In her debut novel, Beauty Tips for Girls, Margaret Montgomery satirises the beauty industry and the social pressures put on women in modern Western culture with wry humour. Montgomery illuminates some of the absurdities of popular culture through an interesting narrative style compiled of letters, newspaper and magazine excerpts, as well as the personal narratives of her three female protagonists.
The heroines of Montgomery’s story all battle in different ways, and in varying degrees, with social pressures. We see conflicts within each character, typically between the outward expectations placed on them and what writer and feminist, Mina Loy, would have termed their “personal mental attitude[s]”. Katy Clemmy, a fifteen-year-old struggling to cope with high school and the attention her developing figure is receiving, turns to teen-magazine Misty for advice and life guidance. We see the stresses of puberty through Katy, as she is awkwardly both girl and woman (each persona carrying its own expectations). Katy cannot turn to her mother Corinne for the support she seeks, as Corinne is herself muddling through life as a dysfunctional alcoholic, trying to cope with her own desires, the different roles demanded of her as a farmer’s wife and mother, and the legacy of a tragic event in her past. Meanwhile, the third protagonist, Katy’s school guidance teacher, Jane Ellingham has her own troubles: a lingering past that inhibits her ability to be happy, and the everyday monotony of life in “Craigie, the Godforsaken cultural backwater she had reluctantly taken a job in seven years ago”. Jane’s conflicted self is apparent in her self-referencing as two different personas (the weak, sensitive “Jane” and the strong unfeeling “Miss Ellingham”); she battles with past heartache that prevents her from finding love and societal expectations that women should marry.
Some of the most horrifying edicts on femininity arrive in the form of the magazine, Misty, whose gossip columns and agony aunt advice we read snippets of throughout the novel, and also in the persona of the plastic surgeon Dr Nanjani. Montgomery usually presents the absurdities of the magazine’s positions with wry humour; “Our revealing quiz will help you uncover each and every one of your flaws so you need never look your worst again” is unfortunately not too far from the kinds of things actually found in women’s magazines. Dr Nanjani’s role in the novel highlights the aesthetic bodily ideals that women are encouraged to strive for. As the surgeon pressurises women, and even young girls, to undergo cosmetic procedures in order to increase his profit margins, he actually convinces himself that he is doing these people a favour. Montgomery’s activities demonstrate not only conventional expectations routinely placed on women, but also the ludicrous nature of such ideals.
Including advertisements and magazine articles in the narrative presents a clever way of putting forward a strong message. However, not all the novel’s presentation of character is consistent. For example, although she has a caring father who is desperate to get her home safely and well, when Katy runs away from home, it is Jane who goes to find her (travelling the length of the country to do so), despite the teacher not taking much of an interest in her pupil previously, and also admitting that she barely knows Katy. Readers would find it hard to believe that Jane would go out of her way to do so just because she can identify somewhat with Katy’s situation.
Overall, Beauty Tips for Girls is an interesting novel as it highlights important issues that are prevalent in society today. At novel’s close, there are no terrible attempts to have charming princes or heroic knights save the day; Montgomery bestows a realistic if also optimistic ending upon us. Each protagonist still struggles with various aspects of their lives, but each is also on a path that leads them in the direction of a genuine, attainable happiness.