Toxic Femininity In Beauty: Why Shaming Doesn't Help Anyone + Examples
You may have heard of toxic masculinity, where "traditional ideals" of tough, hard manliness are trumped and everything else is shamed as weak. That breeds a culture that's unhealthy for both men and women. But what happens when women shame one another for acting in ways that are "inferior"?
Enter, toxic femininity: It happens when women shame other women, and it can happen in our daily lives—for example, when women engage in beauty shaming.
Sure, your looks are not, by any means, the most important thing in life. If you're hemorrhaging all your time, energy, and money on beauty until it becomes mentally exhausting, then it can certainly be problematic. And let's not forget the unattainable beauty standards society has placed on women as well, which can conjure anxiety, low self-esteem, and body dysmorphia.
But if you're being shamed for taking care of your looks? Well, that causes unnecessary stress for everyone involved.
Ways toxic femininity plays out in beauty shaming.
OK, we covered the definition of toxic femininity, but how does it play out in real-life scenarios? Take a look:
In a professional landscape.
One of the most common tropes is that a woman who takes care of her looks is "less professional," whether she goes for facials or wears false eyelashes—even if she may not necessarily wear said eyelashes to work.
Let's put it into context: A 2020 research paper concluded that women wearing "inappropriate attire" like bikinis on "publicly available social media content" is "potentially unprofessional content." Aside from the fact that the study was conducted by mostly male researchers, it reflects an absurdity: These female doctors' bikinis did not treat the patients—their brains and sets of skills did. More importantly (and perhaps obviously), they were not wearing said bikinis in the treatment rooms.
Then there's the case of makeup shaming. How much makeup you decide to wear is up to you and no one else, but so often women are shamed for looking "flashy" or "trying too hard" when they put on a full face. Of course, the standard for going full glam is completely arbitrary: Makeup shaming can occur in contexts as benign as wearing a smidgen of mascara. The bottom line? People who like to shame will find any reason to do so.
I've been privy to the cases of women with invisible illnesses such as chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, who have been told they are lying because they take care of their looks. While these women most certainly do not spend their entire lives in front of the mirror or in beauty treatment rooms—they're instead holding down jobs and taking care of other familial and personal responsibilities—they take pride in the way they look. For them, this fosters a sense of control against a debilitating invisible illness.
Point being: Just because someone cares about their appearance or appears "put together" doesn't mean they aren't suffering.
What to do when you're shamed.
It's difficult not to internalize these judgments and second-guess yourself, especially if you're someone who's type A or over-responsible—as it is, you tend to blame yourself first and foremost, even for things that have nothing to do with you. If you're shaming yourself, first know that toxic femininity and beauty shaming are very real things—you aren't alone.
Also, you're likely not causing harm to yourself or someone else for taking care of your looks—you have priorities and you take care of your responsibilities. As I tell my female clients who are incredibly financially savvy and responsible: It's nobody's business if you decide to have a $300 facial or go for beauty treatments—just as you don't instruct others how to spend their own money.
Have firm boundaries.
Boundaries are the firm no's in our lives—they teach others how to treat us. First, know that you can express your boundaries gracefully: Try statements like, "My beauty decisions are private," or, "I already have professionals I consult for this, so I'd like to spend our limited time together on more productive and meaningful topics," or simply, "This isn't up for discussion."
Should this boundary be violated, you could remind this person "I've already said I do not wish to speak about this topic" and enforce a consequence (like exiting the conversation) if they keep pushing.
You could also turn the tables, with statements like "I don't tell you how to spend your money or your time; would you like me to start doing that?" Or even turn it into a light joke: "Interesting how you feel this need to fawn over my looks."
When you're asserting these boundaries, know that some people will accuse you of being sensitive or difficult, or that this will make it hard for you to have future interactions again. These are the people that licensed psychotherapist Terri Cole, LCSW, describes as "boundary destroyers" in her book Boundary Boss and take this as a litmus test on whom to cull from your life for more peace of mind.
Know the role of beauty in your life.
For the women I described above with invisible demons, beauty is the way they retain some semblance of control in their lives—otherwise, everything else can seem like it's crumbling. As for me, like many other type-A personalities, I am notorious for neglecting myself—having a beauty routine twice a day is what grounds me and gives me space to wind down. It also serves as a Trojan horse for other non-beauty rituals in my life that spark wellness and mental fitness.
Don't feed the negativity.
When some beauty shamers make the statements they do—even jokingly—they are waiting for you to feel discombobulated and then explain yourself from that space. They know you'll explain how you really are not quite that obsessed with beauty or don't spend all your money and time on it. Understand that this is really about them trying to one-up you, especially in the case of persistent shamers. You can simply smile and say, "Yes, I feel blessed!" And then steer well clear of them—your life doesn't benefit from such toxic influences.
Let's face it: Some of us are motivated by spite, at least partially. Rather than deny this emotion and bury it away—because we know it's considered "negative" alongside the likes of sadness, anxiety, anger, and frustration by those who deny the rainbow of human experiences—why not harness it? Letting it simmer will only calcify it into a force that eats you away from the inside.
If someone shames you, acknowledge your spite, then you can use the energy from your anger to prove them wrong. Live your best life, shine the brightest you can, and your initial spite will metamorphose into something productive and inspiring.
For example, I love how female doctors rallied together in the wake of the aforementioned 2020 research paper by posting bikini shots with the hashtag #MedBikini, proclaiming that they are allowed to have lives outside their jobs and still be professionals. Plus, I'd argue, resting and having hobbies make us not only better at our jobs but better people all-around.
And guess what? After the uproar, that research paper has since been retracted. If we rally against beauty shaming, imagine what we could do together.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.