Women’s Resilience and Agency Through Beauty
Fashion, makeup, and beauty have served as tools of self-expression and assertion of identity for centuries. However, beauty is often undercut in critical theory, either by a patriarchal view of all traditionally feminine activities as inferior, such as the traditional thought deeply entrenched in Christianity, or an older feminist model of beauty as a trap by the patriarchy, and participation in it as a betrayal of the feminist cause or pandering to misogynistic beauty ideals. But despite this lack of respect from a variety of analytical angles, beauty still remains not only a powerful tool for women to assert their own identity to themselves and others, but also a means to initiate and strengthen impactful female relationships. Women are able to bond over generations and find important mentors and role models through the connections beauty rituals build.
While critiques of makeup and beauty are often valid, nuance is needed to understand the depth of these rituals and their power. These rituals have existed for centuries for a reason, and while the influence of patriarchal and capitalist systems complicate the intention and impact of beauty rituals, they are more complex than simply tools for oppressing women. The resilience of women, their ability resist the impositions and directions of these systems to continue to create their own meaning and power, is often unnoticed because these rituals and the depth of creativity and expression in beauty goes undocumented — there are few historical examples of women discussing their relationship to beauty, and documentation of beauty rituals, when they do exist, are often written by male observers. The lack of documentation of women’s voices and conversations is one of the main reasons theorists have difficulty understanding the intersections of identity, aesthetics, cultural norms, capitalism, and community that influence beauty rituals. Dismissal of beauty as superficial by both feminist and non-feminist critiques means no documentation of them, and thus they are further relegated as inferior Beauty and the rituals attached to it are crucial aspects of women’s interpersonal relationships and sense of self, and the digital age allows us to understand that through women documenting their own beauty identity.
While feminist critiques of makeup and beauty rituals have strong points, I aim to complicate them by approaching the subject with more nuance and through the lens of women’s own words. Much feminist critique of these rituals is centered around its relationship to expressing sexual ideals or fantasies constructed by the patriarchy and capitalism. While these are important critiques, there is still an important inner dialogue women have around aesthetics and self expression that isn’t always considered, one that adds more depth to the situation. Much of this is due to the lack of documentation of women’s thoughts around beauty ideals, personal expression via cosmetics and fashion, and beauty rituals. The age of the internet has, however, started to bring these dialogues forward and to record them in countless blogs and online communities, and even into books. I will draw upon these new resources to understand how they problematize traditional critiques on beauty rituals.
Capitalist Appropriation of Beauty Rituals
Capitalism aims to prevent women from using beauty as a form of self-expression by appropriating beauty as a tool to divide and conquer women, such as marketing anti-aging products to discredit older women. The capitalist drive to market makeup often relies on women viewing one another as competition, thus isolating them (an important tactic of the patriarchy as well), and much corporate marketing is based on this narrative.
The transformative power makeup holds, and the impact it can have on one’s reality, is co-opted by marketing. Makeup and skincare are presented as the solution to all ills, exaggerating their potential positive effects. Women are encouraged to use makeup to intensify their own identity and create a unique aesthetic, but to mimic other women who are seen as the ideal. Charlotte Tilbury’s makeup line is a direct example of this — sets and pieces titled “Bombshell” or “Bond Girl” or “The Sophisticate” or “Uptown Girl” all conjure up images of specific female archetypes (often relating to film characters and popular media depictions of women). Kevyn Aucoin, a famous makeup artist from the 1990s, created an entire book, Making Faces, on the idea of certain makeup looks creating certain characters. These looks reference particular film and media characters — the Bombshell being a Marilyn Monroe look, complete with white eyeshadow and a beauty mark, the Swinger referencing Mary Tyler Moore in its description, the Gamine naming Audrey Hepburn, the Chanteuse listing Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, and Edith Piaf, and the Vamp look citing Clara Bow.
Another key marketing technique to help isolate and generate fear and competition between women is the depiction of aging as the greatest evil. Older women are excluded from popular media, and are rarely included in beauty campaigns other than as a “before” photo in promotion of a new “anti-aging” product. Countless articles discuss celebrities’ tips and tricks to look younger, and women are pitched innumerable Instagram ads that tout “preventative” skincare to delay the onset of time, starting at age 20.
The absence of older women in media representation, and the repulsion against any sign of aging that capitalism utilizes to promote products, is tied with the increasing sexualization of young girls. Meenakshi Durham’s book, The Lolita Effect: the Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, discusses the way popular culture has created a distorted view of healthy sexuality in young girls, turning youth (and by association virginity, purity, etc.) into objects of fetishization. Durham states that
“the American media ideal of female sexuality has been getting progressively younger over the years. In the middle part of the last century, out icons of female sexuality were downright elderly by today’s standards: Marilyn Monroe was twenty-seven when she immortalized the seductress Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Elizabeth Taylor was twenty-four when she sizzled onscreen in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Sophia Loren was twenty-three as the sensuous Abbie Cabot in Desire Under the Elms. These film sirens were legally and physically adults; their much-admired bodies were women’s bodies-voluptuous and fully developed. Their bodies would not meet today’s standards of sculpted muscularity and narrow-hipped leanness. They looked too much like mature women to have present-day appeal in an era of the Lolita Effect.”
Durham cites sociologist Wendy Chapkis that “the Western ideal of female beauty … is defined by ‘eternal youth.’” This “eternal youth” desire means not only are young girls hyper-sexualized at earlier and earlier ages, but older women are pressured earlier and earlier to begin “anti-aging regimes,” and begin to be considered obsolete and invisible at younger and younger ages. While Durham is speaking on the hyper-sexualization of teenaged and younger girls, the desire for youth above all is pervasive, and easily adopted by corporations to sell products. Through creams, surgery, and serums, older women are told that they must strive to be viewed as youthful as possible, to erase all signs of age so as to fit the fantasy of the teenage girl. Not to do so is to risk becoming invisible, being seen as having “let oneself go” (a phrase commonly applied to mothers post-birth), and being considered obsolete, not only sexually but in their workplace. In Mad Men, the men of the office mock the powerful Joan by posting her birth certificate on the office wall, revealing her to be in her 30s — Joan rips it off and storms out of the room in shame, while the other secretaries laugh at her. While Mad Men depicts a deeply misogynistic 1960s advertising office, and not necessarily the workplace of today, it’s not an unrealistic image of the embarrassment around one’s true age. Women frequently make jokes about being much younger than they truly are, and refuse to answer inquiries as to their age (“you should never ask a lady her age!”).
Ideals of Feminine Beauty; Philosophical, Social, and Cultural Dimensions by Karen Callaghan discusses how beauty has been utilized by the patriarchy to hobble women by becoming a strain on their resources, both in terms of time and money. Callaghan states that as women grow older, instead of gaining more respect for their perceived experience and wisdom that come from the markers of age (wrinkles, grey/white hair) as men do, they are instead forced to disguise the signifiers of their experience by dying their hair, as well as investing in retinoids and antioxidants to prevent aging of their skin.
The demand to maintain a youthful appearance at any cost means that the older a woman gets, the more time and money she must spend to resist the inevitable effects of time. This creates a tax on time and money, that grows proportionate to a woman’s age. While aging is also criticized in men, either explicitly or tacitly, it is not to the same degree as the punishment placed on women, no matter their age. They are not obligated to dye their hair to hide the greys in order to appear “professional,” or to buy expensive face creams, or to invest in $235 retinol serums to stave off wrinkles. There are at times an almost celebration of grey hair — a 2010 study finds that women find older men more attractive, and products Touch of Grey hair dye capitalize on it, explicitly stating that grey hair means experience, promoting a “salt and pepper” look for men to appear distinguished and professional.
This fear of aging, while hobbling older women in terms of resources used, also disadvantages younger women in that they are less likely to reach out and find mentors, friends, and community in older, more experienced women. This lack of connection between generations is a crucial disadvantage to women in the workplace — without seeing their future selves represented, and without having someone who will identify with and advocate for them, it is far more difficult for younger women to climb the ranks the way their male counterparts do.
In addition, as women attempt to hide their age, they also work to hide the effort put into this (because acknowledging that they put effort into not “looking old” would mean admitting that they are “old”). As these beauty rituals and this effort are hidden, women begin to assume that other women are truly “effortless.” This works doubly to isolate women from one another — women feel that they are alone not only in aging but also in their work to hide aging. Women are left disconnected from a sense of self and community, in an endless race to hide one’s age, hide one’s effort, and above all, to continuously consume.
Feminist Critique on Beauty Rituals
Despite their influence on one’s identity and sense of self, makeup and fashion have traditionally been disparaged by both feminist and non-feminist theorists. The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf, posits that beauty is a means to oppress women, by serving as a “second job” of women, eating up resources, of both time and money to prevent women from reaching their full potential in the workforce. Beauty is also posited as a construction of the male gaze.
It is true that women face compulsory femininity, especially in the workplace — Jill Soloway speaks of preparing for a lecture she was giving on business, with a makeup artist “painting a new face over my face, just so that my words would be heard.” While it is understandable to resent and challenge the idea that makeup is necessary for women in order to be taken seriously, it’s unfair to blame makeup itself for the way its used to pressure women. Just because makeup is so intertwined with societal pressures in certain contexts doesn’t mean it’s incapable of being used as an art form and a freeing form of expression.
A counter faction to Soloway’s argument would be “lipstick feminists,” a trend found within the third wave of feminism. “Lipstick feminism” isn’t as much a form of academic critique as it is a group found on many social media sites, such as tumblr, often the form of pink cartoons. They argue that makeup and traditional femininity are tools that feminist, sexually empowered women can use to express themselves. This is a controversial thought — it tends to be based in the idea of the “ugly feminist,” and also fails to recognize the role of fetishization, capitalism and corporations, and the fact that beauty itself is a social construct and not an indication of inherent value. Traditional standards of beauty are also heavily based in heterosexual and European cultural norms, and built to inherently other and oppress those who do not belong in that demographic, and thus “traditional” beauty is inaccessible as a feminist tool to many.
Non-Feminist Critique on Beauty Rituals
Non-feminist theory on makeup often argues that beauty standards are about women unconsciously playing to some “laws of evolution,” that beauty in women is an inherent universal standard based on signifying sexual maturity and health. Countless articles discuss symmetry, golden ratios, weight as an indication of health, and famously cosmetics as a way of faking sexual stimulation — Mad Men’s Ken Cosgrove famously jokes that “lipstick was invented to simulate the flush of a woman’s face when a man treated her right.” However, beauty standards are based in racist and patriarchal theory, with the purpose to oppress women, people of color, and other minority groups. Dr. Sabrina Strings writes in book, Fearing the Black Body: the Racial Origins of Fatphobia that the thin ideal is not actually based in standards of health (which studies increasingly show is not tied to weight), but in Puritanical morals around austerity and self-deprivation as proof of higher intellect, and racial stereotypes of black people as gluttonous and constantly indulging their desires (both in terms of food and sexual appetite). Beauty standards, both in terms of body size and facial appearance, are thus not based on any inherent evolutionary impetus to reproduce.
Specifically in Western cultures, beauty, especially “natural beauty,” is based in Puritan values of lack of ornamentation and austerity. These values stigmatize makeup, associating it with prostitution and low morals — makeup was seen as way of disguising and lying. These prejudices trace back to the original sin — using makeup was seen as a way of enhancing a woman’s innate corruptive seductive powers, and a manifestation of lust and vanity. Even Shakespeare documented the stigma against makeup, as Hamlet tells Ophelia, “I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” (3.1) A famous rumor states that British Parliament banned makeup in the 1770s, as it was considered “witchcraft” to trick men into marrying women. While that particular law never actually existed, the sentiment that makeup was a form of lying and cheating men was very much true, and the stigma of heavy makeup persists to this day.
These values around makeup began to shift in the 1920s, when the advent of a new body silhouette (the svelte garçonne, or flapper) created a new idea of a “malleable” body — that the human form could be altered to become whatever the owner desired, through diets, exercise, pills, undergarments, and so on. This became a facet of the “American Dream” — one could not only work hard enough to achieve immense fortune and success, but also to “achieve” the ideal body. This celebration of the alterable nature of the body led to new acceptance of makeup, as it became a tool for self-improvement.
Despite the fact that makeup is now socially acceptable to wear daily, there is still a sense of higher morals to those who don’t wear makeup. Countless “take her swimming on the first date” jokes and “I’m not like other girls, I don’t plaster my face with foundation/I read instead of spending hours doing my nails” across the internet are evidence that this stigma is still alive and well. This implied superiority of “natural” girls is evidence of the continued influence of Christian values around humility and the perceived vanity of women — makeup wearers vs “natural” girls become a new iteration of the Madonna and the Whore dichotomy.
A great popular culture example is Legally Blonde, in which Elle Woods, the blonde makeup and fashion — obsessed sorority girl from Los Angeles, is pitted against Vivian Kensington, a WASPy brunette who doesn’t wear a stitch of makeup. Blonde vs. brunette serves as a visual representation of the beauty vs brains dichotomy, implying that women can be one but not the other. The man of the movie, Warner Huntington III, tells Elle she’s “too blonde” to be his wife, implying that Elle’s interest in makeup, clothes, and getting manicures with her friends is an indication of low intelligence. He wants “someone serious,” like Vivian, who eschews makeup and trendy clothing for books on law.
A key scene early in the film is when a sales woman attempts to sell Elle a discounted dress for full price — but Elle doesn’t fall for the trick, asking, “Is this low-viscosity rayon? With half-loop topstitching on the hem?” The saleswoman says, “Yes, it’s one of a kind!” and Elle retorts, “it’s impossible to use a half-loop topstitch on a low-viscosity rayon. It would snag the fabric. And you didn’t just get this in, because I remember it in the June Vogue a year ago.” This scene neatly illustrates the technical knowledge needed to properly understand fashion — Elle is clearly razor-sharp with impressive focus and memory. But because that intellect is applied to fashion, it is dismissed by those around her.
However, there is always the double standard — women are shamed for wearing makeup, but still expected to, in order to be deemed “presentable” in the world. The trick is to master a specific brand of “no makeup” makeup, that involves perfecting skin through skincare and minimal foundation, mascara, blush, and highlighters. 1950s and 60s makeup public service videos instruct women on how to apply makeup “tactfully,” in order to accentuate their features without appearing “made up.” In short, femininity and natural beauty are illusions created by consumerist culture in order to keep women constantly scrambling to keep up with the cycle of new products.
While this marketing plan has been effective in many ways, permeating almost all aspects of our society, the potential for connection and empowerment in beauty has not been erased. As more women begin to openly wear grey hair, younger women can view them more as positive, authoritative role models, the way men do with older men. Even new discussions between women on how to hide one’s age is a start, as they acknowledge the time and effort being put in and open a conversation on motivations. This is helping to bridge the generational divide that prevents women from finding female mentors as readily.
Makeup as Language
Some theorists argue that makeup is a way to please or attract a man, arguably by increasing the appearance of “sexual dimorphism and youth,” such as by increasing contrast in the face and bringing focus to the eyes and lips. While this theory may ostensibly be logical, it doesn’t hold up when makeup trends are more fully explored. Beauty rituals are, in fact, very rarely about men. Referring back to Roberts on postwar French fashion, while images of liberation may be borne out of capitalist marketing drives, “the fantasy of liberation then became a cultural reality in itself that was not without political importance.” While consumerist culture can be effective in the short term in creating trends for women to aspire to, the base nature of beauty rituals is still one of personal identity and cannot be completely homogenized. While it is true that many of the standards women are held to in terms of weight, makeup, hair, and behavior, are rooted in ideals created by men, assuming that makeup can only be used to emulate patriarchal and racist beauty standards implies that women are incapable of seeing past and creating their own standards. Women are fully capable of finding their own sense of style, and do so.
The standards of beauty projected on women by men, versus the standards of beauty women chose to aspire to, are markedly different. Countless articles cite that men actually prefer minimal to no makeup on women, that they dislike “any crazy-looking colors,” or “glitter,” and that “a lot of makeup actually makes women look worse.” A quick google search will find thousands more articles and interviews with the iterations of the same answers.
Men — speaking generally of traditionally heterosexual men, who have been advised by gender norms to take no interest in beauty rituals — often do not understand the depth and complexity of makeup routines. Women regularly create makeup “looks” that reference specific makeup artists, movies, or artworks that are exclusively understandable to those invested in makeup — and thus not accessible to many men. For example, makeup artist Katie Jane Hughes is known for a specific style of eyeliner for hooded eyelids that utilizes the natural layers of the fold to create a graphic line. When recreating that specific liner, a woman is making a specific reference, and those who are able to recognize that reference know that they have at least some level of common understanding. Katie Jane Hughes’ liner means something very different than a more rounded eyeliner with lashes drawn in, in the style of Twiggy. And again, that eyeliner is very different from a classic cat eye that could be based off of Anna Karina.
Many women who wear makeup, particularly makeup artists or those who work with more extreme, editorial forms of beauty, explicitly view makeup as a means to create a character, an alter ego for themselves. Drag queens are an example of this — when they apply their makeup, often spending several hours to transform their faces, they become this persona, someone totally new and different. And outside of more extreme instances, makeup is an integral part of the persona created by the clothes we wear, both in daily life and in editorial shoots. It completes the look — many women describe not only wearing a “power suit” or a great pair of heels to project an image of a powerful leader in the workforce, but also using a “statement lip” or a specific eyeliner to create the same effect. Aesthetic expression can be, and is, used as a form of healing from trauma, by helping construct a sense of self, when capitalistic and patriarchal standards of beauty means one’s base physical form is no longer a neutral carrier. These beauty rituals and aesthetic expressions also serve to protect against future harm, functioning as symbolic amulets and as meditation.
This inner language of visual symbols via makeup opens the door for potential connection. This coded visual language of makeup, while it has complexity and depth known to those who partake in it, is not often the subject of in-depth theory outside of historical studies, due to the dismissal of traditionally feminine interests and practices as “unworthy” of academic study.
Elizabeth Wilson writes in her book, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, about “oppositional dress,” defined as subcultures and minority groups using fashion as a deliberate form of rebellion and confrontation with the norm, a concept that can be applied to makeup as well as clothing. Wilson states that “oppositional styles continue, even more frenetically than before, their attempt to subvert dominant ideologies, using the very mass consumption means that constitute or contribute to the ideologies.” While this is a fraught and not always effective way to effect change, beauty — as an extension of fashion — serves as tools to oppose the status quo by deliberately choosing specific aesthetics and presentations.
For example, Teddy Quinlivan, a trans model based in Paris, was interviewed twice on Into the Gloss. In her second interview on her makeup, she describes the look she’s wearing as “a true-to-form Cavalli eye… like, rich Italian sugar mama.” This creates a sort of persona that Teddy has envisioned as she wears this look, a character that can shield her and guide her throughout her day. Teddy says, “I want to look mysterious. I want to look dangerous. I want to look intimidating. I’m not putting on looks to impress boys, I’m putting on these looks because of who I am.” This desire to intimidate, not to appeal, is characteristic of oppositional dress.
Another example would be red lipstick — Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman wore it at the 1912 Womens’ Suffrage March, and it became a symbol for women’s rights and liberation. This association with feminism and independence carried into the 1920’s flapper trend of dark lipstick. Women in the 1920s also began to apply their lipstick in public, drawing attention to the artificiality and performative nature of femininity. While red lipstick has now become a statement of traditional rather than revolutionary femininity, it still stands as an example of the way makeup can be used to confront societal norms.
Pushing further into the avant-garde would be makeup artists who create almost abstract work, outside of traditional rules around beauty. @makeupbrutalism ’s a gilded-ear look on Instagram, or @way_of_yaw ’s rainbow contour, are examples of a new form of makeup surface on many social media sites. This style pushes beyond any idea of “natural” makeup and views the face as a canvas to create, or even literally build, upon. Even these more extreme forms of artistic makeup are part of the “language” of makeup — @way_of_yaw is still referencing contouring and draping techniques, originating from the 1970’s with Way Bandy and the 1980’s blush trends, and carried on with the Kardashians today. @makeupbrutalism ‘s use of gold leaf references countless high fashion makeup artists who have used the material.
No matter the variety, makeup serves as a language of sorts — a set of visual symbols in which one can gain fluency. Each wearer has their own hyper-specific dialect, as makeup is so individualized to the wearer. This language enables those who wear makeup to have an entry point of conversation and connection — if one knows even a little about makeup, one can ask someone about their lipstick, or their false lashes, and potentially build a connection out of that entry point. From a pair of conversation-starter earrings to impromptu makeup lessons from female relatives, makeup and fashion serve as openings for female and femme friendship.
Community and Documentation Around Beauty Rituals
Beauty website Into the Gloss (ITG) illustrates the way beauty forms community between women. As it chronicles the beauty routines of people from a broad range of professions, backgrounds, and identities through a series of interviews, ITG serves both as a tool of empowerment and as a venue for commercial endorsements. While Into the Gloss is biased in that it functions as a commercial website and as the parent company of beauty brand Glossier, and thus needs to work within that frame to generate revenue, the fundamental goal of the writing published is still to facilitate discussion in the ITG community. The interviews are varied, and many of them are the average “dry skin product recommendations” of commercial beauty social sites. But many of the interviews also document the way makeup serves not only to confirm and project one’s vision of oneself, but to push back against opposing forces and systematic injustice. Many more of them document the way beauty provides a gateway for mentorships and friendships to form within women.
Frequently, what makes it difficult for theorists to understand the motivations of women who wear makeup, and see more fully the intersections of personal aesthetics, identity, tradition, and marketing on women’s choices in style, is the lack of documentation of the thought process behind beauty rituals. Dismissal of beauty rituals as superficial and unworthy of time or thought by both femininst and non-feminist theorists means that there is not much historical source material to understand the catalysts that drive these rituals. However, websites such as Into the Gloss are changing this, by creating a space where that discussion and thought process is not only acknowledged but documented and made public for discussion and response by others, creating an open conversation between women. This creation of a space specifically for a conversation that was once dismissed gives women the chance to think critically about their decisions, both as creators and as consumers.
ITG’s series The Beauty Politic interviews women specifically to understand how beauty connects communities and forms identity. The first entry in this series is titled The Bronx Defenders, interviewing women who serve as defense attorneys in the Bronx. Carol Larancuent, a legal advocate in immigration, says that “I am a true believer that we can’t pour from an empty cup — my beauty routine, and how I adorn myself, is how I fill my cup. It’s my way to communicate that I am fully present for my client in this work. My hoop earrings are a constant — they’re the Bronx girl staple.” This is a wonderful example of the way beauty, in this case accessories, serve as a symbol for identity, helping solidify a sense of self.
Courtney Dixon, a criminal defense practice attorney, spoke on the way her fashion and aesthetics affect her clients — “The judges know us because they’re in front of us every day, but you don’t necessarily want a jury to know that your client is represented by a public defender, because that comes with assumptions. And most of my clients are black and brown people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, so they may not be able to afford the suit to wear to court. At least if I’m dressed in a certain way, or have my face and hair done in a certain way, maybe that helps how those 12 people who don’t know my client will perceive him or her.” In addition to the way beauty helps her control the perceptions of others, and thus impacts her success in the courtroom, Dixon explains how beauty serves as an internal ritual and a source of bonding time as well — “…. right before my 30th birthday party, I was at my brother’s house, sitting in the bathroom with my sister and my best friend, and said, ‘I don’t know how to do my face!’ They sat, and made up my face in a very me-way — they know I don’t like a whole lot of stuff. It made me feel beautiful on a very big milestone birthday. It was really nice and intimate — not a big thing, but something I really enjoyed.”
This particular interview depicts a moment of intimacy common among those who wear makeup — having one’s makeup done by others, usually one’s closest friends or siblings. This ritual, while usually not a single instance, serves as a sort of “coming of age” ritual for many teenage girls. If asked, most women can describe a sleepover with friends, or perhaps older cousins, where everyone gathered around and dumped out their respective makeup bags, swatching and swapping products, showing one another how to heat an eyelash curler or use liquid liner. This common event served as a community-sourced tutorial on the technical skills of makeup, and, as Dixon said, was a moment of intimacy and bonding, strengthening female friendship.
Another example of the tradition of mentors bonding and offering advice via makeup rituals is the tradition of mothers teaching daughters how to apply makeup in chosen families in queer communities — trans women and drag performers often form “houses,” where a “mother” takes care of the “children” of the house. The mother of the house is the performer who has the most experience and/or is the most talented at drag, and she cares for and mentors the children in her house, helping them prepare for their ball competitions.
Makeover rituals are also symbolic — they signify a change not only in one’s outward appearance but in one’s personality as well. The literal physical transformation is meant to manifest a mental transformation — usually more confidence, more maturity, social status. In movies, makeovers often turn a shy, unnoticeable woman or girl into the knockout beauty, making everyone adore her, and thus feeding the protagonist’s confidence. Various feminist critiques point out, rightly, that makeovers often present a worldview where material goods and conformity to unattainable ideals are imperative to success and inner happiness, and some depictions of makeovers show that caving to these material standards is ultimately oppressive. But not all makeovers are about material goods and consumerism. Many makeovers are about less tangible things, such as taking time to prioritize oneself (an arguably feminist act), caring for one’s health, and thus improving one’s self image. And even the aspects of makeovers that are about aesthetics and products can still have positive effects — Coco Chanel once said that “a woman who has cut her hair is about to change her life” — and while this may not be totally accurate, making a change to our appearance is often used to create a sense of agency. Be it a more subtle change, such as a new lip color, or a more drastic one, such as a big chop, altering one’s appearance is a way of asserting agency and manifesting a change.
However, makeover scenes in popular media often show something else besides inner transformation symbolized through physical change- they show moments of mentorship and bonding between two or more characters. From The Devil Wears Prada to Clueless, the key makeover scenes are also scenes that solidify the friendship between two characters. In Clueless, Cher and Dione show Tai how to dress, encourage her to exercise, and help her dye her hair. Their makeover includes more than physical transformation — they also work to help Tai feel more confident and at ease by better understanding the social codes of her new school. By the end of the makeover, the three of them are fast friends. In The Devil Wears Prada, Nigel, the experienced fashion industry veteran, shows Andy, the clueless new hire at the magazine, not only how to dress and do her makeup, but also how to excel at her overwhelming new job, how to have passion and dedication for her work, and to hold herself to higher standards. The foundation for this important mentorship was built through the bond of a makeover. Referring again back to Legally Blonde, Elle Woods befriends Paulette Bonafonté, a nail technician, over a manicure (which Elle has to calm down after receiving upsetting news). Elle encourages and supports Paulette to feel more confident in herself — giving her a “makeover” by teaching her the “bend and snap” move to feel more confident, and empowering Paulette to rescue her dog from her ex-boyfriend. This is only one of numerous scenes in the film showing female mentorship via makeovers and beauty rituals — Elle and her sorority sisters support each other numerous times, be it with lip liner, exercise, studying for the LSATS, or picking out a date night dress, forming a tight bond through these makeover moments.
In The Beauty Myth, Wolf argues that beauty posits women as adversaries to one another — “beauty thinking urges women to approach one another as possible adversaries until they know they are friends.” While it is true that corporations and the patriarchal capitalist systems that want this, evidence from interviews points to the contrary. Beauty often serves as a doorway to friendship, an almost universal common ground that enables women to easily initiate small talk and build relationships around. Wolf concedes that beauty does at times provide opportunities for community and support — “when one woman — a bride, a shopper in a boutique — needs to be adorned for a big occasion, other women swoop and bustle around her in generous concentration in a team formation as effortlessly choreographed as a football play.” However, Wolf believes that “these delightful bonds too often dissolve when women reenter public space and resume their isolated, unequal, mutually threatening, jealously guarded ‘beauty’ status.”
However, Wolf’s argument is only partially true. Public space does not suddenly erect barriers of jealousy and competition between women. On the contrary, seeing a woman with a striking beauty moment (a beautiful coat, a nice polish color) can spark friendliness and ease between strangers, as opposed to envy and avoidance.
Jessica Clemons, M.D., was interviewed on Into the Gloss and discussed her opinion as psychiatrist on beauty. She runs a series of workshops titled Serving Myself, focusing on self-empowerment and self-care. Clemonds facilitates discussions and hosts weekly talks on topics of self-care for women. She states that “it’s empowering to be able to verbalize what you’ve been struggling with. And then we hear other people say, ‘Yeah, I’ve struggled with acne,’ and ‘I’ve struggled feeling confident.’ There is power in the group that way.” The anxiety over being judged by physical appearance when faced alone is disempowering, and often debilitating, but by creating an alternative space where this anxiety can be shared and discussed, creates community and builds confidence. Knowing others struggle with the same issues, and being able to discuss those issues with them, is humanizing and allows one to build empathy for oneself and for others, seeing other women as potential friends instead of competition. Even if the issues are as superficial as blackheads or as deep-rooted as anxiety, there is a potential for connection and strength in these conversations. Capitalism hopes that anxiety and lack of self confidence will push women to purchase makeup and skincare in an attempt to “fix” one’s appearance, and thus will lead women to trust in corporations to direct this. However, forming a strong sense of community and sense of self allows women to use makeup and beauty as an outlet to further build identity and power in their own lives.
The key difference is attempting to use makeup and beauty as a way to hide or correct an aspect of one’s appearance, versus using beauty as creative expression. Clemons says that “If someone is really striving to change the way they look to make themselves feel better, I think that can be problematic in terms of how their mood can be — it can make them anxious or depressed. The more a person can be comfortable in their own skin, the more the confidence is there. If someone is really struggling with their body image or hair or skin, I would almost encourage the person to start with that, the thing they don’t like the most. Start with just trying to not change it.” In short, using makeup to attempt to fix an internal lack will only cause more anxiety, but asking women to first confront their insecurities and attempt to make peace with them, then to begin to explore accentuating with makeup and fashion, allows beauty to be a tool of creativity rather than a sort of snake oil to fill a psychological hole.
Model Ebonee Davis continues this thread, saying, “Really, beauty and self-care are one and the same for me. We’re in this culture that’s all about rush rush rush, and putting everything and everyone before yourself is glorified behavior. But taking care of yourself is a huge part of your quality of life. Life is not just about making money. You can’t just be about that. You need to take time to relax. Then it’s easier for you to express yourself.”
Mahen Bonetti, director of the African Film Festival, was also interviewed on Into the Gloss, in their #ITGTopShelfie series, featuring interviews of readers. Mahen discusses the “red lip,” and the joy she found in it when her family moved to New York — “we were living in exile from Sierra Leone. While the collective mindset was ‘waiting to go back,’ I wanted to discover America! I would sneak out at night or make some excuse during the day to go hang out at Central Park or a jazz concert or club — that’s eventually how I met my husband, at The Mudd Club. Whatever I wore, I had to steal a red lipstick from my mom or sister. It was always about taking the lipstick.” This red lipstick as a symbol of maturity, adventure, and freedom is common — dramatic intentionality of the look signifies a power in the wearer.
Women in Clothes, edited and compiled by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavitias, and Leanne Shapton, is a book documenting women’s relationships to their clothing and beauty routines, with 639 contributors. There are paintings of various stains on garments, with captions as to their origin, and floor maps where women draw the clothes on their floor and label it, dissecting their wardrobes, makeup, accessories, and skincare as though they were archeologists, deciphering themselves through this lens.
Throughout the book are “Collections,” where readers send in collections of clothes and daily use items that they feel contribute to their sense of identity — 8 raincoats, 10 sets of false eyelashes, 9 grey sweatshirts, 19 striped shirts, 15 bras, 8 shirts with Peter Pan collars, 20 used blotting papers. There is a rhythm and a deliberation about each of these collections, photographed identically on a plain dress form or spread on a plain background. This almost detached documentation allows the viewer to contemplate the broader meaning of these collections of personal style — how these details paint a portrait of the wearer.
Older Women as Mentors via Beauty Rituals
Most interesting is the number of interviews in which women cite older women in their lives as positive influences and inspiration, both in beauty and other factors of life. Beauty’s power to connect and facilitate bonding experiences between generations of women is more powerful than the capitalist desire to isolate women from one another.
This take on aging — not fighting it but accepting the natural process — is becoming more and more common in the beauty industry. This is important because advertising and the capitalist agenda of creating insecurity to feed and fix with products often tries to separate generations from one another in order to divide and conquer. By instilling in women the fear of aging, beauty companies can sell preventative and reparative products, and attempt to create the idea of older women as something to view with disdain or disgust, not to befriend and respect. This fear becomes internalized and self-directed over time, destabilizing women’s relationships to themselves.
Stylist Rachel Wang discusses aging and her inspiration of her mother and cultural background, saying, “I’m not scared of wrinkles or aging. I went to Mongolia on a personal growth trip after Style.com closed down. Just being there and seeing people age and the beauty of age was so inspiring. My mom has never worried about aging. She is growing old gracefully and is so joyful and I want to be like that.”
Maye Musk, an older model, tells ITG “Who knows when I went gray — I was coloring it blonde all the time. And then I was getting towards my 60th, and I just said, ‘I’m tired of coloring my hair every four weeks.’ So I started growing it out, and then I cut it very short, and suddenly everybody loved it for editorials. It’s so much easier to manage. I wish I’d gone white earlier. I think I get more respect [with white hair].”
Radhika Jones, the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, spoke to ITG about how her mother’s beauty lessons were tied to specific memories. She noted, “My mother, who is a very beautiful woman, never wore makeup. She didn’t even really wear jewelry. I remember she used soap from Paris, as well as Mysore Sandal Soap, which is a sandalwood soap that’s very common in India. If she was going out, she would always spray some Chanel Cristalle on. She had lived in Paris for a few years, so that was one of a couple of French things she had. Now, I like to put it on when I’m going out, before I say goodbye to my son. That’s what he’ll remember, right?’ Jones consciously leverages her own memories and personal associations built around a perfume to bond across generations. Model and mother Jaycina Almond also speaks to inherited beauty knowledge from her female relatives. She recounts, “When I was little, my grandmother was like, ‘Your décolletage is the first to go…that’s gonna really show your age’ — when I was like, five, she was saying this to me. [Laughs] So literally my entire life I have been moisturizing and toning my neck.” Lisa Leslie, former WNBA player, is another who references her grandmother in her interview — “I looked exactly like my grandma — thanks to Pond’s, Vaseline, and coconut oil.”
Tchesmeni Leonard, a stylist, recounts to ITG how she first had interest in the fashion world — as a bonding experience with her mother and sister. She states, “there was this channel on cable that would play fashion shows, and my mom would have it on all day. Every single season, she’d be like, ‘Fashion week is coming on.’ Oh my god, I wonder if she remembers that. I also have this distinct memory of reading magazines on the floor of my sister’s bedroom. It was Cosmo, and Vogue, and Essence — I still love magazines, but now I read Dazed, i-D, Mastermind, 032c, Self Service, and Gentlewoman.” These childhood experiences with those close to her, relaxing through beauty with female role models and family members, fostered a love for self expression through fashion and makeup.
Tchesmeni discusses continuing the tradition of beauty as bonding in her Girl Scout troop -”I made my own scrub recently — I’m a Girl Scout Troop Leader, and I had the girls make their own beauty brands. We made scrubs with coffee, brown sugar, coconut oil and essential oils, and I had a label maker, and I had them create their own names and put labels on them.” Makeup and spa nights are commonplace activities for Girl Scouts and other similar women-centered organizations. While this may originally be rooted in misogynistic stereotypes, it has become more and more common for the event to be approached as an opportunity to learn about mental health and self care, personal hygiene and changing bodies, and female friendship. In my own Girl Scout experience, our spa night was accompanied by a viewing of Miss Representation and a discussion of the value of female friendship.
Pond’s cream and Vaseline as products have built a reputation of being the products of grandmothers, the tried and true simple staples of beauty. Many interviews, on both Into the Gloss and other beauty forums, have cited their grandmother’s use of Pond’s and/or Vaseline as formative influences on their skincare routines. Even if those specific products were not cited, countless interviews of women have mentioned the influence of mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and other older female relatives in forming beauty rituals.
The section “Mothers as Others” from Women in Clothes involves contributors sending in their favorite photos of their mothers before they had children, writing about their mother and their perception of the particular photograph. This section is similar to a popular Instagram account, @mothersbefore, with 79.8k followers. The account accepts submissions of images of mothers, taken before they had children, captioned by their child with their interpretation of the image. This account, and the related section in Women in Clothes, is a public appreciation of female role models, documenting these important personal relationships.
Editorial site 19/99 focuses on this generational gap, documenting interviews with women of varying ages and conversations between women, often mother and daughter duos. Their aim is to, by opening and documenting these discussions, provide “a more nuanced and multi-generational dialogue about what beauty looks like at all stages of [our] lives, from 19 to 99.” The conversations often start simply, asking about skincare and makeup, lip color, etc., but broadens into more abstract questions. Every subject is asked, “does the term ‘age appropriate’ mean anything to you?” There is never a concrete or universal answer: age does not define these women, and in their discussions with one another, they find that the important thing is always “more about finding your own sense of style and what makes you feel comfortable.”
Sites like 19/99 and Into the Gloss challenge the stigma placed on beauty rituals from the patriarchy and traditional academic critiques, and are beginning to discuss and debate the nuances and complications within beauty. Women are creating their own identity and finding community through beauty rituals and aesthetic expression, and are giving these rituals and aesthetics validity by the documentation of their discussions.
Despite historical stigma and the appropriation of beauty rituals to serve capitalism, these rituals continue to be powerful tools of identity and healing for women and femme people. Capitalistism has adopted makeup in an attempt to alienate women from both their sense of self and their community, and to foster competition and isolation between women in order to encourage consumption. The patriarchy has also worked to stigmatize the use of makeup in order to keep women constantly eating up their own resources to avoid letting on that they use makeup, to maintain eternal youthful beauty.
These citations and conversations are indicative of a long history of female mentorship and community, founded in the intimate space of beauty rituals. The internet, from social media sites such as Instagram and TikTok, to formal editorial and interview sites such as Into the Gloss and 19/99 Beauty, are burgeoning with women and femmes documenting, discussing, and sharing their personal beauty rituals. For the first time, these rituals and aesthetics are being analyzed by those who create and partake in them, rather than dismissed.
Despite attacks and appropriation by various oppressing forces, beauty rituals continue to be a source of bonding, a way to forge identity and establish power in one’s life. Beauty, while nuanced and ever-shifting in its definition, is certainly not the answer to the capitalistic and patriarchal structures that confine our society, but is still an important tool to resist against it. Beauty rituals serve as a means to connect across generations and deepen community among women. By reclaiming makeup and beauty rituals, openly discussing and loving them, and documenting those discussions, women are able to subvert capitalistic and patriarchal attempts to isolate and break down women. Through beauty and its rituals, women are asserting agency, individuality, and community.
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