Beauty Is Broken: An Essay On Gender Roles
By: Arabelle Sicardi (This piece has been edited down and republished from Medium.com)
I was 11 years old when I first recognized that men’s perception of beauty revolves around possession. I was walking home from school when a group of teenage boys started following me in their car. They were catcalling me, so I ran into a bank until they drove off. If that experience taught me anything, it was that beauty is about power: the pursuit of it and the consequence of it. Those boys might’ve thought I was cute, sure, but more enticing was the thought of control over someone else, someone obviously fragile: a pre-teen girl.
Beauty, like monstrous ugliness, comes with a hunt. Of course I wanted to be beautiful. But not followed on the walk home, not threatened to be pulled into a car. I don’t legislate beauty’s boundaries — (white) men do. They define it; they dictate; they own it, asking us to see ourselves in their eyes. When I’m getting ready to go out, determining how to look good, but not vulnerable, I think about the fact that men so rarely have this issue: how to be beautiful, but not breakable; something easily pursued.
Beauty was always used as a tool of critique for all genders. In Greco-Roman culture, men insulted other men by associating them with femininity and makeup. The Roman philosopher Cicero insulted his consul by making fun of his cerussatae buccae, which roughly translates to leaded entertainment, or makeup. Alexander the Great — who ran the largest empire in the world and was the ultimate symbol of masculinity — was often ridiculed in ancient texts for wearing kohl eyeliner. Ironically, while men were using makeup as a tool for mockery, cosmetics were beginning to be seen as an essential part of womanhood and the crux of a woman’s desirability: it was Plautus who famously quipped “a woman without paint is like food without salt.”
Men’s opinions of and approaches to beauty have always been laced with this kind of paradoxical judgement and masculine showmanship. Beauty has been a method to display the violence of masculinity and possessiveness throughout the empires; men lesser than Alexander used it, too. The Romans had an entire slave class who would apply perfumes to their slavers and their weapons before war; beauty rituals were as much part of violent practices as putting armor on. The Britons would use dyes and pigments, like woad, to make their bodies elegantly fearful, drenched in blue. So you see, what’s volatile about beauty when possessed by men is that they use it as this weapon to mark their territory: to remind everyone else in the room who’s in charge.
Jump forward to the 20th century and the story hasn’t strayed much: the production of beauty was absolutely essential, this time as propaganda to boost morale for soldiers and nurses. In WWII, the War Production Board kept cosmetics off the list of restricted wartime industries as they considered it so essential to boosting morale. After all, what’s the point of fighting if you don’t have something beautiful to fight for? The beauty industry was intertwined with the violence in other ways, too. Camouflage pancake makeup for U.S. soldiers was actually commissioned by the Ministry of Defense with Max Factor in 1938; he also worked with them previously on pancake makeup to conceal war wounds. A few years later, a soldier would write in VOGUE in 1941 that to look unattractive at the time was “downright morale-breaking and should be considered treason.”
Beauty, to men, was something they didn’t trust or want, especially in women. It was too powerful, too dangerous, so they needed to lock it up. In the Middle Ages, men put women in convents to “protect” the women from sins and men from sinning in response. Beauty needed to exist in a certain way; if it couldn’t be controlled, men got rid of it. This was evident in the 1700s too, when Parliament ruled that “women who seduce men into matrimony through use of lip and cheek paints could have their marriages annulled and face witchcraft charges.”
Our struggle to control beauty, especially exotic beauty, has never gone away; it’s just become political. Beauty is understood in multiplicity: in race, in gender, in class. It’s about who gets to rule and who shouldn’t exist at all. The Third Reich took this thought to the bitter extreme, you’ll remember, with their eugenics program for the beautification of the Aryan race. Now, we use the unfamiliar to keep people out: out of our train cars, our planes, and if Trump would have it, our country. We control beauty by recognizing it only as the most patriarchal versions of ourselves: that is to say, in most of us we don’t see it at all.
From Ovid in 6 B.C. until now, men have approved of and sought beauty only if it could be impossibly paradoxically perfect: invisible, natural, pure, painful, effortless, divine and humanizing. Because beauty, for men, is about assimilation — not individualism. This is how beauty breaks down.
Men still reprimand women when they perform beauty incorrectly: when we pick apart people for their makeup application or lack thereof, on Instagram or content farms, for daring to be vain or frankly daring to exist at all. I think of Ovid every time I see the subway ads discouraging women from grooming in subway cars, as if it takes up more space than anything else. Men know that beauty is only meant to be performed privately, if you are so imperfect a human to have to ritualize it at all.
This is why they stay in the shadows to ask their questions about how to perform it well, why every time a man in my life has asked for beauty advice, it’s been via email or text message, like an illicit rendezvous for sex or satanic ritual. They’ll email and take me aside to ask in hushed tones what on earth is a toner and if moisturizer is really “a thing,” lest it look like they don’t know what they’re doing. Most men only use products that validate their egos: this is how we ended up with Man Wipes, as if their butts require some hardier material to wipe with. The men that do seriously have a handle on beauty use it as an opportunity to demean the women that don’t. Kerry Thompson, a beauty writer made this observation after several interviews with men in the field: “Some men in the field approach beauty conversations with misogynistic tendencies to neg: women do this too much, women don’t know this, women are idiots.” So the men that don’t “get” beauty and the men who do tend to do the same thing: clock in just to order everybody else around.
It’s been defined by the limits of men from the start. To possess. To pursue. To judge. Beauty has been gendered and controlled in a way that actually limits its own potential — it’s an insecure divide between men and women, a violent one.
Beauty is failing us, because gender already has. But what keeps me coming back to it is that I still think it can be recovered. I think beauty can mean more than what it was ever meant to, that it can illuminate parts of people they didn’t know they had or deserved or even wanted. I think of the options it gives me on an everyday basis, the ritual and the retreat: I know there are days I would not be here it if weren’t for a small gesture of beauty I witnessed or did by myself. Beauty makes me question everything around me including my own body and what I can do with it, how I might better take care of it, how I might be destroying it in ways I wasn’t aware of. There is always more to know and use to find ourselves — again and again. So while it fails, as it does, somehow it’s worth the rescue.
We find each other, despite male ego, and in part because of it. It makes an accomplice out of all of us; it changes the game even as we are miles in and deeply involved.