When I was growing up I practised my make-up skills on a dismembered head I kept on my desk. She had luscious blonde locks, tarantula-like eye-lashes, and a wide-eyed, shocked, deer-in-the-headlights stare, possibly owing to the fact that she was wondering why she could not feel her legs. I splashed mascara, blusher, and lipstick over her face, teased her hair, and thought she looked stunning. In retrospect, what she actually looked like was a Disney Princess who had been put through the Tim Burton finishing school. With clumpy, thick black mascara melting into garish electric blue eye shadow and cheeks rouged postbox red, she was poised to star in a clown porn film rather than throw a leather jacket over her shoulder, turn awkwardly to the camera and tell us all through an impossibly glossy, digitally-enhanced pout to “Get The London Look.”
But I was a little girl and yet to become familiar with the old adage ‘less is more’ – which can apply to many things in life, apart from bank balances and penises (with the latter, I jest). Therefore, the more make-up I could smear across the face of this body-less head, the more beautiful and feminine I thought she looked.
It is odd, really, that little girls are given plastic replica heads of women to play with when the subtext is the need to urgently perfect the art of self-grooming. If we started sending aspiring pianists prosthetic fingers in order to play Chopsticks there’s no doubt people would talk. And while it would be easy to dismiss the macabre thing as “just a toy,” what its existence actually does is indoctrinate girls from a young age to believe that in order to be considered attractive we must invest heavily in cosmetics, conceal any “blemishes” (which includes the natural pigmentation of the skin, FYI gals), and obscure our appearance as and when necessary to conform to very narrow notions of arbitrary western female beauty. This is all quite a loaded message for a toy, especially one which does not come with a disclaimer warning about the incubation of self-loathing and damage to self-esteem. The potential for choking aside, this would not happen with good ol’ trusty Buckaroo. Nope, you know where you are with an over-excited celebrity donkey.
This, combined with the Barbie dolls being bandied around the playground, made me believe that on turning 16 I would automatically sprout thick golden glossy tresses, perfectly round, symmetrical breasts, and develop the ability to apply eye-liner with a quick flick of the wrist whilst lounging on the veranda of a Dreamhouse. I thought that, through some sort of osmotic process, as I got older I would automatically acquire the knowledge and skills needed to become an elegant, glamorous woman, equipped with all the necessary paraphernalia: shoulder pads, high-heels, handbags with loose change collecting in the bottom, and a penchant for a good Chardonnay. However, more than a decade later, I can tell you that I have never dated a construction worker, an astronaut or a cowboy, my heels (on the odd occasion worn) are very rarely more fierce than a kitten, I don’t like wine, and it is more likely that I would be able to pull full equestrian wear or a ballerina’s tutu out of the bag at short notice than I could perfect the natural make-up look or be convincingly smoky of the eye.
While peers in school started experimenting with make-up during our early teens, and would not leave the house without first spreading generous lashings of foundation and lipstick over themselves, I could never really be bothered besides one brief flirtation with a Collection 2000 blue mascara in the late 1990s. At the time I disliked the feel on my skin, and I always felt bored when applying it, aware that I could be doing other things. If truth be told, I also lacked the creative flair to be good at this stuff, and more often than not my face looked like I’d had a good go on it with a Spirograph.
As I became older, I began to wear it on special occasions, largely because I felt it was expected. Now when I attend interviews I turn up with a face that looks something like a rushed amateur piece of artwork (traditional, not postmodern. I don’t fashion a tin of Campbell’s Soup on my forehead) because I am fully aware of the importance employers place on appearance.
For women, “making the effort” is synonymous with wearing make-up. This so-called “making the effort” requires us to get up that extra half an hour early, pull out the necessary tools, and trowel various substances on to our faces to fill in the gaps and cover the cracks, until we look like newly rendered walls. We are not ready until we actually resemble distorted, kindly-filtered reflections, more walking Instagram photographs of ourselves rather than organic creatures with the capacity to crease and sweat and blush.
We are told to wear make-up not to change our appearances, but to enhance our best featuresL that to do so will increase our professional, romantic, and social desirability. We are provided with no explanation as to why our appearances need to be enhanced in the first place; why a man can attend an interview or turn up to speed date with an acne-scarred face and not worry that it will hugely hinder his chances (which it shouldn’t), while a woman would have to pay for a pyrotechnic display involving fireworks, smoke, and flashing lights in order to distract attention from her perceived “flaws.” No one has offered a legitimate explanation as to why the ability to effectively pluck an eye brow is deemed so important. It may increase our so-called “erotic capital,” but at the same time this is just a theory that tacitly accepts the treatment of the female body as a commodity instead of challenging rigid, inflexible ideas of what constitutes beauty and therefore the pressures we face to emulate it. It is not that men are completely free of these pressures – in fact, the 21st century has been particularly bad for them – but it is undeniable that the vast majority of products out there claiming to offer a short-cut to perfection are aimed at women, and we are under much more unforgiving scrutiny on a continual basis than our male counterparts.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say I’m entirely against cosmetics. I am not advocating some sort of make-up amnesty, girls and women being herded through metal detectors in public places, patted down and thrown in the cells if they are found to be concealing a top-of-the-range Bobbie Brown eyelash curler (currently priced at no less than £15, which I’ll think you’ll agree is the real crime here). Admittedly my own technique has never really developed, and I have the knack of looking like I’ve spent eight hours in full glittery drag on the top shelf of an oven before I have even left the house, but I do still wear the slap on occasion. Indeed, there are also some events where making-up the face seems to be so imperative that to not load up concealer, foundation, and bronzer would be tantamount to turning up with your muff hanging out (weddings would be one such event where it would be prudent not to have either a naked eye or exposed genitalia on show). So, like most people, I go ahead and do it.
But where is the real money in beauty products? You only need to open your nearest magazines or turn on the nearest TV to see. Female celebrities endorse pricey products, participating in split screens showing before and after shots. Red blotches, under-eye bags, and slight wrinkles are magically replaced with clear, porcelain skin. We are effectively told that we should be repulsed by our own bodies; that we are inadequate and in need of repair, when the truth is discoloration here, the odd mole there, is just part of being human. So far, so tediously normal. If you don’t have the “London Look” like them, you’re not trying hard enough.
To really “Get The London Look”, though, you need to do more than apply a bit of lippy. You need to be in the dressing room at the crack of a sparrow’s fart being basted in gloss by a yawning woman before being powdered down and strategically placed in front of a green screen under a series of flattering lights. I don’t know about you, but I do not think that employing these resources on a daily basis would be practical for the modern woman. The benchmark as to whether something can be scheduled is usually whether or not you have time to learn the nuances of tantric sex: if you cannot invest time indulging in traditional Indian and Buddhist sexual practices, then you don’t have time to humour a production team working on a national ad campaign who holster make-up brushes like guns and emit cinematic horror movie screams if you happen to get lipstick on your teeth.
I cannot speak for everyone, but for me, and many women I see during rush hour suggest that the actual London look is fairly bare-faced during the week as we concentrate on our professional commitments rather than twirling around in multi-coloured garbs, grabbing on to virtual prison bars, and kissing the air. The London look is hair tied back into buns reminiscent of Mrs Doubtfire so it is out of our way when we type. The London look is conservative clothes and comfortable trainers worn during the daily commute, with office shoes kept in a rucksack to slip on, Cinderella-style, before we start the daily grind. The London look is busy and pensive and determined, juggling five or six things while meandering through the busy streets and smiling wryly as your concentration is broken by some bloke who shouts over, “Cheer up love, it may never happen.” It is very different to The Look being touted by Rimmel and, as much as I do enjoy a good bit of advertising, I am sceptical about the powers of a lipstick or mascara to transform my London look or my lifestyle.
Advertising executives working for cosmetic industries do us a double disservice. They effectively exploit our physical insecurities while simultaneously claiming to offer a solution akin to magic fairy dust which boosts their profits. The worse they make us feel, the better their bonuses. Make-up in and of itself is not the problem. If it was the case that we could just dip and dab the powder brush without feeling the obligation to do so, it would be fun to have materials at our disposal which could potentially make us look like absolutely anything or anyone in the world, should we feel so inclined. As it is, I’m failing to feel the excitement – even though I’d really, really like to.
-Ms Ordinary blogs here