Recently, I have found my self-talk has taken a turn for the worse. All those little habits that I thought I had grown past — the constant surveillance of my body in the mirror, the decimation of every extra gram of body fat, the incessant picking at blemishes on my skin — have come flooding back during the pandemic.
In a world where everything else seems to be beyond my control at the moment, this seems to be the only thing I can monitor. The anxiety of the looming unknown can seemingly be mitigated by seeking the uneasy familiarity of self-criticism. In times like these, where I feel thrust into uncertainty, resorting to controlling my body has become an outlet for my anxiety.
And with that, I have found myself expending energy in my quest to find the cure for this internal dissatisfaction. I’ve scrolled through thousands of face cream reviews claiming that they can give me beautiful skin and consumed hundreds of articles about diets and exercise regimens that all promise to make me my happiest, best self. And I fell for it, lining my beauty cabinet with products that never seemed to quite work, only to abandon them in favour of a newer, shinier version.
Seeing all the plastic packaging piling up as I bought more and more “solutions” to my insecurities incited guilt. I didn’t have the means to be pouring so much of my hard-earned money into things that served very little purpose in my life. And as someone who has always been passionate about the environment, I was appalled by the amount of needless waste I was generating.
All that guilt got me thinking: how does the beauty standard affect the environment and who set it in the first place? Why are we constantly chasing this elusive idea of beauty to the detriment of our self-esteem and the planet?
The Trashy Side of Beauty
In 2019, the beauty industry was valued at$532 billionworldwide. It generates120 billion unitsof packaging each year. Sadly, most of this packaging isn’t recyclable and ends up in landfills where it can take up to500 yearsto decompose. Even the things that can be recycled are often tossed in the trash.
Beauty products are also full ofmicroplastic. They are especially common in exfoliating products and are used as emulsifiers or just cheap fillers. Every time you use these products, the microplastics get flushed down the drain and into the sewer systems, where they eventually make their way to the oceans.Sea animals then absorb or eat these particles, passing them down along the marine food chain, until they circle back and are ingested by humans.
We consume around 5 grams of microplastics each week, totalling 250 grams every year. That’s a dinner plate’s worth ofshredded plastic. Some of the chemicals found in these microplastics are consideredendocrine disruptorsand can interfere with normal hormonal functions and cause weight gain.
The constant quest for a miracle product that will make us happier, prettier, or healthier entices us into a cycle of buying things we don’t really want or need. The average woman usestwelve productsevery day and American women can spend up to$250 each monthon skincare and cosmetics. Many of us rarely finish out a product before chasing something that promises to give us better results. This underlying dissatisfaction with how we look generates huge waste and is ultimately harmful to the environment.
Smooth skin. Acne is absolutely unacceptable. Big eyes, green or blue preferably, rimmed with long lashes. Blonde hair for the bombshell, dark waves for the sultry goddess. Oh and make-up, enough to look like you put in the effort, but not too much effort. And you’re not allowed to age, not even one bit.
As women, we are constantly bombarded with this notion of unattainable, often eurocentric beauty. From a very young age, we are taught by cartoons, movies, and advertisers what it means to be beautiful. Children as young asfive years oldalready begin to develop concerns about their bodies.
We have asignificant amount of researchthat shows that these unrealistic advertisements have resulted in anxiety, low-self esteem, and low self-confidence in many women. So how did we get here in the first place?
Before the 1920’sproducts were advertised according to their use. Want to get somewhere? Buy this car. Need some warm socks? Ours are made from wool.
However, with industrialisation and mass production making things cheaper and more available, there was a threat that people would have all of their needs met and wouldn’t continue to buy things. To ensure profits, corporations decided to shift their advertising strategies. Instead of advertising things to people based on their needs, they started to use psychological tactics and propaganda to train people to desire unnecessary things.
Edward Bernays, often referred to as the “father of public relations,” was hired by companies to tap into the unconscious desires of people. To do so, he concentrated on employing media companies and influential figures to shift society's norms. This would put pressure on people to buy a product they might need to fit in. His tactics were successful, and perhaps one of his most notable achievements wasgetting women to smoke cigarettesinstead of eating sweets to achieve a slim figure.
His techniques are loved by advertisers today. First, we are sold an image we should aspire to. This image is photoshopped and edited to an unrealistic standard. Then, when we realise that we simply don’t fit the socially acceptable norm, we are offered products that can help “fix” all of those problems. Then bam! We have a booming industry that preys on insecurities we didn’t know we had.
Self-Acceptance and Overconsumption
I won’t lie. Even knowing how the beauty industry affects our planet and psyche, I haven’t completely stopped purchasing beauty products. It’s hard when I seem to be drowning in a sea of perfectly curated bodies and faces every time I turn on the TV or log onto social media.
Women’s relationship with beauty extends beyond vanity. We are still constantly evaluated based on our looks. Women who wear make-up or present themselves in a socially palatable way are perceived as morecompetentand are more likely to get hired andreceive higher pay. Considering thatwomen already earn less than men, before we even factor in ethnicity or race, can you really fault us for using whatever tools we have to our advantage?
Being perceived as beautiful or feminine can provide us with a sense of security. It can hold even more significant weight when it connects to our identity, culture, or self-expression. It can be a form of self-care or a small luxury that we allow ourselves in our hectic lives.
I am not advocating for everybody to ditch all of their beauty products. However, I would like for us to move away from toxic beauty standards that leave so many women feeling like they are not good enough. Standards that leave plus size women, disabled women, trans women, and women of colour on the margins of what is considered beautiful. Standards that push us to buy more things to fit the mould, damaging our self-esteem and planet in the process.
So while I still consume beauty products, I’ve grown a lot more mindful about why and how much of them I use.
I force myself to finish out products before buying new ones. I look for more sustainable alternatives, slowly swapping out shampoo bottles for bars, and finding ways to make my eyeliner work double-time as a mascara. I’m choosing to support brands that don’t use microplastics in their products and are transparent about their sustainability practices.
Before purchasing a product I explore any feelings associated with the purchase to make sure I’m buying something out of necessity rather than an obligation to fulfill standards I don’t subscribe to. I’m working to accept my perceived flaws and fostering an understanding that there was nothing wrong with my physical appearance in the first place.
This fragile self-acceptance has not only helped me with my self-esteem but has also made me a more environmentally conscious consumer. While individual actions, such as these are important when it comes to redefining beauty standards and preventing environmental damage, it’s important to challenge the systems that created the problems in the first place.