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Beauty, Make-up and Body Positivity

It's been a while since I wrote my last article. Free time is a really precious thing when you have a full time job. In a way, I miss doing my MA because it allowed me to write this blog. Reflecting on things I’m interested in and writing articles was at the top of my priorities as it was part of my studies. It’s sad that now it’s just a hobby I don’t have much time for.

In this post I would like to refer back to my previous article about Beauty and Self-love, because this is an inexhaustible topic.

After finishing my MA I got a job in the fashion industry. I took the opportunity not because I’m particularly interested in the industry itself, but because shooting products allows me to pay bills by doing photography. This motivation perhaps separates me from some of the employees who do work there based on their interest in the fashion industry. Which is fine, because it is interesting to observe the mix of people in a workplace and their motivations that bring them together.

In life outside of work we tend to surround ourselves with people who are similar to us. In a workplace we are surrounded by people and opinions we perhaps wouldn’t get in touch with otherwise. It is refreshing because it represents the world in general. There are billions of people with billions of opinions. If we isolate ourselves with our small community of carefully cherry-picked people we will never know who else is out there and what opinions and attitudes they hold. It is good to be aware, especially if some of those opinions and attitudes are a perpetuation of toxic stereotypes and myths that negatively affect us all. It is good to get in touch with it because then you can call it out and perhaps challenge someone’s views (or even be challenged by someone else!). It can spark a conversation that might be needed for both sides.

The idea for this article was sparked by what I have overheard and experienced in the office.

The vast majority of my colleagues are women and a lot of conversations that I’ve overheard were related to make-up and the reasons why they use it. I was genuinely quite saddened when I learned why, however I was neither shocked nor surprised.

The people split into two groups - those who use it and those who don’t. The women that put make-up on explained that they do so because otherwise they look like they are ill. They supported this statement with the utmost evidence - other people’s opinions. Those people were apparently really concerned about the well-being of my colleagues as they didn’t look alright. Then it only turned out that my colleagues didn’t wear any make-up on that day. This sort of negative response to their non-make-up appearance encouraged them to use it all the time.

On the other hand the lady who doesn’t use any make-up explained that she doesn’t do so because she would like people to get used to her natural look. Other people in the office stressed that she doesn’t need to use it anyway because she looks good already. The lady responded that this is how her strategy works - teach people to see you with no make-up and they will accept you with no make-up. The same lady also tried convincing others to go make-up free.

What I see here is that we have two different groups of people, but they are fueled with the same motivation. They are concerned about what other people think about them and try to fix it. The issue is not make-up itself and how much or how little women use it. The issue is our motivation to use it.

Women live in the world where our appearance is our main currency and our value as a human being is derived from our looks. Society likes to dictate us how we should look, behave and how to match the requirements in order to fit into the criteria of a desirable woman. It is so embedded in our culture it has become the ‘common sense’ and we don’t blink an eye, nor do we question it. Instead, we try our best to tick the right box because by doing so we are rewarded by society’s approval of our bodies and lives. By doing so we gain our value as humans.. Not. This sort of control over our looks and behaviour is a form of manipulation and oppression. No one else should be concerned by our looks than ourselves. I talked about this topic more in depth in my previous posts, so feel free to check.

There is nothing wrong with beauty and wanting to be desirable. It is natural for us to look after our appearance. I like make-up and I occasionally use it, because for me it’s fun to look different from the regular self. If the make-up version of you becomes your regular self - good on you! Do whatever the hell you want with your body as long as you are doing it on your terms! Beauty is to be enjoyed, not enforced. However, it is good to question why we make certain decisions that revolve around our bodies. So let’s bear in mind that make-up is an extension of our appearance, not a necessity.

A fun example of that was when Cindy Sherman became a face of MAC in 2011, the makeup company of outsiders and artists. She depicted herself in three different ways; as a clown, an unhappy rich woman and a creepily looking young girl. This was an unconventional step for advertising a beauty product, as makeup campaigns commonly use stereotypically beautiful models to convince women how wonderful the cosmetics will make them look. In my opinion this is a great way of showing that makeup can be used for the transformation of self, having fun or just looking different rather than a promise of improving oneself.

Fig. 1: Cindy Sherman, collaboration with MAC cosmetics, 2011

Historically women were actually frowned upon for wearing make-up because since Plato beautification and devotion to the body was seen as mentally and morally inferior. Body was seen as non-rational and therefore inferior to the mind. Therefore women who did spend their time putting make-up on and dressing up were perceived less intellectual than those who spend hours reading philosophical works. (1)

The good woman was the one who didn’t wear make-up. This has changed when in the 20th century beauty industries started emerging. They played on the fear of looking ugly and also on the pleasure of looking pretty, convincing women that their imperfections can be fixed by their products. (2)

However, the notion that women who care about their looks are dumb has persisted until this day. A good example of that attitude is this image.

Fig. 2: Found on Facebook It portrays a good-looking woman who is clearly depicted as a person who looks after her appearance. She is blond, tanned on high heels and wears a mini dress. She also finds a book that she picks up and starts to read. As she progresses with the reading her appearance transforms. She becomes dark haired, light skinned and wearing comfy clothes and comfy shoes. The message of this picture is painfully clear. The narrow-minded conclusion of the artist suggests that her intellectual capacity affects the way she looks (or the way she looks affects her intellectual capacity?). She was a beautiful but dumb blonde who transformed into a smart but casually looking brunette through reading. She basically became a different person. Leaving alone the stereotype ‘dumb blonde’ the author of this image successfully perpetuates the old misogynist stereotype that women who are devoted to their looks are inferior to those who are devoted to the mind. In their blinding ignorance the artist failed to see that the woman at the beginning is the same woman as the one at the end and vice versa. Because women can be both smart and pretty at the same time. Women’s looks don’t determine their mental, moral and intellectual capacity. Women can spend time with maintenance and be intellectual at the same time. We don’t have to compromise our looks to ‘prove’ we are smart. Prove to whom anyway? Our bodies are ours and so are the decisions we make that revolve around the body, we don’t owe an explanation to anyone. We don’t owe fuck all. As Jack Holland suggests in Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice: “The solution is not to reject beauty, but to reject misogyny.” Another conversation I overheard in the office was about high heels. A colleague of mine who is quite tall was telling another colleague that she didn’t use to wear high heels because it would make her taller than a lot of men. Then she added though, that she started wearing them again when she had realised that it’s not her bloody problem. Good on her. This reminded me of my sister who is also taller than her husband. Therefore she used to bend her knees when they would pose for the camera together, so she appeared smaller next to him. She stopped doing it as she was fed up with ‘disfiguring’ her legs to flatter his ego.

These examples above also come from thousands of years old misogyny of which the core principle is that women are subordinated to men. Therefore one of the ultimate purposes of women’s existence is to serve/please them. Both stories, of my colleague and my sister, are just tiny illustrations of how this prejudice against women still persists in our culture and is still too invisible to question it. However, I’m glad that they both recognised that women are not responsible for men’s confidence. One of the conversations in the office that I took part in left me baffled but not utterly shocked. It was the time we played a guessing game. That is, we were guessing each other’s age. The expectancy that always comes with this sort of ‘game’ is to guess rather less, especially if you are guessing a woman’s age. I feel like everytime I play this ‘game’ it is absolutely inevitable that someone will get offended and upset. This time it was no exception. I upset two people. And my offence? I guessed their age correctly. They were disappointed to know that in my opinion (as though my opinion somewhat mattered) they looked their age. They are both younger than me. One of the most harmful beauty stereotypes that exist in our culture is the unrealistic ideal of looking relentlessly young. Only if you are a woman of course. In fact the older you get, the more you are expected to battle the natural course of your body and match up with the younger generations. This toxic attitude is so widespread that you see younger and younger girls worrying about looking ‘too old’. There is no such a thing as ‘too old’. And there is nothing wrong about looking your age or even older because it’s none of anyone’s concerns other than yours. If the maintenance of your body is driven by pleasing others you will never be happy about yourself - regardless of how you look. You cannot stop time, you can only accept that your body will change, but that’s fine because it is supposed to happen. Again there is nothing wrong about wanting to look beautiful, but the problem is that our culture doesn’t teach us that we can look beautiful at any age (or with any body shape). The word ‘beauty’ really needs to be redefined. My definition of ‘beautiful’ is anyone who feels unapologetically comfortable in their own body. And that can be absolutely anyone, not just the model from posters - young, tanned, with slim figure and big tits. We are conditioned to believe that the way she looks is the only right way of being beautiful. As I mentioned in my previous article - women are so much more than just bodies. And the true beauty lies in the confidence of the beholder. Confidence that is unshakable by society's toxic beauty standards. The beautiful woman is the one who enjoys the smell of freshly washed clothes that she puts on in the morning. She does or doesn’t do her make-up, depending on whether or not she can be arsed. Looks at herself in the mirror and likes what she sees there (regardless of how she looks). She goes for a stroll. The wind gently blows her hair, and she can smell the light scent of a shampoo in her hair. She feels comfy and cosy in her clothes. She walks with confidence, enjoying her walk and feeling refreshed. She stops at the local cafe and gets herself a cup. She continues walking with her coffee, absorbing the smell and enjoying the taste. She’s having a fantastic morning by herself! In the afternoon she might have a yoga class, or a sculpting class, perhaps she will give someone a piano lesson. Perhaps not, maybe she’s a doctor and later on she will give a lecture to her students. Maybe she’s a waitress who’s got a day off and she really looks forward to reading a book later or meeting up with a friend. This woman is not a random person, this woman is you. Any woman can be wonderful the way she is, if she believes it. No matter the age, no matter the body. Beauty doesn’t have to be just a matter of vision, it can be a lot of other things - positive feelings, gorgeous smells, tastes, lovely sounds. Or enjoying things you are good at - enjoying other qualities and capabilities of your body - like doing exercise, making a painting, playing an instrument, etc. In her TED talk on body positivity, Lindsey Kite said: “Body is an instrument not an ornament.” Your body is good, regardless of how it looks. Treat your body with respect that it deserves. Feed it, exercise it, love it. Make yourself feel healthy. In a culture that is so driven by visuals we tend to forget that feeling healthy in our body is more important than what the body looks like. But feeling healthy can be a step closer to feeling good about yourself. Go for a walk, get some fresh air in your lungs, meet up with friends and have a lot of laughs together, go to sauna, walk a dog, get up earlier and watch the sunrise, enjoy the sunshine in your face, have sex or some alone time, etc. Experience your body, feel it, be present in it. Doing things that make you feel healthy/good about yourself don’t have to be an unbearable drill or a strict insane diet. Quite the contrary, they can be simple things that make you feel present in your body. You can be size 8 or 20, feeling good is a state of mind not a body type. The older I get the more random pains I have. Relentless pain in my back, random pain in my knee. More and more I experience trapping the nerve at the back of my neck. I also get a lot of headaches and of course dealing with hangovers is getting worse and worse. The body does deteriorate. These problems really made me realise how important it is to look after your body - not in the beauty sense, but in the sense of being healthy. I’m not dreading the way I might look when I get old (or at least I don’t think so), what I’m truly scared of are the things I might not be able to do anymore because the body will not be capable of it. Like going for a hike, travel, etc. As I mentioned above, in our culture we tend to rather focus on the visuals of the body and we overlook the importance of its functionality. Which is sad because things you are able to enjoy in your life are way more precious, meaningful and memorable than the way you look. This is why I believe it is very important to have a good relationship with your body, because it is your body that allows you to experience these things that you love. It is your body that carries you to your trip abroad, your hands that play an instrument, your legs that allow you to hike, and so much more. Look after your body, give it what it needs so it can serve you longer. Become friends with your body because that friendship will last the rest of your life. Look after it and in return it will look after you.

References: 1 Jack Holland, Misogyny: The World's Oldes Prejudice 2 The Economist, 2003, Post of Promise Fig. 1: Cindy Sherman, collaboration with MAC cosmetics, 2011

Fig. 2: Found on Facebook

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1 Comment

Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Dec 08, 2022

Lovely message. Good points to do with advertising of makeup to look different not better. To be curious and have fun.

Nice conclusion too :)

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