I started talking about this idea of “beauty labor” last week — all the varying kinds of effort that women put into their personal grooming routine (often without even viewing it as work), plus the labor that beauty consumers hire out in the form of waxing, pedicures, and so on.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about my own beauty work and how it has evolved since I started Beauty U, about 350 hours/six months ago. And I’m going to share that with you this week.
But first, some helpful context. Because it occurs to me that for all we talk about beauty practices around here (and I grill you on what you do because I’m so damn nosy), I’ve never fully explained what I do or why I do it.
This is partly because I think it might bore you to tears or just feel self-indulgent and irrelevant to the bigger project here. And because “my” beauty routine still feels pretty personal, in a walking-in-on-me-in-the-shower kind of way. And the uber-personal aspect of blogging is something I’m still cozying up to. When I first started posting Beauty Schooled to Feministing’s Community blog (which I now do several times a week because it is awesome), I ran this introduction post that talked about some of the specifics of my routine and was surprised when it inspired a few critical comment-writers to interpret my taste for expensive haircuts as a spoiled rich girl’s indulgence. Ouch.
Sometimes (like when I read a magazine or watch an episode of “The Hills,”) it feels like we’re all striving for the same Stepford Beauty Ideal, handed down from on high. But after hearing those reactions, and constantly asking women what they do or don’t do beauty-wise, I’m learning that even if the media makes it look like we’re all shooting for the same Beauty Ideal, every one of us goes through our own process of accepting, rejecting, ignoring, or celebrating different aspects of that ideal. Everyone has an unbelievably idiosyncratic and personal take on how they define “normal” in terms of beauty practices: Brazilians, yes. Leg shaving, no. Eyeliner, yes. Eyelash curling, no. It’s a constantly moving target that shifts based on your world view, your socioeconomic class, your job, your friends, and about a million other factors.
I think that’s an important point because it underscores how this beauty business is a hell of a lot more complicated than we might want it to be. And because I don’t want to risk losing credibility with you because I get haircuts that you deem expensive or because I only wax my bikini line twice a year.
But even while I struggle with the acceptance factor, I’m realizing that we need to talk more about all the different kinds of beauty work we perform and all the different ways we value it. Because sometimes we’re ambivalent about sharing these details. It’s hard to admit you have lip hair, or you need to apply deodorant twice a day since these things don’t fit into the way we define pretty (hairless, sweet-smelling, etc).
And the situation gets more complicated when it comes to beauty work we need others to perform for us — because now there’s another person who has to see you, warts, pubic hair, and all. As one woman told me recently: “I go to one spa for my eyebrow waxing and somewhere else for my bikini waxing, because I don’t want the eyebrow specialist to have to deal with that.”
It reminded me of this passage from an academic paper on Brazilians (yup, such things exist) by Rebecca Herzig, a professor of women and gender studies at Bates College who has a book on the history of hair removal called Pluck forthcoming from Harvard University Press:
Because it is fairly difficult to remove one’s own hair from most of the regions of the body now targeted for cosmetic treatment — the anus, say — depilation increasingly requires the paid or unpaid labour of a second person. […] As with housekeeping, sex work, and in-home dependent care, the tedious, low-status and inescapably manual labour of pubic waxing falls disproportionately on female migrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and the former Soviet republics, who are drawn to the work for complex and variegated reasons. Here, as elsewhere, contact with the most marginal and abject spheres of human society — the armpits and crotches of the body politic — falls to those assigned by race, gender, class and citizenship to low social rank.
Some of my beauty work gives me great joy. Some of it feels like a huge hassle. Some of it makes me feel bad about myself. And when it involves another person, all those feelings become magnified. I’m guessing if you parsed your own beauty to do list, you’d draw some similar conclusions. So I’m going to get into the nitty gritty details of this all week — and I look forward to hearing how my routine compares to your own, not just in terms of the different nuances of your “Beauty Normal.” But because I think we need to start asking questions about how this work impacts us and the women we pay to perform it, and why we need to put in this kind of effort. That’s how we’ll change the way this work is valued and the standards that dictate it in the first place.
[Photo of Rosie the Riveter from over here. Yes, with some irony.]