Associate Professor of Sociology
and Women's & Gender Studies,
Louisiana State University
The perfect combination of prom queen-pretty with sophisticated conservatism, Dawn Goldstein is 5’9”, has big blue eyes and a perfectly coiffed blonde mane. As a former beauty queen, Dawn Goldstein was socialized early on to learn that her social currency largely derived from her ability to achieve and maintain a youthful, beautiful face and body. From a very young age, Dawn was taught how to cultivate her appearances through exercise, dieting, make-up, and other kinds of bodywork in order to look young, healthy, and pretty. When Dawn was twelve years old, she was sent to a plastic surgeon by her father to have her ears pinned back. When she was fifteen she learned to count calories. When she was twenty-eight, she had laser hair removal on her bikini area, legs, and underarms. And when she was thirty-three, she began using Botox.
I met Dawn in 2012 when I was collecting research for my book, Botox Nation: Changing the Face of America (NYU Press). On the surface, Dawn Goldstein fulfilled every societal stereotype of a woman who would use Botox in her 30s. She was a former beauty queen, she was always impeccably groomed, and she was thin, tall, and attractive. However, my three-hour conversation with Dawn proved that such one-dimensional assessments and stereotypes miss some critical insights about women who use Botox, obscuring the complexities of women’s social psychological decision making about their aesthetic labor.
Dawn, a self-identified feminist, spoke at length about the tensions permeating her decision to use Botox and about her frustrations with the ubiquitous cultural pressure to accommodate to societal norms of feminine attractiveness. As a former beauty queen, Dawn always had to be very conscious of her face and her body. Now, as an adult and a successful broadcast journalist, she was even more aware of the cultural pressure she faced to preserve her youth and beauty. Ultimately when she turned 33 and found that her monthly facials and expensive creams would no longer suffice, she resigned herself to trying Botox. Dawn was adamant that if she were not on television each day, if her career hadn’t depended on it, she would have likely made a different decision about using Botox in her thirties. Eventually, her desire to stay on television superseded both her feminist ethics and any desire to age without technological intervention.
Dawn’s experience mirrors that of so many other Botox users with whom I spoke. Like others, she engaged in a lifetime of bodywork, a sociological concept that refers to the efforts people exert on their own bodies to attain certain bodily ideals through diet, exercise, makeup, clothing choices, and cosmetic surgery in the hopes of achieving high social status (Gimlin 2002). Yet, that Dawn explicitly turned to Botox because of workplace concerns reveals the need for sociologists to consider how regular forms of body upkeep are distinct from those forms of bodywork used to present the body as a legitimate workplace commodity.
Many of the women with whom I spoke articulated their decision to use Botox as a means for improving the enterprising self and as a practical and necessary upgrade to maintain their competitive edge in the workplace. Women in the service economy were especially likely to mention the importance of engaging in aesthetic labor for their careers. Katherine Turner, a manager at a Miami high-end boutique told me, “Appearances are central to this job. My face is like my business card. There is no way I can afford to look tired or old.” Sociologists Christine Williams and Catherine Connell (2010) have argued that the workers employed at upscale retail stores are a large component of what is purchased; they literally embody the intended cultural meanings associated with the products and services sold in the shop. In this way, the commodification of workers’ corporeality naturalizes those embodied distinctions that are shaped by social inequality.
As Dawn Goldstein’s story foreshadowed, the theme that Botox injections were a career investment was particularly evident among the broadcast journalists in my sample. Allison Harris, a broadcast journalist in Louisiana, shared that, “With my situation a lot of it does have to do with the job. I mean I want to be able to stay in this business for a while; I’m not independently wealthy. I need a job. And the longer I can preserve my appearance and as much youth as I can, the longer I’m going to be able to stay in the business for years and years and years.”
In order to succeed in their workplace, women felt they needed to look better, fresher, and more confident. As body entrepreneurs who strategically cultivate their appearances in order to enhance their social, cultural, and economic power, Botox users emphasize the legitimate desire for career advancement and workplace prosperity. Reflective of American values of industriousness and hard labor, these women spoke about investing in their bodies to sustain their competitive edge in commercial economies. Couching their explanations of aesthetic labor within masculine tropes of competition, they fashioned themselves as ambitious and motivated careerists. Where on one end, aligning femininity with such brazen determination contrasts from stereotypical constructions of traditional middle-class femininity as docile and passive; however, that their source of power came from their beauty and bodies revealed how women’s entrée into male dominated occupations has not corresponded with the freedom to abandon the pursuit of the feminine beauty ideal.
My interviews with Botox users can tell us a great deal about the transmission of social inequality through bodies. Because bodies are read as signs of success, they can be used to access other avenues of success. Through deliberate cultivation of their embodied cultural capital, individuals can also accumulate economic capital.
Yet, it is important to keep in mind that regular Botox injections are out of reach for much of the population. Most women do not have basic healthcare, let alone the disposable income to purchase Botox – a procedure that averages approximately $300–$400 for one round of injections. Oh, and did I mention that Botox is only temporary? So if you want any lasting effect, you are supposed to top it off two to three times a year. Most American women cannot afford anything close to what such a regimen requires. Thus, my research on Botox users reveals how some body modification practices can increase gendered social stratification by exacerbating existing economic inequalities.
Dana Berkowitz, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with a certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of Florida in 2007. She is the author of Botox Nation: Changing the Face of America (NYU Press). Her scholarship has also appeared in high-impact journals such as Journal of Marriage and Family, Qualitative Health Research, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Qualitative Sociology, and Symbolic Interaction.
Gimlin, Debra L. (2002). Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Williams, Christine and Catherine Connell. (2010). “Looking Good and Sounding Right: Aesthetic Labor and Social Inequality in the Retail Industry,” Work and Occupation 37 no. 3: 349-77.