Damned if You Do, Damned If You Don’t: In 2019, Let’s Be Done With With The Beauty Prejudice Already



Elizabeth I‘s make-up killed her. At least according to some historians. In her attempt to look youthful and blemish-free, the queen used a toxic white powder, Ceruse, containing high doses of lead. As you can imagine, lead isn’t something you want to put on your face every single day for years. No wonder the prosthetics and cosmetics to turn Margot Robbie into Queen Elizabeth I in the much-anticipated film, Mary Queen of Scots, gets so much attention. There’s an almost macabre fascination with it.  Margot looks freaky and that “look” actually ends up killing her.

But my fascination with her appearance is for a different reason. The queen went to great lengths to look like this (and suffer for it in multiple ways) for much of the same reasons we “kill” ourselves to look beautiful. According to Rebecca Onion‘s detailed story in Slate, The Real Story Behind Margot Robbie’s Wild Queen Elizabeth Makeup, Elizabeth was stuck. She was expected to look youthful and beautiful, as Onion explains: ‘People perceived a queen’s beauty as a sign of her divine right to rule.” In other words, she had to look good for her job. Sound familiar? Being the Queen, and a virgin at that, she became a worshipped, a cult-like figure that MUST remain youthful. Her appearance was one key aspect of that worship. “Living inside it all, Elizabeth clearly seemed to realize her presentation of a mask that didn’t slip was critical to her survival.” writes Onion.

At the same time, however, there was a strong anti-face-painting movement brewing. It’s questionable how much her subjects actually criticized her for it, but historians point to jokes made about her and published criticisms of the use of cosmetics in general stating that painted women are foolish, foul and abominable. Elizabeth just couldn’t win this game. Either she loses for looking old and ugly or she loses for masking her changing skin. And no question, she loses to her make-up’s poisonous effects.

Times have changed. Make-up won’t kill you (though some plastic surgery, like botched butt enhancements for example, can). Women can lead without having to be worshipped. And adorning ourselves with cosmetics is second nature. But we, women, aren’t fully immune from the high, and often complex, beauty expectations demanded of us in society. We have to look youthful, so as not to be deemed as frumpy and, thus, old-fashioned or not on the cutting edge of our fields.  And, at the same time, we can’t look too beautiful, so as not to appear too provocative or frivolous, and therefore, not smart or competent. Let’s be honest, how many of you — women and men — comment on what your female corporate or political leaders wear vs your male leaders wear? I remember these very discussions when my division was led by a woman.  I willingly took part in these conversations too! I’m not blameless. We didn’t want our female leaders to appear unstylish. Now that it’s being led by a man, not a word is raised. I’m not saying male leaders aren’t expected appear a certain way. It’s that it doesn’t become water cooler conversation, ever.

I love beauty. I love to play with make-up, wear fun outfits and get my hair blown out. I undoubtedly feel more confident and energized. And, yes, I want to be admired for it too. But why does it need to go beyond that? Why do women have to be caught between all of these tensions? Why can’t we look frumpy or dolled up without any of the negative associations? Why can’t we look beautiful without being accused of being flirty and flighty? My only hope is that as men invest in their beauty more (according to the American Association of Plastic Surgery, in 2017, nearly 100,000 men had filler injections, a 99 percent increase since 2000), we will level the playing field, and the conversations will turn from what women and men look like to whether they have something worthy to say and give to society.


Beauty in the Workplace: How We Can Embrace, Not Fear, A Multi-Generational Workforce

Within minutes of me publishing last week’s post, The Role of Ugliness and the Need to Address the Topic Head On, I received a very interesting plea by one of the readers.  He urged me to address another appearance-related issue, ageism.  And he was quite passionate about it.  Within a few days of my post, he reached out again asking why I hadn’t yet written about it.

While one might be taken aback by such pushiness, I was actually pleased.  Selfishly, I was happy that he thinks I have something to say.  But more than that, I’m glad he cared, and that he was a “he.”  In case you didn’t see his comment on the post last week, here it is:

Great commentary, Abigail. This is an ‘old’ argument. Have we made progress?; probably. Have we went far enough?; Certainly not. I think the broader discussion has to do with ‘age’ – what is the underlying difference between ‘beauty’ & ‘age’ if it means one class is being treated as an outcast? Many older workers are now feeling the same level of discrimination that woman of all ages have felt for many, many years. Of course, certainly for vastly different reasons in many respects. But what about woman over 50? Now they’re judged on their looks and their abilities. Talk about shaming! We need to start raising the noise on this issue; isn’t 50 the new 30? If so, let’s be more inclusive for all races, genders & ages.

Needless to say, I agree with him.  And as a woman in the corporate world, especially in a very young industry, i.e., tech, I can relate to the fear of being “too old” in the not so distant future.  I may be able to speak in front of large crowds and have the confidence to put myself “out there” in social media but tell my age to may colleagues?  Now, that’s a different story :).  In all seriousness, I experienced a bit of a mid-life crisis last year about this very issue.  Would I lose my allure?  And what happens then?  Will people not want to work with me anymore?  As vain as it sounds, I recognize that we all bring a full package to our social and professional lives.  And that package includes youthfulness, style, attractiveness, in addition to all the other very important traits like intellect, integrity, a work ethic, EQ, and the list goes on.  So I totally understand what this reader was getting at.  There was a recent story by Carly Ledbetter in the Huffington Post all about this: Men are Getting Now More Than Ever.  These Plastic Surgeons Explain Why.

This topic reminds me of a story I wrote a few years back about how American woman and men fear looking older.   This fear is not just associated with sexual appeal but with a sense of currency in the office.  Here’s what I wrote back then:

According to an article by American Health and Beauty(“More Male Patients Seeking Cosmetic Procedures”), men are increasingly seeking facelifts, male breast reduction, Botox treatments and liposuction.  The reason given?  Major competition in the job market from younger, more energetic youths.

What’s even more depressing is the rise of eating disorders among the silver-haired set.  A recent New York Times article (“An Older Generation Falls Prey to Eating Disorders”) states that more and more women over the age of 50 are suffering from anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders.

So what do we?  We can be more diverse age-wise in our hiring practices.  And we can support older entrepreneurs who decided to pivot a bit later in their lives.   And I’m sure there are even more actions we can take.  In fact, comment on this story if you have some ideas!

But I actually think the changes need to come from within ourselves first.  If we are in fear of aging, we will inevitably project that onto others.  We all have to maintain ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually.  If we are to lose our sense of energy and positivity then we should expect people to not want to work or play with us.

I mentioned above that it was a man who reached out to me.  While I don’t want women or men to ever feel ashamed or unattractive, I’m actually somewhat pleased it was a man who commented.  For one thing, if both genders are experiencing this issue, the more likely the problem will be addressed.  In addition, I’m a big proponent of men taking special care of their physical health and appearance.  Unlike women who see doctors regularly from a young age and are used to tuning into their bodies, whether for procreation or disease-prevention reasons, men don’t really have a need to think about their bodies until later in life.  They may not understand or feel connected to their bodies in the same way women do.  But when we all make conscious effort to maintain our physical health, and, yes, our appearance, we understand our bodies better.    We are clued into them.  And frankly we respect them more.  If more men were to have a stronger “connection” with their bodies, I am convinced, they will not only be healthier for longer, but also be more aware of when they aren’t healthy.

No doubt I want to ensure that we give everyone a chance, no matter their religion, gender, appearance or age.  And we should fight against any discrimination that we face.  But I also think it’s up to all of us, individually, to ensure we feel healthy, happy and energetic.  Not only will we have that much more confidence, but we will undoubtedly inspire others to see how being older could even be better!

When We Criticize the Plastic Surgery of Non-Caucasians are We Just Be Self-Centered?

It’s undeniable.  Rates of plastic surgery have risen among young adults, especially among Asian women both in the U.S. and in the Far East.  Plastic surgery is also quite common among other non-caucasians — here and abroad.
And it seems to be taken for granted that the primary reason for this surgery is for these men and women to look more “Western” or “caucasian.”
But should it be?
Would the people receiving these make-overs totally agree?  Could it be that “Westerners” just assume that?  And maybe it’s those who look caucasian among us that need to stop be so egocentric!
What is prompting this reaction?
I had some time on my hands as I was watching my kids jump around the pool for a few hours and was able to finally crack open my back issues of New York Magazine.  In the July 28th issue, the cover story “Is Race Plastic” by Maureen O’Conner, challenges many of these accepted “truths” about the culture of plastic surgery.
If any of us engaged in the cultural conversations around physical beauty over the past decades, we would be surrounded by theories stating that, while our tastes for beauty can be attributed to evolutionary or biological factors, so much of what determines our judgements around beauty are culturally based.  And the more dominant the culture, the more that culture will determine them.  This explains Jewish and Arab women’s investment in plastic surgery to shorten their noses, African women’s desire to narrow their noses and Asian men and women’s rush to open their eyes.  All of these changes help these folks look more Western, right?
O’Conner shows us that it’s not so simple.  What we think of as “Western” changes, many of these beneficiaries of plastic surgery think of as slight changes to make them feel more beautiful.  As O’Conner writes: “While working on this article, I found that people of all races had principled reservations about and passionate critiques of these practices.  But the group that most consistently believed participants were deluding themselves about not trying to look white, were well, white people.”
There’s no question, O’Conner goes on to say, that plastic surgery is often an attempt for people to “fit in.”  But, she proceeds to ask, “fit in where, exactly?”  Sometimes people choose to look more like their families or maybe more like others in their communities who have received similar surgery.  And sometimes it is a way to look more refreshed.
I’m not advocating that we all rush to cut our faces apart.  But I don’t think we should rush to judge others who do.  And especially, I think we should consider what we’re judging people for.  Let’s not automatically assume that the “poor people who undergo this surgery” are so in need to look like Westerners.  What does “Western” really look like these day anyway?!
Net net, we all need a dose of humility.

More to Love: Additions to the Reading List

Miss Representation

Couldn’t get enough beauty-in-culture reading this week?  Never fear, we curated some more!

  • A reminder of the risks of certain beauty habits being practiced both 1000’s of miles away and close to home


  • French beauty, Emmanuelle Beart, launches campaign against plastic surgery as a result of her own botched surgery


  • An interesting perspective on the craziness we go through for beauty.  The author doesn’t think appreciation of beauty is a problem, just the limiting beauty standards that current society holds


  • New wave of activists challenge society’s notions of beauty in the form of a documentary: Miss Representation


  • That’s right, fashion doesn’t have to mean vulgar and vain.  In Africa it’s being used as an aid in economic development!


Any more stories to add?  Comment or tweet us @beautyskew

Week in Review: 3/4-3/10


Lots happened this week!  Take a look….

Is all the beauty torture (aka dandruff face) and waiting for results worth it?  Weekend Observations: Is all of This Worth it?

There’s no question China is becoming an artistic force to be reckoned with…especially now in the field of architecture! Pic of the Week: The Sophistication of China

Karen makes her first video about her weight-loss journey 30IN3o Week 15: I Made a Video 

Brazilians work hard for their beauty…to them beauty isn’t a gift but a right for all! Brazilian Beauty: Not a Gift But a Right!

Some more current beauty-in-culture reading that we curated for you More to Love: Additions to the Reading List

Enjoy the warmer weather (at least if your’re in NYC!)

More to Love: Additions to the Reading List

Some more curated beauty-in-culture reading!

  • OK, maybe a bit out-of-date but still interesting: an exhibit dedicated entirely to Aphrodite!


  • Beauty’s TOP 100 articles of the year…wowza!


  •  Can plastic surgery redefine our image of beauty?  What do you think?


  • The title just spoke for itself!:  “Brazilian Waxing: A Spiritual Practice”


  • What drove this woman’s eating disorder…not the desire to be thin actually



Brazilian Beauty: Not a Gift, a Right


A country known for major income disparity.  And a country known to place a high premium on beauty.

It’s not the least bit shameful to undergo plastic surgery down there.  Even poor — and I mean REALLY poor — women will save up to go under the knife.

Is that pathetic or empowering?

In his NY Times Opinion piece, ” A ‘Necessary Vanity’,” Alexander Edmonds explores the huge emphasis on beauty in Brazil.  He quotes a plastic surgeon saying that what he offers is a form of emotional therapy.  That is, people feel much better about themselves when they feel more beautiful.

While that argument didn’t convince me, Edmonds’s analysis of the economic benefits of beauty did.  For people, especially poor women, beauty is a form of capital that helps them rise in their social and economic environments.  If beauty is a way out of poverty, isn’t that a good thing?

In addition to all the arguments given for plastic surgery/pursuit of beauty, can’t we just contend that different things in life provide joy, including beauty?  And, as such, we shouldn’t we be able to reward ourselves with it? Many marvel at the price people pay to go to Disneyland or to buy a new car, even when they may not be able to afford it.  But the emotional benefits of these expenses are high.  So we justify them.

Well, so too with beauty.  If we want beautiful things or we want enjoy our own personal beauty, and we can somehow pay for it, then I say “go for it.”

Comment or tweet me your thoughts @beautyskew


Can All the Beauty Downers Zip It?

The Huffington Post published the post “Are We Addicted to the Idea of Perfection” by Jennifer Howard PhD.  She bemoans our quest to look perfect.  It’s so evident, she says, that despite these recessionary times, plastic surgery is on the rise.  Can’t we spend our time, effort and money on fixing what’s on the inside?  Gosh, darn.

Wait a second.  The pursuit of beauty isn’t necessarily a pursuit for perfection.  What I think is beautiful isn’t necessarily what others do.  Why else do so many people go under the knife so such that they look freakish (as Howard complains in her piece)?  Because to them that’s beautiful.

Also, pursuing perfection may not be so bad.  Sure, I’m all for self-acceptance.  But at what point is self-acceptance giving up?  If you’re 50 lbs overweight, should you just accept that?  Hell, no.

Ok, Ok.  I don’t mean to turn the world into a bunch of neurotic, slaves to beauty.  But I don’t think its all or nothing.

Also I truly believe that our extreme reactions to the pursuit of beauty, i.e., that it’s both vital and vapid, may be the reason we go to such extremes to perfect ourselves.  In other words, if people respected the pursuit of beauty, they would be more mindful/thoughtful about what they’re doing to their bodies. They would have deeper conversations with their friends about how they feel about their looks without feeling shallow, and therefore, be more likely to think twice about plastic surgery.  Or they would be open with their doctors about not loving how they look and seek psychiatric help.

The pursuit of beauty isn’t the problem.  The way we pursue it and our disdain for it is.

Comment or tweet me your thoughts @beautyskew

More to Love: Additions to the Reading List


  • African fashion has made its way to runways around the world


  • Saudi wives are rebelling.  How?  By refusing to hire Moroccan maids lest they be better looking than them.  (Maybe if Saudi women had more rights to do more stuff and become more well-rounded they wouldn’t be so threatened by beautiful maids!)


  • Can someone tell from a picture if you’re high maintenance?  Well, some people think they can…hmmmm


  • Do you think a ban on miniskirts in schools is a good thing?  Even for cheerleaders?  I get it…


  • Vivian Diller interviews a plastic surgeon on the thorny issues surrounding plastic surgery: does it lead to homogenization? Is it really anti-aging? Is it being done to women who are either too old or too young?


I Say “Beauty,” You Say “Attractiveness” … Why Can’t They Be One in the Same?

What is the difference between being attractive and being beautiful?  Vivian Diller PhD, a frequent blogger on Huffington Post and author of Face It, answers this question.  She explains:

“Beauty is a rigid, static physical image.  Attractiveness is a fluid, variable psychological experience.  One that moves from inside out and back again.  Beauty can be inherited, Photoshopped or surgically attained.  Attractiveness develops, evolves over time and can be ageless.  One can be attractive to others or simply feel that way about oneself.  Beauty leads women toward the pursuit of the physical features associated with the word.  Attractiveness is an attainable goal for those who take care of their bodies, enjoy their lives, maintain sensuality and engage with others.”

I don’t agree with her distinction.  I actually believe a beautiful person is what she describes as an attractive one.  I really like the imagery she offers of someone who is “fluid” and full of “energy.”  But I think the notion of enhancing one’s beauty by surgical or artificial means can actually contribute to people feeling more confident, and, therefore, help them be more “fluid”, “sensual” and “energetic”.  In other words, attractive.

Given her role as a psychologist to women facing their aging beauty, I’m sure Diller is reluctant to advise them against seeking surgical solutions right away. I get it. But if one wants to feel more beautiful with some “help” or through natural means, it doesn’t matter to me.  It’s all about having a positive attitude, a sense of grace, and making the most of what you have.