When, at the end of every shoot, I face the mirror and begin to remove the beautiful hair and makeup that professional artists have taken several hours to perfect, I am always reminded of Jonathan Swift’s Corinna from the poem “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed.” Not that I’m comparing myself to a venereal-diseased prostitute, but our rituals are eerily similar. Where Corinna removes her artificial hair and eyebrows, I remove hair extensions and fake eyelashes. She takes out her glass eye; I take out my contact lenses. Her boobs drop down when she removes the rags that hold up her cleavage; my boobs shrink down to their lowly B cup when I take out the Victoria’s Secret inserts. And just as it becomes obvious, as Corinna climbs the four stories to her lonely home and goes to bed, that the “beautiful young nymph” isn’t quite the jewel of Covent Garden that her clients believe her to be; so too do I walk away from the glamorous persona I feign in front of the camera (all the while ripping off my fake nails on the subway), to climb the three floors to my apartment, make some popcorn, and watch 30 Rock on Hulu in bed.
Swift wrote the poem in 1734 to expose and critique the artifice associated with beauty that was often denied in polite society. I compare myself to Corinna here to show that, almost 300 years later, not much has changed. How much of what we consider beautiful is contrived? Visual representations in the media aside, what about our own daily beauty rituals? The very idea of it being a ritual implies that our own beautification is a series of actions; actions we take to change our real selves. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It can even be a great thing (I’ll get to this in a sec). It’s just a fact that I sometimes forget about because my daily, hour-long beauty ritual has become so routine, so…natural.
For me, mornings involve a hairdryer and straightening iron for my naturally unruly curls; contact lenses for my near-blindness; concealer for the dark blue half-moons under my eyes and an eyelash curler and mascara to make me look “awake”; and, of course, pressed powder for my ever-shiny forehead. A trip to the colorist for highlights comes every two months (and even then my hairdresser calls me low maintenance). Let’s not forget the occasional wax and, everyone’s favorite, the “extraction” segment of a facial. All to look and feel like a normal (properly groomed) woman.
Most of these tools and procedures are not burdensome; they’re indulgent. We’ve come a long way from Corinna’s archaic beauty methods. But in understanding these self-beautification rituals as indulgences, I often forget that I put so much damn time and effort into looking good. The fact that my own efforts contribute merely a fraction of what is then done to me on a photo shoot, further proves how unrealistically the idea of beauty is portrayed in print and on television.
I do believe, however, that once we acknowledge the artifice, we open ourselves up to a world of play and performance that allows us to express, rather than deny, our real selves. Makeup and hair dye can move the idea of beauty and image from artifice to art, in which we become our own canvases. A very simple example: I experimented with my image a lot as a teenager. I spent $500 on dreadlocks during my Grateful Dead phase; at my most angsty, I dyed my hair black in my bathroom and lined my eyes with kohl; then decided to go fire-truck red when I thought I was punk. Those descriptions are reductive, I know, but I still see all those artificial changes as expressive of who I was at the time.
Today, on a much more subtle (and mature) level, I’ll still use makeup as an outlet for whimsical emotions. And on set, when the hair and makeup artists demonstrate their skills in color and form, I am always in awe of their talent. Their creations inspire my performance in front of the camera. When they say that the photos look beautiful, though, I always respond with “it’s all you.” Because it is. My job is impossible without M.A.C., Bumble and bumble, and the liquefy tool on Photoshop; and, of course, the skilled artists who use them. It’s important to be aware of that, I think. Understanding the unnaturalness of beautification is significant not only for keeping a critical eye on the media and fashion, but also for appreciating “beauty” and its various man-made products in their capacity for creativity and expression. That’s what differentiates our beauty routine from Corinna’s, and prevents us from experiencing her beautifying burden.