All Made Up
In praise of makeup (with a nod to Baudelaire).
As a teenager, I had acne. Not the acute kind that could be cured by Acutaine, but the milder variety that didn’t go away even with copious use of Stridex pads and Phisohex. My spotty face eroded my self-esteem and made it hard for me to look people in the eye. But something positive did come out of those painful, pimple-ridden years: I discovered makeup and my life became richer for it.
When you start to ponder it, you realize that makeup is a profound product. It plays a special and intimate role in the drive for self-improvement. Clothes cover and festoon a large expanse of the body, but makeup interacts with that smaller, more expressive part of the body — the face. It is a unique prosthetic, having practically no volume and no density, no beginning or end with respect to what it assists. It melts into the flesh, it intermingles with the self.
Women’s application of makeup is an update of the Narcissus myth. One cannot apply it — or at least not well — without looking in a mirror. The self-reflexive gaze required has elements of the lover’s gaze: Eyes and lips are focal points and demand the most attention and care. Thus, applying makeup is a ritual of self-love, a kind of worship at the shrine of the self, though it can also reflect insecurity and even self-loathing. At its best, it is an exercise in self-critique, and, if you’ll permit me to be grandiose, a path to existential understanding. Like all great human efforts at improvement, makeup is “over-determined,” weighted down with multiple, often contradictory meanings.
|Elizabeth: Lots and lots of pancake.|
If the makeup of the Virgin Queen was copious but one-note (lots and lots of pancake), that of an earlier queen was both copious and varied. I imagine that Cleopatra’s makeup area resembled the ground floor of Bloomingdale’s. Among her more original innovations were green malachite and goose grease for her eyes, crushed carmine beetles mixed with ant eggs for her lips, and liquid gold for her nipples (the cosmetic industry has certainly dropped the ball on this one — where’s “nipple gold from Chanel”?). Shakespeare seems to have taken a more indulgent view of Cleopatra’s makeup than he did of Ophelia’s: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/ Her infinite variety,” he has a character extol her in Antony and Cleopatra: “other women cloy/ The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry/ Where most she satisfies.” “Age-defying,” “sexy,” “capable of changing for the occasion” — it could be a prize-winning makeup ad.
My favorite time and place for makeup was the court of Louis XIV. The Sun King loved powder, not just on faces but on hair and wigs, and also launched the most ingenious of all cosmetic accessories: the beauty patch. This was a little piece of velvet or silk pasted onto the face for decorative effect. As the patch grew in popularity over the course of the 17th century, it also acquired specialized connotations. Each patch had a name, according to where it was placed on the face: in the middle of the cheek was a gallant, on the nose, an impudent, near the lips, a coquette — and each relayed a message about its wearer’s availability for amorous dalliance: whether one was a flirt, a prude, a libertine, etc. Think of how simple the singles scene would be today if a patch on a girl’s nose meant she was open for a one-night stand, and one on her cheek, that she wanted a ten-bridesmaid wedding. There were also patches, called recleuses, that had the more mundane function of covering pimples. Had I only had access to those when I was 16, my adolescence would have been less blighted.
|Victoria: Makeup was for whores or (just as bad) actresses.|
My personal theory, however, is that the fear of makeup in a Protestant culture is less a concern about women wearing it than men. Once again, Shakespeare can demonstrate my point. It’s true that Shakespeare liked to show girls disguised as boys (Rosalind, Viola, and Portia, three of his greatest heroines, spent much of their time in male disguise). But given the taboo on female acting of the day, these were, in fact, boys disguised as girls disguised as boys. At the end of As You Like It, the character of Rosalind, who has played a boy for much of the play, is revealed to be a girl; then, in a final Epilogue, this illusion too is exploded and the actor playing the part reminds us that he is not a girl at all — he just plays one on stage. The revelation comes alongside the following, suggestive address to the male members of the audience: “If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that please me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I defied not: and, I am sure, as many as have good beards or good faces or sweet breaths will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.” What the actor is saying is: “Hey, I’m a man, and some of you men are scared that I might kiss you” — or, perhaps more correctly: “I’m a man, and some of you men are scared that you want me to kiss you.”
The point here is that while women can’t use makeup to disguise their gender, men can. They can make themselves look like women and trick other men into making love to them. If anyone should doubt that self-defined heterosexual men have anxiety about this sort of thing, consider how most reacted to the unveiling scene in The Crying Game, or to the report that Eddie Murphy was duped into sex with a transvestite. The taboo on makeup that still holds in some fundamentalist religious quarters may be predicated on keeping gender roles clear to the simple “everyman” observer.
It may seem odd that body-distorting garments like corsets were encouraged in the 19th century when makeup was disparaged (remember how Scarlet O’Hara spent so much time having her corset laced, then pinched her cheeks for color because rouge was forbidden?). The reason for this seeming paradox may lie in the fact that women were permitted to look artificial so long as they were weak and debilitated. In keeping with this assumption, one cosmetic procedure remained in vogue during this period: the ingestion of arsenic to whiten the skin. A woman with a deathly pallor and a corset that cut off her air supply was apparently just what was called for in a society threatened by any possibility of female power. Arsenic, however, also had the advantage of offering women a recourse from their domestic enslavement: They could mix a thimbleful with their husbands’ coffee and thus achieve freedom without leaving home.
The Continent never banished makeup from its beauty repertoire and, perhaps out of a desire to oppose Anglo-Saxon prudery, even developed a cult of makeup in intellectual circles. Charles Baudelaire wrote a famous essay, “Eloge du Maquillage” (“In Praise of Makeup” — though more commonly translated as “In Praise of Cosmetics”) in which he argued for the ability of makeup to “create an abstract unity in the color and texture of the skin.” He then proceeded to reverse the stance of the English poets in their worshipful relationship to nature: “Evil is committed without effort, naturally, fatally; good is always the product of some art”(emphasis mine). Some years later, Oscar Wilde tried to import these ideas to the Anglo-Saxon world in his essay, “The Decay of Lying”: “What Art reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her unfinished condition…as for the infinite variety of nature, that is pure myth. Is it not to be found in Nature herself? It resides in the imagination or fancy, or the cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her.” But Wilde was as out of place in England as Cleopatra was in Rome. Both were vilified for indecency, arrested on trumped-up charges, and died under arrest.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that the unofficial ban on makeup began to lift in England and America. The general shift in taste brought with it a change in preferred skin color. Whereas earlier the pale face — or, as I like to think of it, the arsenic-assisted complexion — suggested enforced leisure and life indoors, now the suntan suggested activity and an outdoor life. The new look was inspired by the American movie industry, centered in sunny California. Douglas Fairbanks, the first great international star, helped to glamorize the suntan both because he was an athletic outdoorsman and because his skin was naturally darker than the Anglo-Saxon norm (he was part-Jewish, though he didn’t advertise the fact). Fairbanks’ popularity represents the logic of darker skin at this juncture in American history: It allowed a new immigrant population to assimilate, and it began the admittedly slow process of integrating an African-American people into a society that had once enslaved them. The white skin preference of the century before denoted the reverse — the sense that the white race was in ascendancy and wasn’t going to give an inch, even if it meant poisoning its women (and some of their unlucky husbands). But since it’s easier to go darker than lighter in skin tone (just as it’s easier to be a man imitating a woman than a woman imitating a man), a lighter esthetic would indicate a more racially intolerant society. Nowadays, the spray-on tan, the sunless tanner, and the equivalent to arsenic-in-reverse, the tanning parlor, are part of the standard beauty regimen of many people — though I think we are also moving to accept a wider variety of skin colors, presaging an authentic tolerance for diversity, with respect to skin color, at least.
In the 1920s, makeup also made a comeback for economic reasons. A huge potential industry was waiting to be tapped, and the capitalist engine, centered in entrepreneurial America, was ready to exploit it. Cosmetics moguls like Helena Rubinstein, Estee Lauder, and Max Factor, themselves immigrants to the United States, came into their own during this period. This was the time of do-it-yourself cosmetic preparations, like liquid nail polish and home hair color, as well as practical innovations like kiss-proof lipstick and powder blush. The compact became a fashion staple (though it had already been introduced in Louis XIV’s court), and made a ritualized appearance at the end of every meal as women developed the habit of powdering their noses and repairing their lipstick.
The idea of applying makeup may seem weird to the sorts of people that wear L.L. Bean and love to go camping, but for many women, it is as integral a part of their daily routine as combing their hair or brushing their teeth. I know women who won’t go to the supermarket without having their makeup carefully applied; who won’t let their husbands see them without having makeup on; who lug around heavy makeup bags in case of emergency (a sudden downpour, an unforeseen hospital stay, a kidnapping). I once saw a woman apply an entire makeup regimen while driving 70 m.p.h., and I once watched a woman curl her eyelashes while switching lanes.
As one gets familiar with makeup, one sees that, like everything else, it has many facets, and can vary according to mood and situation. Sometimes one wants to look painted — it makes for a stylized, sophisticated look. Sometimes one wants to look natural — a look that can require more makeup. I tend to support the maxim that one ought to wear less makeup in softer, more muted colors the older one gets, though the adjunct skin products should increase proportionately. Still, there is no hard and fast rule. I know a woman in her `80s who wears bright red lipstick to excellent effect.
The very idea of highlighting certain features is interesting in esthetic terms. When you concentrate on one part of the facial anatomy — eyelashes, for example — you can start to understand the sheer arbitrariness of what we think of as beauty (in some other culture, I could see how eyelashes might be viewed as the grossest aspect of the body and be clipped as short as possible). Is it actually possible that I once wore “Twiggy lashes” (spiky lines drawn with kohl under my eyes)? The idea seems appalling now, but I recall that I felt adorable then, in my hot pants and pink frosted lipstick.
|Gretta Garbo: Pale skin and thin, arched brows.|
There’s another column to be written on piercings, tattoos, and the more extreme forms of physical alteration like scarification. As I see it, permanent body changes, including plastic surgery, move out of the benign realm of makeup into the more extreme and, to me, scary realm of body reconstruction — the Bride of Wildenstein domain. But I’m sure this shows my provinciality and that some latter-day Baudelaire can write an apologia for these more extreme forms of physical artifice.
The number of items that constitute a “basic” makeup regimen are variable from person to person and seem to be constantly increasing. It is the nature of any industry to proliferate its options. I consider the following to be standard items: concealer, foundation, eyeliner, mascara, eye shadow, blush, lipstick, powder — but these are only the umbrella categories for a vast empire within each individual category. There are many varieties of concealer, for example: for blemishes, for scars, for sun discoloration, for broken blood vessels, for dark circles, etc. Lipstick can encompass lip liner, lip gloss, lip plumping, and moisturizing sticks, as well as all manner of colors, textures, and consistencies, from the practically indelible to the sheerest gloss. Foundation can be liquid, spray, or powder, under the assumption that the skin is a complex geographical terrain that must be treated with different agents for different strata. The eyes have an entire phalanx of products too numerous to go into. And we haven’t even started in on products to tighten pores, fill in wrinkles, and counteract redness — all minor industries in themselves.
Women often use makeup the way doctors use drugs off label: blush as shadow, lipstick as blush, and bizarre sorts of cooptations involving things like soy sauce and toothpaste. As mentioned, arsenic was once used to lighten the complexion (doesn’t Michael Jackson still use it for that?), and belladonna drops, equally deadly, to produce the bright, glassy-eyed look, reminiscent of TB. Sickness has always had an odd allure in certain cosmetic circles — not just because it denotes frailty, which connects with an old-fashioned female ideal, but because it denotes exotic debauchery or, simply, experience. I recall that after seeing a movie with the French actress Jeanne Moreau, who had the most fetching dark circles under her eyes, I painted circles under mine with brown eye shadow. I imagined I was projecting a world-weary appearance that was very French. Something similar was behind the trend a few years back called “heroin chic” that favored yellowish foundation and blue lipstick, accessorized by distressed clothing and bird-nest hair.
Makeup, as much as it is dictated by social trends and driven by capitalistic interests, is also a highly personal means of self-expression. Most women can reduce their makeup regimen to a few items that connect to their sense of self — both their idea of how they want to appear and what they are most unhappy with in their appearance. I know a woman whose staple is false eyelashes and won’t go out of the house without gluing them on. Another who will not take out the trash without putting on concealer. And another who, for years, was compulsive about eyebrow pencil until she finally had her brows tattooed on permanently. She says that this was as great a liberation as divorcing her husband (indeed, the acquisition of permanent eyebrows empowered her to divorce him).
For my daughter, having white teeth is a cosmetic necessity. This seems to be an obsession among many current youth, male and female (note the rows of products now available for tooth-whitening in drugstores). Pondering what white teeth mean, I have concluded that they are an oblique rebuttal to white skin, for the darker your skin, the whiter your teeth appear. White teeth can be achieved, moreover, by anyone, no matter race or ethnicity and, unlike straight teeth, which require expensive orthodontia, the process is relatively cheap, depending on how quickly and how white you want to go.
A recent cosmetic innovation that intrigues me is foundation primer. Someone in the bowels of the cosmetic industry must have had the revelation that just as an artist prepares a canvas before beginning a picture, one ought to similarly prepare the skin before putting on makeup. It’s an idea that makes so much sense that I embrace it without even knowing if it works and, indeed, what precisely it is supposed to do.
Of course, one of the paradoxes of makeup is that it adds another level of concern to the one it is designed to appease. Wearing makeup means having two faces — a real face that threatens to be dull and unappealing if not given some assistance, and an artificial face that has to be maintained. If one wears makeup one has makeup worries: Is the foundation even, the eye make up smudged, the lipstick properly applied, etc.? By the same token, checking makeup is a useful rite. It allows for a respite from the hurly burly of life. It says, quite literally, hold on while I straighten up the mask that I’m showing the world. I suspect that men are more violent than women because they don’t have these “time-outs” in which to take stock and put their masks in place. If they wore makeup, they might think twice about going to war where, moreover, the opportunities to put on lip gloss are decidedly curtailed.
Enter a ladies room and you are sure to see a woman taking stock: smirking at her imperfections, admiring her attributes, turning her head to see how she looks to the world. I’ve always felt a little kinder to any woman whom I’ve seen put on makeup.
I know there are people reading this essay who will say that makeup is absurd, and I won’t quarrel with them. All esthetic activity is on some level absurd. By the same token, philosophers have argued since the dawn of time that there is an essential human need to engage in ostensibly useless and purely esthetic activity. Applying makeup is a small act of artistry, performed every morning and touched up throughout the day. It’s the same old canvas, to be sure, but it offers itself anew again and again. All art involves repetition with variations. Besides, the sameness of the face is belied by the fact that it contains a mutating consciousness, that it shifts in its relationship to the world, that it ages.
The return of youth that makeup promises is not really bought seriously by most women. We know that makeup is a frail stop-gap measure, a lame palliative. We don’t need Hamlet to tell us that we can “paint an inch thick, [but] to this favor [we] we must come” — we know it every time we look at ourselves in the mirror. We don’t expect it to stop us from aging, only to gussy us up a bit in the face of time’s relentless sickle.
One of the most poignant and wondrous spectacles I know is seeing a very old woman insist on having someone put on her makeup. It’s something I’ve seen numerous times in hospitals and nursing homes. I did it for my own mother before she died. Even as she knew she was close to death, she still wasn’t prepared to give up on art and succumb to nature. I loved that determination in her and cling to it in myself. If we are, as Shakespeare said, “this quintessence of dust,” let it at least be gold-flecked and luminous. • 15 February 2008
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is author of the bestselling novels Jane Austen in Boca, Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Hudson Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She also writes the On Shopping column for The Smart Set. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Image from Corbis.