My admiration for Autumn Whitefield-Madrano cannot be overstated. I discovered her blog, The Beheld, a few months ago and have been an avid daily reader ever since. She is a gifted writer, and insightful thinker, an outspoken feminist, and a thoughtful critic of all things fashion and beauty, and every post she writes opens my mind and bends my thought processes in the most pleasing ways.
I asked Autumn to write a guest post for me about the conflict between beauty work and feminism and, unsurprisingly, she delivered a fabulous and thought-provoking piece, which you’ll find below. Read on, and do add The Beheld to your reading lists.
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When I was 20 or so, I went out to dinner with my parents at a restaurant they’d been to several times but that was new to me. We walked in the door, and though it was crowded the host spotted us immediately, found us a table, and brought us water right away, all with a friendly smile. I didn’t think twice about this; it was par for the course. After we were settled in, my parents burst out laughing. “We never get that kind of attention,” my mother said. “We need to go out to dinner with 20-year-old women more often.” I certainly hadn’t styled myself in a way that indicated I was hoping for special treatment: I was wearing jeans and a baggy top, with my hair in a ponytail, and though I was pleasant enough to look at, neither were my looks remarkable. So I laughed it off, believing my parents must be exaggerating—surely my presence alone wouldn’t get snappier service.
But that incident has stuck with me over the following 10-plus years. I think of it sometimes when I’m having trouble getting a bartender’s attention, or when I notice that I get it immediately. I wondered if moments like the one we had in that restaurant were the sort of thing people were referring to when talking about women “exploiting their looks”; I wondered if I’d been more of a babe than I’d realized; I wondered what would happen if I ever consciously tried to “get by” on my looks. Recently, though, I’ve realized that the incident wasn’t about how I looked in the least. It was about visibility.
My approach to thinking about beauty with a feminist understanding is based in part on Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. That is: The beauty work women are encouraged to do serves to keep our energies directed toward the mirror, not the world at large—and while it’s not necessarily unfeminist to do things like shave our legs, neither is our beauty labor a decision made in a neutral cultural vacuum. So when I’ve put mental energy into understanding my own relationship to the beauty myth, I’ve usually focused on what signals I’m sending with my appearance choices. And only recently have I begun to question one of the silent assumptions therein: Just as I looked at my parents quizzically in that restaurant 15 years ago, I still take it for granted today that when deciding what image I’d like to project, I will be seen.
The questions I ask myself about my appearance revolve around the assumption of visibility:How do I create personal style without drawing attention I might not want? How much work am I willing to put into attempting to control how others see me? How much do I really want to be looked at in the first place? While there are plenty of worthy questions surrounding the particulars of the beauty myth—the time spent in front of the mirror, the money spent on creams and potions, the too-high heels, the suck-it-in shapewear—those queries dance around the heart of the issue.
And the heart of the issue is this: Every choice we make about beauty is a choice about being seen. And the more time we spend focusing on the minutiae of beauty, the less time we spend focused on one possible outcome of beauty work—heightened cultural visibility. At one point I believed that my own beauty work was a compromise: I wore makeup and high heels in order to “pass” as someone willing to play by the rules, and because it helped me feel more put-together, better allowing me to do my work in the world. But by seeing my own morning routine as a daily compromise, not only was I living a pretty deep conflict, I was also neglecting to see how much privilege I was taking for granted.
I have the luxury of critiquing the beauty standard in a pretty straightforward manner because in certain ways I’m already a part of it. I’m no great beauty, but I check off many of the “right” boxes of the beauty rubric: I’m a white, able-bodied, middle-class woman whose body falls smack-dab in the middle of the “normal” BMI zone. There are plenty of reasons I’m excluded from conventional beauty—yellowed teeth, bumpy skin, wobbly thighs—but by an accident of birth, I’ve managed to clear plenty of hurdles of the appearance standard. Just by being me, I have a good deal of visibility.
So of course my morning routine became a web of conflict: I could rail against the makeup, the hair, the high heels, the effort, because even without those things I have a reasonable amount of privilege in this world. Now, I can’t claim to speak for people whose visibility is minimized. (Check in with me in 20 years when I’m firmly in middle age; I’ll likely have different things to say about women and visibility then.) But I’m pretty sure that by critiquing the particulars of beauty work, we (okay, I) miss the larger point about how society gives and exchanges power. For if it’s subversive for me to refuse to participate in certain beauty rituals, it can be subversive for women with less cultural visibility to embrace them.
I’ve never bought into the idea that beauty is power; that smacks of patriarchal self-serving nonsense. But visibility is power, or at least a route to it. Seen through this lens instead of solely the lens of beauty, the effort we put into our appearance seems both more important and less fraught with conflict. What would happen if we shifted our intent in our beauty work just slightly so that it wasn’t beauty work, but visibility work? What would happen if feminists arguing for a critique of the beauty standard started looking at the ways that very beauty standard can allow more women to participate in the larger conversation? What would happen if our concern was directed less toward fitting the beauty standard and more toward being seen? After all, the next stop after being seen is being heard.
Image via We Heart It.