There’s this post making the tumblr rounds positing that praising a woman’s makeup or clothes is just reinforcing patriarchal beauty standards. “[R]ather than praising beauty labor,” it claims, “we should be dismantling the system that requires it, to thus free up women for other pursuits.”*
And I could not disagree more.
I think when people in the anti-beauty-labor camp think of makeup, they’re thinking of concealment. Of norms against displaying acne, scars, natural hair, etc. I agree that these are bad. But this argument completely ignores makeup-as-enhancement. It ignores this, and this, and this. It forgets that makeup, fashion, and costumery are art. Conflating the two modes isn’t striking a blow for women’s freedom in the workplace. It’s telling people who genuinely love makeup as a creative outlet that their devotion to a traditionally feminine art is worthless, that they need to be “free[d] up for other pursuits”. It’s hard for me not to find misogyny in that.
Beauty labor is artistic labor, and vice versa. We could stop painting our houses and cultivating gardens and making beautiful food. This would maximize utility. If we stopped focusing on aesthetics completely, we would have more time for more practical endeavors.
But activist forces don’t encourage that, because most people recognize that we all need at least a little beauty in our lives. The only practices against which I hear this argument levied are fashion and makeup – i.e. traditionally feminine methods of beautification. To me, this says that it’s not beauty labor people are objecting to. It’s the perceived frivolity of feminine arts.
There are certainly social norms around other forms of artistic presentation that could use dismantling – I’m thinking of neighborhoods that require painting one’s house a certain way, etc. I don’t think it’s inconsistent to oppose compulsory beauty while still affirming consensual beauty. I am hella against compulsory beauty. I’ve written screeds on it in the past. But I am also very much pro-beauty as a value in itself.
*I am not sure whether this particular post is satire or not, which is why I did not link it. I do, however, think it makes the point well even if it is satire, and I have seen many other decidedly non-satire posts saying the same thing. This one was just most quotable.