Beauty – The Social Contract
Morning routines, evening routines, self-care routines, we all have some sort of ritual that we perform for certain intangible outcomes. Over the years I’ve begun to see these beautifying rituals as a performance, a social negotiation. Beauty is an “ongoing negotiation of aesthetics”, the connection between the mind and social interactions whilst being a process of self-discovery. In a new world where we share so much of ourselves online, the aesthetics of beauty now take centre stage. Contemporary writers who place beauty standards in a global context create relevant criticisms of mainstream standards of beauty. They acknowledge that even in postmodernity, these standards are deeply westernised. However, beauty itself is not wholly negative, for it has raised the possibility for difference, undermined traditional forms of being and it has made new approaches to identification possible. In a lot of ways, beauty binds communities and creates new ones. It is more than a literal reckoning with yourself, it’s also how you see the world. Beauty is complex and paradoxical – this is what makes it such a necessary concept that we must pull apart.
Beauty aesthetics are so closely related to neo-liberalisation because they allow ‘beautiful’ people to gain capital and status. Capital demands that beauty be exclusive, it only holds as an important cultural norm if we all share the assumption that beauty is precisely because of its’ violence and exclusivity. It continues to be important, across multiple feminist movements, so we should figure out where it belongs, rather than identifying existing beauty standards as mainstream feminists like Naomi Wolf have done so far. The corporal reality of being read as beautiful online is heavily dependent on individualistic ideas of self-worth. The idea that you can “achieve” inner beauty and peace through practising rituals shows how important it is for us to believe that beauty and social mobility by extension, is easily achievable. This dark reality shows that beauty standards can be coercive, they have the power to morph body and beauty politics into a superficial form of liberation for young women online. Prettiness obscures the structural realities of life and its impact on women. Whilst beauty is a gateway to capital, the concept itself is not, even though there are material consequences for “ugliness”. It is these consequences that make beauty a constant goal, a necessary characteristic in achieving social mobility.
Modern celebrities, influencers and supermodels are the standard of mainstream beauty but their bodies are still subjected to the dissecting nature of the male gaze. It is wrong to view these women in a singular light because they are not the only definition of beauty. However, this is the reality at present. Knowing this means we can understand that beauty standards are exclusive. Beauty allows some to navigate a violently misogynistic structure, this is telling in the experiences of those who are beautiful and those who are not. Though we are talking about the ways hegemonic beauty standards allow some women to access capital, I don’t want this to be one dimensional because that would make unclear the structural reality of this social contract. Beauty is not good capital, it only strengthens the oppression of gender. It costs and demands constant money, it is never-ending. Beauty is, like all capital, valuable. It is this value that makes it such an excellent commodity. If we as subjects ascribe to notions of acceptable beauty, we become a market.
It always helps to situate my experiences in larger conversations by using my personal history. Seeing and understanding how women before me created their own metaphorical geographies is so key to my understanding of beauty. More than that, it gives me the power to be able to think outside of mainstream social and cultural frameworks of beauty. In understanding the ways that community building and beauty go hand in hand, I have come to terms with my positionality. Seeing the communal aspect of hair and beauty was my entire childhood. When I grew older and could spend time without a babysitter, I began to realise that hair had formed a huge part of my childhood, that I had associated it with love and nurture and that is what I wanted to do as a career. Creating intimate hair experiences for clients allowed me to find my feet in the beauty sphere – to understand that hair for some people, is what informs their identity and sense of self. Earlier, I mentioned the ways beauty has raised the possibility for difference and undermined traditional forms of being. I want us to think about the ways new beauty formations have helped to reconfigure our external looks. These body modifications have allowed people to navigate contemporary forms of self-expression, they have provided comfort, assimilation in some cases, and is just one of the ways different communities have survived. We must continue to reimagine the parameters of beauty for ourselves.
Disrupting this social negotiation is possible if fourth wave feminists construct new forms of becoming, they must work outside of oppressive intersectional hierarchies. I understand how important the social negotiation of beauty is for women, and how markedly different our experiences can be. I equally know how empowered beauty and its networks make me feel. I see how many wholesome relationships have developed, how across social media we have managed to establish spaces for social movements like #freethenipple and the revolutionary #metoo. This really inspires me to continue to re-imagine beauty standards, both for myself as a hyper-visible woman, and for other communities online. Taking a one size fits all approach obscures the reality of beauty for some people, and does not address the nuances of the individual and personal experience of beauty.
I think back to the intimacy of hair and beauty, how it shaped my understanding of identity. My mother and aunt were central to my initial interpretation of beauty, to feel beautiful was synonymous with feeling loved. This was my representation in my tight-knit Jamaican community in East London. So, beyond all of the sociohistorical articulations of beauty lies the most important question at its core: how do you make your beauty tangible? I find myself constantly interacting with this question in a multitude of ways. It forces me to continue to grapple with the paradoxical nature of beauty. It also helps me to realise that I can continue to imagine a new end for modern beauty, one that continues to operate outside of stagnant and archaic ways of thinking.