The exhausting modernisation of the ‘perfect woman’

Jenna Tan
The concept of the ‘perfect woman’ has taken an ominously modern twist, with its range of demands accelerating and intensifying
Non-profit consultant

The ‘perfect woman’ has existed since time immemorial, across cultures and societies.

In Ancient Greece she personified chastity, selflessness and intelligence; with a full body and rounded buttocks. The perfect Victorian woman was chaste, refined and modest. Tending dutifully to her husband, she raised her children properly. Her skin was pale, her lips tiny and waist, narrow.

In late 19th Century Japan, “good wife, wise mother”, represented ideal womanhood. The perfect 1950s American woman, meanwhile, was glamorous, yet able to attend to all domestic chores without a hair out of place. She had an hourglass figure and was coquettish, yet overtly sexual.

Women have long been aware of the demands of ideal womanhood. Many recognise the link between beauty and perfection; and desirability, societal acceptance and power. Through the ages, women have willingly—and unwillingly—regulated their own bodies and behaviours. These ideals have been internalised, and for many, are synonymous with self-acceptance.

Ideal womanhood has never been achievable. In fact, it has become more demanding than ever.

Accelerating, intensifying and expanding

In barely over a generation, we have seen the acceleration, intensification and expansion in the demands on perfectionism. One just has to compare the number of Jennifer Aniston’s ‘ideal’ traits as Rachel Green in the sitcom Friends to Kylie Jenner’s, a “self-made billionaire” and one of the world’s most famous media personalities today.

We have gone from the ubiquitous “Rachel” haircut, make up, clothing and a diet to achieve Rachel-esque perfection in the 1990s, to the various cosmetics and procedures available to those aspiring to Jenner-style perfection – a package that includes women being nurturing mothers and successful entrepreneurs.

Beauty practices have intensified. Once, make up accentuated features. Today, with the rising popularity of contouring—a cosmetic technique to re-sculpt facial features—it fundamentally seeks to change bone structure. Contouring products have seen some of the biggest sales increases within cosmetics in recent years and the internet has exploded with tutorials on how to achieve a chiselled face.

Beauty practices have traversed the temporary into the semi-permanent with the rise in popularity of “minimally invasive” cosmetic procedures, such as Botox, facial fillers and chemical peels. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of such procedures increased by a whopping 180% in America. “Having work done” no longer carries the stigma it used to. Injectables are so normalised that it has become an accepted “beauty hack” and today, casually sold on the high street.

Ideal womanhood has never been achievable. In fact, it has become more demanding than ever.

These ideals and practices have expanded across societies, reaching more women than ever before with their affordability and accessibility. Once the mainstay of the rich and famous, every day women now have the opportunity to join the quest for perfection. Between 1998 and 2018, for example, the nominal price of Botox fell by 27%, while demand saw a ten-fold increase. 

But beauty is now only one piece of the jigsaw. The fundamental pressures to look a certain way—in addition to doing other things—mean it is no longer sufficient to be a working woman. Women must have a career alongside being a loving mother and wife, embodied in a perfectly sculpted physical form.

‘Choose’ your own ideal

In modernising, the perfect woman has diversified. If Kylie Jenner is not the right kind of perfect, perhaps the sporty, down-to-earth vegan is. As another archetype, her demands are no less numerous, intense or wide reaching. Beside Kylie and the vegan sit countless other ‘ideals’, from the high-achieving city woman, to the geeky girl next door.

The range in ideals may seem like increased freedoms for women.

But this is merely an illusion of choice that ties women to unrealistic standards, which are always in addition to being beautiful. Across archetypes, the message is consistent: there is always work to do to be physically more attractive, interesting, productive and generally, better in every respect.

The notion for the ideal woman is that there is always work to do to be physically more attractive. Photo by Shutterstock.

And who can blame women? External notions of success, desirability and self-esteem are intrinsically linked to these ideals. It forms a woman’s identity, her social status, gender and class. These ideals are standards upon which to apportion praise and blame: “Well done for losing weight”.

Not driving towards the ideals is seen as failure.

The old enemy, consumerism, strengthened by new allies

The media, advertising and consumerism have been the right hand of the beauty ideal since women first gained economic power. It is convenient that every woman needs “help” to achieve the ideal, but for a fee, one can move closer to perfection, though never quite achieving it. For if that happens, the game is over.

Recent decades have seen the economic and political empowerment of women. By 2030, women will constitute 40% of the global labour force, for example. While there is undoubtedly more work to be done, women are increasingly leading countries and some of the world’s biggest corporations.

Yet, the successes women are experiencing across different fields, does little to release women from the perfect ideal. Rather, women now need to “have it all”.

Consumerism has played its part by contributing to this narrative. Retailers increasingly offer a range of price points to cater to all demographics, even expanding into unexpected markets – for example, the tween and baby beauty industry grew by 9% between 2018 and 2019. There is something for everybody, in other ways.

And technology is catalysing this trend in many ways. Innovations in plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures, for instance, have increased their safety, while lowering costs and making them more widely accessible.

The notion of ideal womanhood is exhausting and emotionally and physically depleting more and more women, and increasingly men, while hiding behind the facade of health, happiness, success and on occasion, feminism.

Streaming platforms like YouTube have democratised access to “peachy bum”, “sexy back” and “ab tightening” workouts.

And social media, beyond being the infamous gatekeeper of unrealistic ideals, almost mandates women and their lives constantly be photo-ready. Even holidays now need to ooze picture-perfection – a woman being photogenic is not enough.

The culture of facades

The intensification of the journey towards the perfect ideal is reflected and bolstered in our culture. Skipped workouts or an overindulgence in the wrong kind of snack are associated with heaps of guilt. Pursuing an interesting hobby is part of being “our best selves”.

There are no excuses when the opportunities to improve the body and mind are so readily accessible. Even time is supposedly not a barrier as there are products to improve productivity. So it is said.

Ideal womanhood has never been achievable. Today, as its notion expands across societies and deepens its reach, it has become more demanding than ever. It is exhausting and emotionally and physically depleting more and more women, and increasingly men, while hiding behind the facade of health, happiness, success and on occasion, feminism.

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Non-profit consultant

Jenna supports for-purpose organisations develop strategies for greater social impact. Her experience is in developing sustainable models of growth for social innovations. She is currently on sabbatical in Latin America.

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