Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What women love

This morning the Yahoo news feed told me that women love make-up. Even worse, apparently there are lots of beauty trends that women love and men hate. So the idea is that women are running around spending thousands of dollars and wasting countless hours and damaging their skin and hair and exposing themselves to toxins in various beauty products in order to appeal to men, but most of what they're doing is actually aimed at appeasing or showing up other women, and the end result is actually less appealing from the standpoint of the all-important male gaze.

And none of this really adds up, which generally means that you need to back it up and take a look around for some other dynamic that is probably the real controlling mechanism.

But first, I'm kind of curious about this. Is it true that (some) women love make-up, or any of the other beauty regimes that are thought to be so central to the performance of femininity? If you're a woman reading this post, and you wear make-up, do you love it, or even like it? Do you identify with wearing make-up, or any of the other beauty rituals in a significant way? I guess I always thought that for women who wear make-up, it's just another one of those slightly unpleasant, time consuming things that you nevertheless feel obligated to do. Or that you've internalized the idea that you can't look good without.

At my stepdaughter's afterschool program a few months ago they had a spa day for the girls which involved styling their hair and applying some awfully adult looking make-up. She came home and showed me and said "don't I look beautiful?" It was like a trick question. I didn't want to say "yes," and reaffirm the idea she's already picked up on that what makes a woman's face beautiful is the stuff she puts on it. But I also didn't want to tell her she didn't look beautiful. Needless to say, a long conversation ensued.

So, if men aren't particularly turned on by a lot of our beauty conventions, and women don't love them for reasons that are entirely independent from the social dictate that women must cater to the male gaze, then what's driving these beauty trends? What's motivating them?

You can probably guess that my theory will have to do with the beauty-industrial-complex, and the need for constant market growth, which requires ever-evolving and increasing demands, which in turn requires a set of constantly-changing perceived needs on the part of the consumer. I have a vague sense of how this might work. It seems to me that the make-up ads out there are always telling you about how some cosmetic product solves some problem you have with your existing one, or does something your old brand doesn't do. Some lipsticks last longer, or make your lips shinier (if that's the current trend). Some mascaras don't clump as easily, or they make your lashes longer (seriously, now) or plumper or something. Foundations have a (get this) more "natural" look. Like they make you look like you're not wearing any make-up.* And then there's eye color, which is one of the things the panel of male experts consulted by Yahoo for this article complained about. It seems to me that the trendy eye colors have to change from year to year, or you'll be able to buy one color or set of colors and it will last you a really long time, so you won't be spending money on it. But if no make-up trend lasts for more than a few months, or maybe a year, and if your beauty "needs" are constantly evolving, then you'll constantly be buying new products.

And that's how an industrial-complex works, right? You have to constantly be manufacturing both the demand for your product and the product itself. It's a self-sustaining system. What gets left out of the system is 1) what women actually love like, or would like if they hadn't been taught to think of themselves as unattractive unless they participate in the various beauty rituals; and 2) what men actually find attractive. It's even more complicated than that, of course. What we find attractive is largely conditioned by our culture. Add to this the fact that neither group is monolithic, so talking about what all women like or what all men dislike is just kind of silly. I'm sure there are some men out there who think that dramatic eye makeup and two-tone lips are the hottest things around.** I suspect there are even some women who really do love makeup and those hairstyles that make the little bump on top of your head.

...anyway, the beauty-industrial-complex theory seems like a compelling explanation for this dynamic to me, but I'm sure it will have it's critics. So, what other competing explanations are there? How do we make sense of all the collective silliness?

*Incidentally, I have an idea about how you can make your face look like you're not wearing any make-up, and it even has the added benefit of allowing you to sleep in an extra half hour every morning, or however long it takes to apply make-up. Send me $50 and a self-addressed stamped envelope, and I'll share my idea with you. Your life will never be the same.

**Of course, none of this conversation will have anything to do with what lesbian and bi women find attractive in women, because hetero relationships are always centered in these kinds of discussions, so it's just plain silly that you would even notice the fact that in articles like this we always talk as if the whole world is heterosexual.


  1. What do you mean by "identify with?"

    I have this beauty ritual that I feel really conflicted about, but I'm not sure I identify with it. I pluck my eyebrows, and in some ways I hate doing it and think it's really dumb that we expect this of women, but I get kind of freaked out about it if I try to stop. I think it does make me feel more feminine or something. I don't love it at all, but I feel compelled to do it.

  2. Anonymous5/11/2011

    I used to feel incredibly insecure without makeup. To some extent I've overcome that feeling, but I still hate how blond and invisible my eyelashes are without mascara.

  3. Raeanne5/11/2011

    Well, here's another complicating factor. For women who wear make-up every day, we have skin issues that make it so not wearing make-up looks bad. My skin looks washed out and pale without it, because I wear it every day. I work in an industry that places a high value on appearance, and I feel pressure to have perfect hair, nails, and make-up. This is also an industry where women must wear skirts and heels every day to be viewed as professional, even though obviously the men don't. Even if you have health problems from wearing high heels so much of the time, your still basically required to wear them. Anyway, on days when I don't work I still wear make-up because my skin looks unhealthy without it. So for me to not wear make-up is different than for you to not wear it, because your skin is probably healthier than mine, or at least it looks like it in your profile pic. I think making the transition is what would be really hard for most women.

    About the identity question - I think for women who do wear make-up every day, they do start to identify with it. In some ways it makes them who they are, or makes them feel comfortable with the image in the mirror.

    This was an awesome post.

  4. Maybe what this article gets wrong is that the more extreme beauty practices aren't about attracting men, but about attracting attention.

  5. Just to add my 2cents on liking makeup- Most days I don't wear makeup. Sometimes I do. I don't feel bad without it. I think of it as a hobby, like dressing up a little if I feel like it. Or as an art, like painting a picture. But I don't feel socially obligated to wear it, or naked without it. It's just fun to play with sometimes. =)

  6. Shana,

    Maybe something like if you skipped this beauty ritual would you feel less like yourself, or like you had somehow changed in a significant way?

    For instance, I have a friend who has bleached her hair really really blond since high school. She kind of wants to go back to her natural hair color but isn't sure she would even recognize herself in the mirror without the white blond hair. So in that sense it seems like the dyed hair has become a part of her identity. It seems like a lot of women are like that about make-up.

  7. Raeanne,

    I hadn't thought about the skin issue. That sort of makes it a self-sustaining industry as well, not only because you begin to feel like you can't skip the make-up, but also because you then have to buy all kinds of additional products to remove the make-up and moisturize or treat your skin from the effects of it.

  8. voiceofreason5/12/2011

    @ RJ

    Like a Lady Gaga kind of thing? This would make sense since most of the trends they talked about in the article started with celebrity women and then became more mainstream when others started emulating them.

  9. Anonymous5/12/2011

    I never wear makeup. I used to occasionally wear a little when I was going out because I felt I should, but I don't even do that. As a teenager I felt there were so many rules about makeup that my anxiety about getting it wrong and looking foolish was stronger than the pressure to fit in - although possibly being gay meant that some of the pressure about attracting a boyfriend were lessened for me.

    As an adult I have mostly been in childcare jobs which did not require me to look professional. Now I work in a more admin based job, I haven't noticed any negativity from not wearing makeup, (or high heels, or skirts) but it will be interesting to see if that changes as I start to move up the career ladder.

    I think the transistion from wearing make up to not wearing makeup, I can see how people would think about their makeup as a part of themselves, in much the same way that changing a hairstyle or a style of dressing is.

    Finally men often ridicule women's beauty regimes as shallow, but will be highly critical of women who do not wear make up. Sometimes, women can't win.

  10. Anonymous5/13/2011

    I just think the wording of this article is really strange. When you look at those beauty trends, it's all stuff that women are told they should love. So they should just call it "beauty trends men hate," because there's no evidence that any women anywhere actually love this stuff.

  11. diamondsforhorses5/13/2011

    I think your theory makes perfect sense. You hear the whole women-are-just-dressing-for-other-women thing, but that doesn't explain this dynamic on its own. Because where do the trends come from and why do they change so rapidly if that's the case? Your theory works for me.

  12. Anonymous5/14/2011

    What? Make up is hiding your true self, and if you wear it you probaly have troubles looking at yourself in the mirror.

  13. Anonymous5/14/2011

    As a queer femme lady, I don't wear makeup day to day, but I LOVE dressing up for special occasions. I really enjoy straightening my hair and putting on flashy eye makeup and lipstick and wearing heels and a dress. Of course, it's not for the male gaze. Performing my gender is really fun and exciting for me.

  14. AssMan5/16/2011

    If you look around, you'll discover that women like pretty shiny things. Hence makeup and jewlry and ridiculous non-functional clothing. There's your explanation.

  15. That's funny AssMan. I worked in a daycare/preschool for 5 years, and it was amusing to watch the little boys play dress-up and choose the shiny, colorful clothes and accessories at the same rate as the girls, only to be corrected by daycare teachers and parents. "Look sweetie, here's a cowboy outfit" or "don't you want to be a big strong policeman?" Seems like we all start out liking pretty shiny things, only some of us are trained out of it.

  16. Claire5/16/2011

    I love wearing make-up, I love applying make-up, I even love looking at it. It is something that I generally just enjoy doing. Which I know is not the case with everyone else. My friend really likes applying make-up but hates just hates the feel of it on her skin, yet she wears it anyway because she feels like she needs it. Which is very sad for me, the girl is gorgeous. Saying that no one should wear make-up is just as bad to me as saying that you have to wear make-up. Let people do what they want to.

  17. Anonymous5/18/2011


    That's funny. My nephew is always embarassing his parents by wearing his sister's princess dress and tiara when they play dressup. It's not that he doesn't also choose the army man or cowboy outfits sometimes, but they both kind of trade off, and you can tell my brother-in-law is really uncomfortable with it.