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‘The Absurd Impossible Quest’
Marissa Treichel (Macquarie University, Australia)



A woman in a tailored lab coat glances at my vulva. ‘Loads of whales out lately,’ she says. I wonder how many hedges she’s trimmed to be that blasé—she can only be 20 years old.

I reply, ‘I know!’ and stretch out on my back. Pantless, but wearing yellow Happy Socks and a Gorman tee, I’m enjoying the chance for a nana nap. Just an eccentric sunbaker at Main Beach, chatting about humpbacks. Classic Byron. She lifts a metal instrument extending from the humming Dalek next to me and I realise I have no idea of her qualifications. What would they be, anyway?

Not doing The Behind today?’ she checks in, moving into position.

‘No, thank you,’ I demur. The Behind must be my butt crack, or general glute fuzz. I hadn’t thought of my ass in terms of hairiness before and then Fuck. Me. The wand pierces, clicking along my inner thigh. I wince. Biting 4-5mm under the skin, this is not ‘like a rubber band snapping,’ as the website said. Sucking air through my teeth, I look away as she moves further in, zapping methodically at my bikini line.

‘Not a Brazilian,’ I’d corrected twice when booking, feeling morally superior and a bit old school. ‘Just a bikini line’ was now retro. I make a mental note not to trust the friend who said it didn’t hurt. My eyebrows dance and a scream tries to gurgle out and. I shove it back in, swallow and chuckle, straightening up on the massage table-cum-medical trolley.

‘I feel like I’m torturing you,’ she jokes, tucking a curl behind her ear.

‘You are,’ I say truthfully. I smile-grimace and slurp my vulva shut. I’m choosing to be here, I reassure myself.

Why had I chosen to be here? At 43, my pubic hair is going grey. Laser hair removal only works on hair with pigment left. So while I still have the vestiges of youth, I’d hurried in to have them removed. I think of myself as unconventional. Empowered, even. I’ve produced 80s flashmobs for the last 10 years in Byron, teaching dance to spectacular women of all shapes, ages and presumably hairiness. I see their innate beauty, and often enjoy mine. But like a hookworm, the absurd, impossible quest for beauty drills its way in.

Disingenuous marketing plays its part: the ad for cosmetic anti-wrinkle injections in the Byron Writers Festival program that snagged my eye. BWF attracts intelligent, socially conscious women aged 40+ and Dr Gemma at Bangalow Medical Centre could make me look more vital. Thank God, I thought, returning my attention to the talk on ‘Language, Power and Privilege.’ More often the message blares over a megaphone. The wall-sized ad that greets you entering Byron: ‘Be Waxed and Tanned’ it remonstrates, red words emblazoned over a pert, bronzed bum dusted with sand like icing on cupcakes. In truth only tourists get waxed. Locals get lasered. Like buying an annual car pass instead of using the parking meter, it’s cheaper in the long run.

Another zap from the cattle prod and the job is, ‘Allllll done. I’ll leave this with you.’ She places a muslin loaded with a squirt of clear balm next to me. Alone and pantless, wet cloth in my hand, I think of sperm donors. Then with a tap of my phone $196 slips from my bank account1. Is it harder to take up space, when there’s less of you?

Historians trace our use of beauty products and practices back to 4,000 BC. Neanderthal graves reveal tools, weapons, the bones of sacrificed animals—and, thrillingly, DIY highlighter. Crushing shells to form a shimmery granular powder, Neanderthals applied what archaeologist João Zilhão calls ‘glitter makeup’ to their skin. Evidence of our caveman clubbing days still cling to remnant jewelry. From connecting with ancestral spirits to wearing bling to assert dominance, changing our look has always offered the promise of internal transformation and external elevation. Occasionally the promise is fulfilled. Women have a special relationship with this promise, thanks to a millennia of patriarchal messaging.

When I was about 10 years old, I remember sitting on our orange and brown floral couch, scratching our black Labrador behind the ears. I was lost in reverie, averting my nose from wafts of dog stink yet still absorbing waves of love between us. Into this my dad observed, ‘Doesn’t Marissa look like Michelle Pfeiffer!’

My mum put down her tea. She admonished, ‘Don’t say that.’ I thought she sounded very uptight. I was proud that my dad thought I looked like this Pfeiffer lady. He didn’t give compliments often—I knew this one mattered. I can see now that his comment said more about what adults are trained to find attractive in women (childlike facial features), than it did about how I looked as a child (not like a sexy Hollywood star…I was a kid, and looked like one). It was one among many lessons that my appearance should be my priority.

The commercialisation of beauty on a spectacular scale—a survey from Skinstore estimated women spend almost $300,000 in their lifetime on just their faces—is relatively new. The modern beauty industry, in which companies whose primary business activity is the selling of beauty products or services, began as recently as the mid-19th century. The first plastic surgery for aesthetic purposes—a stylistic change to an existing, functional nose—was stitched in Germany in 1845. The oldest cosmetics company in the world, Shiseido, opened its doors in Tokyo in 1872. In the 1920s US brands Elizabeth Arden and Max Factor first allured us with the concept of the ‘make-over’. Is this when we first decided women had to alter their look to pass as normal? By 1941 the US Government declared the production of lipstick a wartime necessity. At the height of the pandemic response, during the world’s longest cumulative lockdown in Melbourne (262 days), hairdressing was an ‘essential service’. The virus was scary, but the thought of ungroomed women was worse.

As technology and marketing methods advance, so do our beauty ‘options’. The maintenance cycle, including the not-natural-but-now-normalised routine of hair cutting and colouring, has expanded to include teeth whitening, microblading, injectables, skin needling, dermaplaning, laser pigment and hair removal (guilty as charged), chemical peels and plastic surgery. 6% of Australians had some form of plastic surgery in 2022 according to The Australasian College of Cosmetic Surgery and Medicine. Breast implants were the most popular procedure, followed by eye lifts. Not shockingly, women account for 90.5% of cosmetic surgery. Despite the rising cost of living, including Australia’s housing crisis, the modern beauty industry is flourishing. As Phillipa McGuinness reported in The Guardian in 2022, Australian spending on aesthetic treatments tops $1bn. We’re mad for it.

Sometimes we mess with our natural look to spruce up our identity. To have fun and feel fancy. Dressing up is theatre meets witchcraft. Role play is always involved. A few of us were going straight to a party from The Pink Growlers Bookclub in Mullumbimby. As we polished off the wine the host made a suggestion, ‘Do you want to put on some make-up?’

A group pause.

I said, ‘No, no I’m fine.’ I was already wearing what I’d planned. But the giggles lured me to the bathroom. Leaning into the mirror the highlighter brush was passed around like a joint. We applied so much our cheekbones beamed like street reflectors. An eyeshadow box appeared with unfurling octopus limbs, spots of colour radiating from its mirrored centre. It was a silly, powdery experience and more fun than the party itself. When a friend is in the reflection it softens my gaze. I’m free for a moment from the absurd and impossible beauty quest.

The Velveteen Rabbit beauty path, where most of your hair gets loved off and sun-weathered skin is a sign of how Real you are, is not compulsory. We are all Real, and if we want to modify our look, we can. The problem is the gendered expectation that women must maintain a certain level of appearance. Autonomy is crucial. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology observed, ‘when intense social pressure turns pursuing beauty into a mandate rather than a freely chosen activity, beauty practices become socially coercive, an obligation women must fulfill.’

We don’t need Erin Brockovich to expose the conspiracy: young women are told they should be prettier; older women that they should look younger. Nowhere in the life journey are women told they look fine as they are. Where’s the profit in that? Whether the products actually work is a different question. If that $708 50ml jar of Time Response Skin Reserve Cream from Mecca (sold alongside 889 other anti-ageing products from the same website) works, what will that achieve?

I was taught that when I gained approval from the male gaze I was worthwhile. Tired of my hair falling in my face playing handball on a sweltering Queensland afternoon, I got my mum to take me to the hairdresser to get a boy crop. I’d been inspired by a gorgeous short-haired Toneya Bird from the Ants Pants underwear ad, where she instructs her pet echidna to ‘Sick ‘em Rex!’ while ants crawl up her legs. I found her leisurely vibe very hot. Post-haircut, I loved how my fringe flopped across my forehead like Jonathan from New Kids On The Block. My newfound confidence and burgeoning androgynous identity fizzled when my favourite uncle saw my hair. ‘But you looked so beautiful with long hair,’ he said mournfully, ‘I liked it long.’ As if I’d taken something that was his. I interpreted his words as, ‘I liked you when you had long hair.’ When you’re a kid, you don’t know you can reject other people’s ideas about you.

It’s easier to unhook from gendered socialisation when we have company. Role models show us the way. The bummer about role models is that they’re also people. I put the brakes on my Facebook scroll recently, eyes popping over a post by author Clementine Ford. Ford is one of Australia’s most influential feminists and was sharing ‘after’ photos of the Botox and skin needling she’d received. ‘I love their work’ she wrote, referring to The Derm Lab, the company she recommends. Zooming in, a judgemental voyeur, Ford’s lips did look ripe and her skin creamy and poreless. My approval / disapproval wrestled as if my opinion on her face mattered. I longed, and scolded.

Women don’t need something else to feel guilty about, or to be policed by other women, but Ford had come to physically represent the women’s movement for me. Did she now represent giving in to the absurd impossible quest? One of Ford’s strengths is her honesty, ‘I get them (injectables), and I’m not ashamed of them.’ Her message is that she and her followers can make their own informed decisions. This works in theory. In practice the sway of a shero endorsement on thousands of women grappling with this pressure is great. We are porous. I am influenced.

The modern beauty industry relies on women disapproving of, and or competing with each other. Comedian Celeste Barber rose to fame with her hilarious and hugely popular impersonations of thin and pretty young women posturing on Instagram. They’re a fun demographic to mock, especially when you’re not thin and are over 35. But there’s a degree of internalised misogyny at play. Women are so stupid and vacuous! Too funny. Naomi Wolf observed that ‘If a woman loves her own body, she doesn’t grudge what other women do with theirs.’ The game of Us and Them, Barbie versus Crone is a fruitless fiction. In the spectrum of intervention, we’ve all participated to some degree. Barber is a brand ambassador for cosmetics company MCoBeauty, and she enjoys the aesthetic and financial rewards. Like Ford, Barber participates in the perpetuation of mainstream beauty ideals, whilst also rejecting what these efforts represent. It’s contradictory, but this is being a woman in 2023 Australia, particularly one in the media. As Benjamin Law wrote, ‘Men can go on camera looking as old as a wizard and like they’ve crawled out of a bin.’ Different rules apply for women.

Miss Peachey bellows, ‘And 5,6,7,8 GO!’. Her teeth are bared with frustration. We’re rehearsing a contemporary dance routine to ‘Deep Forest’, the smash ethnic electronica hit (there was only one) of 1992. We chase her instructions, leaping desperately across the dusty wooden boards of the Uniting Church hall. ‘Step-ball-change…and lunge!’ She throws this last cue quickly as if trying to catch us off-guard. We drop to the floor in unison, panic sharpening our timing. Miss Peachey stops. She walks through us, as if surveying jewellery laid out in a glass display cabinet. She announces, ‘None of you have the right body shape to be a professional dancer,’ then lifts the remote control of the CD player, adding, ‘except maybe Lisa.’ Still lying on our backs, we roll our heads to look at Lisa, whose face reddens. I glance down at myself, and notice the curves of my hip bones protruding like the pelvis of an old cow. I imagine the other girls made similar mental notes identifying where they were misshapen. Writer Sam George Allen observed that, ‘In order to function, the beauty industry requires a disconnect between ourselves and our bodies.’

To modify our look is to be human. There’s transformative power in primping. Today, there are more ways to alter aesthetics than ever—options driven by the modern beauty industry and its best friend marketing. I see my sagging face in the mirror, because I read that it can be rejuvenated. Language is powerful, and perception is everything. The times I’ve conjured happy feelings and confidence with beauty, have tended to be creative dabblings, rather than my attempts to conform. Let’s keep shimmering the bio-glitter as our ancestors did, and stop sacrificing the muttons and lambs.


1 $196 per treatment. Laser Clinics Australia advise 8-12 treatments initially, followed by ongoing maintenance treatments every 2-3 months. That’s $2352 before ‘maintenance.’



Marissa Treichel is a writer and choreographer based in Byron Bay. She is the director of The Cassettes 80s Flashmob Dance, and is completing a Masters in Creative Writing at Macquarie University. Marissa is currently birthing her first novel, and she’s looking forward to eating the raw placenta.

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