Unnatural Woman

I’m going to go back to writing about social class, really I am. But something happened yesterday that made me think, and I want to put some of that thinking down. I was testing the camera on my new BlackBerry, and I took a photo of myself. You know, the traditional photo in the bathroom mirror. It looked like this:

In the caption, I mentioned that this was a photo with no professional makeup artist or photographer, taken in harsh bathroom lighting after I’d been refinishing furniture for hours. I was making fun of myself. What surprised me was that it got quite a lot of responses, and many of them used the words “natural beauty.” Quite a few of them also mentioned that I looked just fine without makeup. Now, I had said without a professional makeup artist. Of course the woman in the picture is wearing makeup. If she weren’t, she wouldn’t look natural, because the harsh light would have washed her out completely. (And by her, I mean me, of course.) But what really caught my attention was the concept of natural beauty. It reminded me of a comment someone had once made on a photograph of mine that I had posted on Facebook. It was, “I love the red hair. I hope you are natural woman.” I’m not sure on what basis he was hoping that, because the photograph he was commenting on was heavily photoshopped. I had meant it to be edgy, not natural. Here it is, in case you’re curious:

Granted, he was probably talking about the color of my hair. But I remember my first response to the words “natural woman”: I thought, you’ve got to be joking. Because in the modern world, there is no such thing as a natural woman.

And then I thought about all the things about me that were unnatural, from my toes up to the top of my head. Even if you took the curls out of the hair (because my hair was curled that day), there would be the haircut. Hair is not naturally cut in long layers by a genius named Robert, but mine is. And you would have to remove years of the sunscreen and moisturizing creams that have made my face what it is, because faces look very different without that sort of daily care. And you would have to replace about half of the eyebrows. Also, unmanicure and unbuff the nails, unmoisturize the hands and feet. But even if you did all that, you would have to take away all the years of dance that make me stand and move the way I do, of pilates and watching what I eat that give me the shape I have. Because none of those are natural either.

Since I was a child, I have been created and constructed, as we all are. I believe in the concept of natural beauty, but I think only children have beauty that is truly natural. The rest of us are made, like mad scientists’ monsters, but in this case the mad scientists are custom and society. When they go too far, we become truly and frighteningly artificial, like certain celebrities. But when we go only as far as we need to, and people say that we have “natural beauty,” what they mean is really that we have constructed something that looks like nature the way we wish it were, nature in a dream, the way a beautifully manicured park can look like nature at her best.

I wrote in a note to myself, earlier today, “There is no such thing as a natural woman, because being a woman is performative.” But beauty is a sort of performance as well, a sort of dance that takes place over time. Women, in particular, learn the steps when they are young, as I learned it back when my mother used to tell me, “You must suffer for beauty.” (No, I’m not joking. That’s exactly what she said, and I bet all European mothers, and many American ones, say exactly the same thing!)

If there is truly natural beauty in a woman, it’s not what we think it is. It’s at the level of the bones. Shortly before she died, I visited my great-grandmother. She was almost bedridden at that point, a ninety-year-old woman with white hair haloing her face. But lying on her pillow, she was beautiful: that beauty was written into her bones, which were more prominent than they had ever been in her life. They were sharp and delicate and lovely. But that is a beauty closely allied to death. It is the opposite of the natural beauty of a child.

I’m not sure where this train of though has led me, except back to where I often end up: the idea that beauty has a necessary darkness to it, that it is allied to our mortality. Which is probably as good a place as any to stop.

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15 thoughts on “Unnatural Woman

  1. Coincidentally I have also been thinking about ‘natural’ beauty and the relationship between women and makeup. Over the past few weeks I have seen several girls say online with pride that they don’t wear makeup, and that they dislike it when other girls do wear makeup. I personally take pride in the fact that the makeup I do wear looks more ‘natural’ than the makeup of some other girls I’ve known… but then of course I began to wonder WHY this is a point of pride or if it even should be.

    I may not have my makeup caked on every day, but I do a lot of other things to myself… eyeliner, mascara, coverup, powder, eyeshadow, blush, I highlight my hair and darken my eyebrows. Some would argue that by wearing all that I am not being truthful in my appearance. I have heard men complain that women ‘lie’ in appearance; the person you go to bed with may not look the same after they wake the next morning and wash their face. And so I started to feel slightly bad for not being ‘honest’ in my daily appearance, but then I had another thought:

    I wear my makeup every single day. Obviously my hair highlights and eyebrow darkening are permanent day-to-day. I would no more go out without doing my face than I would without clothes on. And yet no one accuses us of being dishonest by wearing clothing to accentuate our features. My makeup is a part of me; it’s part of the same image I use every single day. It’s my avatar; my IRL user pic; my facial penname.

    It reminds me of what Miranda said in The Devil Wears Prada: Fashion is the greatest art because you live your life in it. I am living my life in my makeup; it is a part of my ‘normal’ appearance – it creates the image I see of myself in my mind.

    And to borrow what you said above, I think that’s a good enough place to stop :-)

    • I think that’s a fascinating issue: what makeup is exactly, whether it’s a sort of concealment (a lie of sorts) or perhaps a creative act (in which we create the selves we want to be, which may be our truer selves). The idea that makeup is somehow deceitful is a very old one, and is part of the larger idea that women’s beauty is itself deceitful. And yet I think that human beings (men and women) have been using makeup since the start of human culture. I used to have that worry too, that I was somehow creating a false self. I guess what I came to, eventually, was the idea that self-creation is a good thing, a liberating thing. We are always creating who we are, within our own cultures, and that’s a creative and even artistic act. Just my two cents. :)

  2. My grandmother used to say something similar to, “You must suffer for beauty.” My mother absolutely hated that idea, which is probably why I didn’t learn to wear makeup until my early 20s.

  3. Men, I think, often use the term ‘natural beauty’ mainly because we forget that women are pretty much always wearing makeup. To us, a woman in makeup that doesn’t draw attention to itself looks ‘natural’, not because that is truly of nature but because it’s part and parcel with the world we’re used to. The only women we’ve likely ever seen without makeup were family members, girlfriends, spouses and young girls, and most of us don’t really have a clue how much makeup any of these or other women generally wear or not. Because we don’t wear makeup, then, we rarely conceive of living in a routine that would include it, so if a woman’s makeup doesn’t stand out we sort of forget that she must have put it on. In a sense a world where women are made up has become natural to us, like the backdrop of a stageplay replacing the forest it depicts, and the illusion only breaks for us when the makeup stands out in some way or someone otherwise draws attention to it.

    That said, ‘natural’, if it really means anything in this age, seems pretty overrated to me. Syphilis is natural, after all. I’d rather take the parts of nature that I like, the way that i like it, and leave the rest–as per that ideal of nature you mentioned.

    • Someone responded on Facebook that nature itself is a sort of romantic ideal, and I think that’s right: our idea of what is natural is also culturally constructed. Almost as much so as our idea of beauty . . . I mean, you’re right, cancer is natural, but we don’t praise it unless we’re Richard Eberhardt, who wrote this:

      The Cancer Cells

      Today I saw a picture of the cancer cells,
      Sinister shapes with menacing attitudes.
      They had outgrown their test-tube and advanced,
      Sinister shapes with menacing attitudes,
      Into a world beyond, a virulent laughing gang.
      They looked like art itself, like the artist’s mind,
      Powerful shaker, and the taker of new forms.
      Some are revulsed to see these spiky shapes;
      It is the world of the future too come to.
      Nothing could be more vivid than their language,
      Lethal, sparkling and irregular stars,
      The murderous design of the universe,
      The hectic dance of the passionate cancer cells.
      O just phenomena to the calculating eye,
      Originals of imagination. I flew
      With them in a piled exuberance of time,
      My own malignance in their racy, beautiful gestures
      Quick and lean: and in their riot too
      I saw the stance of the artist’s make,
      The fixed form in the massive fluxion.

      I think Leonardo would have in his disinterest
      Enjoyed them precisely with a sharp pencil.

      • That poem’s quite disturbingly lovely . . . I like it.

        I think there’s also a beauty available, if we choose to think of it as such, in the magnificent utility of certain things, as if they were made for their use. Like the HeLa cell line, an ‘immortal’ cell line taken from a biopsy of a woman who eventually died from them, but cells which have gone on to be used in a massive number of labs and tests over the last fifty-some years, and have thereby saved countless lives. In a body, a monstrous illness, but outside a body it’s like they were made specifically to be a perfect way to test a great many things.

      • Richard, I agree. And I think utility is often a part of beauty, actually. Think of a chair that is perfect to sit on, that fulfills its function perfectly. Even in human beings, the body of a dancer or gymnast, a body that has been formed for a particular function, is beautiful . . .

  4. I read an interesting bit once about when bras stopped being to force breasts into appealing shapes and started being more natural-looking, which is still forcing them into an appealing shape but now it’s pretending not to. I wonder if it’s related to thin taking the healthy/upper-class marker that fat used to have– it’s now perceived to be harder to be natural-looking than made-up.

    • That’s an interesting issue. It was in the 70s and 80s that we had that natural look, and then by the 90s we had padded bras again, which is just a variation on what many women were doing in the 1800s with corsets . . . You’re tying naturalness to social class, and I think you’re right. What we often think of as natural beauty, that sun-kissed look as though you had just gotten back from the beach, is both upper class and expensive to attain.

  5. I’ve always liked the phonetic links between the Latin forma (form, beauty), the English formidable, and the French formidable, the last two going back to Latin formido (fear) and Greek mormō (she-monster).

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