Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Invited Post: Gilding the Lily

A theory blog that promises to examine "why it matters so much to be beautiful, and why we have these particular ideas of what beauty is"—well, can you think of any reason not to read it? When I found Carina Hart's wonderful blog, Beautiful in Theory, I was thrilled to find a kindred spirit who loves to marry beauty with unlikely concepts. Whether she's looking at the "Frankenbabe" idea in which women are looked at as parts instead of a whole, examining how individual women have shaped our narratives of beauty with her "Biographies of Sin and Beauty", or considering the noteworthy lack of boobs in Scandinavian noir television, she's consistently seeking out alternate perspectives on beauty, helping each of us continue to form our own theory on beauty. Her work is informed by the research behind her PhD at the University of East Anglia (UK), which she devoted to studying images of beauty in post-1980 fiction. And we're lucky that Beautiful in Theory doesn't stop there. I'm fortunate enough to host a guest post from Carina today.



Why do we consider skin to be the barrier of "permissible" beauty work?


Recently I got into an argument with a male friend who couldn’t see the difference between makeup, clothes, and jewelery when it came to beauty work and feminism. I thought the difference was obvious, but being forced to explain it properly I settled on the argument that it came down to adornment vs alteration. Makeup sits right on your skin and changes the way you look, and it isn’t always easy to see that it’s there. Clothes can alter your shape and general appearance, but they are more separate from you than makeup; jewelery is more separate still, not actually changing the way you look but merely adorning you with sparkles.

At the time I was quite pleased with this argument, but now I wonder. When does adornment become alteration? I’m not sure that the boundary is as clear as I had assumed—after all, do we then have to draw a distinction between BB creams and bright red lipstick, on the grounds that lipstick is obvious and artificial, and therefore falls more into the adornment camp, whereas BB cream is a deceptive alteration of your skin (or at least its appearance)?

I’ve certainly never heard anyone argue that wearing jewelery is part of the patriarchal oppression of women by pressuring them to be beautiful. But it is something that women do, with the purpose of enhancing their beauty. Does that mean a feminist should rethink her earrings, giving them the same weight of consideration many might give makeup?

I think that skin is the key player here. Skin is the barrier between inside and outside, and making changes inside the skin is a more difficult, committed, and often more permanent process than an outside change: say, liposuction vs Spanx. This barrier is also crucial to the way we think about beauty work, so that cosmetic surgery has a much higher moral, emotional, and political charge than a wardrobe makeover. We have this potent desire for self-transformation, but in practice a truly drastic, inside-and-out transformation makes us queasy as well as some combination of impressed, fascinated, and jealous. 

Of course our sense of self is heavily invested in our bodies, and it is intensely disconcerting to adjust our sense of our own identity or someone else’s after a dramatic physical change. We may say that beauty is on the inside, that it’s someone’s personality that makes them who they are, but we find it extremely difficult to separate identities from bodies. I guess that’s why we keep saying those things, because we want them to be more true than they are.

That’s probably also why we are uncomfortable with under-the-skin, invasive changes like surgery, and why we’re likelier to brand it as “bad” beauty work. But diets are equally internal processes, and while we may tsk-tsk diets as a form of policing women’s bodies, we don’t quite put it in the same camp as cosmetic surgery. This is where another binary comes out to play: natural and artificial. This has been around for centuries, and the best example comes from way back in 1734, when Jonathan Swift wrote a delightful poem called “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed.” Starting with the lovely “Corinna, Pride of Drury Lane” retiring to bed, Swift proceeds to deconstruct her beauty both literally and figuratively:

Then, seated on a three-legg'd Chair,
Takes off her artificial Hair:
Now, picking out a Crystal Eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her Eye-Brows from a Mouse's Hyde,
Stuck on with Art on either Side,
Pulls off with Care…

… You get the picture. Swift’s deconstruction is intended to reveal the artifice of feminine beauty, and it achieves its discomfiting effect by messing with that questionable boundary, the skin. Hair, eyes, and brows are features with whose alteration we are familiar—hair coloring, makeup, brow plucking—but Swift takes this a step further and makes them completely artificial. Corinna’s eyebrows, instead of growing out of her skin and then being enhanced, are actually glued-on bits of mouse hide, both separate from and part of her body in a very disturbing way. The skin is an unreliable barrier, and I think we would prefer that it wasn’t.

Inside and outside, natural and artificial: As soon as you examine these concepts closely they start to unravel. What about the fact that much of the food we now eat can hardly be described as natural? What about vitamin pills? Does a facial count as inside or outside? What about diets promising glowing skin as their main benefit, or pills promising healthier hair? Is long-term skin maintenance with SPF and moisturiser natural or artificial? How about piercings and tattoos? Sheesh.

Donna Haraway’s famous “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985) uses the cyborg as an “ironic political myth” to describe the way traditional human boundaries are coming unstuck. Human-animal, human-machine, inside-outside, natural-artificial: It is even more true now than it was in 1985 that we live within very blurred lines. Photoshopped selfies of ourselves in Spanx and full makeup are fast becoming the foundation of our identities, in our virtual-real lives. It’s funny how “natural” used be the ideal image of beauty—though frequently with artificial help, beauty was at least supposed to look spontaneous. Now “natural” can be used as a word of dread, deployed by glossy magazines to describe the nightmare in which someone sees you sans foundation; or it’s a word used to sell BB creams and other faux-natural effects. Artificial is all the rage, in our eyelashes, hair color and extensions, nails and tans.

Does this matter? It certainly did to Jonathan Swift, and it did to Naomi Wolf, who argued in The Beauty Myth how useful the artificial beauty ideal is to patriarchal capitalism. It does cost women a lot of time and money. Haraway’s open-minded discussion of the cyborg is a good counterpoint to the knee-jerk fear surrounding any threat to traditional ideas of what it is to be human, and if a decent SPF face cream and some vitamin pills make me a cyborg then I’m fine with that (yes, there are better reasons to embrace cyborg life, such as prosthetic limbs, but hey). 

And if an acceptance of our “posthuman” cyborg existence (Haraway again) helps us become less squeamish about the unpredictable boundary of our skin, then that is also good. It might mean that we can question the role of surgery, dietary supplements, and makeup in our world in a more clear-minded way, and perhaps make our relationship with beauty less fraught. At the moment I think that we do judge beauty work partly by where it sits on the spectrum between adornment and alteration, and that it is definitely a problem when societal pressure makes people want to change themselves from the inside out. It would take at least another essay to discuss that other unreliable binary, free and unfree choice, to determine the motives for the beauty work that we do (am I really plucking my eyebrows for me? Really?), and all beauty work comes under the shadow of oppression along with its undeniable joys.

But I still think earrings are OK.


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Carina Hart is the mind behind Beautiful in Theory.

8 comments:

  1. Actually, I DO generally treat jewelry like makeup, for the same reason; if it has no benefit beyond being pretty, I'm not doing it. (Other things I won't do: wear dresses, keep my nails long, style my hair beyond keeping it out of the way, wear any shoes that I can't run in as easily as my actual running shoes, color-coordinate my outfits, etc.)

    There are exceptions to these; I've worn makeup and jewelry (and dresses and uncomfortable shoes) to things like my graduation and my cousin's wedding, but in general they're reserved for fairly formal situations. Even in those situations, the largest part of my reasoning is that I don't want to potentially offend anyone by not looking like I put enough time into my appearance, so as I worry about that less, I may stop wearing them in those situations too. Of course, I personally don't care about being pretty at all most of the time and only barely on occasion, so any 'pretty' things would be entirely for other people, not myself, which is probably a significant factor. (I am asexual, I tend to be creeped out by people who are too obviously attracted to me, I have really terrible vision, and my brain isn't visually focused at all; my appearance is barely something I even remember, much less find significant.)

    I'm more likely to wear jewelry than makeup to formal situations, simply because it's easier--the necklace someone gave me ten years ago is still perfectly wearable, but the makeup I bought for graduation has long since been thrown out, and I don't want to buy a bunch more that I know I'll only use once. If (somehow) makeup lasted long enough for me to actually use, or was sold in single-use amounts, I'd probably wear it as often as jewelry.

    The exception to the formal events rule is jewelry which has a purpose that isn't related to appearance at all. I have a ring which when worn on the correct finger is an asexual symbol that I wear at all times, and a necklace which is a religious symbol that I sometimes wear. Either of these are probably sometimes viewed as pretty by virtue of being jewelry, but wouldn't be otherwise, and my actual reason for wearing them is a shout out to other asexuals/people from my church. So it's more of I don't wear jewelry for the purpose of improving my appearance than I don't wear any at all, but since the attempt to change appearance is the key here I think it still counts.

    My approach to cosmetic surgery (and makeup, jewelry, diets, impractical clothes, etc.) is something along the lines of 'make sure you find a surgeon that won't give you an infection from an unclean tool or something, and preferably have more reason to want the surgery than getting a gift certificate for your birthday, and more power to you.' I have no problem with anyone trying to be pretty because they want to be and don't generally consider it a moral issue at all; it's just not something that I personally want to put my time/money/effort into. (People being forced into it because other people want them to be pretty is of course a different matter entirely.)

    Something which I can't really make guesses at but am curious about is: how many people do 'pretty' things for entirely non-pretty reasons? People, for example, wearing makeup because feeling attractive boosts their confidence is acknowledged (relatively) frequently, but people doing things coded as pretty for reasons that are entirely unrelated to being attractive (such as the ring I wear, or someone who wears heels because they want to be tall and the heels are cooler to wear in summer than platform boots, or someone wearing makeup to cover a scar that reminds them of something they don't like to think about) doesn't seem to be mentioned very much. I would be very interested to know how many people are perceived as putting effort into their appearance when they're actually putting effort into something else entirely.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, and for the insight into a different perspective. It's really helpful to be reminded that not everyone sees things the same way, and that this isn't necessarily a problem. In fact, it's preferable: that way makeup, jewellery etc. don't have just one meaning on which we have to pass a moral judgement.

      You also highlight how 'functional' makeup and jewellery can be in a social sense, and I think this is something that influences all of us but we is often lost amongst all the discussion of prettiness. As women, we dress up for special occasions because we are expected to, and we don't necessarily want to impose our ideological rebellion on someone else's wedding! That's certainly true for me: a while ago I was toying with the idea of growing my armpit hair, then realised I was soon going to a wedding. I couldn't face the looks and questions, and decided it wasn't a good idea (coward! I know).

      So is it a problem that adornment etc. are part of a performance of 'normal' femininity, in various situations? It is a problem when drastic diets and even surgery become part of that 'normality', and it's also generally kind of annoying. But we do have choices, we just need to remember that. Many of us could benefit from your more practical attitude to clothes!

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  2. I've always had trouble identifying with the fact that our society applies pressure on women to be beautiful. I don't mean that I doubt it--I absolutely believe that it's true, and I see evidence of it every day. But I don't feel it, and never have.

    And since my mother's death I've formed the theory that this is because I grew up with a constant, if subtle, pressure, from Mom, not to be beautiful. Or pretty. Or feminine. Mom owned that, and I wasn't entitled to any. So for me, caring about my appearance isn't compliance, it's rebellion. And it's not rebellion against feminist principles; instead, it's graverobbing. Yes, I know how crazy that sounds, and I'll probably get over it, but there it is. For now, I'm just working on embracing the graverobbing. :)

    It's also roleplaying. I am a girl, but when I dress up and put on jewelry, I'm playing the role of a girl. I became comfortable with girly clothes when I started to think of them essentially as costumes--a Chanel suit (not that I own one) would not, in my mind, be fundamentally different in function from a Wookie costume.

    And just as I wouldn't get plastic surgery or shave my head to better fit my Wookie costume, I wouldn't do anything drastic to enhance my girl costumes either. Makeup, occasionally, sure, though that's a very (very very) recent addition. Jewelry and scarves, absolutely. I've been known to wear "shapewear." But if I wouldn't do it for Halloween, I wouldn't do it to be pretty. That, rather than the skin layer, appears to be my boundary.

    So for me, beauty isn't about my identity. At its best, it's playful, roleplaying, amateur art, fingerpainting all grown up. At its worst, we're back to stealing from the dead.

    Thinking about the comment question "how many people do 'pretty' things for entirely non-pretty reasons?" made me think about this. Does playing the role of a girl count? Or does it not count if I'm playing the role of a pretty girl? What if I don't actually believe I'm pretty? I never believe I'm pretty...y'know, I came closest, recently, this past Halloween. Heh.

    Hmmm.

    I would also say that some adornment is, to me, less about adorning me than about experiencing the art of a piece of jewelry or a scarf or a perfume. Or about communicating something--my gaudy bangles combined with a companion gaudy scarf are a communication of celebration, similar to the way that a man's Hawaiian shirt might be.

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    1. Thank you for another alternative perspective! I particularly like your last paragraph, wearing jewellery for its artistry or celebration of its own beauty: that's how I feel about jewellery, and I think that's why I found it so difficult to put jewellery and makeup in the same camp. It's obviously a very individual thing, as you explain - even though we get much the same media exposure, our own particular upbringing has a huge impact on how we understand beauty/prettiness. I would love to see some research in this field, as there is quite a lot on media influence on self-image, but not so much (I think) on the influence of upbringing. If only I was a social scientist.

      I also agree with the idea of role-playing femininity. Have you read any Judith Butler? Not the most readable stuff, but she talks about gender itself as a performance, and I think there is undeniably an aspect of that. I mean, as if makeup, long hair and adornments could in any way be innate to the female sex?!

      I wonder if someone who does feel that beauty is a part of their identity would have a totally different perspective - anyone out there? It seems a scarily precarious thing to base your identity on, since beauty is both subjective and temporary (or youthful beauty is). I guess that's how the makeup companies make their money...

      I can only think that it's better to think as little as possible about our own beauty, so your attitude sounds pretty good! If makeup isn't fun, surely it would be better not to bother..?

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  4. The funny thing is that i have personally started regarding makeup as clothes. I don't believe in the "transformative powers of makeup" - if a girl is conventionally pretty while wearing makeup, there's a 99% chance that she also is without makeup. You have to do drag queen-level highlight and contour makeup to alter bone structure significantly, so I don't believe that makeup is really all that. Sure, I've seen the ~*magical*~ transformations where girls have makeup on one side of the face, or the before and after pictures - but I can still see the face underneath, especially when it comes to everyday makeup.

    I also think your attitude towards pretty has something to do with it. To make one thing perfectly clear: I am pretty. I consider it a fact that my face is pretty and I look good, with and without makeup. Makeup is not something I do to be pretty because I am already pretty. I put on makeup by the same rules that I put on clothes - what do I want to look like today, what roles am I going to play, what do I want of results today? I also acknowledge that girls with pretty makeup usually read as pretty to people in general and often get better treatment and I'm not above taking advantage of that. It might be a cheap trick, but I'm not the one making the rules. So I'll gladly put on makeup and heels because I know that I am equally gorgeus without it - even if the rest of the world doesn't yet :)

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