Is beauty liberation or imprisonment?
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Exploring the space between that dichotomy is the basis of journalist Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s book Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives. Picking up where Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth left off, Whitefield-Madrano looks through a feminist lens to examine how societal expectations about appearance have changed in the age of social media. Research studies provide a broad picture about beauty’s influence on behavior while interviews with women offer personal perspectives.
From airbrushing in magazines to duck-faced selfies, Whitefield-Madrano analyzes the current state of beauty in the United States with a balanced and non-judgmental air. She discusses Face Value with representatives from The Riveter magazine at Magers & Quinn on Tuesday night.
City Pages: How do you reconcile feminism with beauty? On the one hand, if we’re feminists, why should we care what we look like? On the other hand, feminism is about having choices, such as whether or not we want to spend our time grooming, right?
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano: I think the conflict is more of an intellectual conflict than a lived conflict. Our beauty standards are largely shaped by the patriarchy, so there is some sort of level of why, if you’re a feminist, are you wearing makeup? Women have been creative in the past several decades in co-opting what patriarchy has handed them as far as beauty rituals and using them for their own benefit, in the sense of: you might wear makeup to look conventionally better, but you might also come to frame it as a sense of relaxation, a sense of amping oneself up for the day, sort of getting your game face on. There’s a lot of different ways in which we actually live beauty, and it might not be 100-percent in accord with — if there is such a thing as — feminist doctrine.
CP: What did you find regarding age and beauty? I feel like the older I get — whether it’s because of acceptance or resignation — the less amount of time and money I want to spend on altering my appearance. Was that true of the subjects that you spoke to?
AWM: What I found — and studies much larger than what I’m able to do back this up — is that people tend to be more comfortable with themselves as they age. They tend to be happier as they age. Women tend to grow into their choices more. That might mean changing their minds. I talked with women who wore a lot of makeup when they were younger and then once they hit a certain age, were like, “Wait. I don’t enjoy this. I don’t feel good about myself doing it. I feel like I’m hiding myself.” Those who became more comfortable with themselves stopped wearing it or just wore less of it. And then I talked to women on the other end of the spectrum who were like, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt like a clown whenever I put on lipstick. And now I think it’s fun and I enjoy it.”
It’s not so much that older women might take less interest in makeup, but I think that they take less interest in meeting some sort of standard. Part of that is genuine comfort with themselves and part of it is the sense of, in the patriarchal notion of beauty, once you’re over a certain age, you’re sort of out of the game, and I think that a lot of women are like, “Well, then, I don’t want to play it!”
CP: Are selfies helping us feel more confident or are they making us feel worse about ourselves?
AWM: I did not grow up in the age of selfies. I mention in the book how the first selfies I took, I would have died if anyone had seen them because to me, it just shrieked of narcissism, self-indulgence, and vanity. Now, the idea is that you want as many people as possible to see them.
It’s hard for me to tell, at this age, how much of my resistance to selfies is intellectual or generational. When I speak with younger women, they might understand where I’m coming from, but they’re like, “Own it. Own that narcissism. Why not give the middle finger to Instagram and post as many of yourself as possible?”
I’m split between the two. It was hard to not let my personal, negative feelings about them color how I felt intellectually about them. I will say that I think that people are creative in using new technologies. We all look to new technologies and say, “This is going to be the downfall of civilization” and then young people find ways to make them useful and positive in their lives.
CP: In the book, you cite a study about how the self-esteem of Facebook users increased after tweaking their profiles. How do you make sense of that?
AWM: What social media allows us to do is create a fluid self. No identity is fixed. We are all complex beings. I think that that study in particular is talking about how, when people are able to present a fluid view of how they see themselves and how they wish to see themselves, that makes them feel better about who they are. I think there’s something really nice and holistic to that.
That points to the possibilities of social media and even selfies. I’m thinking of a friend of mine who does post a lot of selfies: she has her workout selfies, she has her hot selfies, she has her thoughtful selfies, so even though I could look at that cynically, I could also look at it and be like: she’s showing a multi-faceted view of the self, which is this human desire to express the totality of who we are.
CP: You talk about how the growing market of grooming products has infected men with an obsession about appearance as well. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? A mixed blessing?
AWM: I would have to say mixed blessing. I’ve heard some people say, “It’s about time that men have to deal with what women have always had to deal with.” I don’t think that anybody wins if you frame it that way. I don’t want men to start worrying about the size of their guts for aesthetic reasons just because women have been doing that for so long. I don’t think that’s the direction to be going. But I think that hopefully what we can take from this market of “beauty products for men” is the sense of men feeling more freedom to play with their self-presentation. And we have been seeing more of that lately: different hairstyles, men dyeing their hair fantastic colors, nail polish -- and I’m talking about pretty butch looking guys. It’s almost like this masculine thing: I’m so masculine, I can wear nail polish.
I think the more possibility for play that men and women and gender-fluid people have available to them, I think that’s a potential positive. I don’t think that just having this market of things that make men look more traditionally masculine is going to help men or women.
CP: If you were to define beauty, what elements would go into it?
AWM: That is the hardest question. When I started writing the book, I was very clear to myself that I wasn’t talking about inner beauty. I was talking about the physical stuff, the stuff you see in photographs, this very skin-deep quality, and how that affected our inner lives. Over time, through a combination of talking with other people, investigating my own story, and reading scholarly research on the matter, I saw that you really can’t divide the two.
If I were to define beauty, it would be intrigue and fascination. I can think something is “pretty” without finding it particularly compelling. But if I find something “beautiful,” and very consciously use that word, to me it means that there’s something in it that is either sublime or unexplained that makes me want to keep looking at it. That might be something physical. I’m intrigued by scars, for example, and I think a lot of people are intrigued by scars because there’s this inherent mystery. That element of intrigue can manifest itself physically, but I think more often there’s something underneath the surface that the viewer only picks up by intuition. Maybe intuition is a part of beauty.
IF YOU GO:
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano and The Riveter discuss Face Value
Magers & Quinn
7 p.m. Tuesday, January 24
Magers & Quinn Booksellers