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Last night at swing dancing, a guy I’ve known for a while asked me if I was wearing lipstick, and if this was a new thing for me.  I replied that yes, I was wearing some colored lip stuff (it’s not really heavy enough to be lipstick, but I don’t know enough about lip product to classify it), but that no, this wasn’t new, and he’s probably seen me wear it several times.  He expressed surprise, and said that something about how I looked last night made him notice it more.  I told him the story about how I started wearing makeup last November, immediately followed by half the guys in my life turning weird on me.  Then after swing I ended up going to Steak & Shake, and Mr. Zoot started singing Teenage Dream, which starts with the line “You think I’m pretty without any makeup on.”  That got me started thinking about makeup again, which resulted in the post you are now reading.  So it’s really all my dance partners’ fault.

Actually, I can’t blame my dance partners for my decision to wear makeup.  That started as an experiment, encouraged by KJ.  It was after I saw how strongly others reacted to the slightly enhanced me that I decided to continue.  And it wasn’t just the guys.  Other women responded differently to me too.  For some of them, it was as if a little colored dust around my eyes suddenly made me someone to take seriously.  It was all just so weird that I kept putting on makeup just to see what would happen next.  And it’s been interesting.

Externally, not much has changed.  The guys got used to the me, and although some continue to be friendlier, it isn’t at the pitch it was before, which makes it easier for me to handle.  For the most part I’ve gotten used to it, though I’m still a little taken aback when I run into someone for the first time in a long time and they suddenly start responding to me on a whole different level.  The main result has been a lot of reflection on beauty, femininity, and what it means that in our culture women feel that they have to alter themselves in various ways in order to be attractive.  For a while (until Christmas preparations thoroughly distracted me) I was exchanging long e-mails with KJ and The Young Queen full of these musings.  Even though I continue to be distracted, though now by weddings, I still think about these things.  I am sure I will be thinking about them for a long time, but for now this is a few of the conclusions I have come to.

To begin with, in some ways I find the increased attention the opposite of flattering.  I mean, was I so unnoticeable before?  But in other ways, I can understand.  I see the ways a little extra color makes a face sort of come into focus.  I have to remind myself that they’re still responding to me, that they were not at all interested in the lipstick before it was applied to my lips.  Actually, I was only able to make this connection after One called me on what he called my “Cartesian interiority complex.”  In a facebook comment on my post he wrote,

“I think it is sometimes too easy for us to make strict dicotomies between ourselves and the things we wear… because, while there is a truth that we are separate than these things, it is not the whole truth. A man who is “more interested in a woman” because he finds her more attractive with make-up on isn’t really “less interested” in her at other times. I think it is (oddly) more accurate to say that she can actually be “obscured” (to some degree) by *not* wearing things such as make-up. Although it is counter-intuitive, I do nevertheless think it is true- in some cases, make-up actually allows men to see the woman in question better!  We often fall victim to a kind of Cartesian interiority complex- that the real me is this personality inside that is totally separate from the body that I inhabit-and while there *is* some truth to that position, as Christians we must also acknowledge some relationship between body and soul. … the sacramental imagination is activated by the way the appearances of things point to greater realities. “

I found his comment very interesting, in part because of how it reminded me of the work I did back in what feels like a former life on understanding modesty through the work of John Paul II.  In his book Love & Responsibility, JP II talks about modesty as presenting onself in such a way that the other looking on you is able (if they’re willing to do so) to see the entire person.  This means both not accenting the sexual value of the body so much so that it’s the only thing the other can see, and also being careful not to hide or deny that value either, since that’s an important part of who you are.  At the time, I found it interesting that for some people, modesty could consist in actually accenting their femininity or masculinity.  (I just, you know, didn’t think those people were me.)  In a certain sense I could understand the different reactions I’ve been getting as others being able to see more of who I am since I am presenting myself in a slightly different way.

Ironically, since I found wearing makeup to be more of a blow to my self-esteem than anything, almost all of the people I was discussing this with tried to make an argument that wearing makeup either reflected a woman’s heightened self-esteem or bolstered that self-esteem, and that not wearing makeup was a sign of low self-esteem.  For example, KJ passed on a remark by one of her guy friends that when a woman doesn’t wear makeup he perceives her as having such low self worth that she doesn’t care what she looks like.  This seems so contradictory to me.  For me, not wearing makeup was  statement of self worth, that I consider myself attractive enough as I am to not  need any enhancement.  To me, it was the women who wouldn’t dream of going outside without lipstick who suffered from low self-esteem.

But perhaps this perception (that makeup = high self esteem) is just more evidence of the double standards that pervade our society.  It isn’t just that behavior that is praise-worthy in men is shame-worthy in women, it’s that women are expected to continually present themselves as objects of display.  This means more time and attention spent on grooming in general (fixing hair, removing hair, etc.), on clothes, on posture and movement, etc.  It means a hidden tax of both money and time that women continually pay –  one that is, I think, unfair.  Consequently, wearing makeup becomes what some would call a patriarchal bargain: the unspoken agreement that if a woman chooses to conform to certain stereotypical conceptions of femininity, she will be rewarded for it.  So in a way, I could view my choosing to wear makeup as me buying into and therefore reinforcing a system that values women based on what they look like.  And that idea makes me a little sick.

However, there’s other ways to view this as well.  On a personal level, choosing to wear makeup is also a choice to embrace beauty.  It is very difficult for me (and for most women) to even come close to accepting the idea of ourselves as beautiful.  And yet, I have had to acknowledge that I am an attractive person.  People in general tend to like me and want to spend time with me.  I am so conscious of my own faults, failings, and various uglinesses of both body and spirit it’s very hard not to delete this whole paragraph.  Yet the simple fact is that I put on a little lipstick and the men in my life really noticed.  That means something.  Choosing to wear makeup, to heighten or accentuate the beauty that I already have, is a choice to be willing to be seen as beautiful.  It’s not easy.  It’s scary.  But it’s a choice I continue to make.

I don’t know where all these reflections will end up.  Back when I had the luxury of being able to research and write on theological matters, I fully expected to one day write a doctoral dissertation on a theological understanding of embodied female beauty.  I don’t know if I’ll ever have that luxury again.  But I’ll still be thinking about these things, and God willing, I’ll share the results with you.