The New York Times published – on its “room for debate” page – a collection of essays by authors with various viewpoints about makeup and self-esteem. As would be expected in such a collection, the authors include a couple of makeup artists, some writers and research scientists who’ve written on beauty and women’s issues, and the lone heterosexual male who loves his wife both with and without makeup.
But it’s not the coverage that’s rankling me – there’s something offensive about the topic itself, and the sheer amount of press coverage it gets. Even with a pro-feminist bias, there’s something paternalistic (or maybe maternalistic) about most discussion about women, cosmetics, and self-esteem.
It starts with the title: “Does Makeup Hurt Self-Esteem?” Even if humans have been wearing face and body paint since we learned that we could grind pigment and apply it, in the modern West it’s women who wear most of the makeup. So when we’re having the discussion about makeup, we’re talking about “women’s” vanity.
And yes – we women do have vanity. And insecurities. And yes, we may enhance our beauty – or hide our insecurities – with makeup.
But don’t men do all sorts of things to enhance their image? They get the right haircuts, wear the right suits, buy cars and gadgets.They worry about fitting in (and standing out in just the right way) with their peers just as women do. So where are the discussions entitled “Do iPads hurt self-esteem?”
We get it with men and their stuff. Sure, that guy driving that wildly expensive sports car may be doing it out of insecurity. Or maybe he lives for cars 24/7. We don’t know, and although we do judge, we don’t have panel discussions about whether sports cars hurt men’s self-esteem.
But if women like beauty products, we are assumed to be running around every minute of every day chasing the airbrushed perfection of Maybelline models, when in fact we’re usually just getting dressed for the day. And we’re also assumed to be so naive that we can’t see that all this stuff is optional. Or maybe we’re only doing it to please that ogre of a sexist pig we fell in love with. (Oh, us women with our bad choices!)
Somehow the majority of grown men are assumed to be smart enough to navigate the excesses of consumerism, vanity, and status to proper self-expression. But grown women are assumed to be far more vulnerable. And with beauty we’re expected to take sides – to choose between acting as vain victims or savvy abstainers. It’s the virgin whore complex all over again, carried over into makeup. As though women are the carriers of “vanity virtue”.
I’m not having it. I’ll agree that there’s often a hamster-wheel quality to beauty industry hype. But is that so different from the hype of every new gadget? Or a new car ad? We pick and choose what we can deal with. Most women aren’t wearing makeup out of abject insecurity, anyway – there’s something about looking good – the same way a man would shave and wear a tie – that feels good.
There is a beauty bias, as well as a youth bias. There’s also wealth bias, class bias, educational bias, and family connection bias. And people buy stuff, and wear stuff, to show themselves to advantage, or hide what they perceive as shortcomings. It’s just who we are. But cosmetics aren’t going to go away – they’re too much part of our “makeup” as humans. And both and women and men are naturally drawn to them. If you don’t believe me, leave a three-year old boy unattended with your eyeshadow collection. Go ahead, I dare you.
But let’s stop picking on women as the only possible insecure – or vain – creatures on the planet, shall we? Yes, everyone makes certain judgements about people whose grooming choices are different than theirs. Just as we judge the guy with the sports car. But can we allow that the person might be in on the game? Even if she’s a woman?
”Does Makeup Hurt Self-Esteem?” The New York Times.