On a plane from Brisbane to Sydney, I read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth to convince myself getting Botox was a stupid idea. Mostly, I wanted to understand my self-critical thought patterns and compulsive behaviours surrounding “beauty labour”. There are several physical features I dislike about myself that I consistently work hard to improve or manage: body, skin, hair, just to name a few. Was the amount of time and money I poured into beauty regimes going to increase as I got older?
Wolf defines the beauty myth as “a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement.” She explains how women’s work is threefold. Women in the professional workforce not only had regular labour, but added duties of the Second Shift, domestic work such as housework and childcare, and the Third Shift of “beauty” labour.
This demanding workload for women was something I understood all too well. While women have certainly come a long way in terms of professional advancement, the insidious nature of the beauty myth shows no sign of slowing down and may even be getting worse.
Mum collected me from the airport and I was overjoyed to see her. All her little habits that used to annoy me became endearing.
“Is it safe to go?” she asked, crouched over the wheel.
“I don’t know, you’re driving, Mum!”
When we arrived home and I saw the familiar red and gold decorations on the door and Chinese guardian lions, I felt a pang of longing. It was strange how much moving out had improved our relationship. I had a renewed appreciation for her. I entered her bedroom and sat on her single bed. She lived quite minimally but the space was sparser than usual because she was missing a lot of jewellery.
“Jeez mum, did you get robbed?” I asked.
“Oh no, I just got rid of all those silly necklaces,” she said.
“Why? I thought you loved them.”
Mum hesitated and pretended to straighten the bedspread. “People at the office say, ‘Oh, that’s so nice, my daughter has one just like it.’ That’s their way of saying the style is too young for me and I feel embarrassed.”
I was momentarily outraged that someone made my mum feel this way, but was struck by a selfish thought.
“Hey, why didn’t you give them to me?”
Later that afternoon, I visited her wardrobe to see if there was anything worth pilfering. She refused to wear certain colours now, such as pink, which she thought was too girly. She also refused to wear certain designs, such as hearts, because she thought people would say she’s “looking for love” and make fun of her. I have no doubt someone made a comment to her along those lines and she took it seriously. Sly remarks can be very effective in generating shame.
Like many Asian women, she has the propensity to be overly critical, particularly of her appearance (Gamboa, 2016). I imagined her lying in bed at night, the offhand comments of all those insensitive colleagues and family friends looping in her head. Were they joking? Were they being careless? Or were they degrading? How quickly a few comments could eat away at your insides until they caused you to throw away all your beautiful necklaces.
I understand how tough it is for my mum to be a working professional at her age. She goes to great pains to dye her hair, but despite this the greys shoot through at a supernatural speed. When I was in high school, she asked my permission to go grey after I graduated. Being young and inconsiderate, I was horrified and told her I didn’t want a grandma for a mum.
These days, every so often, she will see a beautiful grey-haired woman and say, “I wish I could do that.” I tell her to go for it, but the damage is done. She rolls her eyes as if I’ve told her to fly to the moon.
Mum looks wonderful for her age, which may be attributable to the work she puts into her makeup, hair and wardrobe, and the strictness of her diet and exercise regime. I asked if she ever considered getting Botox, not as a prompt but out of curiosity.
“If I can afford, I would do something. I would not go overboard, just a bit here and there. When I look back thirty years at photographs I think ‘oh my god, I’ve aged so much.’ You feel it deep inside your heart.”
“But, aside from the cost, what about the pain?”
“Well, it’s not going to kill you.”
I’m not sure why I was so surprised by her answers. “Do you ever feel discriminated against being an older woman in the workforce?”
“Cha!” she scoffed, as if I were stupid. “It’s the facts of life. Nobody cares. Why do you think I work doubly… triply hard as everyone else?”
We talked about the addiction and psychology of beauty labour, comparing her inability to stop dyeing her hair to my colleague’s inability to stop getting Botox. The demands of the Third Shift were everywhere I looked.
Mum and I share many things. Sometimes I can squeeze into her tiny size five shoes, even though I am a size six. Sometimes I borrow her clothes, jewellery or cosmetics and “forget” to return them. We both have oily skin and often exchange beauty products; as fellow oily-skinned individuals will appreciate, we have a deep passion for exfoliating scrubs. As a teenager, I experienced painful cystic acne, something she experienced also. I often cried about how ugly and hopeless it made me feel. It was mum who encouraged me to begin a skin regime, morning and night. She would tactfully change my pillowcases each day and encourage me to eat good foods and omega-3 supplements. Now, even when I come home late, drunk and exhausted from a big night out, I never forget to cleanse, tone, moisturise.
But there are many ways we differ too. Her thick black hair can be washed everyday with any harsh shampoo and still be shiny and lustrous. Whereas for me, being half-Australian and inheriting my father’s brown wavy locks, my hair is like a whinging child, super sensitive to all hair products and can’t be washed as regularly.
Mum has never had to deal with annoying body hair. But I did. Because she never inducted me into the female art of hair removal, it took a girl in the sixth grade’s snide comment to make me conscious of it and begin ripping it out with regularity. Mum told me it was shaving and waxing that caused me to develop body hair in the first place, and I can’t seem to convince her otherwise.
Mum told me not to wear make up. You don’t need it! she’d say. This was her way of telling me I was beautiful, but I never believed her. It took me two years of expensive experimenting, panda-like eyeliner and orange makeup shorelines before I learned how to apply it properly. The Third Shift demands an increasingly high monetary expenditure in addition to time.
Studies have shown mothers are likely to influence their daughters’ beauty habits (Taylor, 2015). Knowing this, I now understand why all those differences and similarities were so difficult for us to navigate.
Something that has remained consistent throughout both our lives is how highly sensitive we are to the world’s perception of us. Mum’s catchphrase is lamenting, “I’m so old!”.
“My hands are… so old!”, she’ll say, as if they are a stranger’s hands, not the hands she uses everyday to produce high-quality work, create nourishing meals and hold ours with. “Bring me my Oil of Ulay!”
As women, we are taught to keep our bodies neat and contained: fat-free, hair-free, wrinkle-free. Through no fault of her own, mum’s deep-seated fear of ageing has become a malevolent seed buried inside me, just beginning to sprout. Perhaps my obsession with getting a nose job was a precursor to the ongoing demands of the beauty myth.
When I finished reading The Beauty Myth, it was time to say goodbye to Sydney and my mum. Disappointingly, I still wanted a nose job and I had no plans to change my beauty routines or spending habits. I was fearful about what the future held for me. Whose responsibility was it to defeat the beauty myth? Was it up to individuals, women, the media industry, or society as a whole? The culture surrounding it and the nature of women’s increasing workload seem to be self-perpetuating and pointless to resist. However, the days I celebrate my bare face, or don’t wear heels to work, or don’t rip the hairs from my body, feel like victories, no matter how impotent these small acts of resistance might seem. I just hope that as I age in the workforce, I won’t have to resign myself to the needle or knife.
Wolfe, Naomi. “The Beauty Myth.” Harper Perennial, 1990.