I recently posted some
half-arsed ramblings incisive comments on the personal and feminist politics of clothing, concluding that, for me at least, it’s a kind of game of coded references, as well as a means of looking ‘attractive’ and not getting arrested for indecent exposure. I wanted to follow that up by mulling over the separate-but-related topic of makeup, which I refer to as ‘ladygoo’, but only in private as the term is liable to be misinterpreted in an unfortunate way. Even more so than clothing, this has implications for feminist and feminine identity. So, makeup, maquillage, cosmetics, slap, what you will. Why do I wear it, what does it do for me, and should I even bother?
I think it’s safe to say that, I am not a high-maintenance lady when it comes to externalities. (Seriously, ‘high maintenance’? What am I, a burst water main?). But I do wear makeup, I do feel ‘undone’ if I go out without it, and I do see that this naturally impacts upon my self-perception, others’ perception of me, and my engagement with the construction of gender/sexuality. Unlike clothing, makeup does not have the virtue of practicality or necessity; and, while it is in many ways culturally referential (goth eyeliner, anyone?), it’s not subject to the same rules of the game. Essentially, it’s hard to pass off makeup as some kind of intellectually justified semiotic exercise because, when all is said and done, makeup is all about the sex.
Oh yes. The S-E-X. I and my fellow-practitioners of the ultimate oxymoron, ‘the natural look’ (also known as No Makeup Makeup, or NMM) are basically responding to primal reproductive cues and trying to present the most ‘feminine’ version of ourselves to the man-shaped public (you may now present me with my Heteronormativity Trophy, but I can only write about what I know). For me, that’s a dusting of powder to banish the shiny spots on my nose and chin, then a sweep of pink highlighter to add shiny spots on my cheeks. Lip balm to prevent the ‘I just chewed a lemon’ effect, and many, many coats of black mascara to make my eyes look wide awake and shiny. Sometimes a flick of brown liner smudged under each eye for extra… something-ness (I just think it looks good). Very occasionally, for high days and holy days, I’ll pull out my red lipstick, partly because it looks striking, and partly because it sez Chanel on it. I know that for some of you, that sounds like too much, and for others, too little. You want to do primer, contouring and 4 shades of neon eyeshadow? You want to wear feather eyelash extensions and metallic purple lipgloss? Go for it, and I bet you look awesome. I’m just not very advanced when it comes to this kind of ladystuff and so, rather than risk looking like an outreach worker at the Homeless Clown Shelter, I keep it simple; and the NMM look is my way of looking like myself, but a really glowing, healthy version of myself with no pores and freakishly big eyes.
So, cui bono? Who benefits from all this slicking and smudging? As I’ve already said, I think that makeup, especially that which is intended to ‘enhance’ natural features rather than overtly play with and conceal them, is pretty much inextricably linked with attractiveness. There’s a certain paradox inherent in this, in that I do want to appear naturally attractive, but I don’t want to trigger unwanted sexual attention.* And it’s certainly true that I (and many other women, I’m sure) have been told by men that makeup is unnecessary, blah-blah-beautiful-without-it-blah blah. I have to call bullshit on this one – sure, a man might say that to you after knowing you for a while, but I’m guessing that I’m unlikely to catch someone’s eye for the first time without the ‘package’, which basically means the makeup I described above, contact lenses, clean and bouncy hair, plucked eyebrows and smooth legs, and hopefully not covered in plague sores (pro tip: they first appear on the neck and under the arms). Fair enough, this isn’t purely about a made-up face, but that’s a big component. I do wonder whether the enhanced attractiveness actually derives from the effect that these things have on my appearance, or whether it’s more a question of my confidence and outward demeanour being boosted by the knowledge that I have my ‘best face’ on. Either way, I feel doubleplusgood about myself when I bother with the package, and ready to accidentally bump into an inconveniently attractive enemy (assuming, of course, that I acquire such a one in the future).
Is there a moral dimension to all this? Sure, I’m clearly buying into aspects of the beauty industrial complex, and pandering to a traditional construction of femininity, with all its attendant notions of vanity, display and biological competitiveness. That said, if I wake up in the morning with a shiny nose, half-invisible eyelashes and maybe even a SPOT (tragedy!), my first thought isn’t one of feminist solidarity. It’s ‘cover that fucker up!’ Yes, women alter their appearance, they always have done, and the motivation for that alteration is largely predicated on sexual presentation and ostensibly normative (but in reality quite unrealistic) conceptions of attractiveness – PORES ARE BANNED! DOWN WITH PORES! THINK OF THE CHILDREN! I don’t think we ought to be ashamed of wanting to present our best selves, and it doesn’t make us bad feminists, so long as we remember that it’s about the self-presentation, and not about attempting to emulate some arbitrarily defined notion of universal attractiveness. Some of us have long, pointy noses and that doesn’t stop us from looking awesome (ahem). Sure, beauty as an aesthetic concept implies a certain ‘standard’ or ideal, and it’s long been realised that the most conventionally attractive faces are the most mathematically symmetrical – some people will always be regarded as more deserving of the term ‘beautiful’ than others, though that doesn’t make them better or more valuable people. But the standard of beauty needn’t be narrow, confined to infantilised doll-face white women with dinky noses and animé eyes; and make-up is not all about chasing that standard. It’s about taking what you have, physically speaking, and deciding that you value yourself enough to present yourself in the manner of your choosing. That choice could mean no makeup, or it could mean Ziggy Stardust face paint, or something in the middle. But please, even if you are trying to make the boys wink, ultimately you need to be doing it for your own lovely self.
*This is a whole ‘nother topic, and I’m going to post on it in a couple of weeks’ time