Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Is It Appropriate to Outsource Emotional Beauty Labor?

I went to a wedding last weekend, and though it wasn’t a black-tie affair, it was a nighttime event at a beautiful historic estate, so I wanted to go beyond my normal look. I wound up wearing a lovely pink sheath dress, which called for heels higher than I normally wear, which called for wavy bombshell hair, which called for three shades of lip color, winged eyeliner, eyeshadow, and my personal pièce de resistance, the subtlest of false eyelashes applied to the outer corners of my eyes. It is probably the most effort I have put into my appearance for any single event since senior prom.

The wedding was a two-hour drive away, but only a 10-minute drive from the home of my gentleman friend’s father, so instead of driving from New York to Pennsylvania in our finery, we did our wedding prep at his house. As we walked from my boyfriend’s car into his father’s home, a good two hours before we had to leave for the wedding, the imbalance in our raw materials struck me. My materials: a dress; a shoebox containing shoes, high-heel comfort inserts, and two pairs of pantyhose (always have a spare!); shapewear; a curling iron; hairspray; dry shampoo; a hairbrush; makeup kit (foundation, concealer, blush, bronzer, loose and pressed powder, application brushes, eyebrow pencil, eyeshadow, liquid and pencil eyeliner, mascara, false eyelash glue, false eyelashes, toothpicks for eyelash application, eyelash curler, two shades of lip liner, lipstick); an event purse (breath mints, tissues, plus cell phone, wallet, etc.); a wrap; and a bottle of water, because I’d be damned if I went to all this trouble and then couldn’t enjoy the wedding because I was dehydrated.

His materials: a suit.

Now, this was a special occasion for people I’m terrifically fond of, and so I was happy to put special effort into my appearance—truly, I enjoyed the whole process. Weddings are one of the last rites of our culture, so pouring time and energy into our appearance to make sure we’re honoring the occasion seems like the right thing to do. And certainly all one really has to do to honor the occasion is show up nicely dressed and well-groomed; false eyelashes and all that were purely my choice. But the fact remains: I was putting a lot more labor into this event than my boyfriend. I accept that on a day-to-day level I put in more beauty labor, largely by my own choice, than he does, and indeed more than plenty of women. (I am, after all, six minutes above the national average in daily grooming minutes.) Still, that’s more along the lines of having to get up 20 minutes earlier than he does—not nearly an hour and a half of hard-core self-styling labor while he watches hockey.

And so I outsourced it. I couldn’t outsource the actual skilled labor—I suppose I could have had my hair professionally done, but that seemed excessive. But the “emotional beauty labor”—the low-level worrying about “do I look okay?” that underlies any event that requires a lot of smoke and mirrors to be pulled off successfully? The constant mirror checks to make sure that the lipstick isn’t smeared, the dress catching crumbs, the hair out of place? The attention to all the work I’d already done—the application of “skilled labor”—to make sure it stayed done? Yeah, I can outsource that.

“I’m wearing false eyelashes,” I said to my boyfriend, who then dutifully tried very hard not to stare at my lash line for the duration of my speech. “And I haven’t ever put them on by myself, and I’m worried they’re going to fall off and I’ll look like an asshole.” (This was said hurriedly in the moments before the wedding as the bride’s son was preparing to play Lohengrin on his electric guitar, because they’re cool like that.) “So could you keep an eye on them and just gesture to me—” I did a sweeping motion at the corners of my eyes “—if you see stray lashes?” He agreed.

Then I looked down and saw that the hanger strap of the dress was poking out at my collarbone. “And could you keep an eye on this too? This dress doesn’t stay on the hanger without the hanger straps but they keep showing. If you see them loose, just—” [insert dusting motion at shoulders] “—even if it’s from across the room, okay?” He said he would, and then I started in on a brief litany of all that could go wrong—smeared lip liner, teary mascara (it was a wedding! with booze!), pantyhose run, dress wedged at hem of shapewear—and then Lohengrin started, and I stopped, and two people who love one another were wed, and all of that was far more important than anything that could possibly go wrong with my look.

I didn’t think about how I looked for the rest of the evening, and excuse me if this is cynical, but I don’t think it was awe at the sheer force of marital love that was responsible for this. It was because I’d outsourced my worries. Now, I’m fully aware that there was an easier route through all this: Pick a lower-maintenance look. I could have done that, but I didn’t, and I understand that I’m the one who needs to ultimately be responsible for that choice. But dammit, am I crazy for thinking that sometimes it’s just not fair that “looking pretty” requires so much work, and that playing the feminine role requires such a greater amount of effort than the masculine role that it’s not the worst thing in the world to outsource that? We already outsource parts of it: manicures, haircuts, facials. We rely on friends and salespeople to let us know if a hemline is too high or a boot too clunky. Hell, in an ideal world the mere use of beauty products is outsourcing our beauty worries (I know it doesn’t always work that way, but sometimes it does—I don’t worry so much about looking wan if I’m wearing mascara, for example, because I trust that it’s doing its job). Does the possibility stop there?

Within traditional heterosexual relationships, the loose idea is that part of the “payment” of a woman’s beauty labor is in the guy’s wallet: She looks good, he foots the bill for dinner. (I actually think this is more common than the idea of “he foots the bill, she puts out,” but then again I’ve only dated a self-selected group who wouldn’t expect that, so I’m working with a biased sample.) Egalitarian relationships don’t work that way, and I'm in no hurry to re-create that structure in my own relationship, but that doesn’t really help when you’re an egalitarian couple functioning in a non-egalitarian world. My gentleman friend doesn’t expect me to perform femininity any more than I expect him to perform masculinity (though he’s far better at opening jars than I am), but when you’re taking on a shared role as A Couple, our private guidelines suddenly become very public. Nobody would have looked askance had I shown up in a nice pantsuit and my normal makeup, but the fact remains that people in couples have both private and public roles, and that simply being egalitarian doesn't erase the desire to fulfill certain roles. And part of my fear of failure is never wanting to fail in the role of a feminine creature. If I look particularly feminine, there’s a part of me that feels like I’ve succeeded. To be brutally honest, through all my feminism—and all my boyfriend’s feminism too—there’s a part of me that then feels like we’ve succeeded. It felt good to feel unabashedly feminine, and to feel like I wasn’t totally alone in the creation and maintenance of femininity, like it was a shared venture. I’m not sure what to think about the fact that this made me feel good. It seems like it shouldn't, as though I'm making some sort of Faustian deal on our behalf—a deal he didn't exactly agree to. And yet: I was beaming.

Is it okay to outsource part of our emotional beauty labor to our intimate partners, or is that asking them to take on an unfair responsibility? What about relationships between women: Should butch women absorb any beauty labor for femme girlfriends? How would this play out within same-sex couples who don’t ascribe to masculine-feminine roles? What about the financial cost of beauty work: Is it ever okay to have someone else subsidize your beauty work? When beauty is expected as a part of our public role, how much of it is really our own responsibility?


  1. I had to fire my boyfriend from his outsourcing duties because he doesn't frickin' notice when my lipstick line goes from "bow" to "bowl" shaped. Or when my mascara and eye-liner turn me into a line-backer. Or when my ass is hanging out of a hem-line. On the one hand, this is why I love him, he thinks I'm gawge-ous no matter what...but I won't outsource beauty work to him ever again!

    I think it's fine to outsource your beauty woes, so long as you have a trustworthy and perceptive partner and so long as you and your partner agree on what is "good" and what is "bad" and there is no room for one of you (YOU) to get offended.

    I have recently been trying to make more of an effort in my day to day presentation of myself (believe you me, I have been lazy for the past...2 years) and I agree, it's annoying that beauty labor is so freakin' detail-oriented, time consuming, and constant. Once you go there, you are at the mercy of humidity for the rest of the evening.

    But it does feel good to get dressed up and who wants to no, I don't think there is anything wrong with wanting to go full-femme from time to time, and "outsourcing" your beauty labor when you chose.

    Sounds like you looked LOVELY!

  2. Does letting your male date eat a substantial fraction of your food in a restaurant, so you can appear to be indulging while actually outsourcing calories, count? If so, guilty.

    The only time I've really experienced this kind of "outsourcing" was with groups of women getting ready to perform at dance recitals. Then, of course, we're wearing layers of costume, pinned to the nth degree to prevent wardrobe malfunctions, vast clanking piles of jewelry, severe high maintenance makeup, etc. And so we check each other obsessively before going out on stage. I think that's a legitimate situation to wear such a high maintenance rig and to worry about it so much. Every eye is really on you, because you're on a stage for that reason.

    In my daily life, though, even at special events this doesn't usually happen, because I've arranged my life such that beauty really isn't expected as part of my public role. I've never had partners (or a social circle) that would judge me for not holding up my end of some social bargain if I didn't do this extra-special level of beauty work. All my life, I've been gradually selecting my environment and my social/professional circles to optimize them in accordance with my priorities, so the kind of people whose weddings I go to are the kind of people who wouldn't expect more than a nicely dressed guest in regular makeup and low heeled shoes.

  3. I get mad when my husband doesn't tell me if something is wrong with my makeup or outfit! I think my worries are deeper most of the time. Like I see a big difference between saying, "Tell me if I have lipstick on my teeth" and "Do you think I'm pretty?" One is frivolous and the other is psychological.

  4. Such an interesting observation, Autumn!

    I am so with you when you write about how looking good in certain public contexts makes you feel like you're, in some possibly retrograde sense, doing your man proud. Whenever my main squeeze and I go to a function that requires a little dressing up, I feel happy to project an ultra feminine look, both because I want to, and because it reflects well on us both. It's not that I actually want people to think I'm his trophy, obviously. But I do want people to think "Wow, good for him: She's so pretty, and funny, and smart!", so I try to bring it on all fronts. When we're doing something formalish, presenting as A Couple, a unit, it feels good to reflect well on each other. At these type of events, I know people think I'm lucky to have such a charming and intelligent partner, and I wouldn't want to hog all that glory.
    And I definitely trust him to tell me about major beauty mishaps, like wonky eyeliner smudges or having the back of my dress tucked into my pantyhose, but for lesser things, like exposed tags or hanger straps, I tend to assume another femme woman at this type of event will let me know if it's really noticeable.

  5. Ha! I do that too. I say, "You're on lipstick [or eyeliner or bra strap or whatever] duty tonight." :)

  6. Great article!
    The possibility of monetarily outsourcing beauty work is an interesting one... Wouldn't it then, sort of, validate that the beauty work put in is necessary and the responsibility of both (kinda -hehe)?

  7. Ha! I love this. What a sharp couple the two of you make. And.. yes, I think the beauty work is a form of work (not labor, technically, since it isn't wage work, but work nonetheless!) Other ways we can outsource the labor? Put the Gentleman Friends in charge of dry-cleaning, ironing, packing, etc. And if something is forgotten - he makes a run to get it.

    I have a similar relationship to displays of feminine beauty. Sometimes I feel like I've staged a real coup to have scored a feminist husband who doesn't care if I look like a barbie doll... so every once in a while I go all "barbie doll" (well, more like Miss Piggy for me!) to kind of say "hey, thank you! we fooled em, eh?" It's complicated. I'm so glad you wrote this.

  8. I don't see anything wrong with beauty outsourcing in this sense. With some of my close female friends, this outsourcing is automatic- I just assume they'll let me know if my skirt is riding up or my eyeliner is smeared, just as I would do for them. It's one of the great things about hanging out with close friends whom I really trust.
    It's the same with my boyfriend- he's pretty good at noticing and letting me know if something is askew.
    I think a lot of women also use this when it comes to choosing outfits- isn't it nice to get dressed with a trustworthy friend there who will let you know if your outfit works? With my boyfriend, it's slightly different, as I can't just put on one outfit and ask "Does this look okay?" (because he'll always say yes), but if I show him two different outfits, he'll at least tell me which one he prefers, which takes out some of the beauty worries for the rest of the night.

  9. Well, hell. I know I'm not exactly an expert on the whole relationship thing, but isn't one of the points of a long-term relationship having a teammate, someone who has your back? Seems like this is entirely appropriate.

  10. I'm so pleased to read everyone's response--Cynthia and Anne, you know, I hadn't really considered that I do this with my female friends, but I do. I wonder if there's a part of it that I assume they too should be "happy" to accept my outsourced beauty labor because they're women, but I feel like it must be a chore for a man?

    Cameo, after I wrote this my boyfriend confessed he'd been slacking in his duties. Tell your fellow you'll blog about it, that'll get his notice!

    Courtney and Cristina, totally--it's one thing to turn to my fellow for reassurance (which I do) but this felt different. I can't actually expect him to absorb my deeper worries--or rather, I can in the sense that part of partnership is soothing one another, but ultimately it's my responsibility. But this? Hell, I'll share it!

    Emily and Kjerstin, it's an interesting feminist twist--I don't want to be trophy Barbie, and our relationship isn't structured that way, but then I don't want to make every act we do as a couple to be about Our Deep Beliefs. Sometimes I just wanna look pretty, and though I think my guy would rather die before admitting this, I suspect sometimes he really just likes having a pretty lady on his arm, even though that's not at all the real value I represent to him. We play it off in a vaguely kitschy sort of way but there's also a statement underneath about the roles we fill together.

    Emilie and Kjerstin, I love your points about how outsourcing beauty labor sort of validates the fact that is IS labor, depending on the motivation. It's sort of unmasking it for what it is. We divide other shared chores, so why not this one?