Why I’m Conflicted about Beauty and Women’s Role in Consumerism

Having started a new job these past three weeks for a beauty public relations firm, I am completely entrenched in the world of consumption. The products you find mentioned in your magazines, and in other peoples’ blogs, an agency like ours has sent them over, artfully packaged with cute notes and press releases and sometimes a gift to accompany it, as if to butter-up the editor, journalist, or blogger.

Most of the day I organize, I add, and I take away from the wall of beauty products that cover our walls from floor to ceiling. As I occasionally pause to breathe (this is the most stressful job I have ever had), I sometimes feel lost, and dizzy, from the sea of products I am immersed in. I never thought I would become overwhelmed at the idea of being surrounded by makeup. In truth, however, it has made me more conscious of my role as a consumer and as a beauty enthusiast. I am indubitably still fanatical and zealous in my aesthetical pursuits. Though I don’t follow or believe in astrology, I was told my sign, cancer, relishes in making their homes cozy, pretty, and inviting. We roll over and purr when someone comments upon our good taste in furnishings. When it comes to our homes, we strive for beauty. Why shouldn’t the same be true concerning our faces? My picture placed above the mantelpiece equals my pink blush dusted on my cheeks.

When I was told I could pick whatever I wanted from a bag of products the agency I work for no longer needed for their shelves, a childlike excitement began to palpitate in my heart. Anything? I came home with products overflowing from my bag, a grin left frozen in place as if glued to my ears. I love beauty because it is a gift only for myself. My beauty routine is time spent with just me, and for me, in which I pamper and decorate myself based on my mood. It is a time where my gaze is reciprocated by my own eyes, no one else’s. It is one where I can become my own creator: adding shadows and color where before there were none. Where I can lather myself in unguents and wipe off the sweat and the dust from the day. My beauty routine is my love letter to myself. 

And yet…

I often feel guilty of my penchant for a rather vein and superficial endeavor. As a feminist, I am more than aware that cultivating a beauty routine and striving for a socially imposed feminine ideal stems from the fact that society has organized one sex to be at the disposal of the other’s gaze. For women, achieving this gendered identity can be easily obtained through beauty work. I very much fall into this category.

Because society has taught women to think of our bodies as being flawed, we are thus in constant pursuit of improving and modifying ourselves to fit an expectation that is imposed on us. I recognize this in myself everyday. As I pull up my pants to meet my belly, I am each morning dejected by the fact that the space there isn’t smaller. As I go to work, I take note of all the women who are thinner than me.

These sort of ideals, making up our definition of femininity, are very much articulated through commercial and mass media discourses, such as beauty blogs, magazines, television, etc. As such, we are deeply steeped in a consumer culture; participating on the one hand out of willingness, but on the other out of necessity. To put on our best performances as women (for as Butler says, gender is something you do, not something you have), we have therefore had to increasingly add product after product to embellish and ameliorate ourselves to fit a feminine mold. I shave my legs not because it pleases me, but because it pleases me to feel Woman.

Women thus have an intimate relationship with consumerism because our cultural capital is directly linked to the products we buy in order to enhance our looks. My obsession with beauty, as much as it is a gift to me, is also my burden as woman. This knowledge has added to my dizziness as I look up the walls of products where I work. It has made me want to strip back and somehow remove myself from all this madness. It makes me want to cherish and value the makeup items I own: keep the ones I truly love, and rid myself of the ones I rarely use. I have accumulated countless pencils and brushes and pigments, and still ooh and ahh in front of beauty counters and Sephoras. But is it possible to pull back from it all? Or should I just say “to hell with it all” and indulge. Buy the lipstick. Blacken my eyes. Accept that these are my shackles. But also my war paint.