Overcoming the Cult of Beauty

The growing cost of living in a filtered world


  • The Cult of Beauty is making big money off our insecurities: but practicing self-acceptance can help us feel good, not just look good.
  • What we buy shows what we buy into: chasing inhumane standards of beauty is costing us money and time, rather than focusing on true worth.
  • Social change is needed: when we stop judging ourselves and each other, we can move from a good life to the good life.

Sometimes an innocent trip to Sephora has a way of taking a turn. My intention: find my “natural” glow. Some $327 later, I’m holding a tiny black and white striped bag filled with serum, charcoal masks, and nude lipstick, with new words like free radicals, organic peptides, and advanced retinol in my vocabulary, so that No One Can Tell that I didn’t wake up like this, or that I’m Actually Tired, even though I’m exhausted despite all the collagen water I’m downing.

The proliferation of Sephora and Ulta make-up stores is something to behold. In Boston, where I live, giant beauty stores are starting to take up as much square footage as Dunkin’ Donuts. There are three within walking distance, and thankfully, if I run out of CBD infused shea butter and magnetic eyelashes to look like I woke up like this for my Zoom calls, Instacart is now delivering. Lest I fall off point with “Skinimalism”, the beauty trend that tells us to spend all our time and money trying to be “natural”.

Stoking insecurities is big business. According to Forbes, the beauty industry is valued at $532 billion. A New York Times article reports that Americans spent $92.8 billion on beauty and personal care in 2019. Plastic surgeries are skyrocketing in the US, Brazil, China, Japan, and South Korea. Rates of depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders are unsurprising in our airbrushed culture, baiting us to keep up with celebs and invest more in looking good, not feeling good.

What we buy shows what we buy into. My empowerment side hates the Cult of Beauty, that chides us if we’re not forever 21 and always camera ready. Makeup collections of today are that of yesteryear celebrities, and heaven forbid we don’t have fleek eyebrows and perfectly tousled hair that looks like we’ve spent the day frolicking at the beach, even though it took a gallon of green tea hair serum, a $75 round brush, and a $250 curling iron to pull of that “effortless style”.

Looks should not be social capital, and objectification must go. I don’t want my sense of worth and mental health to be contingent upon how dewy my skin looks, or to be on a first name basis with everyone at the med spa. Chasing beauty comes at a price: I can’t help but wish for the time when my skin care routine was Noxzema and a dab of toothpaste for acne. Today, my aesthetician knows more about me than my therapist.

If my late grandmother, who lived to be 103, the emblem of natural beauty was alive, she’d probably tell me to go to the beach if I want the beachy hair look, not spend $49 for a blowout at Dry Bar.

She’d implore me to eat an orange if I needed more Vitamin-C, and tell me if I wanted “thick thighs”, to stop with my vegan ways and eat actual chicken thighs, skin on. My Grandmother used the same piece of brown lye soap that sat in the shower to wash her face, and didn’t have an entire closet devoted to day and night firming creams. She’d have a lot of questions about eyelash extensions, charcoal products, and the collagen craze. She’d surely pull a piece from her aloe vera plant to intervene so I won’t spend an entire paycheck on aloe and avocado sheet face masks.

Science shows that “true glow” isn’t who leaves Sephora with the biggest bag of alphabet creams and slay spray. Here are some ways to resist the Cult of Beauty and focus energy on feeling good, not just looking good:

  1. Remember what you see isn’t what you get. The majority of images we see are highly filtered, all the way down the line from our friends and family, to celebs and influencers we follow. Resist holding yourself to standards that are a perfect illusion and completely fake.
  1. Recognize beauty as more expansive than society projects. The objectification of people is dehumanizing. Consider ways to advocate for paradigm changes in your own life, and writ large. Judging ourselves and each other by appearance is limiting and cruel.
  1. Double dip. Include holistic, integrative health, and lifestyle practices into your routines that enhance well-being. Sleep, hydration, nutrition, yoga, breathing and de-stressing activities can positively impact both inner and outer states.
  1. Practice self-acceptance. Adopt a strengths-based view, rather than focusing on perceived deficits. Look at your values and many personal attributes as your true beauty, not superficial qualities. Own your worth and distinctive characteristics.
  1. Focus on what’s important. It’s human to want to be attractive, but research shows that our contributions to the world, not our social status, as likely to help us get to the good life, not just the goods life. When we build our identity solely around image, it can distract us from building a life of impact and presence with ourselves and one another. Consider ways to invest time, money and resources in ways that nourish deep within.


Lee, Kristen (2018). Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking. HCI Books: Deerfield Beach.

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