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:
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!
August 21, 2008
As it turns out, America isn’t the only country obsessed with pigeonholing young women. China – long the home of wrapped feet, tight buns and the “beauty is pain” mentality – is perhaps harder on its girls and their egos than are we.
While Life and Style weekly magazine and others are busy preparing Suri Cruise and Shiloh Jolie-Pitt for lives fraught with bulimia and plastic surgery, the Chinese government elected to shatter the self-esteem of one 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, a less than “flawless” looking singer whose voice was heard launching the 2008 Summer Olympics, but whose face was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a much more attractive 9-year-old stand-in was ready for her close-up. The “prettier” girl lip-synced the national anthem.
“The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression,” said Chen Qigang, the ceremony’s musical director, in a state radio interview, according to CNN.com.
Let’s put this in perspective. Below is a photograph of Lin Miaoke, the “flawless” face of China (left), and next to her, the “less impressive” face of vocalist Peiyi:
I think Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central put it best when he fake-vomited profusely.
Yeah, that Yang Peiyi: she’s one ugly freak!
Our American reaction of disdain is rather hypocritical, however, considering our treatment of celebrity babies. Aren’t they cute? What are they wearing? She looks just like her mom, doesn’t she?
Here’s the cover of the Aug. 13 issue of Life and Style:
Before we know it, Suri Cruise will be getting liposuction and vacationing with Lindsey Lohan at Promise alcohol rehabilitation center in Malibu, California. Violet Affleck will be having painful dental corrective surgery. And Shiloh Jolie-Pitt will have had most of her arm and leg muscles surgically removed so that she can look just like dear, ol’ mum.
It’s one thing for Jennifer Aniston and Paris Hilton to starve themselves in order to fit the mold. They know what they’re doing. But our obsession with the appearance and behaviors of 1- and 2-year-old kids is just shameful. Matilda Ledger isn’t old enough to deal with the scrutiny that she’s headed for. One day, she’ll be another Kelly Osborne or Rumer Willis, trying desperately to live up to the image of her famous parents. Once you have the spotlight, it’s difficult to live life without it. Tori Spelling’s kids might have been great doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. But they’ll never know it because they’ll be too busy trying to stretch their 15 minutes of fame past that awkward phase every kid goes through: ages 10 to 35.
What is even more shocking than our tendency to buy these magazines boasting to have inside information about famous toddlers is the parents’ insistence on putting them there. Brangelina may have given the millions of dollars in proceeds to charity, but they still called the shots that put their newborn twins on the cover of People magazine. And allegedly Demi Moore hired a professional camera crew to shoot the birth of daughter Rumer, now age 20. Rumer made her film debut at age 5 and is now, sadly, skipping college. This past year, she was named “Miss Golden Globe,” in charge of handing out statues at the Golden Globe awards ceremony. But owing to the writer’s strike, the ceremony was cancelled. I hope that didn’t send her spiralling into despair, worried she has nothing else to give.
And that brings us to another unfortunate truth: the difference between what today’s young celebrities are leaving us with and what Jodie Foster contributed in the 1970’s is a matter of substance. Foster is a smart, talented actress…she always has been. We’ve celebrated that. Today, we celebrate genealogy and shiny hair instead. They’ll all be in movies someday, but if any of these celebrity kids has any talent it will be less important than their ancestry and appearance.
Apparently, these days, we don’t want substance. We get really upset when Katherine Heigl says less than ladylike things about her part on a television show because we’re so used to the drivel spilling out of Jessica Simpson’s mouth. True, both women are perky and blond, but one has distinguished herself as having a mind full of opinions and the other hasn’t…which may make for a rocky road in the case of Heigl.
Jodie Foster went to Yale. Shiloh Jolie-Pitt would be lucky to get into Los Angeles City College on her own academic merits. There’s no knocking the latter education. Perhaps Jolie-Pitt would make a really good X-Ray technician…but we’ll probably never know. Instead, we’ll be privy to her waist, bust and hip measurements and the frequency and severity of her cocaine benders.
If only China had set an example by allowing the world to look upon a talented young singer and marvel at just that: her talent. If only, we’d been allowed to overlook her crooked teeth and chubby cheeks. This could have been one instance when talent upstaged looks.
What’s next? Paris Hilton standing in for Maija Kovalevska at the Met?
Maybe not. Kovalevsha is a pretty girl. Okay, she can stay.