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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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Gymnastics, Ideal Girls, and the Signal of Makeup

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Photo: Agência Brasil Fotografias, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Olympics are a helluva lot more thought-provoking in thinkpieceland, and in my corner of the internet, that means looking at gymnastics with a critical eye. There’s been fantastic commentary on gymnastics and femininity from Chloe Angyal, The Cut, and Stuff Mom Never Told You—all of whom take a more comprehensive view than I do here—but I’ve spent too much time watching the Olympics for me to not put my two cents in. (Otherwise I’ll have to admit that I am painfully basic when it comes to the Olympics, developing acute agita over sports I have given zero thought to for four years—steeplechase?!—and to form allegiances to athletes for no reason other than I want to visit their home nations. Dmitriy Balandin’s gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke saw me leaping to my feet and chanting KAZ-AKH-STAN!!! like a…like a Kazakh. Anyway.)

Angyal has pointed out that the visible girlishness of gymnastics has risen along with its athleticism, its makeup and glitter ticking up in tandem with the musculature of the athletes over the years. Makeup is also a part of what we’ve come to think of as gymnastics behavior. Which is to say, girlish behavior. Hugs all around every time a competitor comes back to the sidelines, high-toned assurances, pats on the back, the occasional squeal, that pitch-perfect confidence mixed with the grateful humility we ask of our Olympians. The drive, focus, and passion to pursue a goal, embodying a form of American girlishness that’s admirable to feminist types such as myself. Add to that the contemporary accoutrements of gymnastics—the Swarovski crystal leotards, the pert ponytails, and, yes, the makeup—and it seems that our quintessential gymnast isn’t just visually encoded as feminine, she’s the ideal American girl. She’s pretty, nice, well-behaved, and disciplined, and she kicks international ass. (It’s worth noting here that gymnastics is one of the few sports where, absent a gender modifier, the athlete is presumed to be female.)

Which brings us to Gabby Douglas. It’s upsetting to read about the hatred directed toward her, which turns nauseating once race is inevitably brought into it. At the same time, I did notice that she didn’t put her hand over her heart during the national anthem; I did notice that she wasn’t visibly rushing to congratulate teammates who had fared better than she in these Olympics. I didn’t draw conclusions about Douglas or her character by it, but I noticed. And the reason I noticed was because she was different than the other competitors. More reserved, less bubbly. More observant, less indulgent. More—forgive me, but this is the word that comes to mind—womanly, less girlish, even as I know plenty of effervescent adult women and have witnessed reserved teen girls aplenty.

Douglas’s reserve shouldn’t become a point of attack on her in the least; she’s a remarkable athlete, and I’ve seen only graciousness from her off the floor. But her demeanor was that of an outlier from the expected form of femininity in this context. I don’t think Gabby Douglas would be facing this vitriol were she, say, a track and field competitor. It’s the image of the contemporary gymnast that’s at issue here, and to me, that’s where the makeup comes in too. Gymnasts “need” makeup to be in accord not only with femininity and to soften the image of their athleticism, but to be in accord with the image and behavior of a gymnast. That’s where Douglas “fails,” if you want to call it that—the behavior part—and that’s where she’s being punished. Other gymnasts who have “failed” here include McKayla Maroney and Aliya Mustafina. Both of them were roundly whipped on social media, but neither to the degree that Douglas has been, and yep, race is the differentiating factor here. It’s one thing to be called a diva, or to have your “not impressed” face go viral, but their whiteness was a buffer from the vitriol Douglas has received. Race is unquestionably an enormous factor here, and in ways that are intertwined with reserve and expression, as this piece,“Gabby Douglas and the Right to Be Visibly Disappointed,” points out—and also intertwined with appearance and beauty standards, including, of course, black athletes’ hair.

Makeup in the realm of gymnastics doesn’t just “soften” the incredible athletic power of American gymnasts, though. It reinforces their girlish, bubbly image. This piece on gold-medal-winning shot putter Michelle Carter demonstrates that: “For a couple of years, being professional, I kind of questioned myself. Should I wear my false lashes or take the time I want to take so I can feel good when I go out on the field?” the athlete and certified makeup artist said in The New Yorker. “Because nobody else was really doing that. And I thought, No: I’m not going to change what I believe I should look like to fit anybody else’s standards. I believe if you look your best, you’re going to feel your best, you’re going to do your best.”

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Michelle Carter. Photo: Erik van Leeuwen, via Wikimedia Commons

 

If we truly required all our female athletes to use makeup as an apology for their strength, shot putters would “need” that styling even more than gymnasts because of their incredible power and heft. But as Carter says, it was a bold move for her to sport her look—false eyelashes, winged liner—in competition. Makeup becomes political for Carter because it’s showing that female athletes can look ferociously powerful and still wear a fierce lip if they desire, and will be taken seriously either way. Carter’s makeup is a statement not of adherence to femininity but of the diverse ways one can be a woman: A full face of makeup runs counter to our ideas of force and power, like the strength required to hurl a metal ball 20 meters with the force of a cannonball. You’d think that would mean that culturally female shot-put athletes would be required to “compensate” by feminizing themselves with makeup, but that’s not the case. It’s the marriage of an artistic sport and the sex of the competitor that sees makeup be de rigueur in gymnastics yet outlying in shot-put. The expectation of feminine expression is different for each type of sport, and that expression remains even when makeup is taken out of the equation. Douglas’s looks didn’t escape rebuke, of course, but those who vilified her primarily did so because she didn’t behave like the ideal girl.

Olympics aside, the ways we’re seeing gender expectations play out illustrate another problem I keep running into with theorizing makeup. Until we divorce makeup from conventional femininity and the expectations attached to it, we won’t really know what we think about makeup as opposed to what we think about womanhood itself. If men wore lipstick in numbers as great as women, would people who find makeup a waste of time or an exercise in vanity still feel the same way? They might; historically, such men have been seen as foppish, even when they weren’t unusual. But just as likely, we might reevaluate makeup in a different light, seeing it for its possibilities instead of its limitations, or as an expression of character as opposed to an expression of traits associated with one gender. (Or of gender, period, for that matter.)

I think about the extraordinarily careful line these young women have to walk, so publicly, and under such intense pressure. (This goes double for Simone Biles, who has probably learned some sad, quiet lessons from watching how Douglas has been treated for being an outstanding black girl in a historically white sport. Can you imagine the vitriol if Biles, largely acknowledged as the best gymnast who has ever lived, had the gall to not only be the best in the world but to not appear kind and gracious and perfectly girlish at every moment?) I keep watching the faces of each gymnastics team member, waiting for that telltale twitch that reveals the fierce competitive spirit that accompanies being a world champion—I mean, here they are, competing against one another for something they’ve been dreaming about since second grade, and you tell me they’re always full sweetness and support? I still haven’t seen their faces betray them, and I don’t know whether that’s because they’re really good actresses, or because they’ve had to learn to reconcile their genuine wish to support one another with their genuine wish to win, or because they’ve developed the kind of grace that means they don’t even see those desires as being at odds with each other. I suspect it’s probably all of those reasons, and more. It takes a triple-backflip-dismount level of grace to appear as noncompetitive in a competitive environment as remarkably as these athletes do. Their ability to land it every time one of them ousts the other for first place or for a spot in the finals showcases and elevates that new ideal of femininity. Which means that every time one of them falls outside of that ideal, even for a moment, they have even farther to fall.

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Nina Bhatti, Founder, Kokko Beauty, Los Altos, California

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Thanks to Nina Bhatti, I found my perfect foundation. The founder of Kokko—an app that promises to find you a foundation that actually matches your skin—has the kind of background that makes her current project seem almost inevitable: She’s the former chief scientist of the mobile color research group at Hewlett-Packard, a former senior technologist for Nokia, and a woman who has wanted to have good makeup at her disposal without reading women’s magazines like a part-time job. Her creation is deceptively simple: You download the Kokko app, then take a selfie alongside Kokko’s color chart, which is the analog bit that makes this digital tool so excellent: By measuring your skin color alongside the known quantity of the color chart, Kokko has more to work with than less precise makeup matching apps, meaning you’ll wind up with one foundation that’s just right instead of six that are almostright. They’re actually giving The Beheld readers the chart for free until July 11; go here and use the code AUTUMN (heh! I’m a mononym!), and you’ll just pay $1.30 for shipping.

I spoke with Nina about the technical aspects of color matching, why there’s no Seamless for makeup (yet), and why she refused to learn to type. In her own words:

 

On Color

You know how some people have perfect pitch? There are so few in the human system who have perfect color, but we all have that friend who has that eye for color—those people who are like, “You need more blue in that red, it looks better with your skin,” while the rest of us are like, “It just looks red!” I wanted people to have that friend there with them, whispering in their ear. Color is incredibly complex. It’s perceptual—the color you put next to it will make that color appear differently, that’s how your brain works—and it’s also about what is going on physically in your eye. Then you’ve got the quality of the light that’s on any given color. It’s so complicated, and yet so much of aesthetics is about color.

The only people who really have that depth of understanding about color are color scientists. The way that they measure color is by using these very scientific, controlled devices to measure color. They have a specific light that shines on an object, they have a specific angle, a specific amount of diffuseness in the light. They’d measure the reflectance at every wavelength, the specific receiver technology. It’s this really technical way of measuring color. That’s all well and good, but I’m thinking about new users who aren’t going to drive around with this scientific instrument. What could they do? Well, these days the mobile devices with cameras are the vehicle of choice, so let’s use that. The color scientists didn’t actually like the research when I started it. Their own work is measured on these incredibly accurate measures—sort of like, 10 decimal places of accuracy. It’s important for paint companies, but that’s not the degree of accuracy we needed. I said, “Okay, I don’t have to be perfect the way you guys are, because if there’re only a certain number of shades of foundation, I only need to just pick the one.” People who know about color didn’t ever want to do approximate color matching because it just violates their sensibility. They’re not thinking about its application domain. I came at it from a very strong belief in the consumer problem.

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The Kokko ColorChart: By giving the camera a known color quantity that’s photographed alongside the user’s face, the chart lets the app be more precise than it would just by the camera alone.

 

The whole idea of using the color chart is something that was used in the very early Technicolor movies. When you develop film you can affect the final colors by adjusting the developing chemicals —so what’s the right color? Technicolor’s color supervisor, Natalie Kalmus, came up with a calibration. They developed this chart that they called a lily, and they’d hold up that up front of the camera and would use that to find the correct, consistent color. She actually figured that out. She’s the one who actually developed Technicolor color accuracy. So you have that kind of process, and you have the process where you go to a makeup artist and they look at your skin and characterize what product is going to work. I took the manual process and tried to automate it. So once we get your skin color correct, we find what product to put on that. We used an expert system to determine how makeup artists would characterize lots and lots of women—we actually had women come in and had makeup artists match foundation to their skin—and then used that data to figure out what the unknown woman would like. It’s perfect for computer and imaging science because that’s what they do—have lots of data and then figure out what the signal is.

 

On Silicon Valley and Sexism

I refused to take typing in high school. It might have been helpful to me, but I never wanted any job that required knowledge of typing. In those days typing was a gateway to low paying female-dominated professions. I wanted to set my own path and not be bound by society’s definition of female professions. My family expected the girls to do as well as the boys so that was never an issue.

When I was working in computing in the ’90s, there was this weird line you had to walk as a woman. If you cared about your hair and makeup, they didn’t think you were a good engineer. If you didn’t care about your appearance, then you were accepted as technical. It’s different as a corporate manager—there are a lot of women there—but in the engineering ranks it was different. I became one of those technical people who did a lot of customer conversations, because I did clean up well and I could talk to them. But then some of the junior ones would be like, “Can you really program?” It’s not that they think you can’t, it’s that you’re an early example of what a great engineer that also cares about appearance can look like. Being able to look good and be technically strong—there’s a bias there that I can’t explain. I mean, more women go to medical school than men! You can overcome that bias, because you’ll realize, “Wow, that person is really good,” but it takes some cognitive time.

I’m pitching this technology to largely men, and they don’t understand the beauty market. I’ll send an email stating, “We’re solving this makeup problem” and they’re like, “There’s a problem?” One investor said, “I didn’t know [foundation matching] was a problem but I talked to a family member and she said, ‘Yes, I need this—this is huge.’” He was stunned. And that’s an opportunity, that this is unrecognized. There are 101 startups to get dinner to your door—ingredients to your door that you cook, meals to your door that somebody else cooked for you—and nobody has a problem understanding that. With color, women’s eyes light up and get excited about it, but the men who are typically making capital investment decisions aren’t aware.

I don’t think that it’s sexist. There’s a rational reason for them to be wary—there’s a discomfort because they’re not the target market. It’s not that they hate women and don’t want women to have good things—they know $150 billion worldwide is being spent on this stuff. The question for them is, Do I understand this market? Do I have an intuition for it that lets me feel comfortable investing? This is where we want to differentiate between sexism and non-familiarity. These guys are happy to make money—but when you have no intuition for the market, it’s much harder for them to put money in at the earlier stages when there’s very little evidence. That’s not intentional sexism. That’s a current that you have to swim against. This is why people say they want more women in tech in the product design area, but you have places where there’s never been one woman on the team.

 

On The Right to Beauty

Women are expected to be born with this aesthetic ability—the clothing, the makeup. They’re just supposed to know. I sense a lot of frustration, because a lot of women feel like, I don’t actually know. The makeup buying process has become intimidating unless you study it—which some women do, these mavens who just revel in it and are good at it and get it, which is wonderful. But many of us just want someone to say, “This is going to look great on you,” and trust them. Because women know when everything’s right—you just feel good, you stand a little taller, you walk a little zippier. They know the feeling of feeling good, and they know the feeling of feeling awkward. Color is an important aspect of looking and feeling good, and we’re trying to solve that problem, that awkwardness of not being sure if you’re doing it right.

I don’t see why every woman shouldn’t feel wonderful about herself. Every woman has a legitimate right to beauty. This is technologically enabling that right. Sometimes people might be trying to do makeup but they don’t have that skill, so they might go overboard, and that can be devastating. And there are times in a business setting when you just want to look really pulled together and polished, and makeup can be a part of that setting. That’s different from feeling like, “Oh my god, I have to get out of bed 30 minutes before my husband so I can put my face on.” It’s scary to feel like you can’t be seen as who you are, and I don’t want to live in a world where I have to wear makeup every day and can’t be seen as my natural self. But this is about enabling people who might not have those makeup skills. I’d like women to have that in their toolkit.

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Beautiful Music

It’s surprisingly hard to find music about personal appearance that isn’t, like, gross (though never fear, there’s plenty of objectification odes on here, see also Roy Orbison), but I did my best to create such a playlist for the Face Value launch party, and you never know when such a playlist might come in handy for others. All these songs are about appearance in some way—odes to beautiful people, admonitions to stay beautiful, paeans to the ways we prettify ourselves, an embrace of ugliness, a mantra of pride, you get the picture. (Apologies for the many covers of a few key songs, like “I Feel Pretty”—when a song was really perfect I didn’t see a problem with playing its variations. Like this amazing punk version.)

Two notes: 1) I do not necessarily endorse the messages in any of these songs—surprisingly, there were no songs titled “Hey Women’s Relationship to Beauty Is Really Complex and Doesn’t Really Rhyme Well.” 2) I was pleased to discover that I really, really like RuPaul.

The Spotify link is here, and I’m listing the tracks below. Enjoy!

 

*When this song—a delight from an all-female Canadian metal band about looking pretty as one digs one’s own grave—played at the party, my agent checked in with me to make sure that the bar was still playing my playlist. They were.

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