A conspiracy to keep women from being beautiful?

By Seth Galinsky
April 6, 2020

Author Sesali Bowen provides a justification for the so-called “beauty” industry in the March 4 New York Times, in the name of opposing what she calls the “shaming” of women who use cosmetic surgery. 

In “What Women Who Criticize Plastic Surgery Don’t See,” Bowen says that from makeup and hair weaves to breast augmentation and lipoplasty, many women have “found ways to leverage those standards … in order to pass, to survive and to thrive.” This is especially necessary, she says, for Black women.  

Bowen complains that plastic surgery “has been oversimplified as unnecessary, self-obsessed and harmful.” She writes off the stories of women who were left disfigured or dead as scare tactics to “shame” those who undergo the surgeon’s knife. They should not have gone to the “black market,” she says. And she ignores the fact that cosmetic surgery is a big business, worth some $20 billion a year. 

There is nothing new in Bowen’s argument. In 1954 a sharp debate broke out in the pages of the Militant, after it published an exposé by Joseph Hansen of the cosmetics industry and how it profits off undermining women’s self-confidence. This debate is available in the book Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women  by Evelyn Reed, Joseph Hansen and Mary-Alice Waters.  

In the 2010 introduction to the Spanish-language edition of the book, Waters describes the even greater resources devoted by capitalist companies since the 1954 debate to create markets and push the working class to “shop until you drop” — to “need” everything “from must-have cellphones, to the latest model automobiles … [to] an exploding array of ‘cosmetic’ surgeries.”  

“The pressure to be ‘fashionable’ — that is to be ‘employable,’ and attractive to a potential spouse,” Waters writes, “has penetrated even more deeply into the working class.” And the ever-changing “beauty” standards are an integral part of the perpetuation of women’s oppression.

Bowen says women who criticize plastic surgery are “conventionally attractive with flat stomachs and round derrieres,” and have an ulterior motive. They “fear that their pretty privilege — the benefits they get to enjoy for meeting those standards without the help of a doctor — is at risk. If beauty became democratized by more people simply paying surgeons for it, the proverbial finish line gets pushed further away.” Even more women should undergo surgery to even up the competition, she contends.  

Similar arguments were presented in the 1954 debate. Militant  reader Louise Manning complained that the exposé of the cosmetics industry by Hansen was an affront to the right of working-class women to strive for “some loveliness and beauty in their lives.” And she added, “The wealthy are beautiful because the workers are wretched.” 

Hansen responded that you might as well say that “morality is predominantly monopolized by the wealthy” and that the “wealthy are moral because the workers are immoral.” 

He concluded that “as for so-called ordinary women, whether housewives or workers, I think they are beautiful, no matter how toil worn or seasoned in experience, for they are the ones who will be in the forefront of the struggle to build a new and better world.” Hansen pointed out that standards of beauty and fashion are class questions that cannot be separated from the history of class struggle. 

Today we are living through an intertwined and deepening capitalist economic, social and health crisis. Like in previous crises, the ruling class unleashes a “culture war” aimed at pushing us to accept their dog-eat-dog values.

Given the harsh reality of the competition for jobs, women often give at least token recognition to the dictates of the cosmetic and fashion industries, Reed notes. But that “doesn’t mean that we must accept these edicts and compulsions complacently or without protest.”  

“The workers in the plants are often obliged to accept speedups, pay cuts, and attacks on their unions,” Reed says. “But they always and invariably accept them under protest, under continuing struggle against them, and in a constant movement to oppose their needs and will against their exploiters.” 

Reed concludes that “the class struggle is a movement of opposition, not adaptation, and this holds true not only of the workers in the plants, but of the women as well, both workers and housewives.” That’s as true today as it was during the 1954 debate.