Thursday, April 16, 2009

Against 'natural' beauty

Via Amber, here's a rather pointless article congratulating a French magazine for having the courage to feature women (who just happen to be among the more beautiful models and actresses) with (what they claim is) no makeup. Now, there's something to be said for not taking out loans for liposuction or binges at Sephora. Insofar as some women do risk their lives or spend more time and money than they can afford on beautification, the occasional reminder that you're allowed to, you know, slow down, isn't a terrible thing. But the answer is not to celebrate 'natural' beauty. Here's why:

-'Natural' beauty, as presented in French Elle, isn't natural. It's not just that they chose beautiful women to shoot sans makeup. Take a photo of a stunning - but make-up free! - model or actress, and what you've got is a photograph of the collective results of years' worth of dieting, skin-care regimens, tooth whitening, eyebrow shaping, and so forth. Just because nothing was slathered on pre-shoot (but gosh, did they put moisturizer on Monica Bellucci) or altered via technology after the fact doesn't mean you're looking at how the woman in the shot would look without intentional efforts made towards making her attractive.

-'Natural' beauty is about race, in all kinds of unpleasant ways. Mostly, it's about the woman who does not need to use a hairdryer or relaxer to get her hair smooth, or a plastic surgeon to get her nose into the Grace Kelly mold. A 'natural' beauty is not a woman who accepts herself as is, but one whose resemblance to an undernourished Latvian 16-year-old comes naturally.

As a response, non-white women (black, yes, both others as well) have appropriated 'natural' to refer to the choice not to try to look white. Thus a very complicated, time-consuming, costly-to-maintain hairstyle can be classified as 'natural', not because it's the result of how anyone's hair naturally falls, but because no relaxers went into producing it, or because straight hair is not the result. 'Natural' thus means a lack of racial self-hatred. Which is certainly a worthy goal, but the point of 'natural beauty' is supposed to be that a woman does not have to spend much time and money on her appearance, something this definition of 'natural' doesn't really address.

(Side note: if you are white, do not tell your college roommate, who is non-white or 'ethnic', that you can't believe she spends that much time on her hair. Though white by some standards and, like Amber, pale in such a way that when I wear no makeup, I'm told I look ill, I was on the receiving end of this for my refusal to wash-and-go. Had the roommate seen the result of wash-and-go, let's just say she might have reconsidered.)

-'Natural' beauty means not being able to use one's appearance as a mode of self-expression. Not all things women do to ourselves to look different is aimed at making us look younger, thinner, and whiter. Denouncing artifice means not only chucking nose jobs, relaxers, and concealer, but also glitter eyeliner, neon-blue hair-dye, press-on nails, and other manifestations of artifice designed not to make the average 40-year-old American woman look like an above-average Swede, but to make the wearer, whoever she is, look the way she wants.

This also, of course, goes for those born as men who wish to look like women, or vice versa. There, the natural option is not really on the table. To suggest a 'natural' look in such cases would be both offensive and, well, idiotic.

-'Natural' beauty does not eliminate the question of beauty, it just reframes it in terms of 'what God gave you', a fatalistic approach. With or without artificial enhancements, the societal phenomenon of beautiful people being admired, ugly ones insulted, and the great within-normal-limits majority being ignored will go on. Only without makeup as an option, it will all come down to genetics. If it seems as though I'm speaking of some never-to-come utopia, just think of any subculture in which artificial beautification is frowned upon. Who were the 'hot' hippies, if not the ones with naturally long, blonde hair and delicate features? The same is true today, in the various cult-of-low-maintenance subcultures still around, or in magazines choosing which women to feature without makeup.

23 comments:

PG said...

Good point about self-expression, though I think that's an increasingly small aspect of the use of artifice as people get older. Not a lot of 40-year-olds wearing stuff like glitter eyeliner or neon blue hair.

Given the important use of "natural" to mean "not trying to look white," I prefer to refer to my look for 360 days of the year as "cheap" or "lazy." Wash-n-go hair, check; no makeup, check; no brow shaping, check. I've even been turned against facial hair removal by the lunatic at a famous Manhattan salon who decided that my goddamn nose hair needed to be waxed. (I don't have a problem with protruding hairs... she just decided to go after hair you can't see unless you're three inches from my face.) You're supposed to have nose hair, we haven't evolved past it, it still serves a biological purpose!

It's that kind of thinking that makes me sympathetic to the idea that we should just accept ourselves as we were made. I don't think anything that plausibly fits into the category of health, such as diet and exercise or a good dental care regime, ought to be considered unnatural. Yes, there was no Crest for cavemen, but its primary purpose is to keep your teeth from falling out.

Phoebe said...

Maybe you look presentable with wash-and-go hair. Or maybe you don't - there's no way for those reading this to know whether you're low-maintenance despite the fact that this makes people look at you wondering how you could leave the house like that, or whether any extra efforts would simply embellish perfection. And it really does vary, case by case.

In my own case, I don't understand how most forms of makeup even operate (eyeliner, however, is key), and certainly would consider foundation, cosmetic surgery, etc. wastes of time and money. But hair-wise, if I washed-and-went, the beyond-'80s volume would be quite alarming.

"[W]e should just accept ourselves as we were made" means relinquishing control over our appearances, but does not mean that others will cease to judge us, or that, as a consequence, we will cease to judge ourselves. It will simply make us feel powerless against Nature.

PG said...

But we don't have to buy into others' judgments of us. I tried sorority rushing at a Southern school and there were certain sororities that clearly wrote women off if the women didn't meet certain standards of appearance. That was OK, because then I could write off those sororities as being full of shallow, superficial twits. Who shall judge the judges, or something like that. I have very curly hair and get huge, tangled volume (probably more than yours -- my hair defies gravity) if my hair is loose all day, so I'll usually pull it back once it's mostly dry. It's probably not the most flattering look, but it does the job.

So long as we are presentable (in a professional sense, i.e. clean, tidy and appropriately attired), we have done our duty to society. So long as we are healthy within our ability to ensure that (e.g. through good diet and exercise), we have done our duty to ourselves and those who care about our longevity. If we have done both, we have nothing for which we should reproach ourselves.

Power over Nature is good if it provides some kind of benefit (like pain relief through unnatural aspirin, or enough additional life years to raise one's son through unnatural chemotherapy). Beautifying regimens just seem to set up higher and higher hurdles once a particular thing becomes "the norm." Whose life has been made happier through anti-aging cream?

Miss Self-Important said...

But aren't we actually pretty powerless against nature? We can wear foundation to cover blotchy skin or tighten up wrinkles through cosmetic surgery, but we're still going to age and eventually die no matter what creams and lotions we apply. You seem to be conflating control over nature--of which make-up is an illusory form, at best--and control over other people's perceptions.

In the latter case, make-up might seem to even the playing field among the ugly, average, and the beautiful, but isn't that an ultimately fruitless pursuit as well? Except in a few borderline cases, beautiful people also look better in make-up than average and ugly people in make-up, so perceptions will still favor the beautiful, and the ugly will still be ridiculed and the average ignored. So what's the advantage of make-up beyond simply looking presentable in public, the boundaries of which are pretty flexible (except in DC)?

As for make-up as self-expression, subcultures intent on undermining "societal norms" of beauty like, say, goths come to mind, but as you say, there are beautiful and less beautiful goths, and the degree of their beauty is by and large not determined by their particularly artful application of black make-up, but by features that precede the application of make-up. And I suspect the hot goths get more play than the ugly goths and the ugly goths are still unhappier with themselves, even though they're all using make-up as a form of self-expression to undermine prevailing views of beauty. Perhaps subscription to the illusion that artifice can overcome one's innate constitution makes the situation even more frustrating than it would've otherwise been if the ugly goths had accepted that they were doomed to a life of ugly or average appearance and expended energy on the cultivation of other qualities instead?

The only utility of manipulating perceptions of beauty with make-up that I can see is in a situation where, for example, it can somehow be determined that men desire women of a certain level of beauty, which more women overall can reach with the aid of artifice than without. If they don't reach this beauty minimum, women will get no men and be lonely. If they do, they will get some men and not be lonely. So a situation like that--in which a broadly attainable baseline attractiveness is necessary to live a relatively happy life--is unlikely to produce a lot of strong arguments against artificial appearance manipulation, even among those who strenuously oppose more radical manipulation like cosmetic surgery (arguably this is already the case when we talk about "looking presentable in public").

Phoebe said...

Where judgment-by-others stops and judgment-of-ourselves starts is hard to say. Plenty of beautification is about feeling confident, knowing on some level that that clear-polish manicure, that blowout, that anti-aging cream (and those, I think all are aware, are a joke), those Spanx are visible at most to other women and in all likelihood only to one's self.

But, more to the point: You write that "Power over Nature is good if it provides some kind of benefit", which I agree with, but why must the only benefits be related to physical health? Where does one draw the line between attempts at mitigating self-hatred and positive, I-look-good-but-like-this-I-look-even-better-and-thus-feel-better-about-myself beautification rituals?

Because there *is* such a line, although it cannot be drawn on a procedure-by-procedure basis. (To stick with the hair-straightening example: a black woman forced as a child to have her hair straightened, explicitly in order to look less black, might have a different relationship to the procedure than an equally curly-haired redhead of Irish extraction opting for flat hair to look especially sophisticated one Saturday night.)

Which brings us to...

"So long as we are healthy within our ability to ensure that (e.g. through good diet and exercise), we have done our duty to ourselves and those who care about our longevity. If we have done both, we have nothing for which we should reproach ourselves."

But the point is not that women who fail to primp enough are being reproached, but that those who say, 'yes, I primp, got a problem with that?' are accused of fighting Nature and thus sinning in some way.

It's complicated. Women shouldn't feel that they *have* to do anything beyond what you describe as the sane-and-sanitary minimum in order to be treated with respect and in order to find romantic partners, but at the same time, appearance matters more to some than to others (leaving aside for the moment the question of unconventional subcultures), and the fact that there are ways for a woman to artificially make herself more conventionally attractive should not be treated as some kind of all-encompassing evil, but as a better scenario than if beauty mattered just as much (which it would), but if women who wanted to alter theirs did not have the option.

(I'm guessing the goal of 'natural' beauty is rooted in the idea that an 'artificially' beautiful woman gives men a false sense of the appearance of the offspring she might produce, but that's another story.)

Phoebe said...

That was for PG. I now see Rita's comment...

In terms of controlling nature, yes, we'll all die (and look old, if we're lucky to live long, beforehand) in the end. But, concealer properly applied can make us look more awake. A combination of Spanx and moderation when it comes to ice cream can create a flat stomach where otherwise there would be no such thing.

"Except in a few borderline cases, beautiful people also look better in make-up than average and ugly people in make-up"

But how would we ever know, except in family/roommate situations? Women you know well enough to see without makeup are probably those you're close enough to that you can't really form an idea of their beauty or lack thereof. (OK, and surprise surprise Monica Bellucci looks good without makeup. But even among beautiful women, she's in a class of her own.)

"And I suspect the hot goths get more play than the ugly goths"

That's not how it worked at Stuyvesant.

"The only utility of manipulating perceptions of beauty with make-up that I can see is in a situation where, for example, it can somehow be determined that men desire women of a certain level of beauty, which more women overall can reach with the aid of artifice than without."

Your theory makes sense, but, it's not so clear that women wear makeup primarily in order to attract men.

PG said...

But the point is not that women who fail to primp enough are being reproached, but that those who say, 'yes, I primp, got a problem with that?' are accused of fighting Nature and thus sinning in some way. Who is making these accusations of "fighting Nature"? Does anyone see Nature as a sort of deity to which one owes a duty? (I suppose one could consider Christian Science to take this view in a more theistic sense, but so far as I know they only do it about medicine; there's no ban on makeup. Religions that frown on makeup generally do so because of the sin of vanity/pride, and take an equally narrow view of caring too much about clothing.)

I suppose folks who are really stressed by testing on animals might bring out this rhetoric, but for the most part people are indifferent to practices that fall within the norm, and female primping is very much within our culture's norm -- indeed, the norm is now being expanded to encompass male primping. (I think I've mentioned the brilliant marketing maneuver of the Axe exfoliator here before.) Certainly the trend of 20th century America seems to have been to expect that women become increasingly softer, smoother, hairless, etc. Where's the Nature freak pushback?

Phoebe said...

"Where's the Nature freak pushback?"

It's in the avalanche of delighted comments (apparently all across the feminist blogosphere), praising French Elle for daring to take on the Beauty Industry. While there are, of course, women who genuinely don't care, or who really are out to denounce conventional standards of beauty, in most cases, a woman who makes a point in saying that she's low-maintenance does so in order to be seen as more of a serious person, although of course many serious women wear all kinds of makeup. She is also saying that she is beautiful. This is what men are looking for, in part, when they say they want a woman who's low-maintenance. (And they all say this.) In part it means wanting a woman who's selfless and who doesn't spend too much. But it also is about wanting 'natural' beauty, about not wanting a woman who 'needs' to spend money and time in order to look good. Any beauty procedure beyond hair-brushing is something of a turn-off to men, and is often even a bit hush-hush among women.

PG said...

This is what men are looking for, in part, when they say they want a woman who's low-maintenance. (And they all say this.) In part it means wanting a woman who's selfless and who doesn't spend too much. But it also is about wanting 'natural' beauty, about not wanting a woman who 'needs' to spend money and time in order to look good. Any beauty procedure beyond hair-brushing is something of a turn-off to men, and is often even a bit hush-hush among women. These guys all want hairy-legged and -pitted women? I don't believe it. And being beautiful doesn't magick away anyone's body hair.

I emphasize hair removal because it's probably the most common and the most socially demanded even in sex-equal environments. I can go to work without makeup and not raise any eyebrows, but I can't wear a skirt or sleeveless top and go hairy. It's a tradeoff: dress like a man (long sleeves and pant suits) and be as lazy as a man; dress like a woman (skirts and shells) and be obliged to put in the work of femininity. Although it goes further than that, since even if I'm dressed like the men around me in a very casual summer setting, i.e. in shorts, I'm still expected to be hairless and they're not.

Also, given the members of the feminist blogosphere whose pictures I've seen (e.g. the Jezebel girls, Amanda Marcotte, Jill Filopivic, et al.), they're quite frankly lying if they claim they never wear any makeup at all. They might be suportive of the idea that one shouldn't have to wear makeup to be seen as attractive, that it should be optional and not enforced on women (in contrast, courts have said it can be enforced as a condition of employment without constituting sex discrimination), but I'm very skeptical that all these internet feminists have cupboards bare of any lipstick, blusher, etc.

Phoebe said...

OK, I meant that any procedure beyond hair-brushing is a turn-off to men, not the results. Hetero men attracted to 'natural' beauties haven't a clue. Obviously, for most men, anything more subtle than stage makeup doesn't register. What a man finds pretty but indescribable about a woman at a party might well be something as ridiculous as fake lashes.

As for hair being removed, not added... I can't imagine there are too many women spending more time on their underarms than men are on their faces. Even add in some weekly leg-shaving, and what you're looking at might be symbolic adherence to The Patriarchy, but not a terribly significant commitment of time or money.

Are many feminist bloggers claiming not to wear makeup? I wasn't aware of that.

PG said...

I guess I've been luckier in my boyfriends than I realized, as none of them seemed to find any part of my regimen more of a turn-off than another. They weren't into watching me get my lip waxed, but nobody got hot over my brushing my teeth or shampooing my hair, either.

It's socially acceptable, albeit somewhat unusual in late 20th and early 21st century America, for men to forego shaving and sport facial hair. I haven't seen an equivalent hairy fashion for women like the college goatee for men.

Are many feminist bloggers claiming not to wear makeup? I wasn't aware of that.Sorry, I misunderstood -- I thought you were saying that the feminist bloggers praising Elle were doing so in part to praise themselves for being so low-maintenance.

Matt said...

Hetero men attracted to 'natural' beauties haven't a clue. I wish you'd not make such broad generalizations as this because, 1), it's not true, 2) it's more than a bit offensive. You've made this one, or ones similar to it, several times. It might well be true of the men you know well, and if so I'm sorry for both you and them. But please don't assume it's generally true.

Phoebe said...

Matt,

What I meant by 'haven't a clue' wasn't that straight men, in general, on all matters pertaining to women, are clueless, but that they do not, typically, know when a woman is wearing concealer, mascara, blush, even lipstick, unless the results are quite garish. I can't say I've surveyed the men I know, but it's just a general impression. I should add that women, of all sexual orientations, are also quite clueless as to what makeup other women are or are not wearing. (Unless a woman has an obvious border on her face between where the foundation ends and the neck skin begins, or unless there is purple eye shadow involved, I often can't tell.) However, women who wear makeup are more likely than men who do not (and you'd have to agree more women than men wear makeup) when confronted with even 'subtle' varieties. Which adds up to, straight men, when claiming they like a makeup-free face, are making a statement more about wanting a woman who doesn't need enhancement than one about noticing and being revolted by a hint of mascara.

In broader terms, I see why generalizations are dangerous, but this is a strange moment to claim offense. When making remarks along the lines of 'straight men don't get mascara', the clunkiness of adding, 'with, of course, some exceptions'- which, by the way, you might consider implied - outweighs the benefits. I don't think there's much chance straight men are a) being persecuted as such in our society, or b) if being persecuted, being persecuted on account of their perceived inability to detect makeup on women. But, if it clarifies matters, I don't doubt that some straight men are sincere in their desire to see their women paint-free.

Matt said...

If you'd say "many" or "some of the ones I've met" I'd not mind. But I think your general claim is false. It's surely false of me. (I've been married for several years, and lived with other women before that, and have sisters, so have had plenty of opportunity to see women with and without makeup.) I like almost all women more with little or no makeup. I'm not alone. Now, maybe this just shows that the women I know don't do makeup well. But you certainly have no more evidence for this than you think I do that I can tell almost always when people are wearing makeup. It's really not that hard. If women want to wear makeup it's fine with me. I don't like it for the most part. (Sometimes some eye makeup looks nice as "dress up", but not the every-day stuff.) But the strong claims here are false and should be backed off from for more reasonable ones. (Another data point- Bella once sent me photos of her with and without makeup. I very strongly preferred the ones without makeup, and could tell quite clearly which ones they were even in photos.)

Phoebe said...

Using expressions like "data point", I think you're taking this post far too seriously. It's an impression I have, not a scholarly point I'm trying to prove. You disagree? That's fine. You're encouraged to say so.

But, if the discussion is to continue...

You write, "I like almost all women more with little or no makeup." It is impossible for anyone, from that comment, to know how you would define "little" in the context of makeup. I'm not sure who Bella is, but if someone's sending you photos with and without makeup, a couple things are going on. One, you're being primed to think about it - something that's not true in a natural (and perhaps dimly-lit) situation. Two, and less importantly, the 'makeup' shot, if it's meant to make a point, is bound to involve more than one layer of mascara and selective application of concealer.

PG said...

My husband thankfully doesn't suffer under the delusion that I look more beautiful makeup-free, but I also have professionals apply my makeup for the gala occasions for which I'll wear more than lip gloss, which means the makeup is applied very well indeed.

Phoebe might appreciate Kerry Howley's post wrt to agency over one's appearance.

Matt said...

By "little makeup" I mean things like some unusual eye-liner or the like. I think foundation almost always makes people look worse, but that's because I _like_ natural skin- I don't think making it look "better than natural" makes it look better, but worse.

You know who Bella is because you comment on her blog quite regularly. I don't use her real name because she doesn't use it. And, the photos were of her with her normal (not very large) amount of makeup and with none. They were just normal photos- nothing special. Like with most people, the difference was clear and I clearly liked the no makeup look more. Obviously others disagree, but I'm not sure why it's so hard to accept that some people think that most makeup, even if well applied, looks bad. It's really not that unusual of a position.

Phoebe said...

Matt,

Foundation's a bit of an exception, makeup-wise, because its only purpose is to 'fix', never to 'enhance', if that makes sense. Women with clear skin do not, by and large, wear foundation. Those who use it to cover up acne end up with skin that's all one color (no red blotches) but still bumpy, with the added effect of a line between the face and neck, where the makeup ends and the natural skin color - never exactly the same as the foundation color - begins. So, foundation has its benefits for photos, or for looking good on a stage/while giving a talk, but does indeed tend to make women look worse, not better, in person. Point being, one can be anti-foundation without being anti-enhancement-of-all-kinds.

The confusion re: "Bella" was that she goes by Belle, not Bella, and in the world of internet pseudonyms, for all I know there's also a Bella (presumably there are many) and that's who you meant.

Phoebe said...

And, PG: Howley's exactly right. To say Susan Boyle has to stay as she is is to say that she's a gimmick, that her star power depends on a huge discrepancy between her voice and her looks - should the looks catch up, the voice would somehow be less impressive. And it's not even necessarily a gender issue - anyone, male or female, who's suddenly famous, might want to primp a bit.

Judith said...

This is the best article on women and appearance I have read since the 1970s. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who owns the Naomi Wolf book.

Judith said...

but... weekly leg shaving? I should be so lucky. Hair removal is time consuming, messy, painful, smelly and absolutely-bloody-essential if we want to walk down the street and not be stared at. Sometimes we do things to discourage lookers, not to draw attention to ourselves.

Phoebe said...

Judith,

What article and what Naomi Wolf book?

Leg-shaving... depends on many factors - how visible one's leg hair is if left unattended, how warm it is where one lives (snow in April, ahem), how traumatized one would be if others detected that one had worn a skirt despite visible leg hair, the proportion of hippies to sorority girls in one's daily life, etc. I don't know how much time or money women typically spend on leg-hair removal, but I'd imagine it's less than is spent on hair and makeup. It's just something that, for whatever reason, has come to symbolize female submission to beauty ideals, more than have other, far more involved and also-widespread beautification procedures, ones that do not, as does leg-shaving, have a male equivalent.

PG said...

Phoebe,

The Beauty Myth, I'd assume.

I think it symbolizes it because there's a far stronger demand for hair removal than for makeup and hair-fixing. There are a lot more negative stereotypes associated with refusal to remove body hair (lesbian/rad fem/hippie, as you say) than with failure to wear makeup or do anything fancy with one's hair (though admittedly very short hair sometimes raises the lesbian/rad fem stereotypes).