What's on my mind.

28 February 2008

Made up

I recently discovered The Smart Set (thank you for the link, whoever you are) and they've had a couple of posts that coincided with something I've been thinking about lately. The stories had some interesting points, even if I don't agree. For some reason make-up has been on my mind, I'll tell you about why I don't wear it much in a later post.

The author, Paula Marantz Cohen, starts out talking about makeup as
an update of the Narcissus myth. One cannot apply it — or at least not well — without looking in a mirror. The self-reflexive gaze required has elements of the lover’s gaze: Eyes and lips are focal points and demand the most attention and care. Thus, applying makeup is a ritual of self-love, a kind of worship at the shrine of the self, though it can also reflect insecurity and even self-loathing.
Not so much a lover's gaze when I put on eye makeup. I hope my lover would be staring deep into my eyes not focusing on exactly how many eyelashes I have and trying to figure out if one can actually get mascara on that innermost tiny one. (Sometimes but it usually involves carefully wiping smudges off my lower lid afterwards.) When applying makeup I'm not taking in my face as a whole (much less gazing at it), at least not when doing anything that takes detail, but rather concentrate on a detail area then "zooming out" to check the overall look.

Cohen gives a brief history of cosmetics. Cleopatra's excesses, Queen Elizabeth's excesses, Louis XIV's excesses, Queen Victoria's disapproval. It's all fashion and some self-consciousness. Monarchs have a great deal of influence over fashion (Louis, IIRC, also like how high heels made his legs look and suddenly everyone was wearing them.) so the makeup preferences of a queen can change what everyone wears. I don't think the general disapproval of makeup in the U.S. in the 19th century was based on the fear that men might make themselves up to look like women and try and trick other men. The whole women are liars and makeup is lying idea is much more plausible to me. I also disagree with most of her discussion on the use of cosmetics to alter skin color. The often arsenic-induced pallor of well off women was a sign that she didn't have to work outside ever and therefore had servants; the healthy (or not so) glow of a suntan implies outdoor activity and vitality (and a sometimes a willingness to spend money to court wrinkles and skin cancer).

I agree that make-up, like all purely aesthetic undertakings, is kind of a form of art. Not up there with painting or music but an attempt to reach an ideal. It is definitely about attempting to reach some artificial beauty ideal. I take offense at the implication that LL Bean shoppers and people who enjoy camping all think wearing makeup is weird. I don't think the time-outs women get from their day to check their makeup is any part of why women are less violent than men; I think relative levels of testosterone is far more important.

The idea of makeup as a mask, however, intrigues me. Makeup as a mask can be good or bad. On the positive side a woman can use makeup as a cue to herself and others as to her mood. Or she can use different makeup for different settings (work vs. going out on the town) and the process of putting on that makeup might set her mood or get her in the right mind set. On the negative side masks are often meant to prevent others from seeing what's really underneath. I admit it's a little bit of a stretch, but what if the message that her face isn't good enough to present to the world might make a woman think she isn't good enough to present to the world, leading her mask who she is and present a mask personality to everyone?

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