It’s not all meditation-peddling and grumbling about feminism, you know. Look! A cat! Since my last post the kitten has morphed into a huge mountain-lion affair and graduated from running away from spiders to scoffing them live, the equal fate of all invertebrates foolish enough to trespass in her realm. This ongoing carnival-of-horrors also features much chewing of worms and leaving them in shoes, but no evidence of bird or mammal murder as yet – lending credence to my campaign to preserve her image as a gentle spirited cloud-creature made of fluff and happy thoughts. This said, as her pouncing skills improve it has become necessary to introduce an embargo on “firm biting” within the domestic setting. Here she is, angrily tolerating snuggles whilst looking massive.
So now I’ve caught your attention, I’ll be grumbling about make-up. Or specifically, ‘no make-up selfies’. By the time I’ve stapled down my opinion I’m sure the phenomenon will be long in the past, but I’m interested in the ill-feeling it generated. You remember how it went. Scrape off the Mac, post a selfie, donate a fiver (or mutter something about cancer awareness). As it went viral, people were quick to attack the craze as distasteful: narcissism dressed as charity, as articulated here. I say vanity-shmanity, whatever it was “really about”, £8m spontaneously raised for cancer charities is what it is. But had there been no donations at all, pontificating about the insecurities of participants is still just so much whatever-shaming, and kind of pisses on an actually helpful conversation trying to take place behind even the most glaring compliment trawlers. The extent of the fad at least pointed to a widespread sense of something problematic in our dependence on make-up as a way to appear as other (or ‘better’) than we are. If we’re done being mean to each other (and scandalized on behalf of cancer sufferers who, trust me, have better things to worry about) perhaps we can talk about it.
I’m ambivalent about make-up, actually. I do think the beauty industry is monstrous, and it’s great that there’s an ongoing dialogue about its negative impact. The auto-feminist in me wants to disapprove of the fact that I buy in at all – but looking at it historically, it’s complicated. My personal route to make-up certainly wasn’t gender-specific – actually, to begin with I learned everything I knew from copying boys.
I escaped indoctrination in my early teens. Owing to the onset of unwelcomely fabulous breasts at the not-quite-fabulous age of 11, an illusion of maturity wasn’t top of my wish-list. Look-wise, aside from a brief and regrettable flirtation with adidas (inescapable circa 1995), a lot kind of passed me by. I wasn’t really sure what it was I was supposed to be into – until the day when, replete with circus-sized DMs and full Brian Molko eyeliner / lippy combo, I spied my first (I thought) goth. Around the same time, in the style of some lazily imagined coming-of-age movie, I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time, and was done for.
Goth turned out to be totally inaccurate, naturally. In (just) pre-internet Carlisle there weren’t really the numbers to be micro-tribal about alternative culture. Everyone from metalheads through punks, goths, skaters, indie-kids, hippies, skinheads, folk-rockers, grunge survivors and a few stray ravers were bundled together in the same handful of pubs, under a raggedy umbrella of necessity (greebos, to you). It invited a cross-pollination of styles wherein beginners and the less dogmatic often cherry-picked the music and the look, with varying degrees of success. My cd collection bears the scars to this day (it’s a mercy there are few photos.)
My real-life idol of choice was a grumpy, guitar wielding junior-anarchist with a diligently soaped mohawk (which used to foam up and get in his eyes when it rained as we walked home from school for his paper round) and a preference for passionately obnoxious music. He was the first boy I saw wearing make-up. And I lurved him. Him and Kurt Cobain (also handy, until his then recent demise, with a kohl pencil) tied. My favourite lipstick, acquired down the market with the express purpose of capturing his attention, was black, like his – certain early snogging experiments were like performance art events, leaving both of us resembling a child’s crayon drawing of Beetlejuice.
Throughout my teens, the assorted crap I wore on my face, sourced alongside dubious studded paraphernalia and killer boots on occasional pilgrimages to Newcastle, remained less of an attempt at idealised feminine beauty than a none-too-subtle statement of identity – paying homage to a soundscape and value system; claiming to belong. Although I later came to know that I belong to the world just as well without a look, its meaning to me was at least partly outside considerations of beauty and / or gender. When I see girls – and guys – with hair and faces all the colours of the Haribo rainbow I still think, not “you poor, objectified soul” but…well…”cool.” And whatever constitutes your idea of cool, I think I want it to be ok for you to smear it on your face if that’s what you feel like doing. Boy or girl. It’s your body.
So what’s our beef with make-up? Sure, it’s sad and crazy that we’ve come to a pass where posting a photo of a bare faced woman should be considered an act of bravery / lunacy in the manner of bungee jumping into a tub of wasps for charity. But I’m not sure the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of make-up per se. Actually, what struck me when the selfies were doing the rounds – and perhaps fuelled the ‘vanity’ grousing – were the many cries for validation qua beauty full stop. A filter here, a careful angle there – but more importantly, the corresponding stream of comments beneath, reassuring the subject that she’s naturally beautiful. That’s where the bullshit hides – this continual reinforcement of the idea that women have to be told they’re pretty. I’m not alone in feeling we’d do better to recognize that it needn’t be crucial to their self-esteem whether they are or not. Online attention-hunting compounds the issue, but it originates in an idea we’re being sold, not a product, and celebrating ‘real’ beauty isn’t the antedote. Take Dove’s ‘campaign for natural beauty’. Capitalizing on the fact that we got uppity about skinny models and airbrushing, they added the word ‘natural’ and then continued to market beauty itself at women as aggressively as ever. Cynical with an organic cherry on top.
It’s unhelpful restricting analysis to women. As is frequently pointed out, men too are encouraged to judge themselves harshly on a narrow and unrealistic scale of attractiveness, and without recourse to Touche Éclat, at that. The crucial difference is that the ‘real’ value of men is traditionally pegged more widely outside looks. Not hot? Never mind. You can be powerful/ successful / clever. Whereas men are denied the means to claw an easy couple of points back on the old 1-10 chart (cuban heels, anyone?) women, owing to some sort of perceived inner vacuum, are entitled to be superficial. Fill your boots, girls. (Or, you know, buy some new ones. You love shopping… right?) Telling women they must feel attractive both permits them the tools to privilege themselves within a system of false value, and traps them there. Take the make-up away and call it ‘natural’ and the problem’s still there. Only now you haven’t got a blemish stick.
Am I a hypocrite? I’ve participated in this game. Outside eras of beer-led excess I have dieted, painted, compared, been body image’s bitch. I compliment people on their outfits. I genuinely love an ankle boot. But while I’m reluctant to bin my mascara and shave my head just yet, I think we might all feel better when we just stop insisting that a woman must be told that she’s beautiful – whether tarted up to the ears or naked as the day she was born.