The Politics of Female Beauty

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I’ve spent $834 dollars at Sephora in the last six months, and it’s all Donald Trump’s fault.

Let me make a step back. President Trump didn’t literally creep into my apartment, knock me catatonic with a painkiller, and steal my credit card to order hundreds of dollars worth of cosmetics and skin treatments on his own. (Though it is perhaps disturbingly easy to imagine him in that sort of scenario.) Those purchases, some made mindlessly, some made with burning intent, were all mine, and I knew what I was doing the whole time.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow the fact that the way I’ve apparently chosen to deal with the trauma of a Trump election, and then presidency, isn’t buy starting an organization to help immigrants, or volunteering to resettle refugees, or even doing anything more than going to a few local protests and donating a few bucks here and there. Nope. The way I’ve coped is dropping nearly a grand on products that promise to make me look prettier.

I’m certainly not the first person to fall prey to the comfort of retail therapy, but I don’t think I even consciously came to terms with what I was actually doing until a few weeks before the recent VIB Sephora sale. (For the uninitiated, by the way, is an online and in-person skincare, hair care, and cosmetics shop, and VIB stands for Very Important Beauty [insider], a status you achieve by spending $350 in a year on Sephora products. Twice a year you get access to special VIB discounts.) I hadn’t yet achieved VIB status yet, but my friend Arlene had, and through her I was going to score some of that sweet, sweet insider Sephora deal through her access. As I was planning what stuff to tell her to order for me, I realized that I had put 21 products in my Sephora shopping cart, totalling nearly $700 alone.

That figure — both the amount of products, and the cost — gave me a serious pause. What salvation was I look for through these 21 things? What problem was I facing that any exfoliator or hair mousse really going to solve for me? Why, for the love of god, was I willing to shell out over $50 for a hair mask that was literally just be a bunch of ground up salt I was supposed to rub on my head??

I think the answer lies in my womanhood. I face zero real risks under Trump’s presidency. I’m an educated white woman with a good job and decent health insurance who lives in one of the most liberal cities in all of America. Writing this post is an indulgence. But I am a woman, and I truly believe that a specific trauma was inflicted upon many of us after this election — one that featured a combination of a candidate who treats women as playthings, as bodies waiting to be grabbed, or gawked at, and a candidate who couldn’t ever be taken seriously despite her accomplishments simply because of her gender. The grotesque masculine stereotype was elevated, and the dour-seeming but competent woman was mocked and swept aside.

In a way, I had hoped that this particular blend of female disenfranchisement would drive me to advance more at my job, be more blatantly and loudly feminist in the face of men who just didn’t get it, to discard the feminine trappings of clothes and makeup and body image that all women are subjected to from the moment they are born. Goddamn you, Donald Trump, I would think, I’m going to stop shaving my armpits and walk around with a crown of tampons taped to my head, AND YOU WILL DEAL WITH IT.

To my growing awareness and horror, though, I’ve realized I have been going completely in the other direction. Something about Trump’s election and presidency had gotten me to believe I, a woman, was a problem to be solved, an object to be looked at, a thing upon which to be improved upon. I’m in my late 30s, after all — unmarried, successful in my corporate career, living alone in a condo I purchased on my own, with good friendships and a good family — wasn’t all that enough? Increasing crow’s feet or sun spots told me, of course not — didn’t I realize there are always ways to improve myself? That I shouldn’t ever feel okay about the way I look? That I need to work more at it all? Didn’t the election, at some level, tell me everything I needed to know about what society thought about me?

And there was such sweet relief and satisfaction the endless, mindless internet rabbit holes I could go down about the best eye cream or the product that would most easily reduce fine wrinkles. With each bit of knowledge gained about high-end skin care or makeup, with each click of the purchase button, I felt like I was solving an invisible problem for myself, and maybe for everybody else. Every bit of money spent, every new cardboard box that arrived at my door, was a mental escape from the reality of the policies being set forth. With each new brightening cream or every tingly face peel that promised the actual removal of layers of skin, I felt I was making myself more palatable — but for who? For the world, I supposed, and the men like Trump who still run so much of it. For myself? Maybe. But what was I shrinking from? Who was I trying to impress with poreless skin or adeptly applied highlighter that shimmered at just the right angle? Why was I literally trying to simultaneously erase myself and make myself easier to look at?

I still don’t entirely know. But that day before I was set to send my friend the ludicrous list of 21 products whose purchase, I truly believed at some level, would make me feel both better about myself and the state of the world, I took a breath. I didn’t stop entirely — I took most of the items out of my cart, but left in four that I’d purchased before, that I needed to replace and that I sincerely enjoyed.

Since that moment a few weeks ago, if I catch myself mindlessly adding products on Sephora or Amazon… well, sometimes I still buy them. I’m not a saint, and this mindless beauty product addiction shopping is still a problem I’m actively dealing with. (Don’t let me anywhere near a CVS beauty aisle, please. Apparently it is my choice of church and solace and I could spend two hours going through the products, totally zombie zoned out.)

But I try to remember: my aging skin and hair or my soft belly and crepey knees are not problems to be solved, or repellant, or things I need to worry about. They are me, and I am them, and even if I was one day able to shave and peel and silicone and oil myself into the taut rubber skin of 25-year-old, the world around us would be just as ugly and threatening. Maybe even more so, because I would be saying, am I enough now? Am I pretty enough to blend in and poreless enough to matter? Instead of saying, my value is not and has never been in those things and never will be. No serum will make me more palatable to the men of the world, and I don’t want to be palatable to them. I want the world to drop into the craters of my crows feet and the folds under my breast and say, I don’t care, that’s not what you bring to this place.

But we’re nowhere near that. In the meantime, I’ll work to walk the line of the things I enjoy about beauty and self care — the routines, the satisfaction of a good mascara, the meditation of brushing my hair or massaging my face — while trying not to let it consume me. It’s just another obligation obstacle the world puts on women. But we just have to remember to not get lost in the endless maze of beauty aisles and jars of miracle potions. We’ve always been more than a cream or a winged eyeliner, and we can always wield it as such.

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