beauty labor

“… never let on that you went through great pains to get your lipstick just right; lines should break like kamikazes; you should be beautiful in your slovenliness; you should be enticing in your near-suicide.”
– Jenny Boully, The Body (2007)

“Thank god I’m pretty.”
– Emilie Autumn

If I were asked how many minutes I spend preparing my face for other faces to meet, I’d feel a little sheepish to respond. I might say, fifteen to twenty minutes in the morning, to layer on toner, moisturizer, sunscreen, and BB cream, and then to draw my eyebrows, contour my nose and jawline, tint, balm, and paint my lips, apply shadow around the creases of my eyes, oil and curl my eyelashes, and set everything with a brushing of loose powder and a spritz of facial mist. I also spend about fifteen minutes in the evening on cleansing, toning, and moisturizing my face; the last step involves the layering of three products with progressive viscosity — an essence, a serum or facial oil, and a cream or sleeping mask — punctuated by periods of waiting for the skin to absorb each type of moisturizer before the next. Do I do this everyday? Virtually — but if I’m in too much of a hurry, I skip the BB cream, contouring, and eye shadow in the morning, though of course I never so much as step out the door of my dorm room to fetch water from the kitchen without shading my eyebrows. Without the face I paint over the face that I pamper, I don’t feel quite like myself.

Two years ago, when I still felt deathly embarrassed to admit I took selfies in my office when I’m supposed to be marking papers, I uploaded one to Facebook as my profile picture, and felt impelled to alleviate my guilt over my vanity by writing an essay to accompany the grainy image:

I liked this photo because I thought in it I looked professional. Then I remembered reading an essay [by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano] from The Beheld in The New Inquiry on how looking “professional” is all about labor — how the pursuit of a “professional look” assumes that membership in the professional class should be the goal of the working class, and signals that one is an active producer and consumer of goods and services in a capitalist society — for one’s “beauty” is achieved not only through personal effort or the largesse of genetics, but by the purchase of costly products, from makeup to apparel, and the labor of others (hairstylists, “nail technicians,” make-up artists, massage therapists, etc.). In other words, the pursuit of a professional look (which is tantamount to the pursuit of beauty in the context of workplaces, like in retail, that practice compulsory femininity, tying a woman’s value to her looks) demonstrates that one makes money, which is taken as the measure of one’s worth.

Thus I more fully appreciated why looks are considered in the matrix of oppression analyzed by intersectional feminists: it’s not just that beauty, as Naomi Wolf postulated, is a normative construct defined by the patriarchy, but also that beauty — or at least the kind celebrated by every beauty and fashion blogger ever — is commoditized, and thus is tied to class. And when one considers how the services sector — especially jobs that have to do with beauty — is largely feminized, how the women who take such jobs are often overworked and underpaid, and how the prices of products marketed for women are often higher than similar products marketed for men (discriminatory pricing known as the “Pink Tax” ), the connection between the beauty industry and the oppression of women becomes more distinct.

Recently The Guardian published an article on how women in South Korea — whose beauty industry is so famed for skincare protocols and products, makeup, and cosmetic surgery — have begun to rebel against their society’s strict aesthetic standards by dumping their beauty products en masse. Benjamin Haas writes, “One theme running through the movement is the idea of a beauty regimen as a form of labour, one that only women are expected to perform and for which they are in no way compensated.”

And I thought, that last bit isn’t quite true — in a society that stigmatizes and penalizes those who deviate from what is considered a desirable appearance, there are “compensations” for conforming to the ideal of prettiness, from compliments to promotions. For instance, in Tagalog we have a saying, “Umasal lamang nang naaayon sa ganda,” which ties physical appearance to the level of good treatment or indulgence from others that one deserves — the prettier you are, the more entitled you are to dispense with polite niceties, as if beauty itself were the virtue to be rewarded for its own sake. Thus, being, or rather, striving to look pleasing to the eye functions as a form of courtesy, which is the effort one exerts to make others feel at ease.

As the labor of beauty is assimilated into the framework of neoliberal meritocracy, being “unattractive” comes to signal a lack of interest, effort, or skill in self-development, and is deemed to be not only an aesthetic, but also a moral failing — i.e. to be ugly is not just to be ugly, it is to be lazy, lacking in discipline or health-consciousness, self-respect, courtesy, etc.; thus, to be ugly puts one at a disadvantage in various fields of competition, be it in Tinder, the office, or a reunion with judgmental relatives. One sees this kind of conflation of moral and aesthetic judgments especially in discourses about fatness.


Photo from Asianwiki

In the South Korean drama My ID is Gangnam Beauty, for example, the protagonist Kang Mi-Rae is so persecuted and ostracized for her fat body and “troll-like” face that she almost commits suicide. Abandoning that, she instead starves and runs herself to thinness, and gets into debt for plastic surgery — just to feel “normal,” to be treated with some humanity. She develops a habit of rating other women according to their faces, internalizing the ideology that drives most of the men in the drama to constantly evaluate and comment on the appearances of their female peers, as some women (like Hyun Soo-A) pit themselves against one another for male attention and popularity.

While Mi-Rae still gets shit for the artificiality of her post-operation prettiness (“Gangnam Beauty” is a pejorative term for a woman who obviously got cosmetic work done; in the words of one of her spurned suitors, she’s a “plastic monster”), rues the fact that her circumstances forced her to such a measure, and retains feelings of insecurity despite her newfound popularity, eventually she learns to be happy with herself, see beyond people’s surfaces, and develop a more prosocial subjectivity. But it’s doubtful whether she would have been able to undertake the soul work of self-acceptance and self-expression had she not paid such a high price to replace her face.

Sometimes I still agonize over my own pursuit of “looking good” (and all the effort that takes), especially when I acknowledge that often my concern isn’t the health of my body’s largest organ, so much as it is vanity — I want to look *like this* until I’m forty-five. And for that I splurge on oils and creams and lotions, dutifully follow my skincare regimen, and celebrate my makeup skills with selfies posted to IG. Am I merely complicit in perpetuating sexist and capitalist hegemony?

I like to think that the problem is not the labor of beauty per se, which can be a form of self-making and self-care. The problem is that such labor is gendered, and becomes compulsory, if one wants to be accorded a modicum of respect and esteem — that is, when this technology of the self functions as a technology of domination. But then again, so much of what we do in the name of self-development — from spending at least eight hours in the gym each week, to spending upwards of a decade earning advanced degrees — functions as a technology of domination. So maybe it shouldn’t be a shock to realize that for all the critique we engage in, at the end of the day we most of us remain — and actually strive to remain — good subjects of capital.

(Now let me put on my hyaluronic acid-infused face mask and rest with my simplifications.)


Venus Rx: Incident Reports

18 October 2018
6:37 AM

I send out a letter on Slowly that reads:

“It really is getting colder these days. Some nights I think I’d like to have a warm body beside me in bed, but when I think about finding one and taking him home, I realize I’d rather work on my thesis. My friend said if I want a man I should just stare at him in the eye until he comes closer. When men try to catch my eye, I just avert my gaze. Sometimes I wonder why this is so. It’s as if I’m almost afraid to be desired. It’s so much easier, simpler, to want than to be wanted. I can trust myself to manage my desires. But I have no control over other people’s actions or feelings. Where desire is involved, it is difficult to avoid hurting or being hurt. Things get messy when people don’t really know what they want, when they’re not being sincere with themselves or with other people. I know what I want. I don’t always choose to go after it (not everything I want is good for me, or expedient for the moment), but I know. I just don’t like wasting my time, energy, the radiance of my attention. I don’t like cleaning up after the mess other people make and leave. Before I make or acknowledge a move, I have to convince myself, This isn’t headed for the dumps. (Once I was told, Such carefulness is why they say youth is wasted on the young.)

“I wonder what you think about carefulness. I feel like there is already so much thoughtless thrashing in the world.”

A day and a half later, I receive a reply from Singapore:

“Wanting, craving comes with the fear of losing. Why not try to welcome, without being afraid to tell what you need? If they can’t listen, you don’t have to keep talking. One can have a welcoming house even without guests in yet.

“I hope those words make sense to you. Take care.”

I haven’t written back — I don’t yet know what to say, how to express pithily the ways in which his words resonated with me — but what a comfort it was to receive them.

24 October 2018
2:46 PM

S. asked me why I seem to be “suffering” these days. She said, What’s happening? Are you going through something?

I said, A. says it might be because Venus is in retrograde, and you know that’s my sign’s ruling planet.

Oh, she’s very sweet to say that! I thought there might be some biographical or psychoanalytical explanation.

I said, I like the cosmic explanation best, because it shifts the blame away from me.

25 October 2018
7:18 PM

Watched an astrological reading by The Quietest Revolution on YT for Tauruses in November and got scolded for half an hour for my sign’s characteristic stubbornness. Why, Amber seemed to ask with frustration, am I still clinging onto something — a person, a situation — that’s been preventing what I want from taking root in my life?

Well, how is one to turn the spigot on this stoppage when the lever seems irreparably stuck with years of debris and rust? Just chuck out the whole thing? Would that it were as simple and easy as that. “Cut some heartstrings,” she said. “I know, I know” — not very soothingly — “but so what? It’s not the end of the world.”

28 October 2018
11:58 PM

Tonight I remember that instead of brooding about the things I want and don’t have — three inches off my waist or 8-10% off the fat percentage of my body composition, requited romantic love, and a country not in a clusterfuck — I can choose to be grateful for what I do have that enriches my existence: a healthy mind and body, a loving and supportive family, friends that I can trust, interesting colleagues and engaging work, a real opportunity to serve my benighted motherland. In any case, life is so short, we might as well be determined to squeeze all the jouissance that we can get out of it if we weren’t gonna hang ourselves anytime soon. What’s the use of wallowing in my own (emo)shit? What are my so-called woes but specks of dust in cosmic time, an uncertain note in the air, maybe heard, soon gone.

31 October 2018
3:52 PM
He says, It’s impossible for us to meet. I say, I know, haha. Makes me a little sad. He makes no reply.

3 November 2018
4:08 PM

Doc C. starts drilling a hole into my molar and I wince. Are you okay? He asks. Do you want an [anaesthetic] injection? No, no, I gestured, thinking: this pain is nothing compared to when I got my last tattoo, and even that was nothing compared to the heartache that preceded it.

4 November 2018
9:42 PM

I watch Manila turn into a dense aggregation of bluish-white and orange pinpricks of light as the plane climbs higher in the sky. This city I can never say I miss, much less love, only looks perfect from far away.

5 November 2018
9:03 PM

Some days I have to pace myself through the motions of giving a fuck about anything until I snap out of disaffection. I walk with my friend and begin a litany of my many mean thoughts that day, and listen to her laugh at my foibles.

We take our usual route along the river/canal, which was stinking like Pier 10 in Manila North Harbor. I talk about a wish I wish I didn’t have. She says, I hope that when you get what you want, you’d feel like you still wanted it, because it might well be that what you’d thought you wanted was but a misapprehension.

6 November 2018
2:01 PM

I read excerpts of correspondences between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, and cry. But in the eddy of romanticized longing, in the face of an absence so acutely felt it becomes a presence ever-present, I remember Barthes:

“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive submersion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it). …

“To know that one does not write for the other, to know that these things I am going to write will never cause me to be loved by the one I love (the other), to know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not–this is the beginning of writing.”

6 November 2018
5:54 PM

Today in class we discussed Lewer’s argument in “To fall in love, click here” about how internet dating perpetuates the logic of financial capital in creating dividuated, commodified selves. When one gets past the finance-speak (TY Investopedia LOL), the text can become a fun essay to discuss with undergrads.

Me: So we take these logics of calculability and commensurability and exchange, and apply them to supposedly non-market social domains like romantic relationships. Imagine a dating website where users have to pay in a particular currency [e.g. bitcoins, points, or real money] in order to request a date with someone. *Turns to student* How much would it cost for one to have a date with you?

Student: Uhhh … one billion HKD!

Me: Whoa haha. Would anyone be willing to pay that much?? How did you come up with that number? Did you consider supply and demand? …

How would any of you come up with a number? How would you calculate value and risk? How would you rate your looks, your intelligence, your talents, your manners and so on and decide how much to charge? …

“What are you worth?” The problem of the essay is like the problem of this question itself. Such a question assumes that we can be rated and priced, that our relationships must likewise involve some equivalent exchange of value, a return of investment through minimized risk. Can anyone still imagine loving someone without any expectation of returns?

6 November 2018
8:36 PM

But if I am sincere with my illusions… if I am honest about my desires…

on a dream of a burnt house

In my dream, I slept soundly through a raging fire, on my buri mat on my darkwood floor, unseeing the red glare of sirens, unhearing their wails piercing the summer night as my room filled with unsuffocating smoke. But I woke before daybreak in a dress of soot, and I walked down a staircase of charcoal and ashes that did not break or fall or hurt my bare feet, which was how I knew it was only a dream. Downstairs was a razed world. No wall or door or beam or table stood, all was flat, black rubble and black smoke. Then the dawn rolled over the horizon and the landscape was a desert, orange-red, and there was nothing to see but the sun.

In my dream, I slept through a raging fire. And the house burned, I was inside, but I was not burned alive.

Last night, I revisited my Cafe Astrology numerology report and read, “A 4 Balance Number denotes a real need for self-control during stressful times. Regardless of how devastating your losses may be, this is not time for you to unleash your anger or vent emotionally. Seek compromise. Do not over-inflate the severity of the situation. Do not allow yourself to get mired in details which may not be all that important. What you need to see clearly is how things are overall. Seek fairness and be fair yourself.”

I’ve resuscitated my Tinyletter account and downloaded Slowly, an app that lets you send letters in virtual-postcard format to other Slowly users around the world. My first letter, sent to users in the Philippines, Taiwan, and the United States, touched on White’s 1992 essay on “‘The American Century’ in World History,” the postwar project of modernization as westernization, the self-image of the United States as benevolent hegemon, and the hubris of imperial powers. I wonder if anyone would reply to that — not that I really desire any replies. I think I just want to get my thoughts out of my head and still keep the solitude I find necessary for percolating ideas. It’s funny — I deactivated my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, but here I am irrepressibly expressing, albeit to strangers, mumbling into tiny holes carved into tree trunks.