Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Real beauty comes from within"

But is it natural? (By ookikioo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Do you know what's in your lipstick? You do realize that you eat your lipstick? And of course any product rubbed into the skin, that's basically eating, no, injecting whichever horribleness into your system. Should anything ever go wrong with your health, or that of your children, or that of your theoretical children or theoretical great-great-grandchildren, you can never know for sure that your vanity was not the reason. When, in the year 3013, one of your progeny is born with an extra arm in place of a leg, the science of the day will be able to trace this back to your use of a tinted moisturizer you didn't even have the decency to purchase at Whole Foods.

But in all seriousness, there is, in principle, nothing wrong with discussing the possible toxicity of cosmetics, or the impact on whichever innocent rodents, creatures whose own mating rituals perfectly well proceed without the benefit of a smokey eye. Indeed, I'd prefer it if when I put on eyeliner, I can rest assured that some knowledgeable entity has checked that the stuff won't permanently seal my eyes shut. If an ingredient is actually poisonous, I'd like to know that, or better yet, to have this not in cosmetics to begin with. I don't find it patronizing that experts look into this, and if anything I'd like it if there were more thorough, but ethical, investigations.

The problem, then, isn't that the safety of cosmetics is up for discussion. It's the conversations that flow from the initial, reasonable one: Once we establish that there is or might be more biphelsnelsanphalatarsenicdehyde in cosmetics than we'd thought, some geniuses (and this is where "patronizing" enters into it) will inevitably point out that cosmetics are not essential to our sustenance or hygiene. That they could, in principle, be scrapped altogether. And yet women go on wearing them. What are women thinking?

Consider this response to Mark Bittman's post on the topic:
Cosmetic beauty is skin deep. True beauty needs no cosmetics, perfumes, lotions, potions, or oceans of chemicals to apply to our various body parts.
The commenter goes on to protest the ubiquity of cosmetic surgery in the entertainment industry. Then his or her (although I'm going to guess his) true colors show:
If a woman looks stunningly beautiful, is attracted to a handsome man, she will seduce him. In the a.m., after sex the nite before, makeup gone, he looks over at her and sees an ordinary-looking women snoring next to him. Manufactured beauty is only skin deep. Real beauty come from within. There is a difference, but women have sold themselves on turning that truth inside out. And we're still buying it. No wonder the divorce rate is so high.
What begins as a conversation about genuine problems with cosmetics neatly segues into one about women who have the nerve to fool innocent men into thinking they (the women, that is) are more beautiful than they are. The language of inner beauty - a term that's meant to describe character - gets used to discuss the kind of physical beauty that can't be bought.

In other words, that whole, 'Ladies, you don't need makeup to be beautiful' line of thought is actually men's way of saying that they will have none of our trickery. It's like when men say they'd prefer a woman who eats cheeseburgers than one who sticks with salad... but only if the woman in question is effortlessly thin. The answer for men with this gripe isn't for cosmetics to be made out of innocuous materials. It's for women to lay themselves bear, allowing whichever pseudo-evolutionary-psychology choice-process to take place unimpeded.

'Natural beauty' is anything but the liberation it sounds like, as an increasing number of women, myself included, have picked up on. But the specific angle of this I'd like to emphasize in this post is the way that the question of safety of cosmetics is so often used as a proxy for not quite so well-meaning concerns.


  1. I just bought 4 lipsticks today and was so excited...and then I read the first sentences here, haha! Its hard for me because sometimes (read often) I just want to be blissfully ignorant to all of this and just fawn over my coral smackers...sigh...This made some great points though :) As always.

    1. Oh, the first paragraph was intended as satire of the way this issue is discussed. I don't actually believe lipstick will be the end of any of us. And coral, always a good choice!

  2. You're right. This is yet another hidden way to criticize women from a misogynous perspective. There are several conventional notions that do this, all of which oppress women in subtle manner.

    The very idea of makeup is so gender-associated in our current society that manufacturers, who've tried for years to market cosmetics to men, can't get men to accept any products, even such useful ones as moisturizer. That's because most men (and many women) believe makeup is solely for women.

    One of the reasons I so love your blog, column and posts are because, through the prism of beauty, you explore larger topics like the sociological status of women in modern society. This is a good example of that.

    1. Thanks!

      This "gender-associated" angle you speak of definitely comes from misogyny, but I think it may ultimately screw over men. Many men may prefer 'naturally' beautiful women, but men themselves (unless they're willing to look unconventional) don't really have the option of anything but their natural state. As someone who's long realized I have the option of making my face look better or worse on a given day, that this is under my control, I think it would be mighty annoying not to have that possibility.

  3. Point taken about "real beauty" and "natural beauty" being loaded terms, and I'd like to add that when it comes to cosmetics and skin care the term "healthy" is pretty loaded too.

    It's a hard line to walk. In general I'm not hugely into makeup on women, but it's also none of my business if someone enjoys using / feels good because of it. I understand that the question of "who am I and what do I like/feel passionate about" doesn't exist in a vacuum, but I don't think we're doing anyone a favor when we tell them how to be beautiful. What's beautiful is when someone figures that out in their own life. That's when we should say "hey, that's rad that you are digging into what you really like, what a great thing to do." Call that "beautiful" if you must.

    1. I don't think it has to be such a difficult line, as long as men express these preferences for one look or another not so much "on women" as on women they have some kind of relationship with. As long as a man doesn't think his preference for not too much eyeshadow on women should impact how much eyeshadow women generally, women at their office, etc. are wearing, there's no problem. But it's normal and fair to have opinions more broadly, and to express those opinions in more personal situations. The problem, as I see it, only arises when certain men demand that all women tailor their grooming to fit whatever they (these men) would find most attractive. But it doesn't sound like you're doing that at all!

    2. That's interesting, I never thought about it that way before. That makes a lot of sense though....something along the lines of recognize/acknowledge the universal (larger cultural forces) but allow for the personal.

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