Why Do We Keep Apologizing For Our Appearance?
A closer look at the beauty standards that are indoctrinated us from the beginning.
You’re about to meet up with a friend and she texts, “Warning, I just got a chemical peel.” Or, “I just got my lips done.” Or, “I’m in sweatpants. Hope that’s OK!” Pretty much any version of, “Can’t wait to see you, but warning, I do not look my best. And yes, I’m aware.”
I initially picked up on the trigger warning during the early stages of the pandemic. Influencers would regularly go Live on Instagram and TikTok, often prefacing their Lives with a disclaimer about the fact that their hair was not done or their makeup was not done - sorry! Keep in mind, we were in the midst of a once-in-a-generation global pandemic that upended every aspect of our lives. Who could blame anyone if her hair was not perfectly blown out when she was wiping down her groceries and celebrating a friend’s birthday on Houseparty from her couch? Unlike the perfectly-curated Instagram posts we grew accustomed to, the Live was an unfiltered version. And they made it clear that this unfiltered face was not acceptable, or at least required disclosure.
These trigger warnings predominantly materialize in the form of cutting yourself down by stating that, “I know what the beauty standard is, and when I want to I will and am capable of complying, but I am not right now. And I am self-aware enough to know that and don’t want you to judge me otherwise.”
Recently, I’ve noticed that this behavior previously confined to influencers has infiltrated my real life network. It began innocuously enough, refusing to turn on the video camera during Zoom meetings. And honestly, since when did a phone call become a mandated video conference? I’d love to know. But oftentimes, the rationale boiled down to, “I don’t look my best.” But, best is a superlative. It quite literally means “of the most excellent, effective, or desirable type or quality.” The underlying assumption is that we must present the pinnacle of beauty every time we present ourselves to others.
Keep in mind, I am not a model. My livelihood does not depend on how radiant my skin is or how glossy my hair is. The same goes for my friends. Yet, we have internalized the societal expectation that attractiveness is the ultimate pursuit. Beauty is a line item in the budget under maintenance that we adhere to without question.
Writer Haley Nahman synthesizes the thesis of feminist writers Simone de Beauvoir and Sandra Lee Bartky in her newsletter Maybe, Baby, concluding that “the ‘feminine’ desire to ‘look my best’ was not only learned, but possibly violent to my humanity. That it presupposed my natural form was inherently wrong, or that “the ordinary standards of hygiene would be insufficient.”
Women are indoctrinated with this belief at such a young age that they come to see it not as a standard imposed upon them by others (such as society or men), but as a standard of their own. ‘Knowing that her life prospects may depend on how she is seen, a woman learns to appraise herself first.’ The gaze of the other is internalized so that a woman becomes both ‘seer and seen, appraiser and the thing appraised.’”
I say this not as someone who has transcended into nirvana. I am culpable of sending a, “My fit is giving matronly,” when my figure-hugging clothes are hugging too tight, and I wholeheartedly embrace the muumuu for a night out with girlfriends. And I feel better sharing that in advance to convey that I know the dress code for a club, and no, I will not be partaking.
Perhaps this is sinister. I certainly have never received an, “I need a haircut” text from a man before meeting despite on several occasions coming to that conclusion myself. But perhaps, our disclosures are emblematic of community and a collective acknowledgment that we are doing the best we can under the systems in which we’re living.