Tag Archives: cultural conceptions of lookin’ right


We have this really unfortunate problem, humans, where we think we are always insufficient. We are disturbingly good at developing tools to legitimise that fear, to keep ourselves in a panic about our faces and our bodies especially. This is a tool that offers the deceptive glimmer of freedom from scrutiny – “You can make yourself flawless!” – but encourages us to believe we must continue to strive for perfection, since of course we will never be free from scrutiny, not really.

The girl on the left looks like she’s in the midst of puberty, judging from that little pimple by her lower lip, a place where my skin tends to rebel often. Her cheeks are the bright red of sunburn, exertion or rosacea, or all three, and freckles dust her face. She looks like she’s been enjoying an Australian summer. The set of her lips, her steady dark brows and the determination in her slightly tired, striking eyes conjures the impression of a tough, cheery country girl who’s seen the effects of a drought up close, who’s sat by animals as they are put down out of necessity, but maybe that’s just my cultural baggage trailing along behind me. I don’t have any idea who she is, really, but there are things written on her face, and they may not mean what I have arbitrarily decided that they mean, but to her, they mean something; to her family, they mean or meant something; to her friends, they mean something; to her high school teachers, they meant something. Something both incredibly superficial and informed by deep intimacy and experience. A thousand different somethings.

The girl on the right is beautiful, and enhanced, and diluted. Ruddy cheeks and freckles are not acceptable; the appropriate response to sun is a tan. Pimples are not acceptable; you may look young in the sense of dewy skin and a lack of wrinkes – and the lines beneath her eyes have indeed been softened – but the imperfections of youth are unacceptable. Her brows have been curved, lengthening, very slightly, the space between brow and upper eyelid, for the greater appearance of naivete and eagerness. Even the planes, peaks and valleys of her face have been smoothed – the indentation above her cupid’s bow; the points of cartilage shaping the tip of her nose. Her eyes were apparently not bright enough. Where once they were inscrutable, old and cheeky, perhaps guarded, now they invite you in, unambiguously, and yet are empty, the same expression you’ve seen so many times before that it has ceased to mean anything, the endless invitation. Her skin has no pores.

There was nothing wrong with her. She didn’t need correcting. I don’t know that she would agree.

We really do hate ourselves, don’t we?

Crossposted here, at the tumblr.


Make up

Boys Can Wear Make-up by *humon on deviantART found via sexisnottheenemy (a brilliant, but very NSFW, tumblr)

The young lad here reminds me a little, with his dark skin, chubby face, tentatively hopeful look, and the glee with which he takes to lipstick, of Clarence Bell and his alter-ego Clarisse from Boston Legal. For the unfamiliar, Clarence (played by Gary Anthony Williams) is a timid paralegal who feels bravest when he assumes the persona of loud, brash, stereotypically sassy, take-no-shit “Clarisse”.

By the series’ end, he’s working toward integrating himself with the character, harnessing the confidence that he gains when wearing the Clarisse mask so that he can be just as brave when in his own skin.

The two characters, placed side by side, make me wonder about makeup and masks, both restrictive and empowering.

My grandfather is wont to declare that makeup’s purpose is advertised clearly in its name – it’s designed to “make up” for one’s flaws, a thin film of powder and cream to hide behind. He’s not a fan, in principle; he thinks when I wear it, I’m declaring that I need to be improved somehow, that I am not enough.

We’ve hit that point now, where people are so very used to seeing women in media, advertising, and all around them wearing makeup all the time, just a little here and there to brighten the lips and cheeks, enhance the eyes – it’s almost the default state. We probably don’t really think that much about the fact that an actress playing the ingenue girl-next-door in a big-budget romantic comedy is wearing a thick layer of makeup to make her eyes look bright and captivating, her lips look soft and rouged and inviting, her skin look flawless. She looks normal. But you certainly notice when she appears on screen without enhancing makeup, because in the language of cinema that signals a problem – grief or ill health. The only women who can get away with looking like they’re wearing none (apart from the base layer of stage makeup we use just to make all actors look human on camera) are the aged and the populations of indie films.

In many professional circles, a woman isn’t considered neat and ‘put together’ unless she’s wearing ‘natural-looking’ makeup; where, for a man, a scrubbed face is quite sufficient, a scrubbed woman is perceived as being a little washed out, a little unhealthy looking. So, for women whose eyes don’t naturally pop and whose lips don’t naturally look the right shade of blushing nude, makeup is often expected, in office-based professional contexts at the very least, and often in the after hours. But god forbid that you get it wrong – there’s an elaborate subconscious dress and makeup code and it is not to be broken, as certain professionals have discovered. You must be wearing precisely the right mask if you’re going to perform the role of professional competency well.

Amica Lane, on The Professional Masquerade

When I started, I was treated by my manager to an introductory lecture about dress code. She presumed this would be sufficient to educate me in ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ work attire.

“Look glamorous, with immaculate hair and makeup and plenty of flirty smiles! But don’t come to work dressed as if you’re going to a club. Look sexy, but not slutty. Professional.”


I wore a black dress the next day with flats, as I figured that was pretty unassuming. How wrong I was.

Hauled into her office, I was told I looked like a whore and that my dress had caused complaints from male co-workers who insisted that I was ‘distracting’ them from work and they couldn’t focus with such an outfit in the office.


So the next day, I went into work wearing no makeup, trousers and a suit jacket.

Once again, I was called into my manager’s office.

“You can’t dress like this. You have no makeup on. You’re supposed to be the face of the company.”

“If the face of a multi-billion dollar hedge fund is a 21-year-old blonde from Hounslow, then the company has a bigger problem than the Lehman situation,” I replied, and was served promptly with a written warning.

“Sexy, not slutty,” became the mantra. “Sexy enough for the men to feel happy, but not too sexy as so to intimidate the other women.”

Things get even more complicated if you’re working in law, it seems.

The chorus of female attorneys added some caveats: make sure your suit is not too fitted, wear flats, wear minimal jewelry, wear minimal makeup, do not wear hair in a pony-tail, do not wear hair down in a distracting way, wear pantyhose, do not wear open-toe shoes (especially in front of a jury says Justice Goldgar), do not wear peep-toe shoes, and do not wear dark nail polish (avoid burgundy, cautioned Professor Collins). Wear a shirt under your suit that is not too tight, not low-cut, not bright colored, not patterned, not ruffle-y, and not too feminine. Finally, when going on a job interview, do not carry a recognizable brand-name handbag because you are trying to project the image that you need money. Oh, and do not wear your engagement ring if it is large because it may anger your women interviewers and cause jealousy (and perhaps rage).

There’s not much of a men’s dress code in comparison – shave, probably; wear a clean, neat, well-fitted shirt and pants, maybe a matching suit jacket and a tie with no cartoon characters on it (suited to the fashion of the times as far as breadth and pattern goes, never made of leather); non-scuffed formal shoes, and you’re set. It’s expensive, not strictly necessary for the purposes of doing your job, but it’s fairly comfortable and easy to put together if you have the funds.

Or, at least, you think there’s not much of a men’s dress code, until Clarisse walks into your office in a blonde wig and a plum suit with lip gloss to match, and you  (well, some of you; there are of course those who are all too painfully aware of the cultural taboos here) realise that it hasn’t even occurred to you that a man could ever want to wear makeup or other ‘feminine’ things – much less in the workplace. It just never entered your head. It’s weird, it’s … it’s inappropriate, isn’t it?

Why, though?

Expectation, mainly. Looking corporate is about looking ‘right’, reassuring, sensible and capable, conforming to the mask of competence. Turns out there are different masks of competence for men and women. (Have fun navigating that code if you’re transgendered and on the border of ‘passing’, or genderqueer, by the way. No nuance here, kids, we only deal in stark categorisations.)

There are women, though, who defy the expectation, who come in to work makeup-free in a masculinely cut suit, and still get the promotion, still get the respect.

Oh hey there, Prime Minister

As a woman, you can stretch that dress code much further in both directions than a man can. You can’t ignore it entirely; you can’t necessarily go so far as a cropped, practical men’s haircut, no makeup, a loose suit, men’s cut shirt, men’s shoes and a tie, but you can pull quite far on that leash (and so much further in less corporate white-collar professions, like academia or general cube work).

As a man, though, you have nearly no room to pull in the feminine direction. People are only just beginning to decide that it’s acceptable for men to pluck their monobrows or wear a pink shirt. You can’t come into your high powered corporate office as Clarisse and be respected; you’ve forfeited the mask of competence and become ridiculous. And whenever it looks like we might let men look more feminine, even outside that rarefied corporate environment – whenever there’s a move toward more skincare products for men, or an actor pops up on a red carpet wearing long, highlighted hair or eyeliner – people start yowling in the media about how there are no! more! real! men! It’s characterised as a crisis, a loss, instead of a broadening of freedom.

Harbringer of the downfall of masculinity, obviously

“Our men are turning into primping, mincing shadows of their former selves!” they cry. “They’re … pussies!”

And there it is.

At the heart of this tendency toward a short leash for men is the idea that a man should not, under any circumstances, be like a woman, should not want to do woman things. On a woman, makeup and a suit looks normal; on a man, makeup and a suit is unacceptable frippery and silliness.

Partly, I think, this is because power and competence are still subconsciously coded as masculine. When a woman puts on a suit and a starched collar, a uniform more traditionally worn by men, she’s read as saying, “Take me seriously. I know what I’m doing.” A woman who dresses masculinely is practicing upward mobility by clothing, and the less makeup and jewellery a woman wears as a female political candidate, the less likely people are to say she’s too frivolous for the job. That’s because feminine clothing and ornamentation is, in contrast, coded as weak, light, full of artifice. (Which, after all, made sense when upper class women wore impractical garments and elaborate coiffures to advertise their husbands’ wealth and their ability to sit idly all day. A woman who can wear a corset and a bustle clearly doesn’t need to pull her weight; a woman wearing fine fabrics isn’t doing housework in them. The finery was there to show off the ability to abandon hard work and luxuriate in leisure.) The less makeup a woman wears, the more serious and industrious she is, the more like a man she is. The more feminine a man looks, therefore, the more like a woman he is. And looking like a woman means you’re weakening yourself, and who wants to be weaker than they are, right?

Feminism has given women permission to become as powerful as men, should they so desire. But we still read signs of femininity as signs of weakness, even as we often demand that women perform femininity to some extent (Gillard got a new dye job in preparation for the election; Amica Lane was berated as much for her more masculine look as she was for her too-womanly dress). And we still haven’t liberated men to the extent that they can decide they’d like to be more feminine, that they’re allowed to look as ‘weak’ or as ‘superficial’ as women are allowed to look.

Makeup is, to some extent, about making yourself into an ornament, admitting that beauty, art and aesthetics are of interest to you, that you want people to look at your face and be captivated in some way. (That is, when makeup is a choice, rather than an obligation.) There is immense scope for variety when you basically have permission to change your face – or just to cover it up a little when you’re feeling imperfect and afraid (in a world that asks for perfection from you, especially if you’re a woman) and you want the armour of a flawless mask and a persona to match.

Perhaps giving men permission to wear makeup would stick them with many of the disadvantages of it – the obligation to look perfect, the challenge of trying to get it just right and being ridiculed for failing – but it would also give them the opportunity to experiment more with identity, to subvert expectations, to be their own canvas, to change faces as women can. The freedom to admit that one is concerned about one’s appearance, to want to play with femininity and masculinity, to revel in the wonder of being able to change one’s face just a little or transform it entirely, t0 want more everyday opportunities for art and play in your life, is a freedom worth desiring.

You know what I really love about that picture? There is a pure playful delight in it, a complete lack of self consciousness. It’s kids playing dress ups, just because they want to, just because they can. The boy is excited by his transformation, and the girl is cheerfully absorbed in the task of helping to effect it. So often, when a woman’s putting on makeup, it’s because she believes she has to; as my grandfather says, it’s “making up for something” – she believes she’s not enough without it (a problem, initially, shared by Clarence), or she must wear it because some dress code demands it. This picture has nothing to do with compensation or obligation. The person wearing makeup is doing it without all the cultural baggage women are carrying when they paint their faces, and without feeling lesser because he’s not conforming to a masculine ideal.

It’s about play, and exploration, and the wonderment of changing your face, for no real reason, for the beauty of transformation.


Modeling and makeup by Sammi Jones, cosmetic genius

Image source: here.