The Fem Spot

Beauty and me

Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays, Sexuality by femspotter on November 7, 2009

November 7, 2009

I love shopping for drugstore cosmetics. It’s like being in that fabulous box of 64 Crayola crayons I loved to use when I was little: an arsenal of colors that offered 64 creative choices. As I browse the many colors of lipstick, I envision a pretty me with bright lips and shiny eyes. I pucker and imagine using glitter lipsticks, fruity glosses and nourishing balms.

And so my wicker vanity is littered with brightly colored sticks, designed to paint dry, lined, pale lips, transforming them as my whim would have it. But as my fear would have it, I am often afraid to leave the house in some of the brighter hues. I put them on, look in the mirror…and fear that bold red, plum, coral and magenta call too much attention to my otherwise lackluster visage.

Still…the fantasy, a picture in my mind of beautiful me, is fun to entertain.

The last time I wandered through the box of crayons, I noticed the shift in trends from long-lasting glossy lipstick to lip-plumping lipstick, just as the trend of matte colors had shifted to glossy the winter before. I recalled in a flash a time when, as a child, I’d overheard somebody, a woman, describing another woman as having “thin, cruel lips.” That probably wasn’t a compliment, but I’d never given it much thought. Certainly, the word “thin” connotes something standard in the world of female beauty in this day and age. “Cruel,” though possibly suggesting something untouchable, also meant severe; and it made me think of a clenched smile that hid a world of anger or heartbreak. And, while I’d never considered my own lips to be either thin or cruel, I got excited by the prospect of fuller lips with – certainly not without – bright, shiny color! I plucked a “tester” ripe berry shade of lip-plumping lipstick from the drugstore shelf and subsequently discovered, to my surprise and delight, that it contained flecks of silver glitter in the mix. This was the one for me.

(Incidentally, I love glitter! I love anything sparkly!)

There was a “buy one get one half off” special, so I snatched up a pearly crimson gloss too. In the car, after carefully scanning the parking lot to see that nobody was watching my ritual, I tried the gloss. It was dusk and so the result was less than awesome. I decided to wait for better light to plump my lips. How does that work? I wondered. I hoped that the lipstick wouldn’t be chunky and thick, likely to smear on clothes. I drove home with purpose leaning to the right at stop signs and lights to admire my new gloss in the rear view mirror.

It’s three flights of stairs into our condo and another flight up to my vanity in our master bedroom suite. I took the stairs two at a time – I was on a mission. I unwrapped the lipstick tube after some difficulty, finally finding success with my teeth. There they were: the aforementioned sparklies! What glee! I puckered my lips and smoothed the pink stain across them, top and bottom. The glitter particles were a bit abrasive and I was forced to slow my painting in order to apply the shade evenly. But what a beautiful color! It reminded me of raspberry yogurt: jam-like pink with a bit of plum thrown in to intensify the color. It wasn’t a drippy or thick consistency as I had worried. Rather, this lipstick was somewhat dryer than others I’d tried. The color caught the light from the many bulbs surrounding my vanity mirror and made my eyes sparkle. The color of my eyes seemed to intensify too and…

Holy shit! There was a burning sensation everywhere! It seemed to originate with my lips, which I could feel pulsing to the beat of my heart…but the pain was spreading outward from my mouth. I felt hot and sore. So, this is how it works! Beauty really is pain. If this lipstick stings your lips enough, they’ll plump? Well, I had to check. At least I’ll be beautiful, I thought. I looked in the mirror. I didn’t see a beautiful me. Instead, the person staring back at me looked something like this:

Big Lips Wanda

I looked down at the shiny black tube of burning poison. It had a white sticker on the side, which I hadn’t noticed in my excitement to unwrap it. “PEEL FOR CAUTION,” it read. I did so.

This product may cause a temporary tingling sensation which is normal. Discontinue use if you experience excessive discomfort. Do not use on chapped, damaged or sensitive lips.

I see. The “temporary tingling sensation” that I was concurrently experiencing was “normal.” “Beauty is pain” is not just something people say – like “shit happens” or “that’s life” or “it’s a slippery slope, my friend;” it’s true, and furthermore, it’s meaningful. The standard of beauty for women is to be pin thin; and thus we starve ourselves, purge our stomachs, pinch our flesh and spends hundreds – even thousands – of dollars to be skinny. In some cases, we pay the ultimate price by weaning our bodies off of food until our bodies are forced to consume their own organs for sustenance. And we die. That’s extreme. Normal is “mild” anorexia or bulimia, liposuction and self-hatred. And normal for lips – painful though it is – is the burning, tingling and ultimately numbing sensation of trying to achieve what every male desires in a life partner: blow job lips. (Because, let’s face it: who ever heard of a man looking for a woman with those undesirably thin, cruel lips?)

I’m not saying that men don’t have their fair share of superficial requirements. I think the idea of “male privilege” has been somewhat romanticized to the point that some feminists believe men have it really easy all the time. In actuality, men do terrible things to their bodies to buff them up or trim them down. (I always get a kick out of the Herculean men who break from hours of weight lifting and stride confidently down to the underworld where I work out – otherwise known as the pool – only to nearly drown or struggle to do a single lap. They think they’re in healthy shape; but really they’re just bloated.) And, in many cases, men aren’t allowed to show signs of physical or emotional weakness by failing to carry something heavy up a steep flight of stairs, going to a therapist or crying in public. But what is the male equivalent to stinging, “blow job lips” lipstick? What painful thing do men do to attract the people they desire that women don’t? Both sexes shave, wax and pluck unwanted hair. Both sexes visit gyms and fitness centers. Both sexes watch what they eat – or don’t eat.

I decided to write this essay after a girlfriend asked me to define the line between feminism and feminine beauty. In other words, she asked, what beauty rituals are acceptable for a feminist such as yourself? The answer: the beauty rituals I enjoy, for me and only me, are “acceptable.” If I’m lip plumping to fulfill a male fantasy, then that’s “unacceptable,” according to the “rules of feminism.”

As I began to account for all of the beauty rituals I perform, I realized that there are a lot that are full of nuisance or irritation. Some pleasure rituals are just for me: lavender bubble baths to soften my skin and help me sleep, lotions and creams to hydrate me, application of glitter makeup and colorful lip gloss for fun, and manicures/pedicures for relaxation. If my husband benefits from these rituals, that’s just a(n un)fortunate side effect. But when I started to think about some of the other things I do – like shaving my legs, plucking my eyebrows, squeezing into control top pantyhose and wearing breast minimizers, I realized that I don’t do these things because I worry about men finding me beautiful. Ironically, I do the most painful things I do to fit in with other women. I do these things so that women will respect and admire my “beauty.” (Because, let’s face it: I have never known a man to scrutinize the space between my eyebrows or complain of a fat bulge on my body here or there.) I don’t want the women I know to notice my flaws. I am competitive with them. I can’t stand the feeling that other women have contempt for me. I fear that they are thinking, “That sweater makes her butt look fat!” Women are the people who’ll notice and comment on your recent chemical facial peel or indistinguishable panty line. Men generally don’t notice that stuff.

I wonder how many other women feel this way. How many women fear what other women think enough to subject themselves to painful beauty rituals? Of course, there will be a length or two women find themselves going to for the admiration of men – like breast augmentation and Brazilian bikini waxes; but how is that worse than going to a painful length for the admiration of women? What’s the difference?

The goal of feminism is – or should be – the equal happiness opportunity for men and women. If happiness is hindered by beauty rituals for any reason, they violate this tenet of feminism. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to identify why we do some of the silly, even painful things we do. (For instance, I will never understand prune juice.) While it’s fun for me to browse the make-up counter at the drugstore, I should pause and think about why I’m there. Am I there to bask in the color and glitter that makes me feel pretty and whimsical when I look at it on my vanity or on my face? Or am I staring down the barrel of the unhappiness gun, trying to be unattainably, even cruelly pretty so that others will like and admire me? I need to make the health and beauty aisles of the world into “Femspotter’s Happiness Aisles.”

After all, I can make my peace with tweezers – I hate to feel stubble with my own fingers. Blow job lips…for me, they have to go!

4 Responses

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  1. Mom said, on November 9, 2009 at 7:18 am

    Oh! But after all this, did your lips stop stinging, undamaged and did you like the way the glitter looked? I get the “other” women criticism but was this a fun experience for you, in the end, or not?
    I do almost no makeup and I look physically pretty ….Oh Well! Never paid much attention to most of it and my skin is so senstivie that makup has always been risky….I suspect there are a lot of people out here like me, who take pleasure in “other” things.

  2. femspotter said, on November 9, 2009 at 8:18 am

    The burning went away, but there’s plenty of other sparkly lipstick to play with. I don’t need to plump my lips.

    Yes, I’m sure there are other things to bask in. What’s your bliss? Grammy’s bliss was swimming. Mine too. And I like reading a really good, reeeaaallly long book.

    • Mom said, on November 9, 2009 at 9:43 am

      I love to cuddle up with a really long, really good book too.
      I think I like crafting things with my hands. I am thinking about making an Advent calendar by hand like the one I have but which is VERY old and tired.

  3. faemom said, on November 10, 2009 at 12:19 am

    I was thinking of the other side of it. What guys worry about? I had a boyfriend that was worried about his circ, of all stupid things, and spent hours trying to find things to fix it. I knew a woman who made her ex-husband have a circ done in his twenties. So I know some men do go through pain to look beautiful. And yes, men do judge women. They are not nearly as vocal as women, but I assure you that they notice the woman squeezing herself into a dress much too small for her and make rude comments about it to their friends. They will mourn a pretty woman in jeans and a sweatshirt instead of some hot number for them to oggle. But they are more tolerant of their girlfriends and wives and friends then women are. It is an interesting take on beauty.

    I’ll admit I would spend hours playing with my make-up and dressing up, just to see how I looked, never going out. I love the colors of make-up though I hardly wear it. I shave my legs because I love the feel, but I always went two weeks without when first dating a guy to see if he cared. If he did, he was gone. I like what you said in the end about beauty. It’s to make the person happy.

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