We’re living in an age where messages of “self-love” are everywhere: from high-street stationery to pop music. Yet young women’s self-esteem is abysmally low, with cosmetic surgeons becoming increasingly concerned at a spike in girls as young as 13 getting Botox. Doctors cite mental health problems and, of course, the ever looming bogeyman of “celebrity culture” as being responsible. “Girls are having treatment at an age when they don’t need it,” Dr Nick Lowe, the dermatologist who helped to pioneer the injections in the 1990s, told the Sunday Times. “We’re seeing body dysmorphic syndromes and a terrible loss of self-confidence. They’re convinced that looking like a celebrity is going to make them happier and more successful.”
While it is particularly troubling that tweens are smiting smile lines before they can feasibly form, the very idea that Botox is “needed” at any time in a woman’s life is as much a part of the problem as anything else. Young girls are trying to preempt a grim reality: that their worth dwindles as their age increases. Yet it seems that the horror of an older woman is still greater than that of needles jutting from baby faces – there are still no legal age restrictions on Botox and the industry remains woefully unregulated.
The “celebrity obsession” is a useful scapegoat for cosmetic doctors. It suggests that appearance hasn’t been an indicator of a woman’s worth since the dawn of time. Celebrity obsession is hardly a new phenomenon, but blaming famous women for the crisis in self-esteem ignores the fact that they only look as they do because they are subject to the same strangling beauty standards as everyone else. In advertising, another scourge of self-esteem, these standards are being slowly subverted – 54 plus-size models appeared in 15 spring/summer 2019 catwalk shows at New York fashion week, almost double the number of the previous season. Brands such as Missguided, Covergirl, Avon and Heist have recently featured models with scars, birthmarks, burns and rare skin conditions in campaigns. Marketing is increasingly one big Dove advert, with the same problem as the originator: the idea that if you do not fall into the beauty standards of the time, you must still be beautiful in “your own way”.
As Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth, beauty is a belief system that keeps male dominance intact. Instead of dismantling it, we have merely made it slightly more accommodating.
Diversifying what counts as beautiful is crucial – dominant beauty standards are often racist, sizeist and ableist. But we still suffer from the sexist view that a woman who is not attractive is somehow fundamentally flawed. Generation Z, growing up with self-love affirmations on their pencil cases and on social media, see more realistic portrayals of beauty than ever. But, underneath it all, the requirement to be beautiful remains. The message young women take from this is the same as ever: there is no worse fate to befall a woman than being ugly.