“I’m not a girly girl”: Why belittling beauty culture harms girls more than make-up.

In recent weeks, John Lewis and Mac Cosmetics were forced to cancel a “back to school” make up masterclass at a shopping centre in Kent. This came after parents and charities complained about the pressure placed on girls to break school rules. The incident opened up a debate about what age it becomes appropriate for girls to wear make up, as well as the impact that beauty practices have on young women. For instance, Bex Bailey, of the Young Women’s Trust stated:

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Of course, concerns about young women’s body image are valid. Historically, women have been pressurised to strive for unrealistic expectations of attractiveness. As feminists have long argued, in the West, this conception of beauty has been defined through Euro-centric ideals of whiteness and thinness. In particular, as I discuss in my book, The Politics of Weight (Morris, 2019), the disciplining of women’s bodies is ubiquitous, and language is deeply entrenched with the seemingly moralistic pursuit of weight-loss (e.g. ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods or ‘feeling fat’). Thus, it is no secret that business has profited off normative understandings of femininity, and capitalised on our anxieties about beauty.

Yet, is it really as simple as dismissing the concept and practice of beauty as a patriarchal tool?

Often, the narrative surrounding women and girls is that we absorb culture, which draws on an understanding of power as transactional and one-sided. For example, panicked headlines such as “Make-up ‘dangerous’ for young girls”(The Telegraph) and “Curling eyelashes with FIRE, the #KylieJennerChallenge and 'sunburn art': The downright dangerous beauty trends that women have risked to look good” (Daily Mail) suggest that girls lack critical thought in their approach to beauty and the body.

Of course, the irony is that the newspapers cited here profit from the brutal and obsessive coverage of women’s bodies, for instance, through headlines such as “Kelly Brook says gorging on pies and pints of Guinness caused her to gain two stone... before shedding the pounds with a healthy diet”(Daily Mail) or “Shrinking stars! From Khloe Kardashian to Vicky Pattison, the most impressive celebrity weight loss transformations of 2016 (and how they did it)” (Daily Mail).

As the feminist scholar Deveaux (1994) suggests, women are not simply “cultural sponges”, but are active participants in gender. Arguably, to suggest that girls are simply passive dupes of the beauty ideal is both paternalistic and patronising. Often this reinforces a dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girls, wherein women who engage with normative femininity are positioned as ‘the enemy’. For instance, throughout popular culture, the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype has been rolled out to ridicule and infantilise women who engage in beauty practices. In discussions surrounding women in reality TV, we see this narrative repeatedly played out. A strong example of this can be seen in Love Island, which often receives criticism for creating bad role models for young women; as a head-teacher was recently quoted in The Telegraph stating

I am really interested in the whole drive to empower women, to make sure that they have a voice, they have agency […] if we want to be taken seriously, the 'Me Too' debate - can we also be saying [that] this trivial nonsense matters? I think there is a real question around that.”

Firstly, this point ignores the fact that Love Island opens up important questions about gender and relationships, reflected in this year’s situation between Amber and Michael, wherein discussions about gaslighting were raised by commentators (across both the traditional media and feminist Twitter). Secondly, this quote assumes that the women who participate in/watch Love Island undermine the ‘Me Too’ movement, and by doing so suggests that only one type of woman can a) have a voice and b) that what they are saying will be worthwhile. 

The fact that the women in Love Island always meet heteronormative standards of beauty and are often seen engaging in feminine practices (Vogue noted that Love Island has a huge impact on women’s fashion/beauty choices) means that this kind of rhetoric reinforces divides between women who do and who do not watch Love Island. Indeed, the implication is often that women can either be smart or they can participate in beauty culture.

In the 1970s, McRobbie’s seminal work, “Feminism and Youth Culture” suggested that girls’ bedroom cultures were important spaces for young women to “establish their own social world,” wherein happened events such as sleepovers and telephone conversations made up of “experimenting with make-up, listening to records, reading the mags, sizing up the boyfriends, chatting [and] jiving” (p.213). With the rise of social media, feminist scholars have noted how online spaces can recreate this bedroom hangout, enabling young women to produce their own communities online. Often beauty is part of this, with bloggers such as Zoella and Lisa Aldridge creating tutorials from their bedrooms on make-up, hair and fashion (Rogan, in press).

Likewise, through these platforms, girls and women have access to trends which resist idealised standards of heteronormative attractiveness (e.g. thin, white, tall, blonde). For instance, popular hashtags such as #effyourbeautystandards and #antidietriotclub showcase fat bodies as both beautiful and worthy. Additionally, there are a number of boys and men who experiment with make-up and beauty, as seen through beauty vloggers such as Jeffreestar. Arguably, such figures may be a source of comfort and inspiration for young men who want to try make-up, and their large presence online encourages young people to think about playing with gender boundaries. Whilst these practices don’t necessarily allow people to exist outside of the constrictions set by gender, they do contribute to narratives which seek to erode binary oppositions of femininity and masculinity (Morris, 2019).

Thus, as Rogan and Budgeon (2018) contend, rather than setting up binaries between good/bad practices, it is essential to explore “digital spaces as places where young women explore their personal experiences” and to “confront the messy contradictions that often lie at the heart of social media discourse”. Indeed, in her upcoming book, Rogan (in press, 2020) will highlight these complexities, as noted in the following quote from a recent blog:

While it is important not to “romanticise” social media as some kind of utopian collective resistance (it isn’t), it is imperative that we stop presenting overly simplistic, easily-digestible narratives that do little to challenge wider social, cultural and political contexts (Rogan, 2018). 

This is an important point and one which can be applied to the aforementioned discussion on make-up. Whilst it is understandable that some are questioning what “back to school” tutorials mean in terms of femininity, it is unhelpful to categorise young girls into those who are not interested in beauty (read: intelligent, willing to learn) and those who are (read: naive, self-conscious and/or vacuous). This has real consequences for young girls’ and women’s relationships with themselves and each-other. One example comes from this year’s Love Island (can you tell what I did with my summer?), wherein contestant Lucy stated that that she doesn’t have friends who are girls because “girls are drama. I remember being at high school and saying things along those lines (I also pretended to like Green Day, because I was embarrassed by the fact that I loved music like Taylor Swift). Arguably, such internalised misogyny stems from the consistent belittling of ‘girly’ behaviours as being vacuous, embarrassing and/or narcissistic. Yet, as the activist Munroe Bergdorf recently posted on her Instagram: “misogyny will tell you that you can be one kind of woman. Fuck that.” And, as Love Island’s Amber said when a fellow contestant presumed she would not like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings:

I actually once went to the cinema to watch all three Lord of the Rings films back-to-back for nine hours, because The Hobbit was coming out, so don't put that label on me... I'm multi-faceted.

Dr. Amelia Morris is post-doctoral research fellow at Royal Holloway University. Her recent book, The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power in Dieting, focuses on the following themes: gender, power, post-structuralist feminism and the body. However, within her current role, she is exploring data justice and welfare for asylum seekers, and she is currently writing a book with Dr. Nicola Smith on austerity and the body. Outside of academia, she enjoys running, looking at pictures of dogs and listening to podcasts (usually about cults or murder).


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