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To makeup or to feel guilty about makeup
That is the question
I’ve recently started wearing a little bit of makeup, following a predictable cycle that has been occurring since I was a teenager:
Wear no makeup for a long time.
Go through some kind of harrowing or self confidence-killing experience.
As I pull myself out of it, decide that I want to look more put together.
Start wearing a little makeup, maybe also get a haircut, or dye my hair, or get a manicure, or buy new skin care products, or all of the above.
Get bored with all the self maintenance and go back to doing nothing.
I am of two minds about this cycle, and the current makeup. My instinctual, deep, anti-consumerist, progressive part is fully against. I am quite capable of shaming my makeup-wearing desires for many pages; I will give you a small sample now. How, really, did I come up my view on how I want to look? It would be very hard for me to argue that I am not trying to emulate the women I have seen celebrated, in the magazines of my youth, on the internet, on social media—almost all of whom are trying to sell me one thing or another.
Or perhaps I am trying to emulate the real women around me, but they are surely also taking cues from these wholly commercialized venues…where else, after all, would we look for direction? I certainly cannot claim to have some inborn aesthetic guiding my every beauty decision towards a vision of myself that is most truly me…and oh, wow, it just happens to look a lot like the current trends.
In other words, I am inclined to agree with every argument in’s recent interview with Elise Hu, entitled Beauty Culture is Hustle Culture, which details some of the worst excesses of K-beauty, the surgery-heavy approach to facial perfection exported from Korea, as well as the beauty industry broadly. This interview echos themes in the writing of one of my idols, Jia Tolentino, about the beauty industry and the way women are and always have been slaves to the demands of the market when it comes to the way we “want” to look. In her essay, Always Be Optimizing, which offers a scathing review of modern market-friendly feminism, Tolentino writes that today’s ideal woman “looks like an Instagram—which is to say an ordinary woman reproducing the lessons of the marketplace…this process requires maximal obedience on the part of the woman in question, and—ideally—her genuine enthusiasm.” It also requires a lot of money.
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So can I really say my recent makeup wearing is anything but an obedient and expensive attempt to make me just a bit more pleasantly viewable to eyes around me, which have been acclimated to the going aesthetic by profit-seeking companies? Oh and also, I already have a lot of the prerequisites for American beauty built-in, via my race and weight, so in further perfecting my look perhaps I am actually furthering the pernicious affects of the thin, white ideal.
But then there is this other fact. Very often, when I decide to put a little effort into my skin and clothes and hair in the morning, I just feel better. Consistent with the cliched wisdom to “dress for the job you want not the job you have,” or, “fake it till you make it,” there is something about putting on concealer that makes me feel just a bit more ready for life, more spritely, more optimistic. I work at home, so in a given day I will generally see my husband, my toddler, the other parents at the daycare for four minutes, the person at the grocery checkout for two minutes and, maybe, if it’s Tuesday, my therapist. I don’t typically post photos of myself on social media. What I’m saying is that there’s not really a lot of people for me to impress in a given day. And so, my conclusion can really only be that I am, at least in large part, doing the makeup to actually in real life alter my own mood and outlook.
The fact that this makeup habit pops up again and again in response to hard times (often: depression) is, I think, an effective coping mechanism. I turn to it when I am in need of that slight bump in spriteliness and optimism, and I get the bump from the makeup, even if the image I am emulating is fully conceived for me by consumerist market forces. It’s a whole lot of work to go against the cultural grain. Even if I wish the cultural waters were less shaped by the effort to sell everyone more stuff all the time, that is the water I swim in, (we all do).
Ok, so let me try out a position that does not come naturally to me: the one that does not try to shame me incessantly for everything I do that is not perfect (sigh). Perhaps—just trying this out—it is not my individual responsibility to singlehandedly undo all the conscious and subconscious lessons I have learned—that seems like it might take all my effort all the time. There are some things wrong with makeup-wearing, I do believe that. But it is also, in my experience, a helpful tool as I’m coming out of depression or periods of poor health. By now you might be thinking, “wow, our girl’s really over-thinking this small bit of makeup.” Well. That’s kind of my thing. And I’m leaning, after all this belabored consideration, towards just wearing the damn makeup and letting it make me feel good and being done with it.
There are also many other versions of this phenomenon, where my image affects my feelings, mood, outlook and self-perception. Putting together a thoughtful outfit, though not my strength, sends me out the door (or in my case, into the next room) with some additional confidence in my step. Dying my hair blue (or pink or platinum), really makes me feel fun and irreverent and powerful in a certain way, even if the styles and colors I choose are undeniably instagram-friendly (even despite never having an intention of posting photos on Instagram). I’m considering doing some pastel purple at the moment, even though that move seems kind of cutely predictable given that I also just started wearing makeup, painted my nails and got a haircut.
One really thoughtful meditation on the beauty industry, also based in an analysis of K-beauty, comes from Iris Kim in her essay in Harper’s on getting double eyelid surgery (and I was lucky enough read an early draft of this one in a writing class we took together!) Even though it is clear that Kim condemns the racist forces and commercial greed that made this type of cosmetic eye surgery a standard high school graduation gift for young Korean girls, and even though my (and I think many people’s) knee-jerk reaction would be that this practice is capital B Bad, Kim still explores her own decision to get the surgery with an honest ambivalence. Towards the end, she writes, “Is the knife a colonial weapon that haunts us, inflicting an age-old wound, or a 21st-century tool that can help us feel more empowered, despite the costs?”
I think this complex question is worth keeping in mind. There is a spectrum here. It is undeniable that the commercialization of a specific type of beauty has become wholly damaging to the human race. I also think that it would be an oversimplification to roundly demonize any personal beauty practices and discount the real mood effects that can come from putting some effort into personal presentation.
I think I’m going to try and just let my makeup make me feel good for awhile.
What’s your relationship to “beauty”?
Do you use skin/nail/hair care for a boost in confidence? Do you do more when you’re feeling better or worse about yourself? Does it ever feel like a form of self-expression?
Tell me everything!