Visit any suburban shopping centre and you’re likely to find at least one nail bar. According to the Australian Financial Review, in the year to January 2016, nail bars increased their presence in shopping centres by 32.5 per cent, along with massage parlours, the greatest growth of any type of store.
In addition, a 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey revealed beauty therapists were one of the most in-demand occupations, growing by 25 per cent since 2011.
Then there is the anecdotal evidence – the oversized, almost cartoonish lashes you can see on anyone from a school teacher to the latest reality tv star, only overshadowed by the immaculately groomed brows above them.
So, what has been happening in the years since Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth almost 30 years ago? At a time when women are increasingly present in the workplace and public life, are we more fixated on beauty than ever? It is hard not to deduce that this might be the case, judging by the new emphasis on grooming that has hit our shopping centres and streets.
It is a change that I have to admit that I have embraced. This year, with my children starting school and kinder, I have had a weekly block of a few hours at my disposal. After more than seven years of dragging children around to playdates, rhyme time, toddler gym and other kiddy entertainments, what would I choose to spend my newfound freedom doing? You guessed it, I have had my nails done, my eyelashes tinted, my eyebrows shaped, my hair coloured and cut … And I have realised that, if I wanted to, I could easily spend all my spare time on beauty services. In fact, sometimes, it feels like that is what I already the case.
Before a party, I apply fake tan, and I can spend hours browsing clothes shops. Then there is the general upkeep – the expensive shampoo and conditioner to maintain my ‘natural looking’ blonde and the nightly face cream. Every single day, I put on make-up before heading to work or school and kinder drop offs. All of this from someone who used to pride herself on a laissez faire approach to beauty.
Such grooming is an activity that does not just consume precious money (one magazine estimates a cost of $US31,400 to maintain peak beauty), but also, even more precious time and mental energy.
I wonder what Naomi Wolf would make of all of this? I first read The Beauty Myth as a teenager, and I remember believing that I would never fall into the trap of spending all of my time and money on how I looked – a cruel trap set up by the patriarchy to keep women poor, distracted, insecure and powerless. Rather than obsessing over Linda, Kate and Claudia in the pages of beauty magazines, I worshipped Tim Winton and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Yet, here I am.
But, is an interest in beauty and grooming necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps the ability to choose to get our nails or hair or faces beautified is a way of wielding of power in itself, or even a pleasure that brings women together with a common interest?
In The Conversation, Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth was quoted as saying,
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the bathroom with another woman … we feel we have nothing in common but we talk about a great lipstick shade or great hair … and it’s just this doorway for connection and for understanding and for dialogue.”
And there’s no doubt that beauty is a currency, however much we would prefer that was not the case. More beautiful people have been found to get the interviews and the promotions before the less attractive. And we all know who gets served first at a bar. So, in some ways, beauty could be said to empower women. It gives them more choice, not just in partners, but also, professionally.
Perhaps we can apply Marie Kondo’s famous recipe for decluttering to our beauty routine. If it doesn’t spark joy, dispense of it! And that may be the case for many women: just looking at their colourful, shapely nails is a cause for happiness; their white teeth encourage them to smile more broadly. They can bond with other women over lipstick and lashes.
Yet, sitting at a nail bar, looking at the bored eyes and impeccably hairstyles of the other women doing the same, I feel that a sense of balance has been lost. The freedom to choose and experience any joy from neat nails and eyebrows is becoming outweighed in the social pressure for immaculate grooming. Perhaps, we will soon be described as ‘brave’ when we leave the house with unmanicured nails and unruly brows, in the way that those eschew the pressure to dye their grey hair, or who celebrate their larger-than-thin frames, are considered to be brave. Or, maybe we are already there.
And far from the ‘natural’ ideal of the past, when women visited the beautician to make it look like they were born that way, now there is an emphasis on extreme beauty – unrealistically bulky eyelashes, puffy lips, bejewelled nails and ultra-tanned skin.
It worries me, too, that the more visible these nail/brow/hair salons have become, and the more outlandish the beauty measures, the more young girls will see them as the norm. Sitting looking blankly at the wall or a celebrity mag while our nails are made presentable will just be what women do. Natural lashes will seem inadequate when everyone is using luxuriant fake ones. Then, rather than being a convenience, these places and measures will be another leash that keeps us busy in the least productive, authentic or meaningful way possible.
As Naomi Wolf wrote in 1990,
“The real issue has nothing to do with whether women wear makeup or don’t, gain weight or lose it, have surgery or shun it, dress up or down, make our clothing and faces and bodies into works of art or ignore adornment altogether. The real problem is our lack of choice.”
I fear that, for schoolgirls, the pressure to look a certain way is already far greater than I ever experienced. After all, they have YouTube beauty tutorials to make a dedication to beauty seem ordinary, and even, necessary. In fact, you’d have to be extraordinary not to take part. Again, in the streets, you can see the results – schoolgirls with more skill with a make-up brush than I have developed over 20 years of applying my own make up.
But, to be honest, I’m happy not knowing how to expertly contour with foundation. I don’t want to talk to my friends about lipstick shades. Or, for that matter, hair or nails or diets. I feel that I’ve already heard enough. Instead, I want to have conversations about books, work, films, children, travel, gardening, and so much more. Sometimes, I even want to talk about what on earth is happening in Barnaby Joyce’s life.
This week, when I have those hours to myself, I will try to think more carefully about how I spend them. Perhaps I will read a book or visit the gallery. Maybe I could take a walk around the lake or meet a friend. Or, who knows, what if I did something for someone else? In any case, I have no doubt that there are better ways of spending time than under the fluorescent lights of a nail bar.