“… 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.
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.)