Category Archives: Cosmetics

“Beauty Terror”: Thoughts on ‘Bodies’ by Susie Orbach

“Beauty terror” is an evocative phrase. Troubling and mysterious, but I think that everyone will immediately have a good idea of what it means. We have probably all felt it.


The idea of beauty terror comes from Susie Orbach’s 2009 book, Bodies, which I have recently been reading and would highly recommend. Orbach is a practising psychoanalyst, and she knows what she is talking about. Her work draws on the real cases of her patients as well as feminist and cultural theory, but it is readable, sensible and kind of rocks.

So what is beauty terror? Is it a terror of beauty itself, beautiful people, or of not being beautiful? I think the last suggestion carries the most weight, but that they are all connected. According to Orbach, beauty terror is created by:

  • The 2000-5000 Photoshopped and enhanced images of bodies that we see every week
  • The ideal of beauty that these bodies show – a kind of beauty that is becoming ever more narrow, with less room for variation
  • The beauty industry which produces these images, and then offers products to ‘fix’ our faulty bodies and solve our insecurities
  • The insecurities that they created in the first place, you mean?
  • Yes, those ones. What a genius money-spinner.


“Our bodies are and have become a form of work.” Fun! (Orbach, p.16).

People defend beauty practices (or beauty work, as feminists rightly call it) by saying that we have always used makeup and transformed our bodies. Cleopatra’s eyeliner and the African tribes who stretch their necks with bangles are often given as justification. Orbach has an excellent response to this, which hinges on the fact that those kinds of beauty practices were done for very different reasons:

“What is new today, however, is the way in which bodily transformation is no longer linked to social ritual within the family but is part of the individual’s response to wanting to produce what is an acceptable body.” (p.98)

An elongated neck may be regarded as a feature of attractiveness, but that is strongly bound up with its role as a feature of belonging to that community. As for Cleopatra and pals, apparently kohl eyeliner helps stop you having to squint against the sun.

The bodily transformation we chase today is a feature of a different kind of belonging: the ideal body is presented as the only acceptable body, and anything less is less than human. A fat body is called a whale, a cow, a lump. An animal, an object, a failure. Never a person, just trying to get on with their life.

Photoshopped-dog-or-a-woman Yeah. Lolz.

So of course we keep going back to the beauty and diet products, and the advice of the beauty magazines, because we keep failing to become acceptable. And of course we fail: the ideal, acceptable human body is not a human body at all, but a digital image, a set of pixels that have been shifted, brightened and deleted by Photoshop whizzes into an eerie shiny symmetry. A symmetry which flesh can only achieve when sliced up and sewn back together. As Orbach says, “the body has become a series of individual images and a labour process in itself” (p.90).

And we sort of know this, we do. “We reject the idea of being under ‘assault’ by the beauty industry as offensive to our intelligence. We believe that we can be critical of the negative practices of this persuasive industry and simply enjoy fashion and beauty, and yet the constant exhortation to change gets under our skin” (Orbach, p.108-9).

Simple resistance is really too much to expect of anyone who has been surrounded by these images, adverts and beauty talk – fat talk, transformation talk, makeup talk – since, well, birth. It’s too much to expect that anyone could ignore the clamour and feel like their body is just a vehicle that they live in, and it doesn’t really matter how it looks. We no longer have that idea of the body made available to us. Instead, that vehicle needs pimpin’.

We can try though. Reading books like Bodies and talking about them is a pretty good start. Adding to our beauty talk some discussion of Photoshop, capitalist profit-making and the problems in the dream we are sold.

Making a noise. Being more than a picture.

word hug

A Pretty Parody

This may be hilarious, but I do wish that actual, academic feminist books didn’t go and say the same things.

**Feminist Makeup Tutorial**

– courtesy of Tadelesmith at YouTube.

I’m off to find an empowering shade of lipstick…



Seriously though, are there any really good (feminist) justifications for makeup?

Game, Set, Mascara

I am cautiously optimistic by the number of people who are expressing their fury at the judgement of female sportswomen purely on their appearance. An almighty furore blew up after BBC Radio 5 Live presenter John Inverdale celebrated Marion Bartoli’s Wimbledon win with the meditation, “Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker, you’ll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight’?”.

Bartoli Power over pretty: shame that the uniform requires knicker-flashing though.

However, when Tanya Gold at the Guardian took Inverdale to task for this display of mean-spirited idiocy, she still felt the need to add that Bartoli is in fact pretty. And therefore OK after all.

I thought the whole point was that it didn’t matter? That sportswomen are inspiring because their achievements are based on talent, discipline and rigorous training? Perhaps not, when even those defending this ideal feel that the sportswoman in question needs to be validated by prettiness.

This seems like a good place to start in rejecting the focus on sportswomen’s looks: being careful not to reinforce it by mentioning their looks ourselves.

But I would like to mention their makeup. Did anyone else notice a number of sportswomen at Wimbledon and last year’s Olympics appearing to wear makeup to compete? And didn’t this strike you as odd? I certainly wouldn’t want to wear foundation or mascara when my sporting performance is of the utmost importance: not comfortable, and I would worry about it all dripping off my face as I leapt over hurdles or flung a javelin.

And yet some did. Sabine Lisicki was definitely wearing eye makeup in her match against Bartoli.

Rhona Foulis at Progressive Women observes the habit of interviewers to ask sportswomen about their beauty regime (imagine Andy Murray’s response to that). Jessica Ennis responded to such a question:

“I always wear a bit of make-up to compete – foundation, Olay Essentials SPF30 […], eyeliner, mascara and a lip moisturiser. If I feel I look nice it’ll help my performance.”


Daily Mail article which considers Ennis’ beauty regime the only thing worth discussing.

Really? Why? Oh right: Ennis is the “face” of Olay’s Essentials range. I sense a problem here.

As Meli Pennington of Wild Beauty writes, some athletes such as US boxer Marlen Esparza have worn makeup to compete without the influence of sponsorship – though Pennington asks whether this is a kind of ‘audition’ aimed at getting sponsored. Esparza, who is now sponsored by Cover Girl, is quoted as saying, “I think if you look good you feel good, and if you feel good then you fight good.”

I wouldn’t want to reject this argument entirely (actually I do want to, but shouldn’t presume to know what goes on in people’s minds), but I would question the assumption that women need makeup in order to look good. But it does seem useful to mention here that women’s sport receives on average only 0.5% of all UK sports sponsorship. They need the money.

It is not easy to assert how much makeup sportswomen wear while competing, nor why they wear it, but this is a discussion that needs to remain in play. If we accept unquestioningly that sportswomen should make an effort to look pretty, then that assumption will continue to hold for all women, and we really don’t need that.

To finish on a lighter note, the New York Metro has conducted an amusing experiment, to show what men’s sports coverage might look like if it was photographed in the same way as women’s sports. Turns out that recognising people by their buttocks is not so easy.

For more on this see Hadley Freeman at the Guardian on sportsmen’s girlfriends, and Dodai Stewart at Jezebel on the different shapes of athleticism.

The Art of Light(en)ing


In yesterday’s Guardian blog Bim Adewunmi asks, “So what if Beyoncé’s skin colour is looking lighter?”, a question which I think has many more answers than she cares to give.

In response to the furore surrounding Beyoncé’s new album cover, Adewunmi makes the perfectly valid point that, of course, black people’s skin colour “changes with the seasons” and so is sometimes simply lighter. Adewunmi puts the fact that Beyoncé is far whiter in this picture than could possibly be accounted for by a lack of sun, down to lighting and retouching, and then considers her case closed. But look at the picture: what Adewunmi has failed to observe is that in post-production the singer has been deliberately turned into a white woman. She is blonde. With pale skin and a heavily made-up face that bears no resemblance at all to any other images of Beyoncé.

The implication is that Beyoncé’s image was not acceptable in its original form, requiring a complete overhaul from black woman to white.

In countries all over the world there are centuries-old prejudices in favour of pale skin, usually signifying higher class and moral purity – the UK, US, India and China are a few examples. However, that cannot be the case for Beyoncé, considering the composition of the image: she is near-naked and draped over leopard skins. Moral purity is evidently not a concern.

My research addresses what happens when human flesh is turned into art. Here we have one example: what happens is that the model’s flesh is no longer their own, modified beyond recognition into a clearly established Western ideal of beauty (in this case very much conflated with sexiness). The philosophies of Plato and St Augustine argue that the more flesh is reified into an abstract ideal of beauty, the more moral that beauty is. The further we get from the actual, tempting flesh, the purer the image becomes. But oddly, in the case of Beyoncé, her post-production team have reified her image into an ideal in an effort to make her more tempting, discarding every hope of moral integrity in the process.

Is it simply racism? A rather archaic devotion to the Marilyn Monroe ideal of beauty? A direct consequence of the continuation of such attitudes is the popularity of products like skin lightening creams. What is most pertinent and worrying is that the image will certainly be aspirational for many.



I am currently writing an article on beauty and alchemy, and in the meeting of these two subjects I keep encountering the idea of transformation. In particular, transformation of the self. Alchemy, which has been around as an art, a science and a philosophy since at least the second century B.C., was not just about turning base metals into gold. The serious alchemists, who were not just trying to get rich, were more concerned with transforming their own souls, and even the outside world, into a metaphorical ‘gold’ – i.e. beautiful perfection.

This desire for perfecting oneself is still very much around today, and amusingly enough the alchemical idea of transformation produces some serious gold – for the cosmetics companies.

It seems that the gold we’re seeking to make out of ordinary materials is now beauty, a process we can see on countless makeover programmes. But beauty represents a more general transformation: as Cinderella shows us, becoming beautiful entails a further transformation into prosperity, happiness and love. Happy ever after. This is precisely what most of the adverts that bombard us every day are trading on.


The difference in alchemy is that beauty is not the ultimate transformation. It is a subordinate metaphor, that represents the ultimate transformation of the soul. However, that is a life’s work – I mean, how much easier is it to find a ‘new you’ just by losing ten pounds and buying a new lipstick?

I think this is partly why alchemy has had a bit of a revival in the last few decades. Self-help books by Jay Ramsay (Alchemy: The Art of Transformation), self-help novels by Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist) and novels like Lindsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding, Patrick Harpur’s Mercurius: The Marriage of Heaven and Earth and Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee – these all use alchemy as a framework for freeing the soul (or perhaps the mind, nowadays) from the pettiness and corruption of Western capitalist culture. Fiction recently has started to explore and advocate a return to the more serious work of self-transformation, involving a fuller understanding of human beauty – our desire for it and its effect on us. And although I’m not sure about combining sulphur and mercury in a hermetically sealed vessel, I still think these reworkings of alchemy have more to offer than lipstick.