Today The New York Times ran a debate: Does Makeup Hurt Self-Esteem? As I see it, the real question is not whether individual women are dupes, idiots or traitors for wearing makeup, or heroes, homelies or underpaid for not wearing makeup (although underpaid is, statistically, probably true) – the question we must ask is, Is The Beauty Industry Hurting Self-Esteem? Is there a relationship between the pressure on women to be ornate in appearance and the pressure on women to be subordinate in substance? Why do people make such large judgements on the basis of physical appearance about women, and to a lesser but still pernicious extent men? What are we getting in return for these assumptions?
Three years ago, I had a makeover that wasn’t my idea. At the time I never would have said the following out loud, so I wrote it to myself. While my views have expanded somewhat, these are those thoughts as they were:
Let’s get this out of the way: I’m beautiful. I know I’m beautiful. I resent the unearned advantages beauty gives me, and frankly find the whole thing to be a pain in the ass. As commonly understood, beauty is a form of racial profiling that excludes many from being taken seriously and awards a smaller number with unearned expectations of sex, compassion and feebleness. To the extent that beauty is not meritocratic it should be abolished, and to the extent that it is, it should be undermined.
Like most women in this country, I have an incredibly complicated relationship with my appearance. I grant my story is extreme. I’ve been hospitalized three times for anorexia. I have never been treated better than when dying. Everyone officious; the world was my hospice. Twice I was recruited for modeling. I can’t remember how many times I was stopped by strangers with you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Fucked up. The experience of scraping a heartbeat back together has made me prone to taking a compliment about my physique, appearance or even hairstyle as a thinly veiled death sentence.
It took a lot of therapy, threatened feeding tubes and observed toilet breaks to get to the point where I could acknowledge that my eating disorder developed as a response to feeling dangerously unfeminine for being a smart person in a high school classroom. In going to prom with the grim reaper, I lost my self-hatred and began to transfer my energy to doing everything I could to stop other women and girls from blaming themselves for living in a sexist world. Mainly, these days, I focus on exposing and correcting the latter.
I have a beef with manufactured beauty that reaches far beyond issues of body image and the routine use of Photoshop as a weapon of mass destruction. For example, the $50 billion cosmetics industry. It steals women from additional time that could be spent sleeping to literally self-embalm in unlimited concentrations of virtually any chemical. Cosmetics are the least regulated products under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration. Whereas the European Union bans 1,100 carcinogenic ingredients, the United States bans ten. As a friend explained to me today, men like it when women wear makeup. It signals that we ‘take care of ourselves.’
People write books about these issues in ways far better than I could. Needless to say, I don’t particularly enjoy wearing makeup. Before my feminism became a part of my paycheck, I slapped on the stuff maybe six times a year. I guess the makeover began during a dress rehearsal of a speech about the future of feminism with the advisers to a slate campaigning to lead a large women’s organization; I was running for a role. I am good at public speaking, and writing speeches, which I had hoped to mean we could skip past the basics and talk about some of the approaches I was suggesting for the million-dollar question. In the room were a handful of the smarter feminist activists alive, legends with names omitted for the sake of privacy.
Instead, I got a lecture. “Erin, your hair is driving me CRAZY! I can’t listen to what you are saying — the only thing I can do is look at your bangs.” Before I opened my mouth the campaign manager was sent to buy bobby pins. I was instructed to wear makeup and get rid of the bracelets. It seemed important, so I did. During the vote nobody thought we could win, myself included, I changed into board shorts and flip-flops. That’s how I came to be heavily photographed a few hours later as a little bobby-pinned punk standing between three women in suits who would also become the next talking heads for the group.
One member of the staff was a smart, stylish woman who knew a lot about presence on-camera. She’d worked in television before deciding to help others with what she’d learned. She took a shine to me pretty quickly, realizing I had an imperfect but promising skill for speaking. “You’re really likable,” she said. “That’s important. But we’ve got to do something about your appearance.”
She vowed to take me shopping to look at clothes. “You don’t have to buy anything,” she would say. “I just want you to start getting comfortable with styles.” She wanted me to wear things fitted, in bright colors, and always keep a jacket in the office. I got that resistance was a waste of time, so I began to step up my game for her, the movement really.
Less comfortable was her instruction to wear makeup; bring a brush, blow-dryer and hair goo to the office; and tweeze my eyebrows (my eyebrows?). She desperately wanted me to get a haircut. It was bigger than that. She wanted to give me a makeover. She spoke of it for months, warming me to the idea slowly, at least enough so that I would agree we could do it “sometime” the way you say you’ll call someone you don’t like but can stand, if the occasion calls for it.
I wish it were not true that living in a post-makeover body changes my day-to-day. Doors are opened more often, and people treat me like a small child during rush-hour duck, duck gray duck on the subway. Mainly the issue is men. I get asked out a hell of a lot more than I used to. Friends with girlfriends flirt and inquire about my sexual availability behind my back. I used to be a bawdy liberal feminist for men to challenge and now, it seems, I’m more often the subject of romantic speculation. I am aware this is unlikely to quench any of the poignant loneliness I feel some nights; I have learned it’s lonelier still to be saying something cool and interrupted by a lover with: “Sweetie, shouldn’t you start wearing makeup?” In any event I did not take on a public feminist role intending to grapple with these issues.
More haunting is the feeling that I’ve sold out myself, and embraced the very toxicity that led me into this fight so more people will listen to me. If that works, maybe it’s worth it. I have already silenced my personal freedom of speech, pulling down my essays, poems and short stories from the web, so that my thoughts aren’t held as definitive commentary or doctrine of my organization today. A close friend remarked about a year ago that I had changed: “You don’t say what you’re thinking anymore.”
I understand that my job is not to be a perfect expression of myself, and that, for the moment, my name doesn’t belong to me but the women I want to help. To give up my body is another matter entirely. It is so very strange to take on a burden so that others might not, to be taken as generally more shallow, to no longer hide behind words and arguments in plain sight. Today a friend took me for my first pedicure, and I was struck by how every woman in the place seemed to be grieving.
If I were not me, I might criticize me harshly.
Post-script from 2013: Knowing what I know now, I don’t think I would criticize me so harshly. Looking professional removes barriers to some of the amazing things a person is able to do, which for me includes saying to large groups and people who make decisions that sexism is not acceptable. These days I am no longer speaking for anyone but myself, and I choose to wear makeup and do my hair more often than I used to before this makeover took place. And, I believe this choice has nothing to do with my self-worth. Further, I believe that beauty is loving action and that whether, and in what color, you wear lipstick is one of the less interesting things I could know about you.