, the small waist and fuller hips, has been a classic sign of beauty. And there’s something to that obviously. But in the research it’s not like they’re just saying that the smaller waist and fuller hips are attractive, they’re trying to pin down the exact, like to the quarter inch, waist-to-hip ratio that is the most appealing to the eye. There are dozens of studies out there where the research consists of men sitting down and looking at Playboy centerfolds and recording their measurements and making deductions based on that which is hilarious. I find it fascinating that all this research is going into this. It’s not just enough for us to say, “Okay yes, men like fuller hips and a smaller waist on women.” Instead we need to pin it down so much.
"Dove, who kind of stakes its claim on making women feel good about themselves, came out with this deodorant that was supposed to make your underarms more beautiful. And I was like now we need to beautify our underarms?!"
If women grew up without men how do you think they would feel about themselves? Do you think beauty would be a different?
That’s a fascinating question. Let’s separate men and the patriarchy. I’m wary of being like, “oh, well, it’s men sitting there, telling women they need to look a certain way,” because really it’s a larger system that isn’t pinned down to men but to power structures. I think if women weren’t trying to please the patriarchy there would still be a lot of self-adornment and maybe even more. I can’t say. But I do think the form would change. The first example to come to mind would be high heels. I do wear high heels, and I like the way I look in them, but I also know that I like the way I look in them because they’re supposed to be sexually appealing. I certainly don’t wear them because they’re comfortable. I think that the biggest difference we would see is that women would not be gravitating towards forms of beauty that create discomfort, and that will leave a lot more room for creativity and play. I don’t think women would have come up with corsets by themselves.
When I was talking with men about their perceptions of women’s looks what I found was that they were almost bending over backwards not to tell the women in their lives how they should look. They were nearly all men under 35, so maybe that’s just these men having grown up with an awareness of the ‘woman’s realm,’ but that was really interesting to me. There’s a lot of online hate that men will come up with against women, but when you sit down and actually talk with them it’s sort of a different story. They’re more willing to be like, “I just like to look at women, they’re hot,” rather than, “oh she should wear her hair like this or her make-up like this.”
The beauty industry is clearly very much a part of helping drive the beauty narrative for women. There’s a lot of research to suggest that cosmetics and anti-aging creams are not working at all but some people are convinced they help. Is the beauty industry adapting to new attitudes at all?
I had no idea how enormous the cosmetics industry was. It’s worth billions of dollars a year, $58 billion a year in the US alone. I think it’s about $160 billion globally. They come up with these problems that then need to be fixed. The classic example here is when Dove, who kind of stakes its claim on making women feel good about themselves, came out with this deodorant that was supposed to make your underarms more beautiful. And I was like, “now we need to beautify our underarms?!”
So yeah, the beauty industry is deeply guilty for coming up with things that we are supposed to feel bad about, then saying “Hey! Here’s a fix!” They make a lot of money that way. That said, if you’re in a society where you don’t have all these products that you can just go out and buy, people make them. I don’t think that wanting creams and lotions means you’re succumbing to the patriarchy or that you’re under the thumb of the beauty industry. I think there’s a natural desire to want to enhance ourselves in that way. The beauty industry capitalizes on that, and that’s, you know, how capitalism works. I think that if you look at beauty from 100 years ago, they’re making exactly the same claims they make now, like “clinically proven!” or “this is the last one you’ll ever need!” If someone wants to know about today’s beauty, the best place to start is to go back to very early beauty ads, and to see how the styling has changed. The specific claims have changed, but overall the exact same things are being used.
I am almost waiting for a brand to come out with a campaign which is just, “you’re fine and everything is fine.” Here in London the city’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, has literally just passed a law banning body shaming ads in railway stations and bus stands.
I read about this yesterday for the first time so I haven’t really collected my thoughts on it. My knee-jerk reaction is great, but I also wonder is this a place – and maybe this is my American-ness, but is that really a place of legislation? It seems like it needs to come from the culture and not from the state.
There are campaigns that have attempted to do what you mentioned, say “you’re fine as you are.” The Body Shop in the 90s is one example. The icon for the company was Ruby, and she was called that because she had a Rubenesque figure – a Barbie doll but with a figure that was probably American size 22, so a plus sized Barbie. She was amazing. There was this tag line, “there are 3 billion women who don’t look like super models and eight who do.” People loved it. I think in The Body Shop’s case it tied in beautifully with their brand because they have make-up and stuff, but it was natural ingredients and if you went into their stores it was very warm and accepting and earthy. So it was very successful.
The Dove campaign for ‘real beauty,’ started about 12 years ago, and its launch campaign featured billboards across America with a group of women in white underwear standing together. The claim was that the photo was not retouched, and that these were women who were a lot more diverse than usually seen in ads. There were women of colour, women with scars, overweight women, underweight women, women who were flat-chested. It was this celebration of what they actually looked like. It was remarkable. When I first saw it I was like, “finally, this company is listening to what we have to say about the beauty industry.” But over the years I’ve gotten increasingly skeptical because it seems like they’re relying on a narrative of beauty that I don’t think is 100% the case, and their own research supports this. They did this in-depth research paper about women and self-esteem and used it in their campaign. One of the most famous tag lines from this campaign was, “only 2% of women think they’re beautiful,” which was devastating to hear. But if you look at the paper they did, they gave a load of women a list of ten words and said pick one. And all the words were positive, like ‘good looking’, ‘attractive’, ‘natural’, ‘pretty’, those sorts of things, and from that list only 2% of women chose beautiful. Which is very different. It’s like, 71% of women were variously pleased with their appearance. It’s like they were exaggerating the self-esteem crisis, which isn’t to say that there isn’t a crisis because of course there’s a problem! There’s a huge problem. But they were leveraging it in a way that I don’t think was representational or fair. So even campaigns that do try to be genuine are running into these tangled issues.
Autumn, my last question is simple. What is beautiful to you?
Oh, God. That’s so hard. [Laughing] When I describe someone as beautiful, I’m not just talking about features. I’m not just talking about that elusive inner beauty either. I think what I’m talking about is their animation, their movement. I’m much more likely to think someone is beautiful if I meet them, rather than just seeing a photograph of them. Even if it’s a professional, retouched, amazing runway quality photo, I think it’s really hard for me to label something as beautiful until I see a person’s energy. That’s not to say that it’s nothing to do with what’s on the surface, I mean I wrote a whole book about it, of course it does, but I think that those two things connect in a way. We’re all into it, but it’s a really difficult thing to articulate.
A wonderful illumination of not just life during and after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but an illumination specifically of women’s lives during that era, from a Croatian journalist. She’s the one who really got me critiquing the idea that the American beauty industry is merely about capitalism.
I call her my spiritual grandmother—she grew up in the Dakotas like me, and drank heavily like my actual grandmother, whom I write about in “Face Value.” But really it’s just her voice that switches from playfully girlish to the huskiest of womanly—listening to her music is like going home.