The physical labor of beauty
And why I'm getting tired of it
Oct 30, 2018
“Escape the corset” is steadily becoming a movement among South Korean women on social media. It’s a feminist battle cry against unrealistic beauty standards (the corset) and the toll it takes on women to try to achieve it. If you search for it on social media (use the hashtags #탈코르셋 or #탈코르셋_인증), you’ll be met with visceral images of women shaving off their hair or decimating their makeup collection. It’s a pretty loud statement, echoing the sentiments of many women tired and fed up with the patriarchy’s BS.
I first came across the movement through a Quartzy article. “The unpaid labor of beauty,” it described the beauty regimen, quoting this Guardian piece: “One theme running through the movement is the idea of a beauty regimen as a form of labour, one that only women are expected to perform and for which they are in no way compensated.”
Reading that, I had my own epiphany. As a self-confessed makeup neophyte, I’ve never really thought too deeply about my own beauty regimen. These South Korean feminists are tearing down their collections; I’ve been looking at my own and thinking it woefully inadequate. For ages, I’ve consider my own routine to be pretty lax and laissez faire, but thinking about it now, my version of lax is still taking its toll on me.
Let me walk you through my beauty and makeup routine.
Every work day, I wake up at 4, sometimes earlier if I can manage it. When I take a bath, I make sure to time out my shampoo and conditioner. I do this because I need to let the conditioner stay on my hair for around five minutes. I’ve got naturally wavy hair that, despite all the hair product ads and reviews promising me otherwise, fall in frizzes rather than tresses, which is why my hair needs to soak up as much moisture as possible. After I take a bath, I clean my face with a face wash—anti-acne for when I’m breaking out, moisturizing for when my skin is dry.
After I dry off (I don’t towel dry—towels ruin your hair and can cause pimples, I’ve read), I put on sunscreen on my face and start putting on makeup. Usually, I end up doing just a simple eyeliner (I am a beginner, so this takes multiple tries) and a lip look. I say simple, but on my lips are multiple layers: the lip pencil, and maybe two different lipsticks or lip tints. I can’t put on makeup all at once though: things need to bake, foundation needs to oxidize (which is why I don’t wear it that often), etc., so I have to wait out each step. While I do this, I pick out multiple outfits I could wear for work until I find one I’m happy with.
By the time this is done, I am dangerously close to running late for work and I run off to start my commute. (In Metro Manila traffic, your morning travel time will always be closer to three rather than two hours, no matter which transportation mode). When I finally get to my building, usually past 9, I am sticky and sweaty, so I make a beeline towards the comfort room where I freshen up. “Freshening up” usually entails me completely redoing my eyeliner and lipstick, putting on earrings, and fixing my hair. Being, again, a frizzy haired woman, fixing my hair involves a lot of hand combing and praying that today it wouldn’t look so much like a bird’s nest.
All throughout the day, I take multiple trips to the comfort room to reapply my makeup, fix my hair again, try to look pretty.
When I get home after work, I rinse my face with a cleanser (though these days I’ve been just dabbing it clean with Micellar water and pieces of cotton), and sometimes put on a mask. Sheet masks are nice for softening your skin. Clay masks can take out all the day’s impurities. When I finally lay my head to sleep, often past ten, usually around twelve, I am exhausted and spent.
At every single point, I fight off the feeling that I should be doing more. I should be wearing concealer and foundation. I should be doing something about the hairs on my skin. I should have a more rigorous skincare regimen. I should make time to add exercise into my schedule—don’t think no one’s noticed that weight gain! I should be better at putting on eyeliner. I should be better—just better!—at this. I look at the mirror and I hate how I look. I look at my female coworkers and wonder what they do, scared that they’ll judge me for not being able to keep up, for not getting it right yet.
“I wish I was conventionally beautiful,” I confessed to my friend once. “Same!” was her enthusiastic response as she grabbed her phone to show me pictures of another girl. “She looks like this naturally, you know? I wish I was this pretty,” she said as she scrolled through the pictures.
I nodded, and eventually the conversation drifted to our own insecurities. I came from it with a newfound sense of sadness, as cheesy as that is to admit. I’ve always considered that friend of mine to be one of my prettier friends. In college, she had been somewhat of a campus crush. If someone as pretty as her could feel just as insecure as I do, then maybe the problem isn’t with us. Maybe the problem is with a beauty-obsessed culture that’s pressuring us into feeling insecure.
And for what?
Pretty people are more likely to get hired for jobs—except for when they aren’t. Makeup should be fun, and a lot of times it is, but I also know many people who express extreme anxiety when they think they’ve done theirs wrong (they didn’t) or when they go without. I feel the same way sometimes.
Why exactly do I spend as much time as I do, as much work, as much labor, to end up feeling just as insecure?
The answer, when I come to it, is simple. It’s sexism, it’s misogyny, it’s the patriarchy. The pressure to be beautiful is still very much rooted in the patriarchal structure in which women have to be the pretty little things. There have been movements to divorce the idea of beauty from that, I know. It’s not enough. Every once in a while, a big positivity movement comes along that aims to change beauty standards. Body positivity. Brown is beautiful. I can name a lot more. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve supported all those movements, and I’ll continue to support them. However, I still feel like these movements are inadequate. Though they question beauty standards and the idea of beauty, the desire to be considered beautiful remains.
As much as I want to pretend that I just want to be pretty for me, that’s not true. The structure still lies, even in me, the big, angry, queer feminist.
The labor of beauty is not a pretty thing.
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