Last week, the word “fake” was trending on Twitter because Hugo Hammond, a male contestant on ITV2’s Love Island, said his biggest “turn-off” was “women who were fake”. Now, first a disclaimer: I don’t watch Love Island. But I was still struck by how familiar – yet ideologically complex – the idea of a “fake” woman is.
There is a tension between the growth of the aesthetics industry and the belittling of women for wearing its results. The market is growing for men, too, but there is a special sting in the phrase, “she’s had work done”. This speaks to a historical dilemma for women: alter your body too much and you’re fake, but don’t be too natural (too hairy, too wobbly), either.
The first facial fillers appeared in the late 19th-century, and women were derided by male writers for “tricking” men with cosmetics and padding devices. Perhaps it is this idea – that men feel they are being duped – that prevails. The next logical step of this argument, though, is that there could be a horrible troll beneath someone’s tucks and fillers. If only she would be upfront about it!
Requests for plastic surgery have boomed over lockdown, and the continued stigma attached to women who have had it needs some thought. There is still a palpable nervousness to the idea of women looking their age. Many of the tropes of being “past it” are linked to the long-unchallenged mysteries of menopause and how, as a society, we view women who are no longer wearing the sheen of their fecund youth.
Thankfully, this seems to be changing with more comprehensive public conversations, but misogyny lurks everywhere. If a woman decides to have a procedure to feel rejuvenated somehow, there will be someone who deems her less-than, because she’s decided not to grow old “gracefully” – whatever that means. Plus, many women are choosing to have these treatments in their 20s. You wonder what, exactly, the beauty ideal actually is. Just ... not your age? You, but poutier, smoother? The goalposts shift all the time.
The misogyny underpinning criticisms of aesthetic treatments can cut across class, too. A rich woman who has had a face-lift can meet similar scorn to a less-rich woman who has had lip fillers. Treatments are praised when they are “subtle”, because wearing insecurity elusively has to be better than any overt signal. It may even be unfair to use the word insecurity: people go under the knife or needle for all kinds of reasons and implying a lack of agency is knotty terrain. Yet, the private aesthetics industry has always traded in hope; the hope of walking out feeling and looking better.
When we say a woman looks fake, we’re immediately projecting our own ideas of what a woman “should” look like. Within that projection is more societal conditioning and psychological imprinting than many of us feel capable of looking at – let alone considering what a person’s story might be. It’s hard to think about why we’re offended by an aesthetically-enhanced face; easier, instead, to criticise.
If unrealistic beauty standards mean people pay fortunes to surgeons to tweak, fill and tuck, it speaks to far bigger dynamics than a person’s assumed vanity. Maybe this is why Kate Winslet struck such a chord when she said “don’t you dare” to a director on Mare of Easttown who offered to edit out a “bulgy bit of belly” from a sex scene. A woman with laughter lines and a body that moved perhaps shouldn’t have felt revolutionary, but it did.
When we talk about fakeness, the idea of “effortlessness” hangs somewhere around the words. But effortless beauty is an illusion. It has to be: beauty is wildly subjective. It takes effort to even think about what we find beautiful sometimes. Again, though, we have that double bind: feeling like we need to do something, but being criticised for having done too much. If we want gender equality, then we shouldn’t buy into the norms that pressure us into investing time in beauty. But if we don’t buy in, we can be chastised in our personal lives and at work. On and on it goes.
If the demand for aesthetic procedures is coming from younger and younger women, we do need to ask bigger questions. What does the double gender-gap in the aesthetics industry tell us? Patients are overwhelmingly female; surgeons overwhelmingly male. The base fact of older men helping young women to decide what bits of their face need changing, often at high cost, is worth our attention.
Do we need tighter legislation in an industry that already gets away with so much because of its lack of regulation? Undoubtedly yes. In the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt for us all to be cautious with the word “fake”, because it reveals a lot more than we realise.