Friday, July 13, 2012

WWPD Guides: not worrying about it (too much)

Whereas men tend to underestimate what's necessary for looking their best, we - women - will often realize that we've been worrying about - and devoting time and money to - something to do with our appearances that we could perfectly well skip. See the women who imagine their lives will be radically different if only they lose five pounds, but who could perfectly well stay the size they are without facing any health or social-stigma consequences. See Edith Zimmerman's story of relying on, then abandoning, face makeup to cover acne, and later acne scars, only to discover that she looks just fine without the paint. See those of women who stop straightening their hair, only to discover that their natural hair texture suits them better and turns more heads.

We're often wrong in our assessments of what's worthwhile. We may overestimate the amount of artifice we "need" and end up looking (by the standards of our milieus) ridiculous. Or we might just end up looking the same. A woman with thick, dark eyelashes can fund the mascara industry if she wants, but why bother?

But the inefficacy of certain priming can't be the reason to liberate one's self from excessive primping, because sometimes artifice delivers. It's not always the Snooki "makeunder." You won't always look more tasteful or sophisticated if you switch to hippie soap/shampoo and no more. You may just look worse. This will not come as news to any woman who's gone to work bare-faced and been asked if she's tired, and not - as we might imagine - congratulated for her low-maintenance turn. 

"Not worrying about it" means accepting that abandoning whichever ritual might not amount to any improvements. It means outgrowing the middle-school imperative to look your best and then some. How you look matters - and can be controlled - less than you think. But yeah, it could be that you would look noticeably better doing X, Y, and Z, yet also that there are better uses of your time. These things are not inconsistent. Life is easier for the better-looking, but there's only so much primping can do, and there's a threshold at which you'd be better off changing other things about your life than your looks.

The idea, though, is not to take an absolutist stance. If you believe that X, Y, and Z make you look better, but you want to reduce time and money spent on primping, or chemical exposure, or simply the stress of worrying about it, what you can do is, make 'looking your best' a special-occasion thing, as opposed to a necessary-for-leaving-the-house one. Shift it down. You can look merely presentable, using your own judgment to tell where "presentable" ends (and this will vary, of course, depending what it is you do for a living) and "dolled-up" begins. 

This approach doesn't have the same liberation appeal as discarding the offending primping implements, as a great big bonfire filled with push-up bras and Clinique. But there's a huge difference between thorough hair-and-makeup to go to work and for a swanky party, between losing five pounds for aesthetic reasons for your wedding and spending your entire adolescent and adult life maintaining a weight that doesn't agree with you. 


caryatis said...

I think magical thinking a la Malinowski has a lot to do with the makeup "ritual" (and notice that word). Let's say I'm going on a job interview or date. Well, I can't really control whether I get the job or whether the guy likes me -- that depends on education/work experience or on my personality and basic genetically determined level of beauty, which are not things I can change during that anxious hour of prepping.

However, I can make damn sure that I wear the right shoes, blowdry my hair, and spend more time than usual on my makeup. In theory, I know that the right lipstick shade has very little power to help me succeed here, but focusing on the little things under my control rather than the big things that are not makes me feel, well, empowered and on top of things.

And on an everyday basis, my motivation for wearing makeup is similar: I have a strong, neurotic drive to be beautiful, but I'm not, no matter what my boyfriend may say, and I can't change that. But I can pay attention to hair, makeup and clothes. Since it's what I can do, it's what I do do.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


All that makes sense. But I wonder what you think, then, of an approach like the one I suggest - scaling it down, primping a lot a little of the time only. I suggest this not for all women, but for those of us who have a nagging sense that we're overdoing it. (I don't currently have that sense, b/c I live in the woods and don't necessarily put on eyeliner to walk the dog, but there have been times I've experienced it.)

PG said...

I think there's a difficulty with sort of unilaterally withdrawing from the primping arms race, though, in that the default appearance for a woman is primped to a certain extent. I just watched the beginning of Mean Girls on TV, and even pre-Plastics Cady is clearly wearing makeup. She's complimented by the gay male friend on her natural hair color, and by both of her new friends for being naturally hot, but -- makeup! Similarly, even madeunder Snooki has photo credits indicating professionally applied NARS Cosmetics. I think a woman who goes minimal (say, just enough beauty products so that her lips don't crack, her skin doesn't look ashy and her hair isn't sticking up) will be perceived as sort of lazy or -- gasp! -- man-hating/ lesbian/ feminist.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think we need to separate out what's life and what's the specific world of TV and entertainment. Onscreen, the "before" (or "after" in makeunder situations) is always going to be what an "after" would be in real life. There are plenty of women - in academia, but elsewhere as well - who wear no makeup whatsoever, who stick with their natural hair texture and not in the extra-products-for-ringlets sense. Skirts (even long, comfortable ones), earrings, long hair, etc. can allow even incredibly low-maintenance women to seem definitively feminine, and to make it so that the lack of makeup doesn't seem at all to be about making a feminist point.

caryatis said...

Phoebe, yes, the magical thinking argument accords with yours, in that it would lead us to wear a lot of makeup, but very rarely (in order to preserve the magic feeling,) and then none or little on an everyday basis.

What torments me personally is that, while doing the maximum for special occasions is fun, everyday makeup is not fun. It’s mildly boring. And I think I will never know whether it actually does any good.