Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Impermanence of Beauty Work

ZEN. (via)

I used to be a pastry chef. It didn’t last—doing what you love for money ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, folks!—but it was an intensely gratifying experience. My very first gig was at a vegan restaurant more than an hour by subway away from my apartment, but I thought nothing of hopping on the train after my magazine job finished for the day, arriving at the restaurant, baking until near-dawn, getting an hour of sleep on the ride home, showering, and going back to my magazine job. I did this two or three times a week for months, and despite my cross-eyed fatigue, I loved the process. I loved—and still love—watching the magic of chemistry and labor. Chemistry: the rising of cake, the shortening of crusts; labor, measuring, the mixing, the juggling of pans, the exquisite feeling of slicing a pear just so and swirling the slices atop a tart. People always said to me, “Oh, I couldn’t be a pastry chef—I’d gain so much weight”; the truth is, professionals rarely eat what they create. That’s not where the pleasure is, even for a sweets lover like me. The joy lies in the creation.

So when my mother asked me if it bothered me that the tangible results of my hard work lasted for mere seconds before disappearing down a stranger’s gullet, I didn’t have a ready response. It had never once occurred to me to wish that my creations lasted longer than they did. Once she asked the question, though, I realized that the ephemeral quality of dessert was part of what I enjoyed about it. I liked that the results of my labor were to be enjoyed briefly and intensely, never to be had again. I mean, I had my menu usuals (my vegan hazelnut-chocolate pie is, in the words of the cafe’s dreadlocked proprietress, “slammin’”) and my results were generally consistent. But that slice would never be enjoyed by that customer in exactly the same way again. Different time of day, different dining partner, different mood, different desired emotional state resulting from the utterance Yes, I’ll look at the dessert menu: All these play into our enjoyment of food, particularly food we eat not for nutrition or satiety but for desire. I liked giving that to diners, strangers I’d never meet or even see, for the most part. It was theater.

I’d never considered the ephemeral quality of beauty work either, until it came up in a book I’m reading called Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. The author studies consumer behavior in the minutiae, working with teams that silently survey shoppers in retail settings. According to the book, when men grocery shop for produce, they tend to pick up the first, say, head of lettuce their hand lands on, and drop it in their cart. Women, however, are more likely to pick up the head of lettuce, examine it for suitability, checking out several different heads before deciding upon one. I recognized myself in this (why pay for a subpar avocado when there could be a perfect avocado next to it?!), but I really recognized myself in the author’s explanation: “Women...have traditionally understood the importance of the impermanent world—cooking a meal, decorating a cake, fixing hair and makeup.” Stereotypical, yes. But will you really be that surprised when I tell you that of the 16 students in my class at pastry school, 15 were women?

The author’s word choice struck me: impermanent, which I unintentionally tweaked in my mind to impermanence. When I thought to Google it, I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that beyond its meaning of, well, not-permanent, impermanence is a also term of Buddhist teachings. Now, my understanding of Buddhism doesn’t go much farther than “pop Buddhism,” as in I read one of the Dalai Lama's books once. So my base of knowledge is thin at best, but from what I understand, impermanence is one of the three conditions of life that every living creature shares (the other two are death and taxes). That is: One of the only things that is certain in this life is change.

Most of the time when we talk about beauty’s relation to impermanence, we’re talking of age and the supposed decay of physical appeal that it brings. And, yes, there’s plenty to say about that, but I’m thinking less of the change we endure by the year and more the change we endure—or create—by the minute. Beautywise, there’s special-event impermanence: weddings, proms, the spate of Great Gatsby parties that are sure to hit soon. There’s beauty-phase impermanence, like going Cleopatra with the kohl for six months, or my misguided pigtail era of 2002. There’s trying-it-on impermanence—nail decals, say, or hair chalk.

And then there’s the kind of impermanence that’s reflected in our daily beauty labor. Any sort of beauty labor that we do, we’re doing it for effect, whether that effect is polish, sophistication, glamour, not looking like we were up too late the night before, or simply presenting an oh-so-slightly exaggerated version of what we look like “naturally.” We wake up, create that effect, go about our business, fall asleep—and do it all again the next day.

And while I may resent some of the political implications of beauty labor, and sometimes get cranky because of the time it can take for me to pull myself together (we’re talking about 10 minutes here once I’m showered, though my entire grooming procedure takes 55 minutes), what I don’t mind is its impermanence. In fact, as with pastry, that might be part of what I appreciate about it. Repeated mechanical labor can have a stultifying effect, but under the right conditions, it can also bring about a state of presence. It’s not quite flow, because I think of that as being more about being engaged in the activity itself. While I might be thinking a little bit about, say, whether I want to wear lipstick that day or if I should use liquid or pencil eyeliner, most of the time the actions of beauty work become automatic: I reach for the same tools kept in the same place, I use the same spot on my hand to blend foundation, I apply my dry shampoo in the same spots—all of which frees up my mind to passively think about what lies ahead. I’m mentally steeling myself for a draining day at the office, or leaning into a day spent doing only exactly what I want to do, whatever that might be, or I’m calming nerves over an upcoming meeting. Or maybe I’m just thinking about a joke from the night before, or why Full House lasted as long as it did. The point is, I’m both engaged and separate; going through motions but allowing for mental drift. It’s both tuned in and checked out, a state of centering myself. It’s—I mean, forgive me, true practitioners of Zen, but isn’t that sort of meditation lite?

In fact, that’s exactly what I was after when I decided to give the professional kitchen life a whirl. Yes, I enjoyed the act of baking (and its varieties of caramel-drizzled outcomes), but the real reason I didn’t mind regularly going 36 hours without real sleep was because of the pseudo-meditative state baking induced. With three different desserts in the oven and two more on the stove, you’ve got to be on your game, but in an entirely different way than I had to be on my game while copy editing. It was a matter of constant, evenly paced motion; of wiping down the same counter a dozen times in one night; of the rhythm of rolling out a crust.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both beauty labor and baking—neither of which require a good deal of heightened cerebral awareness, and both of which can induce a state of reflection—are both activities of impermanence. The very fact that it’s a repeated motion whose results will not last demands a different sort of focus and attention than activities with lingering results. The impermanence of beauty work nudges us to be in the moment, in a way that’s both active (you’re doing an activity) and passive (your mind is freed while your hands are occupied); by rote (I can do it without looking in the mirror if needed) yet with an element of joy.

Beauty labor can be a distraction from our larger goals—the time, the money, and most of all, the voice in the back of the head that keeps telling you to check your lipstick, check your hair, check your face. Yet as with so many aspects of beauty work, there’s a flipside there too, one that serves as a gentler reason for putting in the effort that beauty work requires. Putting my efforts into something impermanent (relatively speaking) has its rewards too, but those rewards will forever differ from the rewards of impermanence. And I'm still wondering if the author of the shopping book was right in parts—whether women might have more of a proclivity for the impermanent. Could it be a fear of the permanent, a lack of belief in one’s might and weight? Or is it a tacit acceptance of constant change—even a nod to the myriad roles women are expected to play, sometimes on a daily basis?

21 comments:

  1. Based on this perspective it is no wonder that I am in misery. I hate impermanence and everytime I engage in Beauty work I am lamenting my youth, feeling the pressure of capturing something beautiful in myself now before it too has been swept away by time. I think you just hit on the crux of suffering, the inability to accept impermanence. Kudos to you for having a zen view even if you do consider it "pop". I think it's quite wise.

    xo,

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. >feeling the pressure of capturing something beautiful in myself now before it too has been swept away by time<

      Oof, that resonates. It's funny being at this age: When I was younger I never thought I looked good, and looking back now I see that even when I truly didn't look good, I had that youthful quality. So I'm aware that there are "assets" I have now that I want to honor and recognize so I don't miss out on appreciating them--but as you point out, that too is a form of pressure. Oi!

      (Also, part of my little Buddhism kick is helped along by a certain friend having a book on the matter lying around...)

      Delete
  2. Well you hooked me in with pastry and then ended up explaining why I - with a need for quiet time with my own thoughts each day - get so cranky in the mornings when I don't feel I've had enough time to get ready. I wonder how much the meditative aspect of beauty work relates to the purported calming effect of grooming rituals in general?

    Also, I know this isn't a cooking blog, but, about that chocolate hazelnut pie?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lauren, that's an excellent question about the larger purpose of grooming--I'm going to check in with people who have a less extensive grooming ritual than I do (mostly men, but some women too) and see what their experience has been. I react the same as you--if I'm rushed I just feel scattered, sometimes for the whole day, even if I look exactly the same and *know* I look exactly the same. (Also part of why I'm a morning showerer, despite my hair looking at its best the morning after a night shampoo.)

      Also, recipe now here!
      http://www.the-beheld.com/2013/02/the-impermanence-of-beauty-buried-lede_6.html

      Delete
  3. I wonder if part of the allegedly female interest in impermanent work is because they traditionally poured their energy into children, who are in a constant state of flux, rather than say, bridges.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fascinating theory--I was trying to figure out what "essential" parts of womanhood would connect to a comfort with impermanence, but hadn't thought of that. Makes sense to me! I don't have children but perhaps I'm picking up on other cues that give that comfort.

      Delete
  4. I also meandered over here from salon.com to enquire about that hazelnut-chocolate pie...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ask and ye shall receive!

      http://www.the-beheld.com/2013/02/the-impermanence-of-beauty-buried-lede_6.html

      Delete
  5. I did a lot of study on Mahayana (Zen) Buddhism this past semester, and along with impermanence, mindfulness is also key. So if we reach a point where are routines become mindless, we're somewhat straying from the Buddhist aspect. But I love the connection; that makes perfect sense to me, and same with the above comment, could possibly explain why rushed days feel so off.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting re: mindfulness. Certainly my beauty work isn't mindful, at least not the routine stuff--but there is a different sort of mindfulness that comes about as a result. You know, maybe I'll try an experiment and purposefully be mindful about my routine for a few days and see if I feel differently--will report back!

      Delete
  6. Impermanence is probably one of the bigger reasons behind why I hate cooking and don't bother with beauty work most of the time. I don't see the point in putting a lot of effort into something that is going to disappear shortly, which means I'm a very unwilling cook and totally uninterested in baking. While putting on makeup takes less time and lasts longer, it's still often an unnecessary addition to my day. I have to wear clothes, so I might as well wear nices ones, but makeup doesn't usually make the cut.

    I find it a bit strange that I'm like that, because impermanence is otherwise something I seek after. I change my hobbies, appearance, opinions and goals in life a lot, but don't value impermanence if I think the effort outweighs the reward, I suppose.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You know, despite what I'm saying here, I think I agree with you--it's just that the areas where I find the effort is worth it are different. (I actually don't *cook* much, for example, but will happily spend hours baking desserts.) Now, I wonder what makes us come up with that calculation? Like, you do change your appearance a good deal (hair color in particular, if I remember correctly), but there's also the resistance you mention to the more day-to-day beauty work--whereas I'm the opposite (I'm basically an aging, somewhat more polished version of the way I looked in college. Same haircut, even!)

      Delete
    2. I think you have described that perfectly. We seek both change and stability and somehow develop some system to value one or the other in different areas.

      Delete
  7. The impermanence of makeup always fascinated me as a makeup artist, and sometimes I think I used that impermanence to avoid more permanent expressions (like painting - or writing) And funnily enough, I would compare it to baking when people asked me if my work had any "consequence"! Maybe women take to "impermanent" work because it's work we're either expected to do, or will get support for? The idea that women design cities rather than magazine layouts is still culturally rather new, isn't it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd wondered how makeup artists felt about it, actually! And yes, I think that perhaps those of us whose work is impermanent can use that as a way to avoid those more lasting forms of expression. (When I quit pastry, I was all, "Shit, well, I guess now I've gotta write...")

      I'm split as to how to feel about women's possible tendencies toward impermanency. Obviously I respect the impermanent, as per this post. But as you point out, women are supported in those fields more than in fields with a more lasting product. Should we be trying to elevate impermanent works to a more serious level of discourse so that they're taken seriously? (Like how some women artists made a point of reclassifying "crafts"--i.e. the work of the untrained, or minorities, or women--as "art"--i.e. something "important.") Or should we be encouraging women to aim for permanency and to not sell their skills short? I suppose the answer is both. Takes all stripes, right?

      Delete
  8. This is so interesting! In terms of the impermanence of daily makeup application, I actually think it can be a diary of sorts (albeit a diary that doesn't really record anything - kind of an oxymoron). I put on makeup every day but it's never the same. It all depends on my mood, the weather, and what I have to do that day (i.e., if I'm just running errands I'll slap on some tinted moisturizer, lip balm and curl my lashes; if I have a job interview I wear full foundation, mascara and neutral shades - no crazy colors). When I look in the mirror during the day or take the makeup off at night, I remember what that particular day is like based on the makeup I'm wearing. And I don't think the impermanence of makeup application is a bad thing - it's great because it allows you to create something different every time you wear it. And if you hate something you applied, it's simple enough to remove.
    BTW, I love to bake and hate to cook - the fact that I'll be gulping down a meal in about 10 minutes flat makes me not want to spend any time preparing food - but like you, I find desserts to be totally different.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Heh, I wonder what it IS about cooking that makes it seem like this huge overwhelming chore while dessert are just fun? Maybe it's the very fact that one is totally for pleasure instead of for satiety/nutrition--it's like, you sort of have to have fun with it, otherwise why bother?

      Good point about makeup functioning like a short-term record. Before the bars here banned smoking, I actually liked waking up after a night out with my hair smelling of smoke--I didn't even smoke, but anytime you went out you'd come home smelling like it, so I associated it with going out and having fun. It's sort of the same thing--I like coming home at the end of a night out and seeing, say, the last remaining bits of lipstick on my lips, or my smeary, heavier-than-usual mascara. It's sort of a record of the fact that I enjoyed myself, you know?

      Delete
  9. I'd always thought of women's impermanent work (beautification tasks, cooking, cleaning) as being about pleasing other people--- what could be LESS permanent than external approval? You'll always need another pie, another dinner, another sexy hairdo to keep the praise coming... But perhaps this idea reveals more about my inner workings than anyone else's.


    Wouldn't it be fun to gather someone's online comments and psychoanalyze the person based on their public writing? I bet you've got me pegged!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. >Wouldn't it be fun to gather someone's online comments and psychoanalyze the person based on their public writing? I bet you've got me pegged!<

      I would be downright shocked if some sort of nefarious Facebook tool *weren't* in the works for this already, incidentally (she says, two months later).

      Delete