Issue #23: What's the point of beauty?
The city where locals spend £1,000 a month at the salon, impossible grooming standards & why I'm cutting my own hair. Plus, a bumper list of podcasts, links & books including Anita Bhagwandas' 'Ugly'.
I’ve developed a bedtime ritual. For the past few evenings, I’ve stood in front of my bathroom sink, Muji hairdressing scissors in hand, and twisted a strand of hair, an inch or so wide, between two fingers until the split ends jump out at me, white-tipped pitchforks next to their medium brown counterparts. Then, I get snipping.
Professional haircuts have always felt thankless: costing a fiver more every time I go, and each appointment taking me further from the pipe dream of once again being able to sit on my long hair, as I did in childhood. But what I think this nighttime activity, which can last up to an hour, represents is my own private rebellion against the chronic feeling that I should be spending more money on my appearance.
Because ‘tis the damn season, isn’t it? Spring arrives – albeit somewhat belatedly in the UK, my friends on the ground report – and suddenly every woman I know is asking herself questions like:
‘How much of my body hair should I remove to simultaneously a) keep my feminist principles intact while b) avoiding the dubiously good or bad ‘feral girl summer’ label?’, ‘Is this the year I spend my Monzo Savings Pot on laser hair removal?’, ‘Should I go blonde for summer?’, and ‘Where the fuck is my fake tan mitt?’.
The ‘Shoulds’ of beautification
The origins of this pressure are, much like the UK, nebulous. It’s not as if us womenfolk are annually rounded up by the rugged-er sex and held hostage in a pen until we make ourselves an acceptable level of beach body ready perfection. The only man to ever comment on my body hair remains Sam Levy in Year 7, who first pointed out the sprouting tufts above my knee-high school socks during a Jewish Studies lesson. And yet, this was the beginning of my lifelong pursuit of ‘beauty’.
A potted history of my journey before the age of 14 alone: pierced ears; waxed legs; plucked brows; sun-scorched skin; broken nails, pinching at contact lenses, stinging tea tree spot wand; hairbrushes dragged through my chronic tangles. Because beauty is pain, we learn from our mothers and grandmothers – a belief so globally accepted that there are equivalent idioms in many languages. Pain and money, actually – recently, in the town where my parents live, I passed a sign for a wash & haircut at the local barber: £22. The equivalent for a woman, at the salon down the road, is £67 (if there’s any argument for men paying more on a first date, it’s this).
The reality is that if women kept up with even a manicured fistful of the beauty standards we ‘should’ do – the bikini waxes, the facials, the half-head of highlights, the at-home sheet masks and weekly Olaplex treatments – we’d all be bankrupt by now. In Liverpool, the beauty capital of the UK (and where I happened to grow up), this isn’t too far from reality: the average Liverpudlian women spends £1,000 a month on treatments, according to research. The average annual salary there, for women (and yes. there’s a pay gap) is £33,785.
Then there’s the fickleness of trends. The ideal eyebrow has changed myriad times in my lifetime: from plucked-thin, to grown-out, to laminated, to feathered: an ever-shifting standard that leaves us in a chronic state of Not Enough (my ‘90s peers & I are literally traction alopecia-ed in the eyebrow department, no thanks to Kate Moss). If I were a Kardashian for a day, I’d stencil on a monobrow for the paparazzi, just to see how quickly it would catch on.
Grooming as self-care
All this makes beautification sound like something that’s inflicted upon us, its devotees a bunch of compliant zombies. But, of course, it’s more complex than that.
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