I am endlessly fascinated by the experiments women perform around appearance; while they can be repetitive and are sometimes derivative, I think the continued existence of them illustrates the social pressure that a lot of women (especially women in urban corporate work places) experience to look "good" according to an arbitrary and very narrow social ideal.
That is to say: if there wasn't still the idea floating around that you have to wear makeup to look good, these experiments about not wearing makeup would not even exist.
This time around, it's Lauren Shields, who went without makeup and also wore modest clothing for nine months.
I gotta be honest -- before I can even address this experiment as a concept, I have to admit that the framing of it has aggravated me. In her Salon piece, Lauren Shields says, "I briefly considered beginning to dress like a Quaker, but I thought to myself, 'What’s my excuse? I can’t just magically dress like a Quaker or a Muslim because I’m tired of dressing like an American.'” Y'all. Y'all. Do we really seriously need to have a conversation about how "American" is not a set that is exclusive of "Quakers" and "Muslims"?
(Katie Baker at Jezebel is irritated as well -- she reads a lot of shaming from Lauren's blog entries.)
It sounds like Lauren didn't enjoy her experiences with dressing modestly -- though I think she expected to. Turns out, she discovered, that women who dress modestly still care about their appearance and put effort into it. Quelle surprise?
It's easy to brush these experiments off as obvious, because it's hardly news that many people still expect women to look a certain way. But as much as some of this particular experiment makes me roll my eyes, it's further evidence of just how strong the compulsion is to conform when it comes to appearance. I mean, seriously. Some people feel so locked into looking a certain way that they can't just stop looking that way or moderate their efforts. They have to make a statement out of it, out of being noncompliant.
The forcefulness of that rejection says a lot -- it's says there are a lot of people for whom conformance is so mandatory that they either cannot or have a difficult time believing there's an alternative.
That's kind of hardcore! And I don't think any of us want mainstream culture to work that way!
Second Wave feminism rejected the idea that women were consumable objects, to be consumed by men. That's why so much of the Second Wave rhetoric centered on appearance; mandatory beauty culture has been very much about pandering to men's boners, about being attractive to the male gaze.
One of the hallmarks of the so-called Third Wave is the reclamation of a lot of the trappings of beauty culture -- makeup and high heels and sexy dresses. And on the one hand, that is great because it provides women with a lot of agency -- I wear makeup because I like makeup (and because most of my hair color has been sacrificed to the swimming pool and I need blue on my head somehow) and I have the agency to choose to wear makeup because people have been unpacking makeup for decades now.
Maybe the problems start happening when those of us who are firmly in the "I wear makeup because it's pretty" camp forget that our position is not the default position -- it's really easy, when you hang out with politically involved people, for your default expectations to shift. That can be really powerful in some good ways, but pretending that the bubble (of NYC, of progressive thinking, of accepting friends, whatever) is universal can be kind of dangerous.
For me, these experiments serve as valuable insight that, yeah, some environments have not caught up -- as many problems as I have with Second Wave feminism (the trans hate going on there especially makes it hard to deal with), it's not like each wave actually swept over the United States, permeating every nook and cranny. It's not like every woman participates in deliberate acts of presentation just because it's fun.
Whether any individual experiment in the politics of appearance catches my attention, the continuing existence of and commonality of them (and the reaction to them) reminds us: Some of us are playing with makeup, but for other people, it's no game.