While chatting with colleagues over coffee this week, I ended up “outing” myself as a dwarf who’s had limb-lengthening. (Experience has taught me some people notice right away when they meet me that something is up, while others go a long time without the slightest idea, especially in the wintertime when my scars are hidden under sleeves and pants.) We arrived at this topic by discussing fashion—and the recent scandal in Sweden that’s left me almost speechless—and then beauty and self-confidence. Several of my colleagues pointed out that every person they know who’s undergone cosmetic surgery never struck them as unattractive before the fact. Only an idiot would think that there’s only one kind of beautiful nose or mouth or whathaveyou. And only a jerk would tell someone to have cosmetic surgery.
As you may have guessed, I agreed wholeheartedly. But what about telling someone to wear makeup?
This week, a man writing to Slate’s Dear Prudence advice column confessed he feels simultaneously guilty and helpless about the fact that some of his female friends are unlucky in love because “their looks are probably the only thing holding them back.” Prudence tends give good, progressive advice, but this time, instead of telling him the ladies should move in less superficial circles, she suggested he pair them up with some similarly “average-looking” male buddies. She then added, “If the problem with your female friends is not their intrinsic looks but the fact that they dress like schlubs or never wear makeup, then a guy’s perspective that they aren’t doing everything with what they’ve got could spur them into action.”
Ugh. Say what you want about clothes, but the makeup debate is as messy and gunky as makeup itself, which is why I’ve avoided it up until now. But am I the only one who thinks telling someone to start using makeup is entirely different from giving them your opinion about the way they dress?
Everyone, from my partner to my grandmother, rolls their eyes at certain fashion choices and, as I’ve said before, anyone who denies they ever do it is lying. It betrays a pathetic insecurity to trash others’ dress for the sake of your own self-aggrandizement—e.g. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!”—but it is fair to say what just isn’t your cup of tea. We can snark a little about someone’s clothes, hairstyles, accessories, headgear or makeup style (if they have one) without too much malice because someone is probably snarking about ours. No one on earth dresses in a way that is universally attractive because there is no such thing as a universal beauty standard. And as the saying goes, there is no arguing taste. Someone thinks this is kick-ass, and someone else thinks it’s sloppy:
Someone thinks this is dreamy and someone else thinks it’s one big yawn:
Someone thinks this is sexy and someone else thinks it’s garish:
And that’s just a tiny sample from around the world. There is even more variation across time because, as Oscar Wilde said, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” I think some of my friends, like some of the subjects above, have a great sense of style, while others do not. They in turn probably think the same about me. But if any of them thought I should wear makeup more often than I do—which is almost never—and told me so, they wouldn’t be my friends. But what if they’re my supervisors?
In January, a study featured in The New York Times revealed that (American) women who wear makeup are considered more competent and more likable in the workplace. A panel of stylists and professors made various points about this that basically all boiled down to, “It’s a choice. If it makes women feel more confident, they should go for it.” But if the study indicates that their confidence would result from garnering more positive attention for their looks, then their lack of confidence without makeup would result from a fear of not getting attention for their looks.
Many modern women, especially lipstick feminists, repeat, “Empowerment is all about being free to choose!” There is truth in this. I know guys who were bullied in school for wearing concealer or plucking their eyebrows. Women meanwhile are often forced into a nearly impossible balancing act wherein no makeup = plain Jane, but too much = slut, and kudos to anyone who refuses to play that game. Good girl culture, as well as the results from the study, assert that “less makeup is more – you should look like you’re not wearing any.” This rule seems potentially problematic to me because it is insidious. If someone gets used to just slightly “improving” their face every day, it is more likely they’ll feel insecure without these improvements. I occasionally enjoy wearing heavy makeup bordering on the outrageous (like glitter), but it feels like a mask and everyone knows it’s a mask. When it’s so obviously part of a costume, there’s not much danger that I’ll start considering it an inalienable component of myself. But the subtle makeup seems to be a lot harder for people to let go of. I know women who refuse to be photographed without their makeup on—and you probably do, too—and if that doesn’t sound like an unhealthy insecurity, I don’t know what does.
In any case, it doesn’t sound like they are “free to choose,” as lipstick feminists advocate. As I’ve written before in explaining my choice to have my limbs lengthened, we should be free to make complex decisions about our bodies without others making snap judgments about our motivations. Anyone who does is a coward. But it is also cowardly of us to voice hatred for our natural faces and simultaneously deny that this has any impact on others. In the words of philosopher Arthur W. Frank, “When we make a choice, we confront others with that choice.” The freedom to choose diminishes when a strong majority bends in one direction, because majorities create social pressure. In a society that literally rewards women who wear makeup—i.e., with higher salaries—it is undeniable that many do so in order to win these rewards, ultimately playing by the rules under the guise of empowerment. The cosmetics industry, like any industry, always aims to make their customers feel that they cannot live without their product and so they too have embraced the slogan of “Empowerment!” Leading The Onion to smirk, “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does!”
It would be obnoxious of me to assume that every woman with a compact in her purse does it to acquiesce. I know and admire self-confident women who love putting on bright red lipstick and self-confident men who wish they could, too, without being gawked at. Primping can be fun. Painting your skin certain colors can make you feel fine and refreshed, like slipping into a brand-new top or getting a new haircut. Or brushing your teeth after a hangover.
But it’s not quite the same thing, is it? Once again, it’s a mask. A friend of mine who loves dressing up but hates wearing makeup recently said, “I guess, ultimately, it’s weird looking in the mirror and seeing something that doesn’t look like me. I don’t really like makeup on other people either though, so perhaps it’s a general class of trying to hide oneself that bugs me.”
Indeed, that is one of my many reasons for rarely ever using cosmetics, why I graciously declined friends’ offers to do me up on my wedding day, why I cringe at the idea of anyone pressuring women into it. I also like being able to rub my face without having to worry about smudging. I’d rather spend the money on a million other things. My partner hates the taste of cream, gloss or powder—“Kissing someone wearing foundation is like kissing a sandbox!”—and I must say I don’t blame him. Most importantly perhaps, I don’t understand why our culture believes that women’s faces require some paint in order to be attractive but men’s faces don’t. If I can’t compensate for the plainness of my natural face with my charisma, then no one should be able to.
Of course, almost all of us conform to our culture’s beauty standards to some degree. I’ve worn concealer for blemishes and plucked my eyebrows to make them even, but I feel a strong attachment to my scars and so I’ve kept them. I don’t always like my face—don’t we all have those days when we look in the mirror and just feel yucky and dissatisfied?—but even if I thought putting on some modern Western style of makeup would make me look “better,” it wouldn’t look like me. Experience has also taught me that a dissatisfaction with one’s looks is almost always rooted in something more substantial: feeling not very fit, feeling overtired and stressed, feeling lazy because there’s been too much or too little to do. And even if it’s not, I often feel very satisfied with my face, so on a bad day why not simply walk away from the mirror, focus on something a little more profound than my appearance, and have confidence that the feeling of self-satisfaction will return?
As psychologist Nancy Etcoff wrote in The Times:
Women who feel that makeup use is obligatory but unwanted, that it requires a forced confrontation with the mirror when they’d rather put their attention elsewhere, do not feel more confident after using it. Research suggests that women can feel objectified by makeup, and for such women, any potential advantage may be offset by the emotional labor of wearing it.
And, in an excellent article on weddings, Ariel Meadow Stallings of Offbeatbride.com writes:
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the pursuit of authenticity versus the pursuit of attention. The first feels very internal, like you really have to look with-in yourself with a lot of introspection and thought to determine what’s important … while the other feels very external, like you’re hunting for other people’s eyeballs. And why does one seem like so much fun, while the other seems like so much work? …
I guess it comes down to this: Attention gives you the cheap high of other people’s energy focused at you … but authenticity gives you that deep, long-lasting satisfaction of knowing that you’re on the right path and you’re doing the right thing. While the quick high is more fun in the short run, the deep satisfaction is ultimately more filling.
This is why it is fine to wear makeup but wrong to tell someone else to. Not only is it a ludicrously presumptuous, boundary-crossing thing to say—like telling someone to switch careers or leave their spouse—but it’s vacuous because it has nothing to do with matters of justice or morality. It is sheerly a matter of beauty standards. The worst thing about beauty standards is that they create peer pressure based merely on taste. The best thing about them is that, as seen above, there are millions of them, and they are constantly changing. If humans are capable of thinking the lip-plate is attractive, then surely we are capable of thinking a woman without makeup is attractive.
Women and men should feel free to smear their faces with whatever they wish or go without, to pluck their eyebrows or leave them be, to shave any body part or refrain. (Bearing in mind doctors have recently explained the cringeworthy risks of shaving certain parts.) But the moment they say that someone should do the same in order to feel better or lure lovers or advance their career, we have a problem. And it’s not physical.