On TikTok’s Fruitless Pursuit Of Perfection

Photo by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash

Beauty is pain. Or, at least, so the saying goes. For as long as society has prized women’s beauty, there have been techniques and tools to enhance our natural appearance. Across centuries, women have corseted their waists, bound their feet and doused their skin in toxic cosmetics. Perhaps the old idiom would be better amended to: the pursuit of beauty is pain. It’s certainly been true enough historically. 

Culturally, our reverence for female beauty is, and always has been, double-edged. We love beautiful women, and yet we mistrust them too. In Ancient Greece, male beauty was directly correlated with inner virtue – while the same trait in women was defined as a “beautiful evil”. It is for this reason the patriarchy has fetishised the idea of the unknowingly beautiful woman, one who is oblivious to the power of her own appearance and so unable to wield it advantageously. In this ignorance, a woman’s beauty may exist solely for male consumption (a fact which will certainly make you reconsider some of 1D’s most iconic lyrics). 

While beauty has long been upheld as a desirable state for women, the pursuit of its attainment has frequently drawn derision. As Adelle Waldman writes in The New Yorker: “Beauty is often treated as an essentially feminine subject, something trivial and frivolous that women are excessively concerned with. Men, meanwhile, are typically seen as having a straightforward and uncomplicated relationship with it: they are drawn to it.”

Shame is the underbelly of this beauty paradox, and one which comes into sharp relief during puberty. The old adage that “girls mature faster than boys” may be borne of sexist tropes, and yet it is true that an introduction to the world of beauty is often experienced as a sharp loss of innocence. From the removal of body hair to the application of makeup and much more in between, teenage girls find that swathes of time must be newly dedicated to preening and grooming (while those who don’t engage in these activities may find themselves shamed or ostracised).

Of course, there is not one objective form of beauty, and a plethora of complex systems dictate what is considered the height of attractiveness at any one time. Today’s ideal has been unavoidably altered by social media, something Jia Tolentino describes as an “algorithmic tendency to flatten everything into a composite of greatest hits […] favour[ing] white women capable of manufacturing a look of rootless exoticism”. 

And it’s not just this standard which changes, but the tools and products which are available to help recreate it. In the early-mid 2010s, a diluted form of feminism exploded into pop culture with celebrities taking up the mantle and “girl power” messaging crowbarred into everything from TV shows to adverts for sanitary towels. Around the same time, makeup tutorials became magnets to viewers on YouTube, with professional make-up artists like Lisa Eldridge and sister duo Pixiwoo demystifying the application process and promoting their favourite cosmetics.

This era – for all its issues – probably did achieve a few minor wins for women’s relationship with beauty, reframing makeup as more than just a tool for looks enhancement but also an extension of self-expression (though it must be noted that the primary focus was still on the former). It helped, too, in chipping away at the stigma which had previously positioned make-up as something shallow or vulgar which ought to subsist out of the sight of the public. And yet, on the whole, we’ve never quite recovered from a brand of choice feminism which insists on characterising all decisions made by women as inherently and fundamentally empowering. Spending hours over your appearance because society has made you feel ugly and inadequate? Choice feminism says: You do you girl. 

Ultimately, women have long been sold the message that youth, beauty and thinness equate to happiness. When plagued by insecurity and self-loathing, that’s a powerful incentive. For so many, the pursuit of beauty is not about achieving admiration, but inner peace – a chance to escape the shame which nags and gnaws at women on a daily basis.

In the age of TikTok, the art of looking good has reached new dizzying heights. Hacks, trends, routines, the list goes on… the app’s algorithmic supremacy and fast-paced format has allowed for niches to flourish. With the explosion of new cosmetic procedures spurring demand for advice on which treatments to get and why, the remit of beauty culture has expanded further than ever before. Gone are the days of the generic, catch-all influencer, on TikTok, there is now room for instruction on every conceivable aspect of our physical appearance. In this realm, our bodies may be partitioned in the same way a butcher might joint a pig – each area requiring attention and care in order to reach optimisation. 

Yes, TikTok has facilitated the creation of community and sharing of knowledge. But it has also become a valuable tool for the beauty industry, with skincare, haircare and makeup routines spliced into ever-smaller pieces – with this in turn triggering the proliferation of products required to meet the increasing demand for more steps. The result is an ethos which conflates complexity with depth, seeming to propose that the most beautiful version of yourself can be achieved through study, money and dedication. 

There is little room for scrutiny in this arena. No space to ask whether the pursuit of perfection is a healthy or reasonable quest, a valuable use of time. And absolutely no time to interrogate what cultural forces might drive an obsession with, say, youthful, flawless skin (ageism? Never heard of her). It is no secret that capitalism sells material cures to spiritual woes. The beauty industry has survived and thrived through the coining of insecurities – from body hair to cellulite – repackaging something natural as a problem one might then enter into a futile battle with. If it has any concern for the impact this practice has had on women, its only answer thus far has been to start pedalling the same insecurities to men, woke washing its marketing to claim that doing so is a progressive feat rather than an attempt to sell more stuff. 

Perhaps no one speaks better on this issue than the self-defined “anti-product beauty reporter”, Jessica DeFino. In an interview with BeautyMatter, DeFino skewered the issue of beauty as empowerment, saying: “You have to wonder, why does this make me feel good? It’s because this beauty culture has stolen that confidence from the get-go and you have been conditioned to internalise this gaze, to self-objectify from such a young age that these urges feel like they’re your own.” 

Just as women may be unable to extract their actions from a culture which has conditioned them since childhood, neither can they be blamed or shamed for responding in kind to that environment. TikTok’s paint-by-numbers understanding of beauty teaches us to zoom in on each and every flaw and feature until we lose all sight of ourselves as something whole. The irony too, of course, is that as mysterious as the qualities of physical beauty may be, the little science we do have suggests it relates more to a vague sense of facial harmony than the possession of specific, cherry-picked features (big eyes, small nose, plump lips etc). 

Beauty, we hope, exists in all areas of our lives. It may be an experience, a relationship, a memory, a person. While TikTok promotes the fragmentation of self-hood, (siloing everything from personality traits to fashion taste into homogenised “aesthetics”), there is something to be said for quiet revolution, for doing what you can to draw back and connect with yourself  – not as a collage of good bits and bad bits – but a full, multi-faceted human being. To push back against this culture (inseparable from the broader mechanics of capitalism as it may be) on some days may seem impossible, but to quote Ursula K Le Geuin: “You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”


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