Friday, July 8, 2011

Making up

As a feminist (yes, I will cop to that dreaded and much maligned "F"word), I am constantly puzzled by the reaction of some to the amount (or lack of) of makeup women wear. People seem so invested in what women do to, and for, themselves and seem to feel very comfortable commenting on it in a manner that they would not employ about other areas of your deportment or physical appearance.
It's as if they perceive makeup as a barometer of the worthiness of a woman's inner being or self-worth. "Too much" is an issue (slutty, provocative) but none at all is also perceived as a problem (slovenly, not feminine enough). In their minds, does the artifice of cosmetically enhanced beauty equal falsity? Insincerity? Lack of character? Frivolity?

When I was growing up my mother alternated between admonishing me, to "Go take some makeup off in the bathroom" with telling my younger sister,"Why can't you put on a little lipstick?" because she thought she looked too washed out.

Exhibit "A": all the "gotcha" photos of celebrities without makeup in public places which now constitute a sizable portion of the front covers of gossip rags and website pics.

Exhibit B: The HMV shop in London retailer Harrod's full two-page 'ladies' dress code tells workers in every department to wear: "Full makeup at all time: base, blusher, full eyes (not too heavy), lipstick, lip liner and gloss are worn at all time and maintained discreetly (please take into account the store display lighting which has a 'washing out' effect)." For non-compliance, a previously lauded store employee named Melanie Stark was forced to resign even though she had worked there for five years sans makeup.

Exhibit C: The media reception of Republican nominee John McCain's wife Cindy McCain vs. Republican nominee-wannabe Fred Thompson's wife Jeri Kehn. Ms. Kehn was described by right wing pundit Joe Scarborough as resembling a "stripper". Oh that's not fair, let me clarify: he asked if she "works the pole". No matter that Ms. Kehn was a former political consultant, the Republican Senate Conference and the Republican National Committee.
Ms. Kehn's crime: being comely in a sexy fashion, well put together, glamorous (perhaps too glamorous for a Republican politician's wife?). It's upscale demure housewife (McCain) vs. hottie trophy wife (Kehn) - guess who wins public approval? The message seems to be that if cosmetics are used at all they must be used modestly when you are in the public eye ... Unless you are some sort of a pop star who is expected to "tart it up" for the public.

The heavily made up Evil Queen in Snow White peering into her mirror to re-ascertain her own beauty...
But top-ranking celebrities certainly are not immune to criticism. Someone like Lady Gaga who builds her image on extreme artifice and theatrics takes a great deal of heat for her elaborate makeup and clothes but just as much if she dares to appear in public without. As a simple exercise plug in the phrase "too much makeup" in Google and see the sort of remarks you come up with. They aren't pretty.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of makeup on a woman seems to signal "trouble" with a capital "T".

Exhibit D: the Evil Queen in Snow White, the depiction of every mean girl in every movie about mean girls (you can tell she's bad - look at the makeup on her!), depictions of working girls in film and photography, the "talentless" starlets who provide gossip fodder for the Internet, print and television, and women who are perceived to be your garden variety "tramps" ...

And, sadly, women are just as disturbing as men in their criticisms, never failing to register their disapproval when a woman does not conform with their image of what women should dress like, should look like, and should or should not put on their faces.

Feminism, for me, has always been about breaking down stereotypes and liberating women from roles that are forced upon them by others, male and female. Feminism should equal freedom - it's not about other women conforming to your vision of what women should be - ranging from their complex life choices about marriage, procreation and career options to simple, frivolous decisions about whether to wear high heels and mascara.

I stand by my theory (previously expressed here) that shoes and clothes dictate female friendships. A high heel wearing aficionado will never bond with a makeup-less Birkenstock lover in any substantial way. Women don't roll that way. Yes, we are that shallow at times. We are just not that tolerant of each other. Women, who, by and large, do not want to be perceived purely as sex objects or judged solely on their looks, often do exactly that to other women.

Sometimes the husband will catch me in an up and down assessment of a perfect stranger on the street: "You're doing it again!" he will admonish. I have to consciously stop myself as I particularly hate to be the recipient of such a reciprocal assessment. J, my daughter, is experiencing a bit of that now in public, too, as she experiments with hairstyles and clothes.

Female friends sometimes ask me if J, now fourteen years old, is into makeup (as it happens, just a dash of mascara). When I say no, they always say happily, "Oh great!" as if she, and we as her parents, have dodged a bullet. And if I said yes, what would that say about her and her choices? Would that be a disappointment to anyone? A provocation of some sort?

I see makeup as part of a costume that I put on every day - a reflection of who I am and who I want to present myself as to the world. Is it a mask? Of sorts ... But we all wear masks. We all try to project certain carefully cultivated images to the outside world as women: virtuous housewife, serious and politically aware citizen, devoted mother, hottie, career girl, smart girl, an "I-don't-care-about-fashion" girl. For some, my costume may be just a little more provocative than yours.

Let's ease up gals. If you do not wish to be judged purely on your physical appearance and as a sexual object, let's not judge other girls and women by that standard either. That is neither progressive nor fair ... yet another "F' word.


Christine said... and clothes dictate female friendships. A high heel wearing aficionado will never bond with a makeup-less Birkenstock lover in any substantial way. Women don't roll that way. Yes, we are that shallow at times.

I think I must be an exception as I think your thoughts are true...I almost never wear makeup and I am a running shoe aficionado of the highest order (I do have dressy shoes but am loathe to wear them) and I do have many friends who love high heels, makeup, and other such things.

Michelle said...

But C, I think you are an exceptionally open person, most women are not. And, besides, you have great taste in shoes! :)