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Beauty is Pain

Is this famous phrase capitalizing on unrealistic beauty standards to fuel the beauty industry? 

By: Meron Nephtalem 

Photo By Anna Wojeck

I’m seated in a small chair, confined from one armrest to the other. My hair is in a week-old bun with fly-aways reaching for air. I take down my hair, and it is quickly washed, detangled, and moisturized. Then comes the worst part: the blow dryer. The hot steam lightly burns my scalp, neck, and forehead. But beauty is pain, right? The last step is bittersweet: a 420°F flat iron grazes through my hair until every strand is silky-straight. I describe it as “bittersweet” for this very reason: my scalp has been burnt, poked, and prodded, but I feel beautiful, I look beautiful, and suddenly I am happy. Beauty is pain, right? 

The phrase “beauty is pain” gets me through almost any beauty service. Anytime my nail beds burn from the tight hold of acrylic nails, or when a hot comb is pressed a little too close to my head, I find reassurance in the saying, “beauty is pain.” After all, women across the world have adopted this doctrine for hundreds of years—who am I to question it? 

In China, women used to break and bind their feet to be smaller and shaped in a particular way, symbolizing attractiveness and wealth to help them find a husband. After hearing this stark example of “beauty is pain,” you may feel taken aback. However, women nowadays squeeze into pointy heels to feel beautiful and “model-like” on a daily basis. While this is obviously less extreme, it serves as a notable parallel.

My question is, amidst our never-ending beauty appointments and regimens, have we stopped to ask ourselves: Why must women endure pain and discomfort to feel beautiful? This expression has conditioned us to believe that we must unnaturally conform to beauty standards, by any means, to be beautiful. It further perpetuates the idea that every woman should look a certain way, according to society’s ever-changing definition of “perfect.” The hard truth is that striving for perfection has only been a burden to women who simply want to feel confident in their looks. 

Even if “beauty is pain,” I think it’s time to put the vain saying to rest.


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