Beauty Ethics and The Hunger Games

In The Hunger Games, there is mutual disbelief and misunderstanding when Katniss Everdeen, fresh from District 12 where she has to hunt illegally to provide food for her family, meets her prep team, the stylists who live in the Capitol, where people force themselves to throw up at parties so that they can eat more of the scrumptious food that is always available. As they wax and tweeze her free of all body hair, Venia, Flavius, and Octavia express shock that Katniss is so hairy, going so far as to comment, “You almost look like a human being now!” when they finish their work (as if the absence of body hair defines a person’s humanity!). Similarly, Katniss finds the fashions and surgical alterations of the prep team to be grotesque, from Venia’s gold tattoos above her eyebrows to Octavia’s dyed pea green skin.

It is all a matter of perspective. The members of the prep team, who likely have never wondered about how to fill their stomachs, cannot fathom a world in which basic survival needs trump attention to fashion. Conversely, Katniss, who has never lived in the Capitol, cannot comprehend a world in which drastically altering one’s physical appearance becomes its own necessity, so that people can fit in by standing out. While the reader is invited to grasp how these two realities can exist side by side, clearly we are supposed to sympathize with Katniss. We see the injustice that she sees: that Capitol residents spend their money on fashion and tattoos, while people in District 12 die of hunger.

Recently, I had a beauty perspective moment of my own. A male friend asked my opinion about getting Botox, a medical procedure in which a medicine is injected into people’s skin to reduce the appearance of wrinkles. At age thirty-five, he was becoming concerned about deep creases on his forehead making him look older than his age. Before offering my opinion, I asked him why he was interested in Botox. He told me that in the competitive corporate environment where he works, looking good (which includes looking young) matters for success in his job. He is afraid opportunities will pass him by if he looks too old.

I told my friend I understood why looking young was important to him. And I told him that I did not want to tell him what to do. But I also told him that earlier that week, I had gotten an e-mail from an all-girls high school in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, that I support. For the first time, one of their students, Linnet, had gotten the scores needed to qualify for university. The school was looking for donations to help cover Linnet’s tuition for the coming year, which runs somewhere between $600-700. From what I have gathered, a Botox treatment can run around that much, too, depending on how many lines a person is filling in. A year of college education, which greatly improves an African girl’s chance of supporting herself and helping her family, or one Botox treatment, to make one look younger for a few months (because Botox wears off).

In this case, it might seem relatively clear what the right answer is. How can someone spend hundreds of dollars on Botox when there are hungry people in the world? But where is the ethical line here? I pay to have my hair cut and colored every few months, spend money on beauty counter make-up, and buy more clothes than I actually need. I am so used to doing these things that I forget to actually think about my decisions and their implications. Standing in the midst of the beauty-obsessed culture of the United States, my beauty decisions are not that out of the ordinary and would give very few people pause. But Linnet, who is struggling to find a way to pay for college in Kenya, may find my decisions heinous. It’s a matter of perspective.

But it is also more than just a matter of perspective. It is an ethical matter, as well. My point here is not to completely demonize fashion… but rather to invite us to think about what counts as beauty and fashion in our culture and at what cost. There are no easy answers, but a good first step is to become more aware of the decisions we make and potential impact of those decisions.

Think about how you understand physical beauty and fashion and how it is understood in your school, in your community, in our society. Can you imagine any negative consequences of understanding beauty and fashion this way? Can you imagine the powerful potential of thinking differently about beauty and fashion?

Photo courtesy of the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. Skip the Botox and donate today!

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