Is Beauty’s Double Standard for Women in the Public Eye Dead?
No, says BU sociologist Ashley Mears, and dressing down while sheltering at home will be fleeting
When it comes to fashion and grooming, remote work has allowed all of us to lower our guard—and even our pants. (An ABC reporter left his off in April while broadcasting from home, thinking no one could see.) That’s an extreme example of how television news fashion plates have appeared, to some viewers anyway, as less glammed-up while not reporting from the office.
Some TV news viewers approve (“I’m glad to see Nicole is practicing spacial distancing from her hairdresser + make-up crew,” one tweeted about MSNBC anchor Nicole Wallace). Others grouse about missing “studio lighting, hair & make-up.”
Societal demands to look your best, especially for those in the public eye, like broadcasters, fall disproportionately on women. So will this new, relaxed normal outlast COVID-19?
In a word, nah. That’s the take of Ashley Mears, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of sociology.
“I would applaud if we could move to a new world in which there weren’t these very different, unequal expectations of who gets to look crumpled and gray, and with cowlicks in their hair, and yet still be taken seriously,” says Mears. She doesn’t expect to be clapping, however, as any demise of beauty’s double standard for public women is likely to be short-lived.
A former model whose scholarship includes culture’s intersection with the market and the roots of both in gender, Mears has written a new book, Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit (Princeton University Press, 2020), which roams from New York to the Riviera amid the “models and bottles” jet set, finding the double standard alive and well. Women must “have a certain type of rarified beauty in order to even get into a high-end party,” she says. “Women who are older are denied entry.” Men face no such tests, she says, as they’re admitted based on connections and wealth.
Mears discusses the pandemic’s effects on beauty norms in this BU Today Q&A.
With Ashley Mears
BU Today: There’s been sporadic evidence that anchors and meteorologists are looking less polished. Have you noticed this change?
Ashley Mears: Not really. I would hesitate to say there’s been some kind of revolutionary revision of beauty standards, especially for women.
Some trace the problem to Fox News “Pageant Queen” look.
Fox News took it to the next level. They definitely didn’t invent the wheel on that one. If you look across local news, when you have coed anchor teams, it’s some older man who’s wrinkling and graying and might not have the most fit physique, next to a woman who’s 20 years younger, completely perfect, and coiffed.
Randy Price just retired as longtime anchor at Boston’s Channel 5. He’s 70, he looks fit, but he’s certainly not young.
Right; it’s really hard to see a female corollary of a Randy Price in public view. In media studies, it’s sometimes referred to as the “symbolic annihilation” of older women. There are very few representations of women showing visible signs of age, like wrinkles or going gray. Susan Sontag called it the double standard of aging back in the ’70s, and it’s just something that does not budge. It’s remarkably persistent, even though you can see, in the last 10 years, there’ve been progressive developments, like the proliferation of YouTubers who are men showing beauty products.
To me, makeup and beauty practices always have two sides. On the one hand, it can be playful and fun and transgressive [to] remake yourself. On the other hand, it can be this oppressive way through which people bend to societal expectations of how they look. And of course, those expectations are very different for men and women, and by age. The problem is when people feel they have to wear makeup or they have to be beautiful, and that’s disproportionately a woman’s problem, especially women in the public eye.
It’s a long-standing issue, not just in the news. In the world of rock musicians, if you look at who gets covers on Rolling Stone, it’s hardly ever women, and if it is, it’s women that are sexualized and half-naked and not portrayed as serious musical artists. You see it in lots of realms.
The problem is when people feel they have to wear makeup or they have to be beautiful, and that’s disproportionately a woman’s problem, especially women in the public eye.
Even before the pandemic, makeup sales had been plummeting, as skincare product spending supplanted that. Is this much ado about nothing—were we moving away from the demanding standard?
I suspect makeup sales falling would [also owe to] other products, like false eyelashes in place of mascara and botox in place of skin makeup. Spending in the beauty industry has been going up and up and up. The most interesting trend is that it’s including more men as consumers and objects of beauty. But have women whose job is to appear in public relaxed their standards in the pandemic? I think not.
There’s a separate question about everyday consumers and how they look now that everybody’s stuck at home. People term it the “joy of letting go”—don’t wear a bra, don’t wear pants, wear whatever is comfortable, because now is the moment where that pressure is off. Post-pandemic, if people get more comfortable letting go, that’s pretty interesting.
One factor is social media. A lot of scholars think people are more attuned to how they look because they’re more likely to be photographed constantly. Everybody can just Facetune themselves to be beautiful without makeup.
Beauty ritual is never just about having to look good. It’s also about the pleasure of self-care, of making oneself up. It’s good people can find that. I would also say that if it is the case that women are spending 30 percent more time [than men] getting ready in the morning, since I have two kids I share with my partner, those few moments that I have in the bathroom to myself—I would really push for more. It’s the highlight of my day.