Do we have to be beautiful to deserve acceptance?
When I was younger, an acquaintance shared with me what he believed was the gay man’s Bermuda Triangle of sadness: old, poor, and ugly. As a thirtysomething gay man, I would be lying if I said I don’t fear getting trapped in the vortex of queer misfortune. The acquaintance was a power gay: an executive who owns his company, dresses well, travels in business class, and drives a sports car. The younger me looked up to him and aspired to be what he represented: a respectable gay man. But the more I thought about what he said, the more I wondered whether the sadness was not intrinsically driven, but something we gay men impose on ourselves and everybody else.
Every gay man understands the competition that exists within the community, especially when it comes to appearances. Our community’s obsession with beauty and aging is so intense it can veer towards the farcical. I think there is little difference between a drag queen making sure her drag is on-point and unclockable to a muscle gay getting jawtox for a more angular face: it is an aesthetic performance. Except, unlike the drag queen who performs for an audience for a few hours, the gay man performs 24/7.
Of course, I say that as I check out two tubes of The Ordinary’s Vitamin C Suspension with Hyaluronic Acid, knowing fully well the hypocrisy of criticizing beauty culture while participating in it. As I’ve already begun my confession, let me admit to doing botulinum toxin shots and ultrasound therapy in the past. It wasn’t cheap. I convinced myself it was worth it.
But maybe I only believed that because everybody else around me did.
“Beauty is very central in LGBT+ community. That’s why sometimes – well, a lot of times – the community can be very unforgiving for people who are not conventionally attractive,” my friend Winlove told me during a call. Winlove Mojica is a board-certified dermatologist with a large following on social media. As a gay man himself, he offers firsthand insights into how beauty culture plays a part within the queer community.
He told me how beauty is a driving force for many queer people: “We want to be accepted, and by being beautiful you get admiration, and sometimes, people think that admiration is also equivalent to sex and love.”
Writer and beauty culture critic Jessica Defino, in a Substack post, argues that this is precisely what the beauty industry tries to do –– center beauty in our lives and present it as a path to love, happiness, care, connection, expression, empowerment, and actualization. However, the promise is never actually fulfilled. What it does, instead, is to “center our own physical appearance — which has little to do with beauty and often has the opposite of the intended effect, in that it can lead to discontent, disconnection, dissociation, disempowerment, and all manner of physical and psychological health issues.”
In another post, she tries to unpack her definition of beauty culture:
“Beauty culture is a system of beliefs that defines ‘beauty’ as the adherence to current societal beauty standards — standards that are largely shaped by patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism. It upholds beauty as a form of political, economic, and social capital. It reinforces racism, sexism, colorism, ableism, classism, ageism, fatphobia, and gender norms. It falsely equates beauty with health, wellness, worth, and moral goodness; and in this way, the pursuit of beauty is seen as the noble pursuit of ‘self-betterment’ and ‘self-care’. Beauty culture positions normal features as ‘flaws’ to be ‘fixed’. It systematically breaks down self-esteem and installs shame, so that it can then sell ‘confidence’ back to you in the form of products, procedures, and practices. It rewards those who adhere to the current beauty ideal and oppresses those who don’t. It normalizes self-harm and self-mutilation as a means of achieving this ideal. It frames this achievement as ‘empowerment.’ It siphons your time, money, and energy in the process. Beauty culture prioritizes appearance over physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. It reinforces the idea that your beauty is the basis of your worth — that what you look like is more important than who you are — even through positive-sounding phrases like ‘Everybody is beautiful!’ and ‘Because you’re worth it!’”
In 2021, Belo Medical Group was widely criticized for trying to make a buck out of women’s insecurities right at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their #PandemicEffect campaign, executed by ad agency Gigil, showed a skinny, stereotypically beautiful model being digitally transformed into a heavyset woman with acne and facial hair. The ad ended with the line: “Tough times call for beautiful measures.”
Months before the ad’s release, the clinic’s owner Vicki Belo gave an interview, and her insight echoed what Jessica Defino was criticizing. She said: “Yun parati ang aking goal, na the people will feel more confident, more beautiful, and more comfortable with their bodies.”
Vicki Belo’s belief is not unique. She shares this with many in the beauty industry –– a belief that further entrenches that the easiest way to “solve” our “problems” (that is, pathologizing the amoral appearance as something wrong or evil) is an individualistic fix. Instead of us collectively confronting why society judges harshly those who do not conform to these rigid beauty standards, we are offered a quick solution to the distress society imposes upon us: products and procedures.
Beauty culture, just like capitalism and any other prevailing system, is so ingrained and pervasive that we never really see how it affects our everyday lives. We consider it inevitable and inescapable –– an invisible force lording over our existence. The only time we notice a harmful system like beauty culture is when the standards no longer work in our favor. Often, the kneejerk reaction is to try to align ourselves further. Those who had previously succeeded become afraid to lose their privileged status within the system. On the rare occasion, some criticize why the system exists in the first place. People dismiss those rare few as sourgraping dissenters.
Winlove believes that the queer community is also guilty not just of subscribing, but also propagating and defending these harmful beliefs around beauty.
“Why do you think yung Ru Paul’s Drag Race, namamayagpag siya, kasi it’s all about beauty. If you don’t fit into a certain standard, it’s so hard for you to win. Like for example, yung kay Turing. ‘Di ba, Turing is a big girl, and everybody is saying, when you come to this contest, you have to be cinched, your waist should be a small waist. If you don’t do that, then you are not prepared. But what if the concept of Turing’s beauty is the face not specifically the body? That adds another layer.
“So it takes a lot of effort to go out of that box of beauty for you to be successful, kumbaga, kailangan mong tumambling ng maraming, maraming beses bago ka makilala, bago ka matanggap na, ‘Ah this is a different brand of beauty.’”
Subscribing to these beauty standards to gain acceptance as a queer person raises the problematic question we often try to avoid: if we need to labor aesthetically to become acceptable, what does that say about the group we’re trying to assimilate into? And what does it say about us, when our worth as people is conditional on looking a certain way first? I can’t help but remember the media coverage of the Ukraine war, which reported how Europeans were aghast at what was happening to people who looked like them. Do we have to be beautiful to deserve acceptance?