Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A feminist guide to beauty and aesthetics

Last year I cured my stress related female baldness using castor oil and a shampoo designed for horses. It’s called Mane N Tail. As I smoothed out the gummy strands it struck me like an acidic splash of perming solution that I should return to my roots – cultural roots, not follicular ones – in the style press and flash my beauty expertise.

Every style icon from Coco “Elegance is refusal” Chanel to Diana “What was I going to do – retire? I was only seventy!” Vreeland to Isabella “totally tradge” Blow has a line, a story, a strong personal brand. They don’t just pronounce on aesthetics, they embody them. My own line is this: I am an unemployed, celibate, 35 year old spinster who never grew up, never got her life together and who lives with her mother. Beauty-wise I want to be the best unemployed celibate nearly 40 year old spinster I can possibly be. And I probably I want my mum to watch me.

Actual beauty has never been my goal as it makes no difference to anything apart from a little bit of surface tingling when you first meet someone. If beauty counted for anything all the world’s leaders, the UN security council, FTSE 100 company bosses, Davos delegates and all industry high-ups in technology, every branch of entertainment from novels to films, science, politics, charities, the media, academia and sport would be beautiful women. So would the most revered cultural figures. They are not. They are plain men. Their uniform appearance rightly conveys the message that their words, experience and decisions matter and their beauty does not.

Men actually police their own and other men’s appearance very carefully: they rarely stray from the same few shapes, fabrics, silhouettes, colours; to keep their hair short and neat, men must visit a hairdresser far more frequently than women do. They regard the possibility of cosmetics use not with neutrality but with defensiveness and abhorrence. Even young actors who first became famous for their looks later work hard to shed the ‘pretty boy’ tag which they correctly find to be patronising, superficial, limiting and demeaning. They do not want to be seen as pretty, or boys, but as talented men. Meanwhile women are routinely referred to as girls and being both youthful-looking and pretty is meant to be our one and only goal, so much so that women visit untold nastiness, punishment, labour and judgement on themselves and on other women. It is shallow and irrelevant to call a little boy pretty but calling a little girl pretty is seen as the best compliment you can give.

It is easy to point to modelling, advertising, the backgrounds of music videos and acting and say that beautiful women are ‘everywhere’ and are ‘making a lot of money from their looks’. Beautiful women in these industries are used as ornamental objects to make money for other people who are working behind the scenes in companies ultimately controlled by majority-male boards. This goes just as much for fashion conglomerates as it does for other areas of business from concrete road resurfacing to new technology. The presentational women are exploited for the physical labour and sexualised tinge they provide but have no say in anything concerning the process, their representation or the products they are being used to sell. They are constantly sexually harassed as objects in work and beyond work. They are patronised, intimidated, bullied, ignored, demeaned and degraded by their colleagues during the work process and also within the narrative or message of the images, scripts, songs, advertising copy or products they are used for. They are thrown away after a few years. The industry men who degrade them, from the men behind Lululemon and American Apparel (and here) to photographer Terry Richardson (also see here for latest testimonies) are rewarded and aided by their industries, which also contain a high proportion of colluding female misogynists. An infinitesimal proportion of the beautiful women in modelling and acting make a lot of money by being used, before being thrown away and replaced. The overwhelming majority are used up and thrown away too quickly to establish any longstanding career identity or financial power while the companies and individuals around them continue to draw income, gain a strong name and develop their careers in the long term.

I was stunningly beautiful for about two months in my teens – everyone has their moment – and it was constant in-work and on-street sexual harassment all the way, coupled with deep career patronage and a disturbing personal sense that who I appeared to be on the outside in no way matched who I was. My appearance felt like a thick shell, not fragile but bluntly confining, the surface powdery like plaster of Paris, in which I was trapped. I had long hair for a very brief period in my teens, cut it off when I was 19 and breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

That was a while after I tried to bleach it at home, a month before my 18th birthday (dinner at the River Café, very nice), using two full boxes of shop-bought peroxide. It was naturally a very dark red, black in shadow, ruby in light, the exact shade many dark-haired women try to dye their hair. It was straight and swingy and hung down past my shoulder blades. After my bleachy intervention it went white at the roots, neon yellow further down, ginger for a few inches, then gerbil coloured, then a stretch of sandalwoody tint, darkening to mahogany, while the ends remained black but acquired a singed, fried seaweed quality. Its texture went from silk to parched hessian, with a massed, fibrous, netted appearance. It lay in weedlike lumps along my back. I covered it over with two more boxes of solid black dye. Every time I washed it I needed half a bottle of cheap Asda conditioner to make it look okay. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any more and went for a total crop, just as I’d had until I was thirteen, and it felt great. You don’t need a brush or comb. You rub it with a towel and it’s dry. It always looks cool.

Until the thinning happened and, just before my 35th birthday, I had to take action. Now I’ve turned into an evangelical hair hippy: don’t dye it, don’t put chemicals on it, don’t put heat including hairdryers near it, if it’s long put it in a plait when you go to bed or it’ll be rubbed to jute. Use organic shampoo from Neal’s Yard or, if you can stand the sugary stench of the shops and the patronisingly chipper dolly-fembot staff, Lush. Shampoo it as little as possible, easily 50% less than you usually do. If you want a conditioner use three drops of rosemary oil rubbed into the ends when wet. If you want a leave-in wash-off conditioning treatment, dilute castor oil with rosemary, jasmine and lavender oils and leave on for as long as possible before washing out. Don’t sleep in it or it’ll give you zits. After all this I don’t know if it’ll look good but trust me, it’ll be good, like, good within itself, in accordance with Gaia.

Even growing my hair one inch beyond its usual has triggered a gender identity crisis so huge that it completely swamps the factual reality of what’s going on. I’m realising just how culturally encoded hair is. Why does everyone now call me Madam? Why do people keep asking where my husband (as if! no thanks) and kids (rapidly missing the boat on that one) are? Why do people talk to me like I’m some kind of responsible, civilised lady they can trust? What are all those guys looking at when they walk past, giving my face and tits and legs a quick scope and then turning back when they’ve passed, to scope the arse? Let me make it clear: these men hate women. They think that we are objects and not human beings. If they didn’t hate us, they would not see us and treat us as things to be looked over and assessed on the street for their own enjoyment. They would see us as people. They would not cause us discomfort by their deliberate and repeated actions. They would not make going for a walk a trial of objectification and repulsive, sexualised assessment rather than the pleasure it should be.

So I’m walking a tricky line in reinventing myself as a style maven. In the dramatic psychological and physical journey from having slightly less hair than usual to having just about the normal amount, give or take a few thousand strands, I’ve learned a lot. Not about myself. Not about the world. But about the thin layer separating one from the other: my epidermis. It’s best to do as little with it as possible: I wash it with warm water; use no products except Boots Soltan sunblock when I go out; almost never wear make-up (maybe 3 days a year) out of a contradictory combination of laziness, cheapness, militant feminism and outright vanity. I look…fine. OK. Wearing make-up makes me feel like a liar, like a dolly, like someone who is trying a bit too hard to win some kind of pageant where the prize is nothing. I can feel it on my face and I can smell it too. 

It also bothers me when I wear make-up and get compliments off people. No wonder some women who wear it habitually feel reliant on it, feel ashen and plain and invisible without it, feel like they can’t go out without ‘putting on their face.’ The idea of calling a time-consuming and probably bacteria laden collection of paints in jars made by brands ‘my face’ shows just how falsified, damaged and weak women’s sense of identity is. They think that paint is them and they are nothing without paint.

I am also suspicious of mincing little doll apologists who insist that ‘a tiny bit’ of highlighter or under-eye concealer makes ‘an enormous difference’. The chances are that the amount of paint to be applied is tiny because the perceived problem is tiny in the first place and therefore invisible to others.

You may need concealer to cover your spots but it’s make-up that gives you spots. If you gave up all make-up and all products and only used warm water you would have glowing, perfect skin within six weeks. I know because I tried it. From drag queen dolly to blah in just six weeks! I may be plain but I feel liberated and when you feel liberated you don’t fuss about plainness or not-plainness and other boring junk like that.

Funnily enough it was actually racist Western patriarchy that originally made me allergic to makeup: Lancome’s Geisha collection of red and black lacquered eye makeup, when I was 19 or 20. Lancome, do you think that being a young girl groomed into servitude and compliance in the brutal, ancient Japanese sex exploitation industry was really cool and fun? Do the fans, wigs, silks, powdered cheeks, tea cups and tiny little steps taken on wood block shoes make you think that it’s not an aspect of violence against women, because the aesthetics are so cute and un-violent? Did you want to take these Orientalist, racist, sexist cliches and flog centuries of women's sexual abuse for your profit? Well I fell for it, put on the lacquer and the goddess of rightful vengeance, Feminista Karma Maxima, punished me for it. My face swelled up until it looked like a pink, oozing rugby ball. My eyes looked like lizards’ eyes, inflamed, weeping and red rimmed, and I could barely see out of them. My skin’s been allergic to everything, except one brand of sun block, ever since.

I got cellulite recently – it’s like being hit on the arse with a very soft, wobbly thunderbolt – and it has nothing to do with how much exercise I do (a lot, every day), or how much body fat I’ve got (not a lot). I asked Quack Doctor Google for solutions but nothing useful came up that I’m not already doing. Cosmetic, surgical and superficial devices/creams/procedures are a boring waste of money. I already eat no sugar, processed food, starchy carbs or junk.

For non celibate ladies who might be worried about cellulite in the bedroom, I must say I have a feeling that it’s rather nice to squeeze amorously as it’s very soft. Definitely softer than a blow-up doll or, say, your partner’s own wanking hand. So I wouldn’t worry about it.

Next, caffeine. I don’t drink caffeinated coffee but I did have about four cups of proper loose leaf Darjeeling every day, brewed for exactly five minutes – we use a timer – we’re Indian, tea’s our thing – and gave that up, just to see what would happen. Worst headaches ever for ten days. If only they could invent a bike helmet that fitted as tightly and reached as far around as a caffeine withdrawal headache, road deaths would be halved within days. I cut down on the caffeine because I read that it inhibits vitamin absorption in the bloodstream, thereby negating three and a half decades of healthy eating.

Within hours of giving up caffeine my cellulite disappeared. But I’d rather have caffeine and cellulite than no caffeine and no cellulite. My ultimate view is that there’s a reason cellulite is behind you: you’re not supposed to think about it. There’s only one real cure for cellulite, it’s free and it’s called denial.

I think what I really aim for on my beauty journey is to be recognised as a bipedal humanoid; to have skin which doesn’t itch, weep, crust over or come up in pus-filled lumps; and not to smell too bad. If you follow my advice you will wind up (a) with hair that looks like hair, (b) skin that looks like skin and (c) a bottom that looks like a bottom. It’s the best I can offer. You will also have a lot more money in your pocket while the fitness, beauty and diet industries will lose billions of pounds in profit.

These industries create, foster and use female guilt, shame and self-hatred to make money.  They spark up and simmer these emotions gently, reduce them into a gunk serum, a pot of paint or powder that cost 60p to make and sells for £6, a new fitness fad to burn fat and improve circulation and oxygenation (which is what all effective exercise does, fad or no fad) or a new way of limiting over-eating and improving nutrition, which they repackage as a thrilling new approach to food. Then they sell them back to us, wrapped in inspirational and expansive sloganeering. They survive by constantly moving. First, it was important to be thin. Then bigger and sportier, yet somehow still thin. It was once elegant to have thin brows, then blows got stronger and more blocked out. If you have straight hair you’re meant to tong it into Barbie waves; if you have wavy hair you’re supposed to iron it straight. If you’re dark skinned you’re meant to lighten your skin; if you’re pale you need a fake tan. And all for absolutely nothing.

And you’re not meant to have any pubic hair because porn says so. How pathetic. A large and toxic industry run by men splaying and trading female flesh for other men to jerk off their dicks to in front of a screen, telling women how to look. And women comply, quickly, unquestioning. What do these women think will happen if they don’t shave everything? Men won’t like us? They don’t like us anyway. They’ll reveal their repulsion for our bodies? They already have, through their globally endemic harassment, stalking and following, bullying, marginalisation, objectification, assault, groping, rape, labour exploitation, beating and murder of us.

Nobody told women outright to remove all their pubic hair (you realise how weird and random that sounds?) or threatened them if they didn’t do it. But they got the message anyway, and they complied. I was going to say that women who submit in this manner, passively and repeatedly, are slaves. But women and men in slavery have always resisted, fought, despised their masters and known utterly the nastiness, objectification, exploitation, violation and brutal dehumanisation of slavery.

Female beauty slaves are completely different. They are participatory, colluding, obedient, fervent when following, passive when urged to resist. They hate themselves, not their oppressors. It’s so clever: get a woman’s energy used up in self-hatred, narcissism and other self-focused, self-conscious, self-absorbed attentions. Get her to fight herself and other women. Then she won’t have any energy left over to fight misogyny.

Women have internalised patriarchal oppression so deeply and corrosively that they judge, police and punish themselves, and other women, according to patriarchal norms. They are so well trained, so intensely brainwashed from birth, that they do it automatically and without noticing. These women react so negatively towards emancipation movements like feminism because feminism would cause them to question every single thing about themselves, their lives, their values and their beliefs. Emancipation would cause the total examination and destruction of everything they are; the brutal stripping away of everything they have believed; and a critical look at the men they worship, the family they are in and the society that underpins, defines, decides and contextualises their existence. They would have to face the reality and depth of their own oppression and perhaps even recognise that some of the men they love hate them and that the respect and deference they feel for men-in-general is not mutual but quite the opposite. This prospect, the complete breaking down of the self, is naturally terrifying.

At the end of the day, cosmetics are just cheap chemicals in little pots, carrying an inordinate amount of symbolic cultural weight. The beauty industries’ power is shored up by mystique: modelised marketing images, all of which are airbrushed, set in Paris, or New York, or a nightclub; using models who are teenagers to sell to women in their thirties and above; resorting to meaningless, faux scientific jargon which implies that products do much more than is possible; and concealment of what really goes into them. Most skincare and cosmetics products are full of chemicals which are so numerous, so unfamiliar by name and whose properties and risks are so unwillingly disclosed that we do not really know what we are putting into our system. The power of the industries and companies behind the products is so immense that their advertising keeps women’s magazines and other media outlets afloat. Without L’Oreal’s (and everyone else’s) ads, the mags would fold. But such a stake gives them great power over the magazines’ editorial pages. Beauty journalists are not really free to investigate ingredients, where they come from, whether they are allergenic or outright carcinogenic,  even if they want to.

I recently met a woman who conducts clinical trials for the beauty industry. She told me that when there’s a line in a major skincare advert saying “78 out of 90 women agree that…”, usually “there’s not much in it. You phone them up five weeks after the trial and say, ‘Would you use this product again?’ and they say ‘Nyeah, sure, might as well’ and you put that down as a yes.” I said, “So it’s all crap?” and she assented. When I asked her what her colleagues and the people who actually work for the companies she researches for use, her response was immediate: “E45 cream. It’s got everything.” They are also all agreed on the basics of beauty: sunblock, daily exercise, healthy food, low booze, no smoking, low caffeine, probably no crystal meth.

Further reading: