When Did Womanhood Become Ugly?

Challenging the unbelievably rigid beauty standards for femme-identifying individuals and societies obsession with “youth”.

anti aging

Lifestyle & Identity

It is no secret that the beauty standards for femme-identifying individuals are unbelievably rigid, however this obsession with “youth” seems to be omnipresent in nearly every expectation. While youthfulness has always been a standard of beauty to some degree throughout history, this has taken a disproportionately damaging and dangerous form with accessibility to social media, TV/film, and pornography. What is most alarming is this standard of beauty is not a shared struggle for every individual. While data proves that heterosexual men are far more attracted to women of younger ages, this is not reflected in preferred partner ages of heterosexual women. 

This chart reflects the preferred age for partners, with the first showing heterosexual men and the second showing heterosexual women. Clearly, women’s desired ages seem to have a pretty linear correlation with their age themselves. However, heterosexual men’s desired ages always stays in the lower 20s bracket regardless of their age. 

At the most recent Academy Awards, the host Amy Schumer made a joke about actor Leonardo DiCaprio: “He has done so much to fight climate change and leave behind a cleaner, greener planet for his girlfriends.” DiCaprio (47 years old) is notoriously known for dating women much younger than him, with his current girlfriend, Camila Morrone, being 25. While jokes like these often lack a serious tone, they reveal the normality of age differences in media, particularly surrounding Hollywood personalities. As an exemplar of male luxury, male celebrities’ dating preferences have somewhat created an ambition for men to “achieve” younger partners and women to “maintain” youthfulness. The beauty standards pushed by the media have followed these expectations as well, with the most successful models in the market often being most desired for their childlike features.

Who Becomes the Exemplars of Beauty?

While it is true childlike ideals are not universally accepted in modeling, particularly given the expansion of diversity within the industry, brands that are marketing more specifically to men revolve around the presence of specific features. Oftentimes, the modeling world looks for narrow hips, frail frames, and, most importantly, the absence of hair. 

Shaving as a beauty expectation is a relatively new concept, as at the start of the 20th century the act of shaving underarms and legs was nearly unheard of in the United States. It was not until the 1920s that shaving became normalized, dictated by both media advertising and the fashion industry itself. The flapper dress code of shorter and sleeveless dresses called for the removal of body hair.

The fashion industry also dictated the removal of pubic hair, which started appearing nearly three decades after the advertising of bare underarms and limbs. The expectation to remove pubic hair coincided with the 1946 initial appearance of the bikini. When Playboy started gaining popularity throughout the 1950s, the models featured were completely clean shaven. As an exemplar of feminine sexuality, the ideals around “sexiness” seemed contingent upon the absence of body hair.

Magazines like Playboy, created by and for men, defined what “sexy” looked like in American women. In addition to the removal of hair, the media only portrayed markless skin, with no texture, stretch marks, cellulite, wrinkles or dark spots as the pinnacle of beauty, demonizing many of the normal processes of aging. However, these processes never seemed to be negative to the same extent in beauty expectations for men. While the careers of most femme models seems to wane after their mid-20s, it is quite common for men to win titles like People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” well into their 40s and 50s. While masculinity coincides with aging and experience, femininity coincides with youthfulness. The most desirable woman seems to be one who lacks the experience of womanhood.

Advertisements changing tone but not expectation

Critiques of feminine beauty standards are not new, particularly surrounding the issue of shaving; in reaction to magazines like Playboy, many feminists of the ‘60s and ‘70s spoke out against this manmade expectation for women. Today, with as many advertisements one can see promoting unrealistic beauty standards, one can also see them matched with social media posts educating and chastising them. As a result, the beauty industry’s advertising has shifted, however, they still profit off of femme insecurities created by men.

Take billie’s razor brand, who claims to celebrate “female body hair.” When the brand launched its Project Body Hair, it claimed billie was “the first women’s razor brand to show hair,” stating, “Women have body hair, yet showing it is a prickly subject. It’s time to change that.” The brand states that “women who like shaving had been overpaying for razors for far too long,” criticizing the “pink tax” on feminine products. While the brand attempts to have been created under feminist ideals, it still promotes and profits off a beauty standard that was created by men and has only existed within the last century. While selling the idea of shaving as a “woman’s choice,” advertising like these promotes that empowerment can be bought without interrogation of how these standards exist.

The brand’s innovation, as opposed to other razor brands, derives from them actually showing body hair, and has included other body hair products for consumers who do not shave. Perhaps broadening their product market is a step of progress, but in a broader sense, how much can “progress” be defined within the cosmetics industry? Is it even possible for a shaving brand to be “feminist?” 

As women grow older, their insecurities become profitable. The promotion of child-like features deems aging as ugly, and branding things like shaving as a choice rather than an expectation does not make these standards any less pertinent. While this issue might seem secular and minuscule, it is a small, yet frightening, piece of how the infantilization of women becomes a marker of beauty perfectionism. Standardizing “child-like” features as beautiful does not just apply to physicality, and rather creates this expectation for women to both look and act the part of youthful submissiveness.

Pornography’s obsession with male dominancy

Girlhood, as opposed to womanhood, is equated with naïveté. This feature becomes sexually exploitative in relationships with imbalanced power dynamics. The way we can examine this is through the rise and normalization of pornography, and what expectations get placed upon heterosexual sexual relationships.

In addition to most popular porn actresses physically embodying the beauty standards discussed above (absence of hair, clear skin, etc.), there are obvious connections between age power dynamics and pornography. “Teen” is the most common role mentioned in porn titles, as well as “daughter,” “schoolgirl,” and “runaway” making the top 15. The demand for “younger-looking” femme porn actors is extremely high, and the average age for femme identifying porn actors is 22.

These disturbing statistics are also matched with the commonalities in how porn films are directed, scripted, and casted. Nine out of ten (88.2%) of pornography videos show acts of physical aggression and violence, five in ten (48.7%) portray verbal aggression, and one out of every eight titles advertised to first-time visitors to porn sites detail violent sexual acts. Why child-like features and behavior has steadily become more desirable is because there is an association to contain the ability to exert domination with little repercussion. 

In these videos, women are constantly portrayed as the lesser half of a disproportionate power dynamic, tying into why an “age-gap” is desirable. If the femme actor appears younger, the masc actor has the ability to formulate her perception of sexual experiences, and she is less likely to refuse certain acts. The ability for a woman to possess power in a sexual situation to consent or not consent makes her less desirable in comparison to one who does not have any ability to do so- therefore, this dichotomy presents “the younger” as the more desirable option.

What can we do?

We must evaluate the basis for beauty standards and what they promote for femme identifying individuals. What relationships in the spotlight do we idolize, as well as in the narratives we consume? How do we evaluate if actions are based in choice or expectation? How does dominance appeal to rape culture? All of these questions pertain to how the infantilization of women endangers us and becomes more of an issue than just someone’s self proclaimed “type” in a partner.