7 Women on the Inherent Privilege of ‘Effortlessness’



Look at Instagram and you’d think everyone woke up perfectly imperfect. Fashion, beauty, social media, pop culture, all cultivate a myth of effortlessness. In this package, ELLE.com acknowledges, dissects, and celebrates the effort. Because effortlessness is a privilege that not everyone can afford. And there’s no shame in admitting you actually love putting in the work.

When it comes to beauty and fashion, “effortlessness” is a concept frequently tossed around by brands who are actually promising the exact opposite. The actual appearance of effortlessness is often masked in hours of applying no-makeup-makeup, scouring Barneys for the perfect slouchy tee, sitting in a chair for hours to get a “natural-looking” contour. And not all “effortless” attempts are created equal: it’s also a look that people only really praise when it’s on people who already fit into society’s still way-too-narrow definition of beauty.

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Take our culture-wide obsession with looking and being like a “‘French Girl.” The term represents the epitome of chic to some, but it usually only highlights one specific body type: thin, tall, and predominantly white. “It seems that people think being transgender makes me less feminine — almost like I have to work harder to be beautiful, and then people don’t look at me—a trans woman—as effortlessly beautiful,” explains 19-year-old NYU student Madison. There are also those who don’t have the privilege of actually putting zero effort in, like those with natural hair who would look nothing like the so-called “natural-haired beauties” they’re shown in magazines and advertisements. “Working on your own natural black hair is like a four to six hour part time job,” says 74-year-old Walda.

Women who exist outside of the conventional definition of “beauty” don’t have the luxury of looking like they don’t try. ELLE.com talked to seven women who aren’t always included in the conversations about effortlessness. Ahead, they discuss embracing the effort they put into their beauty routines, and why the image of effortless needs to be more inclusive.

I have to work harder to be beautiful. […] people don’t look at me, a trans woman, as effortless.

Madison Werner, NYU Student

“I think the narrative of effortless beauty tends to focus on cisgender femininity. It seems that people think being transgender makes me less feminine — almost like I have to work harder to be beautiful, and then people don’t look at me, a trans woman, as effortlessly beautiful. In my own beauty routine, I like to focus on looking naturally glamorous. Light eyeshadow, nude lips — but still glam. The effortless narrative is something I’d love to be a part of in its full extent, but I have to work a little harder to get across my femininity to people. It can be really difficult! I think the “effortless” narrative is wonderful at its core of every woman feeling confident, energetic, and beautiful in her own skin. If the notion of ‘effortless’ beauty can extend a little more to girls like me, I’d love it even more.”

privilege behind effortlessness

Mariel Tyler

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The work it takes for me to look baseline presentable is monumental.

Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter at Mashable

“I resent ‘effortless’ more so than the general scam that effortless implies. The concept of effortless beauty is of course couched in sexist ideas that women exist to be beautiful while not asking men to acknowledge that being conventionally attractive takes maintenance, but my relationship with the term is racialized in a way that makes me angrier than I usually care to admit.

The problem is that I aim for effortless. I want to step out of my apartment looking like, in the immortal words of Beyoncé, I woke up like this — like I didn’t put any effort into my human presentation. But the fact of the matter is that the work it takes for me to look baseline presentable is monumental. When I’m in my bathroom struggling with the several shades of makeup it takes to create one that matches my half black and half Puerto Rican skin tone, or laboriously finger detangling my curly hair, or removing my prodigious body hair or applying sun-melted coconut oil to whatever part of myself most needs a tune up, I feel exhausted. When I think about the ease with which someone with a makeup tone easily found in Sephora, or hair that they can — wonder of wonders — wash and condition in ten short minutes, or skin that doesn’t visibly grey after a single day without lotion, can achieve “effortless” I feel more than exhausted. I feel drained.

There are so many things that these women, white women if I’m being honest, can get away with that I can’t. A messy bun. A quick trip to Duane Reade for concealer that will certainly match their undereye. Dry knees that no one will ever notice. And that’s not even taking into account clothing! I have never once exited my home in sweatpants lest someone take them as an extra excuse to read me as lesser. Everything from athleisure to the Glossier-style pointless makeup trend is directed at women towards whom the scale of effortless is weighted. And yet, perhaps because I’m stupid, I chase effortless like it’s the long-lost perfect Hermione/Draco fanfic I read once as a teen and have never been able to track down since. There is so much power in meeting the world with a face that says I’m beautiful without the work that goes into being beautiful, even and especially if it’s a lie. ‘Effortless’ conventional beauty is a scam that was never meant for me, and for all its work I’ll keep scamming until it stops feeling worth it. Or until I get too tired.”

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I’m not here for the awkward tension in the air when the “effortless” jeans don’t fit.

Ocean Lewis, Athlete and Model

“The word ‘effortless’ is undeniably attached to the stereotype of being a model. Not only do onlookers expect this effortless appearance, but so do people involved in the industry, like casting directors and bookers. The reality of this though, in my case, is the complete opposite. I’ve always seen modeling as my job and my sport [track and field] as a passion. When I’m questioned about my runner thighs, I laugh. It’s like models now are expected to have it all and do it all but still be able to look a certain way. I’m here for the attempt at diversity with my inclusion but I’m not here for the awkward tension in the air when the ‘effortless’ jeans don’t fit. I’m not here for that. I want to be embraced for actually having a hobby, just like many other girls.”

privilege behind effortlessness


My hair and skin is not what’s typically represented.

Walda, Acupuncturist, Herbalist, Model

“As I’ve gotten older my definition of effortless has transformed to ‘less is more.” I wear my natural silver hair and get it twisted and braided because that’s just me. I’ve never felt like I needed to hide that effortless aspect of my style. The more I embrace it, I find that others do too. It’s empowering. A lot of that came from trial and error because my hair and skin is not what’s typically represented. When it comes to hair products, I need to see it work on kinkier hair. If the curls are super soft naturally, then I’m not confident about it working on my hair. In that case I go to YouTube and find the real women willing to share their experiences with a product before I consider purchasing. Working on your own natural hair is like a 4-6 hour part time job. So, in that aspect it is important I see women like me so I can gauge if this product will work on my hair. I’m definitely not always feeling represented here.

I do feel media is embracing women 40+ . Honestly, I find platforms like Instagram are so useful in getting my interest because it’s more engaging and you have a more interactive experience with a product before you try it on because of an influencer or specialist giving you more of an inside view, sort of acting like that mirror. I think it’s slowly happening. Of course not with the same force as the typical thin, lighter to white, etc. we’ve seen over the last several decades. But, I am seeing a lot more fuller bodies, darker skin tones, kinkier hair and an array of diversity shining more. Women of all ages, sizes and complexions represent one of the biggest consumers so it makes me feel good to know that there are better options being created to better represent the diversity that isn’t going anywhere. Diversity is here to stay and brands have to catch up to that reality.”

Effortless fashion for plus girls is still a struggle.

Catherine Li, Curve Model and Curve Clothing Store Owner

“Effortless in more of a fashion sense is basic staple pieces. Being a size 12-14 for majority of my life, I found it hard to find any basics and staple pieces. I found myself trying to squeeze into things trying to make it work- sometimes even thinking, ‘Well if I was just a size 8-10 things would be different.’ Once I became a model, I started realizing that all the clothes offered for curvier girls were more modest and did nothing in flattering my body. Either it was too baggy for me or too tight. Everything was unflattering- horrible prints, non fitting jeans or shirts. I swear I looked like a box in everything and never felt confident about myself. Finally I had enough and decided to start my own clothing store, Shop Love Yourz, where I provide basic effortless pieces for those who are more curvier.

Effortless fashion for plus girls is still a struggle. There are now more stores for plus, but they still lack in really understanding what the plus/curvy community wants. It seems they care more about the plus dollar rather than focusing on what plus fashion is missing: more essentials, more basic staple pieces that are good quality. We would love the option to wear a basic shirt and live our own, inclusive effortless style.”

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privilege behind effortlessness

Mariel Tyler

But let’s be frank- effortless beauty isn’t really effortless.

Sinead Brooke, Academic, Writer & Advocate

Language is incredibly powerful. It can be wielded as a tool to give empowerment, pride and autonomy or it can reinforce the stereotypes, oppressions and status quo that have existed within cultures and traditional power structures. When thinking about the notion of effortless beauty, I was really struck by the origins of the term – who decided what definition of beauty was effortless and how has it assimilated into our rhetoric and become a standard we apparently must subscribe to?

But let’s be frank: effortless beauty isn’t really effortless. It requires a lot of work, time, money and privilege to appear as if you just rolled out of bed. Perhaps it’s effortless if you have a team of people employed to get the look just right, or maybe if the genetic lottery resulted in you attaining society’s definition of beauty, but for me, it removes the art of making myself up – a process I enjoy. It results in a performance of nonchalance and erodes the labour, cost and often the faces and bodies who can’t fit this standard deviation. And why should they? To attain the male gaze, to cultivate likes on Instagram or to be on trend with this season’s beauty looks? I feel most beautiful when I’m using make-up as play, as armor, as a distraction when traveling on public transport, or when I’m gliding cleanser across my face before bed. Never effortless, but then again, it never was.

Curvy, petite, ethnic, and transgender women know that they simply cannot afford to look sloppy in a world where they are already under the microscope.

Yousra Attia, Designer

I’ve been chasing the effortless narrative for as long as I can remember. To be that Céline chic woman- minimal, comfortable, exuding ease and dripping with unattainable sexuality. But the truth is that most women did not wake up like this and effortlessness actually requires a lot of effort. It encompasses a narrow definition that doesn’t apply to all women and can have damaging results.

For most women, achieving effortlessness requires a slew of cosmetics, hair straightening tools and chemicals, sun kissed beach blonde ombre hair dye, Lasik eye surgery, gel nails and a pack of cigarettes. In some extreme cases, it involves skin bleaching creams, anorexia, going under the knife for an eyelid lift to achieve that European fresh doe eyed look, and Botox and fillers. It’s the carefully constructed ads touting natural beauty with minimal representation.

The fashion industry is an entire factory churning out a replicated army of effortless women at an alarming rate. If I’m 100% honest with myself, as a petite woman, my body is absolutely drowning in Céline! I don’t look casual or sexy! The fit translates to sloppy and unkempt for anyone that is not a statuesque lanky runway model. Curvy, petite, ethnic, and transgender women know that they simply cannot afford to look sloppy in a world where they are already under the microscope. We are forced to conform or be discarded. We are passed up for promotions for wearing our hair in dreadlocks or a pixie cut. We are called on to ‘make an effort’ when we wear that chic loose-fitting blouse that covers our beautiful natural curves, lest we be harassed and shamed for a fitted dress. Thankfully, women are slowly changing the definition of effortlessness. The definition is turning into one of self-love, confidence, and acceptance. Women are standing up and saying, ‘Look at the real me! I’m here and I’m beautiful and I’m not going anywhere!'”

privilege behind effortlessness

Mariel Tyler


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