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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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“Real beauty comes from within”

But is it natural? (By ookikioo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Do you know what’s in your lipstick? You do realize that you
eat your lipstick? And of course any product rubbed into the skin, that’s basically eating, no, injecting whichever horribleness into your system. Should anything ever go wrong with your health, or that of your children, or that of your theoretical children or theoretical great-great-grandchildren, you can never know for sure that your vanity¬†was not the reason. When, in the year 3013, one of your progeny is born with an extra arm in place of a leg, the science of the day will be able to trace this back to your use of a tinted moisturizer you didn’t even have the decency to purchase at Whole Foods.

But in all seriousness, there is, in principle, nothing wrong with discussing the possible toxicity of cosmetics, or the impact on whichever innocent rodents, creatures whose own mating rituals perfectly well proceed without the benefit of a smokey eye. Indeed, I’d prefer it if when I put on eyeliner, I can rest assured that some knowledgeable entity has checked that the stuff won’t permanently seal my eyes shut. If an ingredient is actually poisonous, I’d like to know that, or better yet, to have this not in cosmetics to begin with. I don’t find it patronizing that experts look into this, and if anything I’d like it if there were more thorough, but ethical, investigations.

The problem, then, isn’t that the safety of cosmetics is up for discussion. It’s the conversations that flow from the initial, reasonable one: Once we establish that there is or might be more biphelsnelsanphalatarsenicdehyde in cosmetics than we’d thought, some geniuses (and this is where “patronizing” enters into it) will inevitably point out that cosmetics are not essential to our sustenance or¬†hygiene. That they could, in principle, be scrapped altogether. And yet women go on wearing them. What are women thinking?

Consider this response to Mark Bittman’s post on the topic:

Cosmetic beauty is skin deep. True beauty needs no cosmetics, perfumes, lotions, potions, or oceans of chemicals to apply to our various body parts.

The commenter goes on to protest the ubiquity of cosmetic surgery in the entertainment industry. Then his or her (although I’m going to guess his) true colors show:

If a woman looks stunningly beautiful, is attracted to a handsome man, she will seduce him. In the a.m., after sex the nite before, makeup gone, he looks over at her and sees an ordinary-looking women snoring next to him. Manufactured beauty is only skin deep. Real beauty come from within. There is a difference, but women have sold themselves on turning that truth inside out. And we’re still buying it. No wonder the divorce rate is so high.

What begins as a conversation about genuine problems with cosmetics neatly segues into one about women who have the nerve to fool innocent men into thinking they (the women, that is) are more beautiful than they are. The language of inner beauty – a term that’s meant to describe character – gets used to discuss the kind of physical beauty that can’t be bought.

In other words, that whole, ‘Ladies, you don’t need makeup to be beautiful’ line of thought is actually men’s way of saying that they will have none of our trickery. It’s like when men say they’d prefer a woman who eats cheeseburgers than one who sticks with salad… but only if the woman in question is effortlessly thin. The answer for men with this gripe isn’t for cosmetics to be made out of innocuous materials. It’s for women to lay themselves bear, allowing whichever pseudo-evolutionary-psychology choice-process to take place unimpeded.

‘Natural beauty’ is anything but the liberation it sounds like, as an increasing number of women, myself included, have picked up on. But the specific angle of this I’d like to emphasize in this post is the way that the question of safety of cosmetics is so often used as a proxy for not quite so well-meaning concerns.

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