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March 5, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Shaky Foundations


The topic, vaguely, was something to do with the way depictions of feminine beauty are controlled and manipulated by the mass media. At one point, a reasonably inebriated dudebro gifted this snippet of wisdom to the audience; “Women look so much better without any make-up. Heavy make-up is like a total turn off”. The reaction from the ladies present was sharply divided; one girl tittered and swooned over this newfound well of man-feminism and his contribution to the dialogue because, you know, make-up is for covering up and therefore essentially wrong and unnatural. In stark contrast to this, another girl rolled her eyes and pointed out that, really, that was a slightly absurd claim to make as it relied on the existence of one objective beauty ideal. That was what really irritated her, I think; yeah, it might have been his prerogative to find women free of cosmetics aesthetically preferable but his comment somehow implied that he was making a moral judgement about women who weren’t.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone looks good in makeup, or vice versa, or whatever. Some find themselves hypnotised by the alluring world of cosmetic delights and over indulge. I think most of us have encountered people whose amorous inclinations towards cosmetics mean that you’d be hard-pressed to call aesthetically successful. Quivering, gelatinous curtains of foundation applied so thickly that they change the shape of a person’s face are more ’80s B-grade horror monster than Parisian chic. That said, makeup is just makeup. Some people like it, and some people don’t.

In the end, dudebro was actually pretty cool because he made me think about the way in which we talk about beauty. I think that most of us go through life with the general understanding that beauty is some sort of universally acknowledged quality that we all desire or value. For some, this might be different but I think that by and large most people are self-consciously always keeping track of the way we, and others, look. This is what causes tension. This makes us snarky. We assume that because we are so conscious of the ways in which we construct our image that others must be doing the same thing, so we read all sorts of things into other’s appearances.

I was struck by this recently when I was looking at an image gallery on Vice. com under the headline “Topographic Moratorium: Unshaven Armpits”. It featured a series of blurry webcam pictures of topless girls with nose piercings and punky undercuts primping and posing in their bedrooms. The article took (carefully apathetic) issue with the way in which these women were proudly displaying their unshaven armpits. It was accompanied by waspish commentary which criticized these women for their “painstakingly pouting GPOY you took to tell the internet that you don’t conform to contemporary impositions of “beauty”. Put ’em away, grrrls.” I mean, how revealing is that? Doesn’t this need to undermine the possibly completely sincere motivations of others regarding their image seem just a little bit messed up? More than anything, it shows that the person who put it together is struggling with their own insecurities regarding the way they look. This sort of thing makes you realise that even groups of people who consider themselves atypical and outside of conventional beauty norms are actually just as conflicted about appearances as everyone else.

The YouTube hit ‘Shit Girls Say’, and the accompanying phenomena it spawned, have already faded into the depths of internet obscurity. What was interesting about the troupe of me-too clones it spawned is that many of them contained a streak of frustration and resentment. For instance; ‘Shit Girls Say’ became ‘Shit Black Girls Say’, which inspired ‘Shit White Girls Say To Black Girls’. These videos were actually weirdly accurate in depicting the way we perceive negatively the actions of others that they think are harmless. The videos illuminate the situations in everyday life where we might make what we think is a flippant, unimportant comment on someone’s appearance, which actually speaks to something that person has a complex emotional relationship with. It’s mortifying to watch a white woman cheerily patting a black woman’s head and going “oooh, is it real?” or giggling and crying “I am so ghetto right now!” but a careful dissection of your daily interactions might reveal that you, too, tread on more than a few social landmines that you didn’t know existed.

At the end of the day, I think the message is clear. If I hypothetically woke up one morning and decided to go to university in an exact replica of Princess Diana’s wedding dress, replete with twelve foot train, that’s not really your concern. I’d look like a total pillock, granted (I don’t have the waist to pull it off), but at least I’d be content and happy and satisfied looking like a pillock. Unless someone’s appearance is genuinely offensive for reasons other than they stir the soup of insecurity floating around in your mind, then you don’t reeeally get to judge them. You don’t have to like it, you can totes hate it; but you can at least shut up about it. It’s nobody’s fucking business, really.

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