While the internet, lifestyle bloggers and the beauty industry are putting intense pressure on women to look perfect, many women are still hiding the effort and skill that goes into their beauty routine. Roe McDermott explores why this façade of effortless beauty is damaging our ideas of beauty, and ourselves.
Earlier this month, a woman called Amy Fowler became my personal hero, when she tweeted about the following interaction she had on her morning commute:
“Doing my makeup on the train this morning,” she wrote, “and a random man told me he likes women to have a more natural look. I told him I like men to have a more silent look.”
There were not enough applauding gifs in the world to express my love for Fowler’s clapback at this creep’s unwanted comment about her appearance. Unfortunately, many other people didn’t really absorb the moral of this modern fable, and leapt at the chance to offer this young woman more unsolicited advice. And not just about her make-up – but where and how she applied it.
There were endless comments criticising Fowler’s decision to apply her make-up in public, including one woman’s tragic tweet that opined “Surely the point of make-up is to subtly enhance your looks so you still look natural? That being so it’s important to do it secretly at home not have the entire world watch the transformation. Even my husband doesn’t get to see me making up.” Countless other Twitter users also chimed in, asking Fowler “Can’t you just get up earlier and do your make-up in private?” and telling her that “No man wants to see how the sausage is made.” The latter was a particularly telling metaphor – but you try telling someone on the internet that comparing women to lifeless meat-sacks is literally the definition of objectification without getting called a fat feminazi sl*t. (It sorted out what to put on my business cards, though.)
THE FACADE OF EFFORTLESSNESS
These assertions that women should always hide their beauty routines is indicative of a very particular form of emotional labour constantly demanded of women: the façade of effortlessness.
This façade of effortlessness involves demanding that we spend our time, effort and money on our physical appearance – but that we conceal this effort, keep it a mystery. It demands that we eschew efficiency and time management and sleep to do our make-up in private, to make other people comfortable. To assure everyone that adhering to patriarchal beauty standards isn’t difficult, so that society can continue feeling okay about telling women that our natural faces aren’t good enough.
Because hey, if we constantly, magically appear looking like our most perfect selves without ever showing the work that went into our appearance – then society’s hugely limited, largely unattainable, race-and-class based ideals of beauty must not be so bad. Achieving it must be easy. It must come naturally. It must be normal. Right?
Women are now caught in a trap where we’re under intense pressure to conform to beauty standards – and intense pressure to pretend that doing so doesn’t take work.
Aside from this being a painfully regressive attitude – is anyone else thinking of those 1950s Stepford wives sneaking out of bed in the morning so they could pretend to wake up with perfectly curled hair and red lipstick? – this façade of effortless beauty has a damaging knock-on effect on how men view women, and how we view ourselves.
UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS OF BEAUTY
Now, please note: I’m not knocking make-up. I love make-up. My relationship with Rimmel eyeliner has been longer and more faithful than most marriages. Make-up can be fun, and expressive, and I’ll never criticise a woman for wanting to feel more confident in a world that still judges us on our appearance.
But by hiding the work and time and products that go into our beauty routines, we’re creating unrealistic expectations of beauty. We’re implicitly teaching men that a full face of carefully applied make-up is the default, that it’s to be expected, that this is how women are supposed to look. And so they normalise it. (Have you ever seen what many men consider to be a “natural, make-up free” look? Some of them genuinely think we were born with gold sparkly eyelids.)
By not being open about the process and the products, by cowing to demands to keep our beauty routines private, we’re prioritising men’s expectations of how women “should” look instead of asserting that how we naturally look bare-faced is normal and beautiful and worthy of celebration. The mascara and lipstick and styled hair is just a different option, when we choose it. Different, not required. A choice, not a default.
It’s easy to forget this, even for ourselves. Because the façade of effortless beauty has never been more en vogue. One glance at Instagram will tell you that. All those photos of lifestyle bloggers oh-so-casually posing in beautiful locations, pretending that they didn’t take fifty versions of the same photo before Facetuning it to plastic oblivion. The “candid” selfies of fully made-up women “caught unawares” rolling around in crisp white bedlinen like a whimsical Terrence Malick heroine, when the entire aesthetic has been carefully curated. ‘#MakeupFree selfies that don’t mention the blow dry, the teeth whitener, the micro-bladed eyebrows, the eyelash extensions, the Botox, the lip filler, the hours in the gym, and the expensive outfit that all contributed to that “make-up free” photo looking so #flawless.
And again; women can do what they like to look and feel good. But why are we hiding the work? Especially when we know the damage it does to women’s self-esteem and body image. Because of our lack of transparency about the effort that goes into certain beauty trends, young women grow up looking at these images, believing they should naturally wake up looking the same as a twenty- or thirty-something who has literally sent thousands on make-up and cosmetic procedures.
NATURAL BEAUTY vs. EXCEPTIONAL BEAUTY
And for what? To look “effortlessly” beautiful? To perpetuate the idea that only natural, gene-dictated beauty is worthwhile? To avoid being called “vain” by the same judgemental trolls who would also attack most women’s make-up free appearances?
Outside of feminist body positivity movements, most people who claim to love “natural beauty” aren’t waxing lyrical about the power of ungroomed eyebrows, blemished skin, frizzy hair, broad noses and undefined cheeks. They’re not celebrating the average woman who is rocking a bare face. They’re worshipping photos of Margot Robbie or Emily Ratajkowski or Scarlett Johansson frolicking on a beach. But loving women who – through genetics or intervention – fulfil every checkbox of beauty standards is not loving natural beauty. It’s loving exceptional beauty. And that’s not original or empowering in the slightest.
Natural, genetic, genuine ‘I woke up like this’ beauty is not a virtue, or a skill. Being conventionally beautiful from birth doesn’t innately make anyone a better person, or more admirable. So why are we placing it on top of a social hierarchy where it reigns over everything else? Why are we keeping our beauty regimens private and internalising the belief that having or wanting to put effort into our appearance somehow diminishes our worth, makes us less deserving of admiration?
It doesn’t. So screw hiding the work. Screw the façade of effortlessness. Screw the fake “I woke up like this.” I didn’t wake up like this. I woke up looking like a pasty, sleepy, bedraggled mess – but look at the sparkling, incandescent magic I can summon in fifteen minutes with nothing more than an eyeshadow palette – and I’ll do it while drinking a cup of tea and watching The West Wing. I’m not a natural stunner, but I am a goddamn artist with liquid eyeliner, and I can create a winged masterpiece while standing in a crowded bus.
I, like many women, wake up and put a bit of effort into my appearance, and a lot of effort into my life. I’m pretty happy with the results of both. So how about we all start respecting the work? Especially when hiding it is so much effort.