It's so hard being a woman. It would be so much easier being a woman if answers to the questions that I constantly ask myself—questions like Should I do what I want? What are my choices? How can I rule the world?—were all answered in a handy online discussion hosted by the New York Times and titled, "The Power of the Rouge Pot." Oh, wait. Such a thing exists? And it turns out that "women should do what they want" and "choose whatever they want" and "red lips can rule the world"? Well, then. Thank you New York Times for being as reductive as possible when discussing women's choices with regards to their appearances. Thank you.
The New York Times asked several people—I guess they'd call them "experts"—to weigh in on the topic of why women wear makeup. The discussion starts off by referencing a recent survey, saying, "Some would argue that makeup empowers women, others would say it’s holding them back from true equality. A recent survey seems to come down on the side of makeup—at least superficially—saying that wearing makeup increases a woman’s likability and competence in the workplace. If makeup has indeed become the status quo in the public realm, does it ultimately damage a woman’s self-esteem, or elevate it?"
So, this is a pretty idiotic premise, isn't it? Right after saying that makeup and, by extension, the way that a woman looks in general, is directly correlated with how much she is liked and trusted in the workplace, the Times wants to know if makeup is also ultimately damaging to a woman's self-esteem. Well, there's obviously something in this setup that can be damaging to a woman's self-esteem, but it's not the makeup, New York Times, it's the workplace. In other words, it's society. Makeup can't damage self-esteem, but a society that privileges people who are more attractive according to its own, somewhat arbitrary standards can. Makeup is the straw man here and it's pretty fucking annoying to see the Times giving it any value at all.
The experts that contributed to this discussion give the predictable range of opinions, and one of the more obvious quotes comes from Natasha Scripture, a blogger and author, who claims that "a harmless touch of makeup makes me feel better. I wear it for myself, not for anybody else." How can this possibly be true? Unless she is putting on makeup for a day spent completely alone, it defies logic that Ms. Scripture is not wearing makeup to get a certain reaction. It is not the makeup that makes her "feel better," it's the response garnered by fitting into our modern conception of what a conventionally attractive woman looks like.
The thing is, of course, that women are made to feel bad about using makeup when they use it for reasons other than having a little fun or wanting to "feel better" about themselves. The idea that makeup—or any other external beauty device, ranging from Spanx to plastic surgery—is used for the utilitarian purposes of promoting oneself in the workplace (or in society at large) is totally stigmatized. This is why the the ideal makeup look on a woman is "natural." You have to try to look good, but you can't look like you're trying. Particularly for women, the more blatantly you appear to be striving, the more contempt society has for you. We are all supposed to be natural beauties.
Another of the Times' experts is Thomas Matlack, a "venture capitalist, writer, and founder of The Good Men Project" who says that, "when it comes to makeup and self-esteem I plead ignorance other than to say women should do whatever they want." Matlack explains that he puts "makeup in the same category as fake breasts, even if it is a less extreme form of 'beautification.'” Which, well, what the fuck? Really? Putting a little concealer under your eyes is in the exact same category as surgically altering your body? What about getting a haircut? Or shaving your legs? Or doing any of the tons of things that women—and men—do to conform to current societal norms?
The problem with this discussion that the Times hosted—well, one of the problems—is that it pretends that makeup exists only within the context of a woman's self-esteem, as if this was just about personal choice. As if any personal choice isn't made within the realm of a much larger framework, that of the world in which we live. I'm not saying that people who use makeup can't use it without making it a part of some larger political statement. That would be absurd. And I'm not even saying that there's something inherently wrong with trying to attain the current beauty standards. I mean, I like makeup. And I wear it to get certain responses and I have fun with it. But then again, I do lots of things in order to get certain responses and some of those things perpetuate what are perhaps unhealthy standards of living. I do this because, well, I am human. And as a human, I sometimes embrace certain privileges in order to enjoy my life. I'm not always trying to change the world.
What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that it's all a big mess. Trying to hold up makeup as an example of what is wrong with our society is just stupid. Pretending that without makeup, all women would be starting off from some sort of mythical "level playing field" is a joke. None of us are born equal and makeup is one of the more minor ways of trying to even the playing field. If the Times wanted to have an interesting and intelligent conversation about beauty standards and their implications, there are plenty of angles that could have been explored. Unfortunately, pretending that "red lipstick can change the world" isn't one of them.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen