OPINION: Fake 'Choices' Force Women To Conform To Societal Standards

I recently flipped through a Refinery29 Snapchat story that listed about ten different hair removal techniques, each one tested and reviewed by a woman on staff. At the end of this saga, a quirky graphic and some colorful lettering reminded readers that, of course, the decision to remove body hair is completely up to the individual and not something for which the publication was trying to advocate.

To me, the juxtaposition of ‘here’s several ways to remove your hair’ with ‘but remember, you don’t HAVE to remove your hair’ was reflective of how I’ve felt lately about the way our society often interacts with modern feminism.

Because modern feminism emphasizes that women should have the right to make our own decisions about how we look, it often becomes easy to forget that women haven’t quite achieved that yet. Even in the most liberal, progressive parts of America, many women’s choices exist within a misogynistic framework that rewards people’s compliance with the status quo.

The continued policing of women’s appearances is perhaps most evident in the workplace, where the economic ramifications of the choices that women make can be measured in dollars. A variety of studies have shown that women who wear makeup are not only viewed as more competent, but also get paid 20-30 percent more than those who choose to go to work bare-faced.

Women of color face additional pressure to change the way they look in professional settings. Research by the Perception Institute have indicated that black women are nearly twice as likely as white women to feel pressured to straighten their hair for work.

However, even outside of work, women who perform femininity through their looks are at an advantage. Social capital and self-worth are often dependent on conventional standards of attractiveness and “femininity,” though it also occurs in the case of men. At the risk of overstating this point, what’s worrisome today is that the beauty industry seeks to normalize these standards by branding itself as ‘feminist.’

As more women grow uncomfortable with the idea that they should strive for male approval or society’s acceptance, companies that profit from women’s insecurities have shifted their marketing strategies.

Instead of suggesting that women should buy certain products to get others to like them, companies are designing ad campaigns that make one feel as though one needs their products to feel empowered. You should still buy into their ideas of beauty, but now, they promise, it’s for 'yourself.’

The European Wax Center’s Strut 356 collections tell you, for instance, to “get brows that speak as boldly as you do,” “keep your skin smoother than your ex ever was,” and “give yourself the pampering you deserve” — aligning themselves with the modern feminist’s essential toolkit of confidence, independence, and self-care.

Women aren’t oblivious to the subliminal messages we receive, and not everyone is under some sort of capitalistic, patriarchal spell. But, women who choose not to conform to beauty standards are often seen as “edgy” or “making a statement,” framing one choice as the default and the other as an atypical alternative.

Women who call out these choices often make the mistake of generalizing women’s experiences. In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “Why Yoga Pants Are Bad For Women,” writer Honor Jones criticized what she believed to be the sexualization of athletic clothing. 

“We aren’t wearing these workout clothes because they’re cooler or more comfortable,” Jones wrote. “ ... We’re wearing them because they’re sexy.”

Her article garnered a lot of backlash from women who didn’t appreciate this reductive explanation of their choices.

Jennifer Lawrence was also offended by Twitter suggestions that claimed her decision to wear a gown in cold weather while doing press for the film “Red Sparrow” came from internalized misogyny.

“Overreacting about everything someone says or does, creating controversy over silly innocuous things such as what I choose to wear or not wear, is not moving us forward,” Lawrence responded.

Just as it may be unproductive and unfair to make assumptions about why women make certain decisions, it’s also important to reflect on our own choices and the problematic factors that can influence them.

When I walked out of European Wax Center for the first time, I didn’t feel empowered. I felt a little hoodwinked.

While other women may feel differently, my personal realization about my own actions has helped me feel more comfortable with myself.

That’s not to say that the end goal is necessarily disavowing any practices that stem from traditional beauty standards, nor is there any issue with making a conscious decision to dress to impress. I don’t see myself being able to reject hair removal anytime in the near future, no matter how logical I am about its arbitrariness; at this point, it’s too tied into my perception of myself for me to be comfortable quitting.

But, my sister, who’s only six years younger than me, is already growing up in a generation that has access to more body-positive platforms than I ever did at her age, and she doesn’t see anything wrong with her leg hair.

In her mind, there’s less of a default option. We have the power to resist ingrained ideas of beauty and femininity. We can start by encouraging each other — and younger generations — to be skeptical of widely accepted social standards.

This won’t happen unless we ensure that body positivity extends to all bodies. Campaigns like “Aerie Real” boast models who deviate from Victoria’s Secret standards and images that aren’t retouched. Despite this, most — if not all — Aerie models are still part of a fairly homogeneous group with barely any representation of plus-size bodies. We cannot accept this narrow definition of body positivity.

It’s also key that we don’t define self-love as love for our outward appearances. Although the way we look plays an inevitable role in the way we see ourselves, self-love should stem from an inward appreciation of ourselves, which adapts as our own bodies change. It’s not wrong to find empowerment in outward beauty, but I believe it’s wrong to suggest that outward beauty is essential to empowerment, especially when that beauty is often defined narrowly by society.

As we continue to navigate the influences and implications of our choices, it’s vital that we push toward a future in which our choices are completely free.

Aalia Thomas PO ’21 is an L.A. local originally from New Delhi. She loves dog-spotting, “Work” by Rihanna, and the swinging benches between Lyon and Mudd.