“You have such naturally beautiful skin,” is a compliment I get a lot. I’m always thankful for it, but I’m also quick to correct it. See, I don’t have naturally beautiful skin. I first saw a dermatologist when I was eight years old, when I started getting severe eczema. I have a few scar patches from my early skin problems, mostly in unnoticeable areas. As is common, on top of the eczema I’ve also got super sensitive skin. If I sleep on sheets washed in the wrong detergent, my face will let me know the next morning.
I’ve had these issues for so long, I’ve grown adept at dealing with them. My eczema is nearly non-existent, because I slather my body in olive oil twice a day. My facial skin care routine is much more complicated, but equally preventative. If I tally it all up, I probably spend at least twenty to thirty minutes a day taking care of my skin. “I take excellent care of my skin,” is my standard reply to the compliment.
Ask any woman you know and odds are, she’s got a similar routine. Maybe not for her skin, I’ll grant you. She might labor over her hair, religiously manicure her hands and feet…she probably also shaves her legs, potentially sees a wax specialist, plucks her eyebrows (or dyes them if she feels they’re too fair), and gets regular haircuts, just to name a few of the most common forms of beauty maintenance that any given woman does on a quotidian basis.
Feminists call these activities “beauty work.” There are women who strive to step outside of all that work (which, ironically, is work in and of itself), but that’s not what I want to talk about. Because there are few women in this country that wake up in a fully natural state in the morning. My own eyebrows definitely do not grow in the way they look right now and my air-dried hair has some product in it, even if that product is made of “natural” ingredients. Women who age well are probably blessed with good genes, but they’ve more than likely also used sunscreen, worn hats at the beach, and moisturized a ton.
Natural beauty is a fraud, and a double-sided one at that. Women perpetrate the myth as much as they’re punished by it. When I look rosy cheeked and dewy, I’m probably wearing blush, highlighter on my cheekbones, concealer under my eyes, and mascara on my lashes. Plus, I’ve got the benefit of my years of time spent on my skin. Effortless, natural looking beauty requires a good deal of effort, skill, and forethought.
That’s why the idea of “natural beauty” or being “naturally beautiful” is far worse for women than bikini waxes and eyelash extensions. I don’t think we live in a world where women’s beauty work is going to go away overnight. I commend women who step outside of this system, but I don’t believe in punishing women who participate in it. Some women genuinely enjoy the glamor of prepping themselves for the day, myself included. For me taking care of my skin is as much a ritual of daily self-love as it is participating in a complicated and fraught tool of patriarchy.
It’s true that as much as I love my daily ritual for myself, I can’t ignore that I do receive cultural rewards from taking care of myself. But, I believe in being honest about beauty work. Ignoring the time and energy women spend getting ready, erasing it’s existence— that’s both dangerous and damaging.
When we acknowledge our beauty work, we acknowledge that beauty is a constantly shifting cultural ideal. We acknowledge that we’re trying to meet a culturally determined standard. We recognize that women exist under a certain amount of social pressure to appear in public in a certain way that, while men may feel to an extent, they have little understanding of the consistency and pervasiveness as it effects women.
When we ignore these beauty maintenance habits, we’re effectively subsuming current aesthetic tastes into some mythical, eternal idea. That fresh-faced, natural look is no less contrived than the face Kim Kardashian puts on every day. And that’s alright. Because maybe a woman likes the look of her eyes without mascara. Or maybe she wants fierce penciled in Liz Taylor-esque eyebrows. We just have to stop erasing the conscious effort most women make to look the way they do, even before they get out of bed in the morning.
Maintaining grooming habits, putting on makeup, investing time and money in skin and hair care is considered a norm for women. It’s been a norm for women across time and space, to be honest. It used to be beautiful for women in the States to shave off their eyebrow hair and draw the shape back on in eyebrow pencil. Medieval European women plucked at their hairline to exaggerate their foreheads. Elizabethans painted their faces with lead-based white paint. Early twentieth century society ladies greased their eyelashes with Vaseline, to enhance their eyelashes without the use of makeup.
I don’t believe in ridiculing these acts. I believe in being aware of them and showing them for what they are. I mean, I just read an article on how to maintain dewy skin and appear totally refreshed after an overnight international flight. That’s right, I read an article about how to take care of your skin whilst traveling in a dehydrating, pressurized space. Just think about that for a minute.
Now we can sit and lament about how exhausting and sad it is that women feel the need to take care of themselves to this degree. Or we can take the first step by making these acts visible, by acknowledging their existence. We can refuse to damage the expectations and the preconceived ideas of the women around us by admitting that we all spend our time and effort to look the way we do, regardless of how “natural” our look is.
Photos: Nylon Magazine,