Opinion | Columns

The price of beauty

In “Best I Ever Had,” the prophetical Drake sings, “Sweatpants, hair tied, chilling with no makeup on/That’s when you’re the prettiest.” These may be my least favorite song lyrics of all time because they’re just not true. I’m not at my prettiest without makeup on because I have acne scars on my forehead and dark circles under my eyes.

I asked a guy friend about this—what are they singing about? Please enlighten my ladybrain, I begged.

“Guys like girls who are natural. They don’t want you to try too hard,” he replied, echoing Drake’s sentiments. “They want you to be naturally pretty.” I looked down at my pink Kenzo heels and thought about my extensive skin care regimen. But what if you’re actually not naturally pretty by conventional standards?

I have a confession to make: Being ugly is really expensive.

I’m no Miss America, but I am a beauty and health intern at Teen Vogue, and I enjoy being well-groomed and put-together. I think looking “pretty” is about looking good for yourself—because everyone deserves to be attractive. Unfortunately, not all of us look fresh-faced when we’re actually fresh-faced in the morning. (Especially me. I live next to two guys and I make a mad dash for the bathroom every morning. Don’t look at me, guys! My face isn’t ready yet.)

In an effort to become more financially responsible, I attempted to calculate how much my beauty and health expenses were eating up my monthly budget. Gym membership: $183. Eyebrow threading: $15. Eyelash growth serum: $60. Prescription facial wash, cream, and spot treatment from my dermatologist: $30. Makeup refills: $10. Contact lenses: $20. Hair products: $30. (I do my own nails, which is why they look like the product of a third-grader who drank too much Mountain Dew and had only Magic Markers.)

I wanted to compare my results, so I conducted an anonymous and unscientific survey with some of the prettiest ladies I knew on campus—girls whom I envied and admired for their glossy hair, poreless skin, toned legs, and cover-girl worthy charisma.

Eleven responded. Using the rudimentary skills that I learned from high school AP statistics, I discovered that the average amount spent on beauty and health products per month was about $100, ranging from a friend who splurged on $200 massages to a friend who only got $10 haircuts. (I may resent you, my secret low-maintenance beautiful friend.) One of the students uses $130 foundation for her skin and underwent extensive laser surgery to erase the acne scars on her otherwise stunning face.

This summer, while I was conducting research in Europe, I spoke with high-fashion models who confessed tales of eating cotton balls dipped in juice, working out four hours a day, and taking Adderall and cocaine to suppress their appetites.

I really want to believe in the myth of effortless beauty, but that myth is fading slowly. Back in the ’90s, Hollywood starlets bragged about eating everything and never exercising—“I’m just like one of you plebeians! Just naturally better-looking.” And then, as paparazzi and social media and gossip sites became more prevalent, we started to see that they were more like us—they just had more time and money to look good.

I felt inadequate—in many ways—throughout my years as a student here. I never felt well-read enough—there was always that guy in my CC class who had already read half the works. I never felt smart enough—I attended every single office hour for Frontiers of Science because I never understood the problem sets. I never felt accomplished enough—I wasn’t a varsity athlete or a musician. And weirdly enough, in spite of all the ways I could have felt insecure at this school, the most inadequate I felt was in my looks—I felt ugly. I felt like I was surrounded by naturally pretty girls with 4.0 GPAs, and I had fallen short of meeting these expectations.

Well, I finally complained about this to a friend last week. “Why does it feel like everyone—but me—at Columbia is pretty and smart? What’s their secret? What’s your secret?” She rolled her pretty eyes at me.

“Noel. It takes time or money to look this effortless, both academically and aesthetically. It’s about body maintenance. Magazines and TV tell us that we should look a certain way, so we keep on trying to achieve that ideal,” she replied. We compared textbook prices and realized we spent more on beauty products than we spent on textbooks and school supplies.

Call me superficial, call me shallow, tell me I have my priorities all wrong—I get it. There are better things to spend your time and money on than on the never-ending quest to be pretty. But then I look back on those Drake lyrics that anger me so, and I realize there’s no way out of it—if you’re naturally gorgeous, you have to maintain your gorgeousness at all costs. If you’re challenged like me, you have to try whatever it takes to catch up.

Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.

Noel Duan is a Columbia College senior majoring in anthropology and concentrating in art history. She is the co-founder of Hoot Magazine. You Write Like a Girl runs alternate Wednesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact andrea.garcia-vargas@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

The fact that it's normal and even necessary to "look" and be "pretty and smart" by some arbitrary standard is absolutely disturbing to me. Looking and feeling effortless in all aspects should actually be about changing the way you look at yourself internally, not about changing how you look in the eyes of others externally.

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Anonymous posted on

Noel, this is so well written. Your columns always are. Also, you are so, so beautiful. But I genuinely believe that has nothing to do with how much money you spend on trying to be so.

You outline two options here for anyone conscious of their looks (and let's be real - who isn't?): winning the genetic lottery, or spending mad $$$. For those of us who aren't born supermodels but also can't afford $200 massages and $60 eyelash growth serum, there's a third option: being comfortable. Step 1. Stop believing that there's such a thing as an ugly person; there really honestly isn't. I know that's probably difficult to internalize, being a health and beauty intern at Teen Vogue. As you know, I used to intern at a fashion magazine, and I know it's intimidating being surrounded by 7 foot tall size zeros all day everyday. But this is important. Try anyway. Try being okay with not having concealer on; trust that the people who love you will love you still. Your eyelashes are fine the way they are and I'm 100% certain that a genuine self-assured unselfconsciousness will do more for you than $348 per month ever could.

<3,
R

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Anonymous posted on

This is really interesting me because it's very much entwined with a lot of the other issues that standards of beauty bring up. Everyone is beautiful in their own way, but there are also certain acceptable ways to be beautiful. You mentioned a lot of skin care, which is a big way to be beautiful, but for me the most important thing to "come correct" about is the hair. As a woman of color, I constantly feel as though there are parts of me that are not translatable, that will never be "beautiful" to other people. My kinks can only be "interesting" or "cool." I sigh, because this is a question I think about every day, discuss at length with my parents about how to best seem "universal" while still negotiating my own personal feelings about my self. I guess this is just every woman's struggle in some way or another. But this post was too real.

I apologize for the negative stars. I literally cannot figure out how to make this work.

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Anonymous posted on

Good read

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Showered History Major posted on

hahaha!!! This was great! Thank you so much for your authenticity and wit! Coming from a family who values looks and where vanity is considered a virtue, this article was comforting to read. It let me know that the rest of us who dont just wakeup put together can be real and honest about our fight in fitting into society's expectations.

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Anonymous posted on

maybe it's not necessary to funnel that much money into your appearance? i think the very act of spending the time and effort to find products/services that can create a "transformation" from "ugly" to "pretty sets you up for the feeling of failure when you don't see the results you expect and then blame your own features. I know this because I used to spend quite a bit on beauty products/services myself. Honestly, the most important thing is your health (actually I would also say basic skin/hair care), not eyebrow threading or eyelash growth serum or anything like that. the idea that confidence translates into beauty is so cliche, i know, but it's so true that people (especially peers) can sense insecurity and jealousy and dissatisfaction and will treat you differently, making you feel ugly...thus the self-fulfilling prophecy

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