The internet was awash with thought-provoking pieces last week about Caitlyn Jenner’s stunning Vanity Fair reveal: from pleas not to forget the more vulnerable members of the community to Janet Mock’s examination of (among other things) what the female aesthetic represents for those in trans community. KJ Dell Antonia’s Motherlode column on how the photos of Caitlyn present a teachable moment for our daughters resonated with me because upon seeing the cover, I was struck by how similar it was to most other magazine covers. As Dell Antonia pointed out, the level of manipulation that goes into a photo shoot like Jenner’s is mind-boggling. The hair extensions, the makeup, the push-up bras and Spanx, the lighting and styling to hide this and highlight that. None of this would be any different if Jenner were a cis-gendered woman, this is just the cover girl treatment. And that’s before we even get to the airbrushing and photo-shopping.
I can imagine that after a lifetime of hiding her true self, it must have felt freeing to revel in all the trappings of female glamour. I imagine that this artifice helped her make her way to her most authentic self.
Her famous stepdaughter isn’t often seen styled to any less degree of precision. Kim Kardashian is known, among other things, for her application of aggressively contoured, piled on makeup. Kim is a beautiful woman even without it, of course, as we know from the photos of her in no makeup (or at least minimal makeup) that regularly circulate. If I were a celebrity, I’m certain I’d never leave the house barefaced. The press is vicious to women about their looks.
I don’t wear makeup on the day-to-day. It’s not a political statement, though I certainly don’t feel that women should be pressured to wear makeup to look “pulled together”. I used to wear makeup daily, but at some point I just stopped. I don’t even remember making the decision to do so. I still wear it when I’m out on the town, if I have an important meeting, if I’m having my picture taken for some reason.
My comfort without makeup has its limits. Years ago, before I met my boyfriend, my therapist suggested that I try going on dates in a t-shirt and jeans, hair back, no makeup. Basically, what I usually looked like when I was in her office. It was meant to be an exercise in being vulnerable. The idea of not going through the pre-date ritual of suiting up in my most flattering clothes, blowing out my hair, and putting on a full face of makeup was surprisingly terrifying. So much so that I never tried it.
Amanda Filipacchi’s brilliant novel The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty looks at beauty as artifice from both sides of the coin. Costume designer Barb, distraught that her beauty may have been the cause of her dear friend’s suicide (because he told her so, not because she’s an egomaniac) dons a carefully constructed ugly suit (bad teeth, a frizzy grey wig, an extra sixty pounds) to hide her looks; convinced that any man worth her love will see beyond it. Meanwhile one of her best friends, brilliant but homely composer Lily, fears that her looks will forever separate her from the man she loves. They present equal and opposite examples of how every woman’s life is affected by the construct of beauty.
Of course, being female is about much more than styled hair, mascara, and push-up bras. Hearing the experiences of Jenner, Mock, Laverne Cox, and the many other trans-women who’ve bravely come forward to tell their stories, challenges us all to think harder about what it really means to be a woman. And it has nothing to do with makeup.