quarantine grooming

This is the Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

Last week, on the day of my book release, I dusted off my makeup. Actually, truly, dusted it off. I hadn’t used it since May. I spent some time remembering the old routines: the order of operations, the frustration or small pleasure when the eyeliner flicked just right. I put product in my hair and blowdried it (again, a first since May). I found earrings, and even lipstick.

The face I saw reflected back through Zoom was familiar, and looked great, but also kinda pissed me off. Why was this version of me more beautiful, more societally palatable, more presentable? Why do women have to spend so much time, effort, and money to arrive at this “best” version of themselves?

I started wearing makeup and “doing my hair” (just a hilarious phrase, when you think about it) when I hit junior high. My makeup was a mix of drugstore brands and the few “fancy” items my mom took me to buy at the Clinique counter at The Bon Marche. I intermittently wore foundation, but didn’t wear eyeliner or anything that truly transformed the look of my face. It just felt covered, safe — especially when I started developing the acne that would follow me around for the rest of my teen-and-let’s-be-honest-also-adult life.

I would blow dry my hair every morning and then painstakingly curl it. It usually took about 45 minutes of my morning (45 minutes! Every morning!) to get ready, and I almost always felt the compulsion to “get ready.”

There were family trips that short-circuited that routine, and I resented them. Doing my hair and putting on even that small amount of makeup felt like a forcefield. Junior high sucks, but at least no I have a thin layer of goop on my face to protect me. It was also, of course, a way to differentiate myself from my mom, who rarely wore makeup and who, to my 8th grade self, was not a good fancy mom like some of the other moms in school. Sometimes I was doing my hair (and choosing my outfit with such care) in direct response to my mortification that my mom was not. I was effectively policing her through my own grooming choices.

When I was in high school, the small inflammatory acne on my forehead got worse. The dermatologist prescriptions didn’t help. The only thing that made me feel less embarrassed was re-showering and re-applying my makeup, which is what I’d do after school if I had any sort of important activity. It was putting on a new face, less vulnerable face.

The first time I realized I really didn’t have to get ready every damn morning was near the end of my freshman year in college. None of my friends blow dried their hair, but I’d clung to the routine as some form of grounding. But then, on Reading Day (when you’re supposedly starting to study for Finals, but usually just laying on the campus green) I just put on the shorts and t-shirt I would’ve worn after showering and went with it. It sounds dorky but it was truly revelatory: no one even noticed. It was the first of many times that I realized that no one is thinking about you quite in the way you’re thinking about yourself.

My freedom expanded. That summer, I was a full-time camp counselor at a camp I’d attended for years. The bathhouse was grimy and you always kinda gave yourself an electric shock if you tried to use a blowdryer, but I’d persisted in doing so for years. Not that summer. As a sort of joke, I started growing out my leg hair in “competition” with one of my college friends who was up in Alaska. The competition (and explanation) gave me license to forgo something that no one should do in the first place: shave your legs in a tiny stall with spiders and bad water pressure.

I rarely wore makeup, lived a solid percentage of the summer in a one-piece bathing suit, mostly put my hair in a sloppy bun. Back at college for my sophomore year, I started going to my 9 am class in my pajama pants, then I’d change into my workout clothes (which, let’s be clear, were not athleisure; they were a pair of Umbro shorts and a four year old cotton t-shirt) because I would go on a run at some point, then I’d shower afterwards and put on makeup if we were “going out” aka hanging out with boys.

And so I arrived at an understanding of self-presentation that followed me for decades: there’s the intimate self and the obligatory self, and the time I spent in either depending largely on my job and where I was living. When I was a professor: five days a week in full obligatory self. When I was living in New York and going into the office every day: wouldn’t do much save go to the bodega for coffee without putting on makeup of some form. With time, the categories can become slippery. It didn’t feel obligatory to put on eyeliner before you walk to the Brooklyn Trader Joe’s; it was just what I did.

Eyeliner has a particularly transformative, mind-warping power. I know people who refuse to be photographed without it. The eye-linered self has become the self: not just the way they want others to think of them, but the way they think of themselves. The attraction to permanent make-up makes sense: it cuts down on the amount of time you take to get ready, but that’s just another way of saying that it eliminates any time when you don’t feel ready, you don’t feel you.

I realize we are going down a long philosophical rabbit hole brushing up against endlessly debatable subjects like “what is the self.” I also know (and agree) with that idea that makeup can be playful and experimental and a real joy. It was novel and delightful to put on makeup that Tuesday. It was less so when I did it again the next night, and the night after that, and the night after that.

I went to dinner on Saturday night first the first time since March — outside, at a place with incredible safety protocols. A week ago, I would’ve brushed my hair, put on some moisturizer, and maybe put on some earrings: the make-up less face that’s become so familiar these past months was the face I would’ve wanted to take to dinner with me. But my made up face had eclipsed it in my understanding of my best self. I put on the eyeliner.

Makeup was developed, in rudimentary form, thousands of years ago, as a way to accentuate and distinguish — to simulate, at least according to all of the amateur histories I’ve internalized over the years, the look of sexual readiness and arousal. It’s a call to others: I’m ready. But it has devolved from that function. It is rarely a signal of actual eagerness or readiness; instead, it has unwittingly created an aura of perpetual receptiveness.

There’s a reason that women who reject aspects of compulsory femininity, whether in the form of shaving their armpits or wearing makeup, have long been called man-haters. There’s also a reason that a sort style of femininity (in grooming, in dress) has been grouped under the label “man repeller.” You can wear makeup and embrace fashion in a way that feels like a conduit of self, a creative performance, a delight and a moment of deep self-pleasure. But that almost always happens when you’re dressing for yourself, not the male gaze.

What I’m ultimately railing against is compulsion. The compulsion to groom yourself a certain way to meet (usually very white and bourgeois) standards of “respectability.” Why do I feel “better” when I’ve blowdried my hair? What is better about allocating fifteen minutes of my precious day to standing on front of a mirror with a round brush? What I really crave is the same sort of relief I did back as a teen: I’ve met the status quo, and can breathe comfortably, at least for a bit, within it.

But hair, and makeup, has to be redone. Clothes need to be repurchased. The body has to be regimened to maintain its “appropriate” size. Hair needs cutting, blow dryers need replacing, skin care needs refreshing. The work of meeting the status quo is never finished, and depending on your race and class and body and age, the amount of work to do is not just exhausting, but impossible.

Refusing makeup can feel like a small personal rebellion, but it does not amount to a societal shift, not even when Alicia Keys does it. Shifting the status quo can’t just be about loosening the rules for yourself. It has to be about reconsidering their utility — and refusing to enforce them, subconsciously and subconsciously — for everyone, truly everyone, around you. That might take time. Right now, we’ve got some of it.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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