In January I began to fixate on new lines that appeared to thread my face each day, radiating around my downturned mouth and unsmiling eyes. It was the darkest time of lockdown, the thin but comforting Christmas rituals packed away, the prospect of alcohol unappealing and maudlin. I had little to do but work and consider myself, and consider myself I did – examining little patches of discolouration, blurring freckles, the dissolution of my jawline.
With none of the usual consoling causes, such as nights out, to ascribe the flaws to, my face looked alien and appalling. It felt grossly unfair that I had gone on ageing while real life had stopped. I thought longingly and for the first time about cosmetic procedures: Botox, fillers, contouring. I was evidently not alone in this impulse – as the New Statesman’s Sarah Manavis wrote recently, bookings in England for such procedures have spiked ahead of the full reopening planned for June.
The area of cosmetic intervention is one I find it difficult to hold a coherent stance on. It makes me feel confused and defensive, as I always do when my personal desires conflict with higher-minded ideals. It’s a fairly recent cultural development for a person like me to consider cosmetic procedures: when I was growing up, they felt firmly in the realm of untouchable celebrity, as eccentric and unrelatable as cryogenic freezing. Certainly I never heard my mother or any woman in my life refer to them when I was younger – except perhaps in revulsion at the more extreme addicts who ended up as media punchlines, their procedures piled atop of one another until they appeared disturbingly unlike their original selves, or any human being.
It has since become a far more accessible and affordable option. To have, say, quarterly Botox is not cheap, but it is a reasonable financial sacrifice a single person in most kinds of full-time employment could choose to make if they wanted to. Cosmetic intervention is now an option for the masses, and alongside or because of this democratisation, it has also found a new demographic. It’s nothing shocking now for women of my age (30) and younger to seek out anti-ageing procedures. To feel troubled by this puts you in strange territory.
I feel sometimes there is a feedback loop in feminism. Issues first raised by second-wave feminism – and perhaps broached too prescriptively – were later reconsidered under the idea that feminism should allow women to do what they want. Take body hair removal. Quite rightly, feminists over the years have highlighted shaving and waxing as an area of inequality, a thing women generally have to bother with if they don’t wish to face ridicule or worse. Later this idea was readdressed, with some third-wave feminists arguing that if shaving feels good to an individual woman, then it shouldn’t be seen as oppressive – it could, for her, be an act of empowerment.
The availability of choice became the key thing. Now pink razors are sold to women with the vague, irritating sheen of feminism as part of the marketing. But shaving your leg and armpit hair isn’t feminist just because you prefer to do it. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a feminist if you do shave, it just means that an action doesn’t become empowering simply because a woman has chosen to do it. If you were to observe that, still, women with visible body hair are the subject of mockery in a way that men are not, it would feel passé. Didn’t we resolve all that in the Seventies? I don’t know if we did.
The trouble is that to raise these points seems to imply to people that I am against their free choice, that I want all women to be legally banned from accessing plastic surgeons and high heels and corsets and body hair removal. I’m not, though. I have no moral high ground here: the only reason I don’t commit to all those ways of rendering yourself standardly attractive to society is that I’m too lazy or too cheap, not because I’m above doing it. I have no admonishment whatsoever for individual women who get to feel a bit happier about their appearances, and I don’t believe it is morally wrong to get cosmetic procedures. At the same time, I think we are foolish to accept the mainstreaming of cosmetic intervention without querying what it will do to us. Because I can promise the effect is not nothing, and nor will it exclusively lead to women feeling a bit chirpier.
I also feel this way about the uncritical discussion of rough sex and BDSM practices. Of course, I believe we should all have the sex we want with consenting partners, and, of course, your sexual desires do not have to reflect your politics; mine certainly don’t. Does this mean, though, that we can’t so much as question the inordinate prevalence of women being subjected to humiliation and violence on the most-viewed pornography websites? Even if that dynamic turns me on personally, why can’t I still think about its wider meaning? To want to discuss what it might be doing to us, to me, doesn’t mean I’m calling for it to be censored.
The ethics of beautification and of sexual power dynamics sometimes feel like they belong to another era. I’ve seen young women whose politics I share disavow contemporary feminism altogether, because all they see in the movement are self-interested white women who exclude trans people, sex workers or other demographics that don’t include them. I can understand why a young person would observe that landscape and wonder why they would want to be a part of it, which makes me all the angrier. There must be another way, which is neither dogmatic and exclusionary, nor about individual choices being inherently empowering. I want us to make whatever choices we feel are necessary to exist in this imperfect world, and also be free to examine them, to say to each other without shame or defensive pride: “I do this. I’m not sure. Can we talk about it?”
This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas