FFB: Beautiful Dirty Rich....Class Privilege & Beauty

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This month, the FFB's (Feminist Fashion Bloggers) monthly topic of discussion is social class as it pertains to feminism and the fashion/beauty industry. I think most of us in FFB agreed that this was a challenging but important topic. The roundup for everyone's posts can be found here.

Disclaimer: It was hard for me to narrow down my focus, so be warned- this post is a lot of verbose pondering about the general intersections of class and beauty. I don't think what I'm about to say in this post is anything revolutionary, but I think we often forget about the politics of class privilege while in the throes of our cosmetics lust.

First off, let's establish that beauty is a social construction. By that I mean that what we perceive as beautiful is not just a matter of personal preference and opinion; it is also incredibly influenced by our cultural climate. And because culture changes over time, so do constructions of beauty- yet we often forget that skinny, tan, and made-up has not always been the epitome of conventional femininity. A huge part of our contemporary cultural climate (at least in the West) is capitalism. Capitalism, which is an economic system that encouraged competition in the market, sounds really great in theory: companies compete with one another, and only the ones that are embraced by consumers survive. However, one consequence of capitalism is that this often leads to monopolization, wherein one company dominates the market and smaller companies flounder. We can see this in the beauty industry- think of how many indy cosmetics and fragrance businesses that you know of that have closed down or struggled to stay open! Also, when one or few company dominates the market (I am looking at you, Estée Lauder), they have an overwhelming influence on public perception of what is beautiful and desirable. And, being a business, it should be no surprise that they want to make money, and lots of it. I talked about this a bit in my post about the cultivation of need; companies, particularly the ones that dominate the market, are really good at seducing consumers with their marketing. Of course we beauty fiends also demand quality products and companies often respond to consumer demands. But we also love luxe packaging, limited edition goodies, and high-end name brands. We fall for gimmicks, novelty, and unfulfillable promises. And we shell out a ton of cash in the process.

Another consequence of capitalism is that it creates social classes based on income, occupation, and status. Because of market competition, we can't all be winners. There is a lot more that goes into the creation and maintenance of class division (such as access to education and health care; historical and contemporary inequalities based on race, gender, sexuality, ability and so forth; and other factors), but let's be real: we do not have economic equality in the US or elsewhere, and we can't just chalk it up to tired misconceptions of the impoverish as lazy, stupid, and unmotivated. Privilege, in this case, is not simply earned. Often times, you are either born with social privilege or your'e not based on if your race/class/gender/sexual orientation/ability/nationality/etc is socially prized or not. And most people who are born into a certain social class can not transcend it for the reasons mentioned above. So if we have economic inequality, then it should go without saying that there are whole classes of people that simply can't afford to be consumers of the beauty industry, at least not to the obsessive level most of us reading this are. This also means, then, that these people do not have access to the products, services, and lifestyle that we acknowledge as socially beautiful and desirable and that transform us into socially accepted "beautiful" and "desirable" people. This isn't to say, of course, that people in lower economic classes can't and aren't attractive; it means if you weren't born embodying what our culture regards as perfection, then you are going to have to achieve it in other ways, and those ways cost money more often than not. Money that not all people have. In short, beauty, as a social construction, is marked and defined in part by class privilege.

Beautiful Dirty Rich- Lady Gaga knows that money and beauty in our culture often go to gether
Growing up in a lower working class household, my parents struggled financially in really big ways. We used food stamps and accepted the charity of friends and neighbors; we drove a junker of a car and emptied out the change jar to fill it up with gas on more than a few occasions; gas and electric were turned off. I did not come from a lazy, unmotivated, or stupid family- this was just our situation, determined by factors like physical disability and poor education that were outside of my parents' control. Needless to say, there wasn't any spare cash for MAC goodies at the time. Now, as a young adult, graduate student, and budding professional academic, I am better off than my upbringing by a long shot. I recognize how incredibly privileged I am over some other people, and it's not particularly fair (inequality isn't fair...that's why it's called ineuqality). And yet, I am still on an incredibly tight budget. Honestly, I too often live above my means. I have a little extra money to play with these days, but it may be smarter to invest it elsewhere sometimes. Why the personal tell all? Because privilege and inequality are a part of my life and your life, too. Privilege is often invisible to those who possess it, but we all belong to a social class whether we feel like it impacts us or not. And all of these things are huge factors when it comes to our relationship to the beauty industry.

I first saw the poster for the 2003 Love Your Body Day while I was an undergraduate. In some ways, I have major issues with it. Although the beauty industry emphasizes appearance and is not often very body-positive, participating in it does not inherently mean that we are not loving ourselves and our bodies in the process. And while nurturing our mental and emotional selves is indeed important, I wouldn't say that being involved in the fashion and beauty industries always distracts from that or is a less valid pursuit. But despite my gripes, I do like this poster in that it highlights just how much women spend (and are told they need to spend) in order to present themselves in a way that others deem beautiful. We often recognize that those who have extra money to hop on a plane to Europe, eat at fancy restaurants, and get weekly massages as socially and economically privileged. Yet, we sometimes forget about how privilege impacts our relationship to beauty because our purchases in the beauty industry are often framed as pure necessities, not luxuries. And that's because beauty, as a social construction, is totally wrapped up in capitalism, marketing, and the politics of class.

I challenge you to tally up how much you spend in a week or a month or in a year to make yourself beautiful- all the lotions and potions, fragrances, cosmetics, miracle skin care treatments, hair styling tools, gym memberships, workout DVDs and exercise equipment, visits to the tanning salon, hair stylist, nail salon, waxing services, cosmetic plastic surgery, fashionable clothing, shoes and accessories...the list goes on and on. How much does it cost for you to pursue beauty? For myself, I guess that I easily spend a couple thousand of dollars a year on the things I listed above. If you didn't spend as much, would you still think you are as pretty as you are now? Would others still think you were as desirable?

Most of us, as beauty and fashion bloggers, are privileged when it comes to class (yes, I'm making a sweeping generalization here, to which there are indeed exceptions). The point here isn't to make anyone feel guilty. Guilt is a really debilitating state of mind. But ignorance and uncritical thinking are even more unproductive. Do I think we should boycott the beauty industry? Clearly not- I run a beauty blog after all! But I do think that we need to think more critically about our participation in the beauty and fashion industries. And I think we have an obligation to consider how the politics of privilege and oppression operate in our own lives as beauty bloggers and beauty junkies.

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