I’ve just finished a book today that I’ve been meaning to read for a number of years: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things – grades, boyfriend, looks, career – and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality. Highly readable, witty and disturbing, The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel and was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963. What it has to say about what women expect of themselves, and what society expects of women, is as sharply relevant today as it has always been.
I’m glad the book club I’ve just joined has chosen to read this book, since, like I said, I’ve been wanting to read it. I enjoyed the book, though I’m unsure whether it lives up to the hype that I held it to. There’s some good passages and it does explore societal expectations of women and Esther’s reaction to them, which of course is traumatic. I probably would have found this more poignant if I read this in my teens but now that I’m just (barely) out of them I didn’t always quite relate to the character.
I’m glad I read it though. I’m going to have to refer to some study questions to really have a think about it, but it was decent, easy to read, sometimes funny, oftentimes sad. I’d recommend it to those who are interested in depression.
It’s a question I think most young woman-identified feminists now deal with, but I’ve decided to have a serious thought process on it now because of an article I read in the New York Times1 about makeup, motherhood, and feminist guilt. It’s definitely worth a read, though with a critical eye.
Both men and women are participate in constant body work. However, I’d argue that for women, the work required in order to be an accepted member of society is a much more rigid, unyielding version. Michel Foucault once spoke of the process in which individuals become objects, or docile bodies, through processes of self-surveillance based on discourses of what is considered normal and abnormal2. Feminism critiques Foucault’s gender-neutral version of docile bodies, as women’s bodies are expected to be more docile.
Modern femininity is linked with three restrictions of the body which modern masculinity is not. First, femininity is characterised by smallness of body. Women are not meant to take up more space than required, therefore women who do not conform to this are chastised, if not by people around her then by the rest of society. Second, femininity entails a certain reluctance in gesture, movement, and posture. The final way, and the way I’ll actually be discussing, is by the necessity of ornamentation. This includes the pressure to wear makeup, have good skin care, have good hair care, and get rid of body hair3.
Makeup, therefore, is politicised by the feminist movement. The daily process of makeup is expensive, time consuming, and probably unhealthy. It perpetuates the idea that in order to be desired, a woman must be made up. Even now a lot of men say they prefer women without makeup, but I wonder how many of them are tricked into believing ‘no makeup-makeup’ is actually a clean face. Slightly deceitful, and raises the bar too high.
I wear makeup. And I love makeup. And sometimes that comes with a bit of guilt. Mostly it comes with an empty wallet. Yes, I have a problem, and I’m taking steps to fix it. However I don’t honestly think that wearing makeup makes a person any less feminist, even if the makeup process is oppressive. I’m not going to sit here and say I freely choose to wear makeup. I don’t think I do. But when reading on other people’s opinions about feminism and makeup I found this:
You can’t socialize someone into liking something and then ostracize them for liking it. 4
Obviously feminists understand that gender roles and the gender binary are socially constructed (Some people don’t like the idea that gender itself is socially constructed, though I would argue that it is. I think a lot of people who disagree probably haven’t studied too much sociology. Maybe I’ll write about it another time.). It is immensely important to understand the process by which this happens, and I believe many feminists take the work into trying to piece it together. It is also so important to challenge these norms and to create dialogue about why we do and think certain things. It’s SO important, as a feminist, to critically examine your reason for doing certain things. I wear makeup because I was socialised to. I was socialised to enjoy the ritual, and I do enjoy it. I haven’t gotten to the point of self-love where I’ve been able to fully forgo my foundation and mascara.
It is fundamentally and horribly wrong to criticise any woman for wearing makeup or for not wearing makeup. We need to criticise our own choices and be real with ourselves. I could sit here and say I choose makeup freely because I know the negatives and do it anyway, but by saying that I believe we’re trying to differentiate ourselves from non-feminist identifying women who wear makeup. By othering non-feminist women, we’re saying they’re under a false consciousness (which they may well be), when one never knows whether that person does think about the negatives but still chooses it. For all anyone knows, our thought processes are similar.
We need to teach radical self-love, and there is a conflict when the person teaching it has perfectly coifed hair and a beautifully made up face. But we shouldn’t blame women for wanting these things when we’ve been told to want them from the moment the doctor looked between our legs at birth. Feminism should not succumb to self-righteousness, but embrace sympathy and empathy and keep teaching informed analysis.
1 Makeup, and Feminist Guilt, at 13
2 Nash, K. (2010) Contemporary Political Sociology. p22-23.
3 Bartky, S.L. (1988) ‘Foucault, Femininity, and Patriarchal Power’ in Diamond, I. and Quinby, L. (eds) Feminism and Foucault. p.65-71.
4 Warning: Feminist Wearing Makeup Ahead. Look Both Ways Before Crossing.