Our subject this week, broadly “beauty as consumption/work,” brings up questions I struggle with all the time. The most glaring of all being: is it better to preach the destruction of a capitalist, antifeminist beauty industry that perpetuates and then exploits women’s feelings of inadequacy, or continue with the more realistic trajectory we’re already on – a sort of choice feminism where each individual decides for herself whether beauty work is right, despite that fact that this choice isn’t much of a choice at all?
In Susan Douglas’s “Narcissism as Liberation,” she unapologetically bashes the beauty industry. Her anger at the advertising world is understandable, especially when she lashes out at campaigns that appropriated the feminist movement (I found a compilation of Virginia Slims advertisements and I advise you to check it out, it’s pretty wild). While her argument focuses on advertisements, she almost fails to recognize the women whose job it is to sell us or apply these products and treatments. She makes them out to be enemies and admits, “It took work to remember that the salesclerks needed these jobs” (258). In doing so, she ignores a whole profession made up of hardworking female entrepreneurs. According to Paula Black in “The Hidden Labour of Beauty,” beauty therapists who perform hair removal, makeup applications, manicures, and many other luxury treatments that women are expected to either afford or do themselves, don’t consider their work as a factor in their clients’ low self-esteem. They believe that their services don’t perpetuate this never-ending quest for perfection; women have the desire to change themselves due to outside influence, and this leads them to seek out therapy in the form of beauty treatments (125). Salons are a primarily female space, built upon friendly relationships (not mother-daughter relationships, as the New York Post suggests) and in some countries, social interaction. Every beauty therapist interviewed in the piece said the treatments plus intimate interactions actually make clients feel better about themselves and “gives them confidence” (116).
The knowledge of both of these positions leads to a lot of cognitive dissonance, and I sometimes arrive at a similar place as Emily Houser and Autumn Whitefield-Madrano on Feministe, which means feeling guilty for shaving (but almost worse, enlightened for not feeling the need to wear makeup). However, feeling guilty or superior because of our looks and beauty practices just gives the patriarchy that much more power over us. Besides, it’s impossible to know whether you would still wear makeup every day if we’d never had the influence of patriarchal socialization. I like what Houser said about shaving: “When my daughter watches me shave — as little girls will — she not infrequently gets a wee lecture in which I tell her that if she decides to never do this crazy thing, I’ll think that’s kind of cool.” If you like doing something (that isn’t hurting someone else), don’t feel guilty about it. Instead, make sure you spread the word to others that they don’t have to adhere to that beauty practice if they don’t want to. Revolution doesn’t happen in a day, but ideas spread from mouth to mouth travel quicker than you’d think.