July 29, 2014

The Never-Ending Beauty Shift

Peter rydzewskiBy Peter Rydzewski

Sociology Ph.D. student, University of Maryland

The idea that physical characteristics can be socially developed may be difficult to consider at first. According to Raewyn Connell, however, “bodies are both objects of social practice and agents in social practice” (p.67). This means that while most of our appearance is commonly attributed to gene composition and biological parents’ body characteristics, discussions about the power of gender expectations, although sometimes missed, continue to play a large role in the development of the way that we look.

For most of us, the clothes we wear and the ways in which we wear them are seen as a personal choice, rooted in the idea of “self-expression.” While this may be true in some instances, men and women are policed differently by social forces, shaping the ways in which they can be comfortable, efficient, and expressive in terms of their outer display. While men, for instance, may be expected to wear a suit or dress clothes to work, some women may wear a dress, heels, and makeup. Moreover, men’s clothing is less restrictive than women’s and may take less time to put on.

These cultural constraints, in part, help to eliminate the idea of the “self” from beauty, and personal choices become social conclusions; that is, what we wear is already established, and any deviation away from it can lead to harmful social stigma. For these reasons, if “beauty is pain,” the pain and time spent trying to achieve an overarching image of beauty is not equally distributed.

In Deborah L. Rhode’s book The Beauty Bias, she argues that “the presentation of self can be a source of pleasure, self-expression, and identity, but also a source of stigma and shame, and an excessive drain on time and resources” (147). For the purpose of this discussion, the last part of this quote is very important to consider.

“Time” is something that most of us like to make the most of, especially when working and juggling other life tasks. “Resources,” by the same token, bring fourth an important discussion about who can afford to be beautiful in collective social terms. Although both of these topics may be based on education, race, and environment, it’s a place that can be framed under both gender and class connotations.

In most discussions about work and workers, sociologists commonly use the term “shifts” to speak about the multifaceted work situations individuals face. The “first shift” is defined as time spent in the public sphere of labor away from the home. More famously, Arlie Hochschild used the term “second shift” to express household labor that is likely to be done by women after their first shift of work in the public sphere is complete.

Based on common assumptions that women “innately” perform domestic tasks better, this “work after work” restricts the amount of free time women are allowed to hold. So, although “shifts” are typical of traditional ideas of both public and private work, they can also be applied to the idea of beauty.

In relation to work, preparing one’s body for any task takes time, and can be understood as its own never-ending shift, something that is done during and in between shifts. Because of our cultural investment in men as rugged and women as pretty, the time spent on perfecting a designated “look” further consumes women’s time which, as seen above, is already pressed based on work and nurturing ideals.

Sociologists Kirsten Dellinger and Christine L. Williams’ analysis of make-up at work  found that cosmetics are tied to ideas of competence and confidence. This means that in order to gain the resources (i.e., money) to purchase beauty products, women will first need to have access to these products. This type of class-based beauty bias is rooted in an ability to afford healthy food, fitness memberships, and clothing that may be required in a specific job setting.

If these appearance ideals are not met, women may be not even have the opportunity to compete for work, regardless of their educational background or skills. As a result, a specific “look” dominates what constitutes one’s perceived ability to perform a work-related task. This also speaks to the ways in which gender-based discrimination becomes a class issue in regard to who can afford certain clothing and cosmetics, and also who will be able to afford these societal norms later in life due to stable employment. Irrespective of class and the resources needed to achieve “beauty,” women across all living situations are accountable for the situational ideals of self-presentation. Although–as Julie Bettie has shown–the idea of beauty is not universal, overarching demands for women are still much larger than those placed on men.

Even at young ages, this unequal beauty constraint perpetuates notions of biological appearance differences, missing the true social frame under which they are constructed. The differing expectations of “looking good” placed on men and women are especially present in the workplace, and cannot be understood from a simple, biological perspective.

Rather, they can be seen as social foundations for the communication of assumed differences between men and women, placing unequal constraints on women, and even further constraints on work of women from lower social classes. In such instances, men can cash in their patriarchal dividend, using it to avoid the requirements of extra beauty costs. This does not necessarily discount the amount of resources men use to fulfill a “look,” but women are often required to relinquish more of their resources, reducing the amount of excess time, money, and thus power that can be used in negations of competence and ability.


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