Wednesday, January 02, 2013

On Makeup, Gender and the New York Times

The New York Times has had a series of pieces as a debate about women and makeup.  The topic:

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?

My bolds.

What fun!  And the last piece in the series is by Tom Matlack, the founder of the Good Men Project.  That site has recently taken a few hesitating steps towards the direction of wondering if deciding to have intercourse with a sleeping woman really is rape or not.   Could be just a communication problem, what with her staying so silent.

Naughty Echidne.  Return to the topic at hand which is whether makeup turns a cowering and insecure woman into a battle Amazon, one who wins the hearts of all men and that raise at work.

Except that I haven't read most of the opinions in the series yet.  That's because the initial setup involves a whole group of dancing invisible elephants, and those elephants are much more interesting than the question of makeup and self-esteem, though that, too, is very very interesting (and I shall return to it at the end of this piece).

The first invisible elephant appears, executes a perfect pirouette and waits for the judges' scores.  That one is the way the above quote is framed.  Let's take a step back and ask ourselves what would happen if we replaced every "woman" in that quote with "man."  We'd get something preposterous, right?

Thus, this thing is about women in the society.  All women, even the ones who don't wear makeup.  It's not about men in the society. 

You could argue that this is no invisible elephant.  It's the one the whole debate rides on, after all.  But sometimes the best way to hide something is in plain view.  My reversal points out what is funny about having a debate of this kind in the first place.  Well, I hope it does.

The second invisible elephant waits for its turn.  It's still behind the stage but it's the most powerful one of them all.  She is about the ultimate sociological reason for makeup:  It's one of the many tools in the arsenal we use to exaggerate biological sex differences in this time and place.  Others are familiar to you, I'm sure:

Because men tend to be flat-chested, women must have biiiiig breasts.  If nature hasn't awarded those to a particular woman, she should get implants.  Because men tend to be fairly straight in the torso, women must have clearly narrower waists than hips.  If that's not the case naturally, work on it.  In an extreme case, such as with some Victorian women, you could remove a few ribs.  But for most heavy dieting and tight belts and such are adequate.

This invisible elephant is the real answer to the question in the debate series:  Women without makeup look less exaggeratedly female and therefore they may not receive the correct responses from the society accustomed to seeing exaggerated sex differences everywhere.

Finally, the third invisible elephant dances over the stage, executing perfect grand battements.  This one tells us that the hard work of exaggerating sex differences is mostly the work of women.  True, men have to do some of it, too.  They must try to look bigger and more muscular because men are, on average, larger than women.  But almost all the rest of the work belongs to women.

Because the debate ignores those three invisible elephants, it really ignores most of what would be interesting to me.  But then I'm a stern-faced schoolmarm goddess who never ever wears makeup.

Except that I do.  Makeup is fun!  I've always wanted to paint my face with tiger stripes.  And when I was a teenager I wore orange eyeshadow and painted extra lashes on the lower lids of my sparkling eyes.  They looked like orange spiders!  It was fun, and makeup can be fun even more generally.

Makeup is also about concealing aspects of ourselves we are insecure about.  Scars of a youthful battle with acne, perhaps, or something about our faces we don't like.  Men and women can both share such insecurities, as is evident to anyone who knows about male pattern baldness, for example.

But the question that this series ponders seems to suggest that everything about the natural female face might provoke insecurities.  Perhaps.  On the other hand, don't we have millions of dollars of cosmetic industry advertising to try to provoke those very insecurities?

As you see, the questions do not lend themselves to simple answers.  And as is usually the case, evolutionary psychology arguments enter into the debate. 

This is because evolutionary psychologists (of a certain stripe, at least) argue that men value youth in women while women value stuff like bank accounts in men.  Thus, the fact that today's makeup rules tend to make women look younger or more childlike seems to give some support to their arguments.

However, one must always remember that the way we do things today is not necessarily the way all people everywhere do things.  For example, the court fashions in  Elizabethan England was for women to shave their eyebrows and the hair above their foreheads, so as to create a very high-domed impression.  That was caused by the tall forehead of Elizabeth I, and the desire to flatter her by imitation.

And the fashionable women of the nineteenth century Europe aimed at a skin color usually associated with those suffering from tuberculosis, not the pink cheeks evolutionary psychology would predict.  An explanation for all that paleness as desirable can be found from the fact that peasants tanned in their work out on the fields.  Thus, being pale told others something about the woman's social class.

Artificial beauty spots were all the rage among the nobility of France from about 1640 into the 1700s and rouge was applied liberally by not only women but also by men.

And in the Heian period of Japan,  women in the court shaved off their eyebrows and whitened their faces.  They also painted their teeth black.

All those historical examples apply to the uppermost of classes.  The biggest difference in the present time is that cosmetics are within the reach of most people.  Perhaps another difference is that using makeup has been increasingly codified as female, at least in comparison to those past customs of the nobility.

Is any of this helpful for answering the questions the NYT debate series asks?  Not really, though it's always good to know what it is in our constraints, both visible and invisible, which makes us "choose" to do certain things or not to "choose" them.  On the other hand, focusing on all this sociology might make a person feel as if a heavy burden had fallen on their soldiers.  A feminist person, at least. 

What if one enjoys body and face ornamentation?  That is also part of being a member of the homo sapiens, and a way of making the day of others a bit brighter and more interesting.  I always enjoy fun earrings on men, for instance, and things like green hair on everyone.  It's also fun to do something different for a big celebration or party, perhaps to show respect towards those who organized it.

At the same time, none of this is any fun if it is expected from us and if going somewhere bare-faced is regarded as a lapse in politeness and good etiquette.  It would also be nice if the rules weren't so gender-coded.  But they are.  Indeed, any man going out in full makeup will soon find that to be the case.