One Woman Doesn't Wear Makeup for a Year; Commenters Judgmental

Another woman learns what the beauty industry doesn't actually want any of us to know.
Publish date:
November 21, 2012
beauty, commenters, experiments, antibeauty, oppressive beauty standards, my feminist polemic

Back in August, I wrote about a woman who did not look at herself in a mirror for a year. The project was kind of fascinating to me, because I am always intrigued by topics concerning embodiment and presentation. And now, out of Brookline (which Google Maps indicates is some sort of suburb of Boston), there is Phoebe Baker Hyde, who spent a year not engaging with fashion (including makeup and fancy salon haircuts).

Of course -- because these experiments always result in the same thing -- she has discovered that a) breaking beauty habits is really freaking hard and b) once you stop obsessing about what you SHOULD look like, it’s easier to appreciate what you DO look like.

I think there’s some simple answers there to Helena’s question.

This is, much like Lesley wrote the other day, more confirmation of a thing anecdata has supported for years.

The trick to advertising is to create a sense of need in the viewer. If that need is a manufactured one, well, the advertiser has done a good job. But one of the easiest ways to create a need for things like makeup is to make women feel like they are flawed -- and can only be perfected with whatever miracle-in-a-jar product is being splashed across the glossy pages of a magazine.

This may sound like I hate beauty products. I don't -- not even a little bit. I am legitimately embarrassed to tell you how many MAC eye shadows I own and, well, there's that four-and-a-half linear feet of blue nail polish (it's more like five feet these days). I love playing with color and makeup is a great tool for putting chartreuse green on my face.

But there is no denying that makeup is part of the appearance package that is often forced on women -- participating in makeup culture is often seen as the low bar of femininity.

And that's just ridiculous. One, because there is no wrong way to be a woman. Two, because it bars others from playing with it.

You can see this in the comments to the piece about Phoebe Baker Hyde. One of my favorite (and by favorite I mean: it made me roll my eyes the most) comments is that she could use more blush and less self-absorption.

I guess it's self-absorbed for women to think about how cultural mandates affect them, y'all.

Other commenters took the piece as an opportunity to offer commentary on Phoebe Baker Hyde's personal appearance. Which, you know, I understand the urge. It's an article about appearance. But telling an individual they don't need makeup because they look beautiful classes makeup as something other people -- other women -- do, in fact need.

Another commenter apparently read "no beauty products" as "no deodorant."

Our culture has gotten really antiseptic (Daisy's less-than-daily showers notwithstanding). So, I mean, I guess I can understand that point of confusion. Except for how I can't because hygiene and beauty aren't the same thing. (Deodorant really is just perfume for your pits.)

When women refuse to participate in the beauty game, there's often some really angry fallout. Google "Should women be required to wear makeup?" -- which is the third autosuggestion for "Should women be required" -- and you'll find many millions of results, which mostly seem to boil down to: "Yes, actually, they probably should."

Not wearing makeup can make it hard for a woman to get ahead at work. Not wearing makeup can result in people assuming a woman either doesn't care about her appearance at all (the dreaded "letting herself go") or is a lesbian (which, why is that a bad thing?) -- as though there is no option called "didn't have time to eff with it this morning."

The problem here isn't the women who don't wear makeup. It's the cultural expectation that women must wear makeup if they want to look their best. I'm no fan of compulsory gender attributes and I'm also just not down with the idea that "your best" always involves "makeup" for every single face.

It comes back to that advertising thing, the created need. Most of the value assigned to things like smile lines and crows feet seems to be created by, or otherwise given more cultural weight due to, advertising telling us we cannot look fit for others to see us if we have these things.

Race and class also play into this -- of course they do. Because it's all about the pursuit of an ideal image: young, white, beautiful, rich, and so on.

This is why a lot of second wave feminists have issues with makeup.

But that's not my brand of feminism. I'm also not looking to reclaim makeup for its value as a symbol of femininity -- because I think that's just another verse in the same old song. I don't really believe in femininity as an inherently female thing.

Makeup is fancified face paint. I support people wearing it regardless of gender expression, but only if they want to. I can't get behind "Your face is unacceptable" as an implied message, which is what the social expectation that women must wear makeup is saying.

And that extends to things like fashion and salon haircuts (Phoebe Baker Hyde also did without these things) as well.

Appearance is, regardless of what you look like, malleable to a certain degree. We can play with that, with our presentation, to communicate a lot of different things. That's half the fun of getting dressed in the morning, at least for me!

But when our personal presentation is dominated by "mandatory" participation in the beauty wars, well, we're not actually presenting our selves, are we?

Phoebe Baker Hyde has changed up her routine since finishing her experiment. She's got a book on the subject coming out. And she feels better about herself.

Her face is just her face.