Today is apparently No Makeup Day. I’m struggling to find out who declared this and to what end but Twitter seems to confirm that press releases have been issued and it’s been accepted that today’s the day. The aim isn’t clear but it seems to exist to pull women out of their usual routine and make them think critically about why they wear it and whether they can live without it.
Women have complicated relationships to beauty, fashion and their bodies. The influence of fashion mags and a celeb-obsessed culture are clear as we’re bombarded with messages about who is attractive (skinny white women), and what it takes to look like them (vast amounts of airbrushing and Photoshop) as well as ‘circles of shame’ showing us just how unspeakably horrific cellulite is on an otherwise perfect-looking celebrity. Let’s not even contemplate how awful it must look on the rest of us.
So what about makeup. Are we really trying to live up to an impossible ideal? I find it hard to swallow this argument. I like to think that women are clever enough to know that some expensive, big-brand foundation isn’t going to give them the flawless skin that the magazine ads and cover photos show you.
So what is it for? For most of us, it’s for fun. Sure, I wear foundation to cover up my spots and even out my skin tone. But when it comes to mascara, eye liner, blusher, lipstick it’s because I like the way I can slightly change my face to look different and suit my mood - the same way I do with clothes. I think I look better with a bit of colour on my face but I’m a well-educated, 35 year old woman so I don’t think it’s going to make me suddenly look like someone else. I don’t want it to. I just want to look like a slightly different version of me sometimes. I’m also not afraid to walk out the door with no makeup on.
A the recent Women of the World Festival I attended the Body Politics - Skin and Hair session and The Guardian Weekend Magazine’s beauty columnist Sali Hughes was on the panel. She’s a vibrant and successful woman and as a writer her column on beauty is just one aspect of her work. She spoke brilliantly about what makeup and beauty meant to her and how the pursuit and ritual of beauty can be beneficial and genuinely life-enhancing for some women. She countered the idea that women are somehow stupid if they enjoy something shallow and that an interest in the shallow does not mean that you are intrinsically without depth (I loved her phrasing). This is completely true. As she went on to note, we don’t think people are stupid just because their interests include football, food, wine or any other hobbies. Why do we dismiss women who take an interest in how they look?
We, as women, do need to critically look at the images we’re bombarded with every day. We need to recognise that it’s okay to be who we are, lumps and bumps and all. But we also need to give ourselves enough credit to know that we can combine being smart, successful, opinionated and driven with getting sheer joy from playing with how we look.
Image above is by Stuart Miles downloaded from FreeDigitalPhotos.net It is reproduced here with permission.
So Lady Gaga’s back with a new album and the current cover of NME with a headline that reads “I’m not full of shit, are you?”. Well, frankly, I think she is. I normally try to avoid woman-bashing or picking apart what other women are doing personally or professionally but there’s something about Lady Gaga that really bugs me (aside from the fact that I’m just not a fan of her music).
My main issue with her, is the fact that she seems to hold herself up as an alternative to the usual beauty ideal. In Lady Gaga: Behind the Fame Emily Herbert quotes her as saying “I am not sexy in the way Britney Spears is sexy. I just don’t have the same ideas about sexuality that I want to portray. I have a very specific aesthetic–androgyny.”. Surprisingly, the media seem to agree with her, with MsMagazine for instance saying
With her deliberate juxtaposition of conventional platinum blonde beauty and fashionably ugly costumes, she toys with conventional rules of attractiveness.
Really? Because I fail to see how a skinny, blonde woman dancing around in music videos with in a bikini or similarly skimpy outfits is anything but conventional. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame her for her looks (it’s just who she is) or the fact that she dances around in those little outfits because, quite frankly, so would I if I had that body. I just don’t get why it’s accepted as being alternative.
The NME cover is a perfect case in point. Prosthetic cheekbones aside, the transparent black outfit with just a hint of bondage/S&M coupled with her hand on her own breast and the other one reaching inside the zip for a little play with herself wouldn’t be out of place on the cover of Nuts, Loaded or any other trashy men’s mag.
In fact, the video for Telephone is a lad’s mag dream. The prison scenes of Lady Gaga being stripped on arrival, a catfight among prisoners and then Gaga and co dancing in their leather studded underwear is a boringly mainstream fantasy. The hints of girl-on-girl action between Lady Gaga and Beyonce (‘you’ve been a bad, bad girl Gaga’) just proceed into farce. You could call it ironic, but to launch such a massive single, with such a well-funded (and sponsored) video directly into the mainstream doesn’t smack of irony to me.
The Bad Romance video is often described as being a commentary of the way women are trafficked into sexual slavery but this is a really serious topic that, while deserving of mainstream discussion, is reduced to titillation by this video as the focus becomes Lady Gaga and her lap dancing skills.
The frustrating thing about the media’s acceptance of her as alternative is that it offers so little to teenage girls. If Britney, Christina Aguilera, Cheryl Cole and their like are the mainstream that’s on offer, then where do young girls go for a genuine alternative? For someone who looks like them? Because Lady Gaga isn’t it. I’ve written before about the relentless pressure that the media’s representation of beauty puts on young girls, and the potential effect on their self-esteem but I don’t think Lady Gaga does anything but contribute to it.
Lady Gaga may or may not define herself as a feminist (she’s been famously vague on the matter, intentionally trying to confuse journalists and prevent them labelling her) but her videos and presentation of herself just don’t support her view that she’s some alternative to Britney Spears-esque sexuality. Even the recent facial additions (horns and pointy cheekbones) just feel like an extreme way to take focus from her conventional beauty. It’s almost as if she’s afraid of her looks and her sexuality so has to try to make herself conventionally ugly instead. In her videos she really presents nothing that hasn’t been seen before, many times, and I just wish she’d own it. I have more respect for someone like Rihanna who puts her beauty out there in a more honest way, never pretending that she’s not using it to her advantage. Lady Gaga just seems to be a bit try-hard by comparison. Perhaps the Lady doth protest too much?