Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Makeup Your Mind: Reflections On Cosmetics And Sport Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue

A level playing field may apply in sports, but not in gender relations.

Sports Illustrated's annual paean to impossible feminine perfection celebrates an arbitrary nature/culture distinction between men and women that reflects a deep-seated cultural misogyny and perpetuates an uneven playing field in the battle of the sexes. Until our society matures to the point where women don't have to wear makeup to be considered equal to men, they will continued to be objectified and treated as less than human.

Commenting on the February swimsuit issue, the Huffington Post’s Verena Von Pfetten notes that "The SI Swimsuit Edition is like the Holy Grail of men's magazines: little to no articles, and pages upon pages of absurdly beautiful women in little to no clothing.”

While acknowledging that super model Marisa Miller looks older with all the makeup they pile on for her photo shoots, Von Pfetten doesn’t suggest that women abstain from makeup entirely: “And I know that we all have our limits. I, for one, cannot leave the house without mascara or blush. I've got flimsy mousy-colored lashes, and while tans may be tacky, my paleness always needs that little added flush. But all I'm asking is that we just lighten up. Pick your products, and use them wisely.”

That women still want to wear makeup reflects a failure of the feminist movement in particular and the immaturity of our culture in general. Makeup is a mask that allows women to tap into corporate power. I don't mean corporate as in business, but rather corporate as in the power of the group vs. the individual. Men achieve this power by actually belonging to corporations, whether they are lodge brothers or corporate raiders. Women counter by painting their faces. Hiding physical imperfections or accentuating certain features makes sense only if the result is more power for the individual, whether sexual, social or corporate.

But why makeup? The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once asked a native informant why his people tattooed their bodies. "Because we are not animals," was the reply. That women still use makeup is a reflection of their continuing status as not-quite-human, or to put it in a more Lévi-Straussian mode, women without makeup are still seen as "natural" while men without makeup are seen as "cultural." By acceding to cosmetic industry standards of beauty, women who wear makeup promote a status quo that says that women are not equal to men. Men can be "cultural" just by showing up. Women, to participate in the culture, must put on a corporate mask.

And while a woman who uses makeup is considered "cultural," a man who uses makeup is considered absurd. Mass media meditations on masculine makeup like “Some Like It Hot,” “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” are always comedies.

Madison Avenue-driven cosmetic companies have made some inroads into the use of body fragrance by men, but they have not yet found the right inducement for men to paint their faces, highlight their eyes and gloss their lips. My suggestion is that advertisers market tattoos as acceptable body paint for men. Invent a tattoo "makeup" that needs regular renewal but involves some pain to apply, and your fortune is made.

In sports, the play of the game depends on who makes up the rules. In gender relations, the play of game depends on who rules the makeup.


Anonymous said...

I'll grant that 'society' dictates different things for the sexes, and that just the word 'cosmetic' has a pejorative connotation. But I notice you wearing a neck tie in your picture. Doesn't 'society' make similar demands on male appearance? Successful men wear power ties, traditionally styled suits, haircuts, and now Rogaine and "Just for Men" are becoming required for the follicly-challenged among us.

Robert K. Blechman said...

Thanks for your comment.

I didn't really get into the function of clothing but I think there is a definite correlation between my take on makeup and the styles of clothing assigned to men and to women.

I also didn't touch on the dichotomy between youth and aging which I think is the primary concern of Rogaine and "Just For Men" users. Most young men don't worry about changing the color of their hair. I can't speak from personal experience, but I imagine that blond haired men don't have more fun.

Both good points and worthy of consideration in future posts.

Anonymous said...

"Until our society matures to the point where women don't have to wear makeup to be considered equal to men, they will continued to be objectified and treated as less than human."

I think you might be overstating this, or be suffering from understanding of the female, which I can assure you is completely understandable. My experience as a male is that women wear makeup for a variety of reasons that often have nothing to do with a desire for equality. In fact, I would say that makeup gives certain women a definite advantage in some situations. And men certainly have a number of obstacles in the path of their own humanity.

Anonymous said...

I think you are oversimplifying things Robert. There are many more dimensions involved in the significance, meaning, and utility of women wearing makeup.

You are proposing that makeup supports a system of inequality... if I am not mistaken there is no consensus in any domain, even (especially?) feminism, regarding if it is desirable or possible for there to be "equality" between the genders. Or rather, if such a goal is definable.

Don't get me wrong-- clearly there is an expectation in our society for women to maintain an impressive visual appearance, and those who do so succeed more than those who do not.

Look at it another way: women actually have the flexibility and license to modify their appearance within a very wide range-- think about hair styles, clothing, shoes. A women can play any character she chooses, as is most enjoyable or advantageous to her from circumstance to circumstance.

Also, consider expectations society has for men. As a perhaps clumsy initial statement regarding equality: consider that men are expected to not exhibit/express certain emotions, to a far greater degree than women. Comparing these two phenomenon, there is a similar amount of behavior expectation for each gender.

Women have license to express emotion and even use it to rationalize decisions, far more than men do. True, in the boardroom women are expected to act like men (and have their haircuts, too). But in the vast majority of situations in society, women have significantly more license to express and use their emotions.

Robert K. Blechman said...

I agree that the issue of womens' equality is complex and that I couldn't adequately deal with all the details and nuances of the issue in the space of a brief blog post.

However, I think it is a mistake to state that use of makeup gives women flexibility, or that the fact that men can't express their emotions somehow compensates for a woman's need to paint her face, maintain a certain weight and so on. That is like saying that while slavery did have its downside, it did give slaves a sense of purpose and a place to sleep at night. The "benefits" don't justify the suppression involved.

I'll accept the argument that the requirement to wear makeup gives women advantages when women are represented in positions of power in numbers appropriate to their percentage of the population.

Anonymous said...

I'll accept the argument that the requirement to wear makeup gives women advantages when women are represented in positions of power in numbers appropriate to their percentage of the population.

It seems like you have a working definition of power, and dependent on that definition, a working definition of equality. Both of which I am perhaps too young or "postmodern" to yet have. (I say this in all honesty -- not snidely).