As per my 10 day cycle, I have been reading a poem each day. I am not a poetry person. Of course, like everybody else who has studied English Literature in high school or watched In Her Shoes, I love Sylvia Plath's Mirror and ee cummings' i carry your heart with me, but I have never read poetry for fun or for pleasure. The last time I read a poem, prior to this week, was during a disastrous English unit on Romantic literature a couple of years ago. (Let's just say that I was bad at it, and I am not accustomed to being bad at anything reading or writing related!)
So last weekend, after I had decided to make the resolution to read poetry daily, I bought a couple of poetry books from Borders, A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry and Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems. (If you are curious, you can find them both in the widget on the right). Each evening, I choose which poem to read according to what catches my eye on the contents page. Yesterday that was the Woman's Skin section of A Book of Luminous Things. I didn't just stop at one poem though, because I was so intrigued. So I read the entire chapter.
One poem, in particular, touched me:
by Chu Shu Chen, C. 1200
I get up. I am sick of
Rouging my cheeks. My face in
The mirror disgusts me. My
Thin shoulders are bowed with
Hopelessness. Tears of loneliness
Well up in my eyes. Wearily
I open my toilet table.
I arch and paint my eyebrows
And steam my heavy braids.
My maid is so stupid that she
Offers me plum blossoms for my hair.
Isn't it funny that a poem written over 800 years ago so eloquently expresses emotions that women still contend with today? The idea of a shared female experience over such vast space and time is beautiful, in a way, but also sad. After all the advancements women have made, especially over the last century, we still find ourselves in the same predicament - continually reverting to measuring our worth according to the way we look in the mirror. If we fail to conform to what contemporary culture has deemed to be "beautiful", our self-confidence and happiness miraculously depletes. Isn't that awful?
As I see it, now is the time for us to change. Women have never had more freedom, yet now, more than ever, we invest in our own limitations. By choice. Erasing centuries of tradition is not an easy task. But it is necessary. Until we let go of our unhealthy relationships with our outward appearance, we can't even begin to chip at the surface of unearthing and nurturing our inner selves. Which is infinitely more important than what is on the outside, because it is what lies within us that dictates who we truly are, and shapes our happiness.
It's not that I am above attempting to beautify myself. I think that, just from reading my blog, you can see that I am not. In fact, I do it for a living, as a makeup artist. As a disclaimer, I do believe that there is a difference between helping women to feel more confident in their own skin and making them feel as though they are not good enough. The issue I have with fashion and beauty culture of today is that the powers that be have created a very narrow ideal of beauty that all women are expected to live up to in order to be beautiful. And that is just wrong.
Now, I think it's a false preposition that all women buy fashion magazines and think I want to look exactly like that 16-year-old, size zero model with the perfect skin and impossibly symmetrical face. Most women tend to realise, at a young age, that supermodel looks are unattainable and that we are, despite our best efforts, confined to our own bodies, for life. The issue is that, in the absence of diverse and encompassing images of beauty, women have a propensity to just give up, resigning themselves to the belief that they are not beautiful. Regardless of what they may say, that resignation ebbs away at their self-esteem. Which is why beauty is an important issue for feminists to address, reclaim and transform.
My approach to beauty is similar to my approach for life. We are all unique. And it is what makes us unique that makes us beautiful. I don't think that it is the beauty industry itself that is the problem. I truly believe that cosmetics can be empowering. It's not that I think they should be considered at all essential. Under no circumstances should women feel any pressure to use them. But spending a little time each morning to care for ourselves, to embrace pure selfishness and frivolity, is a form of self-love. It gives us a little space, to breathe. And then we can look at ourselves in the mirror before we leave the house, think I'm beautiful (or, as Zoe Foster would say, "holy shit, you look amazing"), so, with our outer self-confidence taken care of, we can let go - and concentrate on all the other integral aspects of ourselves for the rest of the day.
For this reason, I don't think that the cosmetics tradition is a hindrance for women. Despite its roots in female subjectivity, it is something that women can, in this day and age of systemic equality (at least in the Western World), take ownership of, for our own benefit. In fact, I often feel sorry for men because they don't have access to cosmetics, at least without boldly defying social norms. The act of applying my skin care and makeup each morning is, for me, a way to prepare myself for facing the day ahead. To put on my face, you could say. That's not to say that I am any less real or authentic. But I do appreciate that barrier, between my vulnerable self and the harshness of day-to-day reality. My morning cleanser washes away my worries from the night before. A touch of concealer on my dark circles hides the tiredness I may be feeling. Dullness can be remedied with a pat of illuminator on my cheekbones. A swirl of pink blush on each cheek adds brightness to my face. And suddenly, just by virtue of the simple act of using cosmetics, I feel primed to face the day ahead, with poise and self-confidence. It's like magic!
I am determined to avoid allowing this piece to be a painfully patronising rant detailing how appearance is important because it is the first impression you make upon somebody, and first impressions last, etc... That is not to say that there is not some truth to that assertion; after all, it is one of the reasons I wear makeup. But I think it is our responsibility, as human beings who possess the ability to empathise and feel compassion, to delve deeper than the way people present themselves. I think the first impressions line is a way of justifying the act of judging somebody on such a shallow level. A person's outer shell may be the first thing we see of them, but we also have that lovely gift known as the ability to communicate, which provides our minds with the information required to truly know somebody, from the inside out. The value of beauty that I am touting here is that which exists within our core, not that which is perceived by others.
For it's an old cliché, but beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. That acknowledgement is key for women as we are attempting to reclaim our own beauty. It is impossible to please everybody. So beauty must come from within, and appeal to our own aesthetic. If you think blue eyeshadow is pretty, then wear it. If you think your favourite old faded jeans with holes in the knees are sexy, then wear them. If you love the way you look when your hair is unbrushed and tied in a knot on top of your head, then wear it that way. If you feel beautiful with not a scrap of makeup on your face, then don't wear any. If we embrace that mindset, the way we present ourselves will be an embodiment of the person that we are. So it fits. And we will attract people who appreciate us, for the person we are. Like magic.
I don't mean to say that there is a "right" approach to beauty. There is none. That is precisely because of that extremely fine line between appreciating and caring for our outward appearance and becoming consumed by it. There is a balance that needs to be struck. I haven't found it yet, but I hope to, one day. I suppose that there are a few precursors to that balance. Do you take pleasure in your beauty regime? Do you feel contented when you leave the house? Do you feel comfortable in your own skin, without other people's validation? Do you think you are beautiful?
We, as strong, intelligent, modern women, need to take control of our own destiny. No longer should we allow patriarchal traditions or magazine editors to dictate the way we perceive and value ourselves. Beauty is intangible. Everything is perception. I think the secret is to take pleasure in finding our own style, one that represents and reflects our inner selves, which makes us feel confident and beautiful - because it is not until we feel truly comfortable in our own skin that we can begin to convince others of our infinite worth, and realise our full potential for success and happiness.
"To love oneself is the beginning of a life long romance."
— Oscar Wilde