01 August 2019

Gender equality

Lipglossed lies

Have young women been liberated from unattainable beauty standards, or are they still trapped?

By Helen Pankhurst

“How far have we come since the suffragettes were pounding the streets to bring the vote to women?” “What would they make of the lives and attitudes of 21st-century women?” “What would they say about us all if they were here today?”

These are probably the most common questions I get asked as a Pankhurst, the granddaughter of Sylvia and great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, who were leaders of the suffragette movement of the early 20th Century. Last year saw the centenary of (some, not all) women winning the right to vote in the UK and I have spent much time since travelling up and down the country, speaking with many people including children from primary school age upwards, in both state and private education, as well as their teachers and parents. 

It is these conversations that I would like to share here because they urge important reflection on the way girls see themselves, the way others see them and, through this dialectic, the way they learn to be women.

In 1991, Naomi Wolf published The Beauty Myth. In it, she said that once women gained the vote and some degree of power, patriarchy found a new way to control them – through their bodies. Capitalist consumerism bred self-doubt in women over their appearance, and marketed the fantasy of better hair, better skin, a better body, as a way to achieve success and social acceptance.

American author Naomi Wolf

Insecurity, in Wolf’s theory, was key: women had to feel that they were a few steps away from perfection and that the latest beauty product or fad would get them there – at a cost, of course. This myth was peddled through countless overt messages as well as a bombardment of subliminal ones targeted at girls and women from the day they were born. “The social order defends itself by evading the fact of real women, our faces and voices and bodies, and reducing the meaning of women to these formulaic and endlessly reproduced ‘beautiful’ images,” wrote Wolf.

So what’s changed since then, if anything? And how are girls navigating the beauty myth now?

We know that the beauty industry has grown and grown since 1991; the global cosmetics market was valued at $532 billion in 2017, and is expected to reach a market value of $863 billion by 2023. Cosmetic surgery, meanwhile, is set to rise to over $27 billion around the world this year – an increase of $7 billion in the past two years.

While the girls and boys I met were concerned about the political and economic sphere, the cultural world and experiences of violence, it was the discussions around female identity and image that were by far the most lively – and the most worrying. These conversations revealed how girls as young as seven were being influenced by Instagram-ed images of women and girls whose faces had all the touched-up unreality of a doll; they also revealed how boys, up to a certain age, seemed eminently open to gender equality but then gradually closed up. A lot of men in audiences have highlighted that the beauty myth increasingly affects boys as well.

Beauty power blogger Yu Xiaoxiao from China speaks during a live make-up show

Here is a sample of anecdotes I heard. They form a map of some new, some old, beauty myths that condition girls in how they ought to look, act, behave:

Influencer Patricia Bright is one of the biggest beauty names in the industry

There are many more symbolic and telling anecdotes that people have shared, but in summary they all point to how society focuses on girls’ looks and personal relationships. By contrast, it is what boys and men do and say that matters. Social media, the music we listen to, the music videos we watch, the television and the films we view, the books we read, all of society and culture continuously feeds into this distinction. In an age of non-stop social media, these messages now hit us 24/7.

And what’s worse is that, although the arts, the media and the beauty industry is clearly invested – and investing – in this obsession, we women and girls are central players and not just passive victims of the construct. We do it to ourselves, one generation to the other, friends and siblings, mothers and daughters, colleagues judging each other, feeding insecurities.

So what can we do? Here are some of the ideas I have also come across in my travels:

While there is absolutely no guarantee of this, I hope when historians look back on the 21st Century, we – women and girls – will have more successes to celebrate on the scoreboard of history, including better representation at all levels and in most political, economic and cultural fields.

As well as this, my dream for my future grandchildren and their generation all over the world is for their looks to be given far less attention than what they say and do. And that the beauty myth is abolished altogether so that today’s girls, tomorrow’s women, can be exactly who they are. Because, like Glynne sings, they really are enough in all their glorious diversity.


Helen Pankhurst’s book Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now is out in paperback

Additional reporting by Ellie Jacobs

Further reading

Laura Bates’ Girl Up (2016) focuses on the pressures surrounding body image on young girls.

Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, first published in 1991 and more relevant than ever.

Audres Lordes’ Sister Outsider (1984), on diversity of identities.

Helen Pankhurst headshot

Helen Pankhurst

Helen Pankhurst CBE is an author and activist working as an advisor to CARE International, as a Visiting Professor at MMU, and as the First Chancellor of the University of Suffolk.