Thursday, September 2, 2010

Welcome to the Dollhouse: Men and Cosmetics

I don't know what the answer to healing the relationship so many women have with beauty is, but I've long maintained that the answer decidedly is not to invite men into the pool along with us. So I read today's New York Times story about men's cosmetics with interest. What jumped out, though, was this quote from the founder of a men's personal care line:

“Women use cosmetic products to beautify, but men have a totally different approach and totally different goals,” said Mr. Hewryk, who holds degrees in applied chemistry and biology. “Men use cosmetic products in order to cover up or correct imperfections, not to enhance beauty.”

One glance at the makeup counter shows that women's products "enhance beauty" in a dizzying number of ways, including everything from peacock jewel-tone eye shades to Day-Glo nail polishes--that is, colors not found in nature, much less on even the most beautiful of human bodies. But to so firmly divide the covering or correcting of imperfections with the enhancement of beauty seemed odd. I feel this immense pressure to not only be beautiful but to appear as though it's utterly effortless, as though I just happen to have skin that's entirely unmarked by adolescence or hormones. "Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline"--the company's winking ad let us know that if we used their products, the world would assume the latter while they played knowing big sister behind the scenes.

I've always sort of envied women whose use of makeup is obvious--green eyeliner, turquoise shadows. Some might see them as kowtowing to the beauty imperative; I do see that, but depending on its wearer I also see a sort of fantasy space, a sort of storybook land in which we have jade eyelids instead of pearlized fairy wings. It's saying: I am unnatural; I am parading; I am painting myself; I am artist and subject at once. It's taking

But I don't think that Hewryk is restricting his comments to outlandish, playful colors when he refers to women using cosmetics to "enhance" their beauty. I think he is referring to things like mascara that makes our eyelashes appear dark to their tips, lipstick that makes our lips appear just-bitten, blush that makes us look like we've just been engaging in some particularly blush-worthy activity. These things indeed enhance our beauty. And yet, when I read Hewryk's words, I immediately thought of my pale-tipped lashes, my deadened cheeks, and thought of those as imperfections to be corrected, not beauty that merely needs to be enhanced. This is the effect of the beauty imperative: normal becomes imperfect, not a baseline. One of the prime tools of any woman's makeup box is called, after all, concealer.

"Enhancing beauty" sounds much more fun than "correcting imperfections," doesn't it? I wonder how many women think of their daily routines as enhancing their beauty versus correcting their imperfections. Hewryk's statement is more affirming than what I'd think of as the standard makeup-hawker's line, and what much feminist theory has us believe of advertising: If our beauty is lacking, and if our beauty is essential, then makeup will always, always sell. It's nearly optimistic in a way, but at its core the idea still makes me sad. In Elizabethan England, women of a certain class wore facepaint made of egg whites; the idea was to create a glazed, porcelain look--an obviously false, even inhuman, ideal. Men wore cosmetics in that era as well, but they were seen as vaguely immoral because of the deception involved: If you look at a woman with a shellacked face you know that she was not, indeed, born with it (maybe it's Maybelline?). If you look at a man who appears to be brimming with vim and vigor, however, you might well feel tricked if you found out he got it from a jar. I don’t wish for men to jump into the beauty myth along with women; I’d prefer that they instead cast about life preservers to help those of us who are mired in it get out. But if they must join, I’m just saddened by the idea that because of the restrictions of manhood, they would still be unable to seize the sort of cultural permission that women have to actually enhance our natural beauty, instead of being limited to correcting “imperfections.”


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