What does it take to be beautiful? Just a few thousand pounds

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The “natural” look involves an expensive skincare routine and perfect teeth. But, says Caroline O’Donoghue, we’re supposed to pretend it has nothing to do with money

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

I have recently come into what I can only term as a small fortune. Candidly, I have about £4,000. Four grand that doesn’t need to go towards rent or bills: has anyone ever been this wealthy? Has anyone ever had this much luxury? My joy, however, was quickly undermined when I realised what my first instincts were when it came to spending the money: should I fix my teeth, or my eyes?

I’ve had crooked front teeth since, at 13, I smashed my face on to a bike rack outside my local shopping centre. I still vividly remember every moment of that day: bleeding all over my clothes, picking my front tooth up off the ground, having my face held under the cold tap by my hyperventilating friend who was terrified of getting blamed for daring me to walk on the bike racks in the first place. But, most of all, I remember thinking: “I guess I’ll never be a model now.”

Please, understand – there was never any chance I was going to be a model. No one had said anything to encourage the dream of modelling. But, like a girl who has never danced yet dreams of being a ballerina, I had this primordial idea that it was a possibility. I watched the blood in the sink tornado towards the plughole and felt the hole in my mouth with my tongue. Six months later I got glasses and, 15 years later, I finally have enough money to comfortably consider which flaw to get rid of. Laser eye surgery or cosmetic dental surgery? Such wealth! Such luxury!

In The Girls Of Slender Means, Muriel Spark notes that among young women, “love came first, and subsidiary to it was money for the upkeep of looks”. A single Schiaparelli dress is passed between a boarding house of 20 or so girls, an entire economy of favours and currency traded in the exchange. To escape the wartime boarding house, the girls need to get married; to get married you have to be beautiful; to be beautiful you need to have money. The American GIs the girls date exist within this eco-system: they trade clothing coupons for flirtation. Very little has changed, except for the fact that we’re no longer so honest with each other about it. Every time I open social media, some man somewhere is saying how he “prefers the natural look”. The “natural look” consists, of course, of dewy skin, clear eyes, a shell-pink lip and straight, even teeth biting down on it, tenderly. The “unnatural look” is the make-up that 90% of women go to work in: a cat-eye, a bit of blusher, lipstick.

I am forever having people tell me that I will look back on photos of my youth and wonder why I didn’t appreciate how good I looked, and I’m inclined to think that’s wishful bollocks

The irony of all of this is that the unnatural look takes about a quarter of the amount of time and money as the “natural” one. Soap & Glory Supercat eyeliner: £6.50. Maybelline Vivid Matte Liquid Gloss: £7.99. For less than £20 and 15 minutes, you can put a whole look together. You can look ready for work, even if you don’t feel ready. But the other look? The virgin-bride look? We’re talking primers, BB creams, highlighters, bronzers, contouring kits. We’re talking months of a carefully synchronised skincare routine. We’re talking years of orthodontia, generations of genetics. We tend to laugh at the men who think the “natural look” is a natural one, but we’re dismissing it with one hand and handing our wallets over with the other. We’re the ones buying this stuff.

The beauty dream mirrors the American dream, in that it tells us that anyone can rise through the ranks, as long as they work hard and want it badly enough. You get to one rung on the ladder and you immediately reach for the next highest rung. I am forever having people tell me that I will look back on photos of my youth and wonder why I didn’t appreciate how good I looked, and I’m inclined to think that’s wishful bollocks. I have only ever looked as good as how much money I have in my bank account. I look good when I can sleep a full eight hours, get a nice haircut every three months and renew my contact-lens subscription. All of these things have direct correlation to how much money I have, and now that I have this extra little bit of money – this precious £4,000 that I could use on a trip to Asia, if I wanted – all I can think about is what part of me to fix next. Teeth, or eyes? The more I dither on it, the less it feels like a choice, but something I “have” to do.

When the vacuum cleaner was first invented, all of the advertising promised that it would help women free up hours of time on cleaning the house every day. But it didn’t: it just raised the standard for how clean your house ought to be. With beauty, it feels like the same race to the bottom: the more brands and products that exist, the higher the standard becomes. When I first started buying make-up 15 years ago, there were five pharmacy brands of cosmetics you could buy for under a tenner and about five department store brands that my mum went to. She bought Lancôme, I bought Maybelline. Now, Boots and Selfridges seem to add a new line every other day and I seem to be buying things I don’t understand the function of in order to keep up. And then, because I’m a feminist, I feel bad for falling for the con in the first place. I would feel worse about it if I weren’t the only one: not long ago, I held my crying friend’s hand when she told me that she honestly woke up angry every day that she wasn’t more beautiful.

Teeth or eyes? Eyes or teeth? They’re options, sure. But are they choices?


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