[This post makes me feel like Ira Glass. So perhaps I should assume the persona]
Recently, we’ve been seeing a whole lot of ugly. Ugly behavior in politics. Name calling. Bullying. Lies, innuendo, and gossip. But I’m tired of talking about that. I’d like to focus on a different type of ugly — one triggered by a number of articles that I have read, and a podcast I listened to on the way home. Some of this makes me think of someone we know… and I’ll leave it at that.
So the question is: What makes a person beautiful? Is it how they look? How they smell? Their size? Their behavior? Here are some items I’ve seen of late that explore the issue, and like Ira Glass of This American Life, we’ll divide it into four acts.
Act I: Beauty is Only Skin Deep
Most of us — at least in the technical field — don’t care about makeup. We see the inner person, and judge beauty based on how someone behaves, how they treat other people, and what they do. But there is a subculture of young women (and I’m guessing some guys) that are obsessed with looks and makeup. I’ve seen this first hand: I know someone who is obsessed with makeup — so much so that their Instagram is filled with faces of their face with various different makeups. There’s a name for that phenomenon: Instragram Face. Alexandra Jones describes it in a fascinating piece from the BBC: “the make-up look that has dominated social media for the past three years… Search the make-up hashtag on any social media site and you’ll come across it. The unique flaws that make us who we are, that make humans so attractive, have been replaced by one face. The Face. Photo-perfect skin and sculpted, contoured cheekbones, wide almond-shaped eyes which taper up into a feline point, and that full, inescapable mouth. This look is what Twiggy’s lashes were to the 1960s and what Kate Moss’ dewy skin was to the 1990s.”
I know it well. The person I know worshiped that look, which we all thought hid her natural beauty. But she would not be deterred. Jones’ piece, which is well worth reading, describes her quest to live with that look for a week. What was once a quick dab before she left because a routine that took, at best, 45 minutes in the morning. She couldn’t go out in the sun because her face would melt. Men start making lewd comments at her; it is something my wife refers to as a “fuck me” face, designed to be attractive to the male patriarchy (and, due to the time and cost, it keeps women in 2nd place). Further, it actually makes skin worse. Take off the makeup for a year, and your skin is much much better.
Then there is what this makeup subculture does to people. Gimlet’s Reply All touched upon this recently in the 2nd “Yes, Yes, No” segment of their show “Alex Jones Dramageddon”. They explored a recent incident in the Beauty YouTube subculture where a number of beauty vloggers had to make apology videos due to their poor behavior. I’ve known folks that are addicted to watching these videos, faces in screens for hours at a time. More on that in Act IV.
People need to realize that the best makeup is … none. Our flaws and our imperfections are what make us beautiful, what give us character. We aren’t all the same; we shouldn’t look the same.
[ETA: A reader in another venue pointed out that my commenting with my attitude on makeup may be sexist. That certainly wasn’t the intent — I feel the same way regardless of sex. However, it was a fair comment in that it was judging on looks, which is wrong. If you find makeup something that improves your self esteem and makes you feel better, go for it. I do suggest you read the linked articles however — they were talking more about doing it based on a cultural pressure from others. If you use makeup, or make other fashion choices, do it because it is right for you.]
Act II: Something is in the Air
My wife likes to tell the story of an exchange student that lived with them when she was in high school. This person never bathed; instead, they used excessive cologne. As someone who suffers from migraines, I can just imagine what that fragrance in the air would do. A recent article explored how fragrance is the new second hand smoke. As the article notes; “Hundreds of studies over the last two decades are finding “fragrance” in beauty products and household cleaners are just as bad or worse for our health than secondhand smoke. Is it time for fragrance-free workplaces, hotel rooms and sections in restaurants?”
As a migraine sufferer, I can say, “Yes, please”.
Let’s look at two things fragrance does, both bad. First, it covers up the smell of clean, which is…. nothing. Using fragrance to mask BO is silly; just take a shower instead. You want your house to smell clean: air it out, instead of using air freshener, use fresh air. And as for perfume: why try to imitate animal pheromones when your natural ones will attract much better. People should be attracted for you for who you really are, not a fake image created through makeup and perfume. That image will always be destroyed when they see the real you.
As for fragrance, it can be bad for you. As the article notes:
“The average U.S. consumer today is as uneducated about the dangers of synthetic fragrances as the average American was to the dangers of second-hand smoke in the 1960s… Those dangers include chemicals that are known neurotoxins, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, DNA mutagens, allergens, hepatotoxins and reproductive toxins all hidden under the simple ingredient label “fragrance.” Manufacturers of beauty and cleaning products don’t have to disclose the hundreds of potential chemicals that could be used to make their fragrance, because they are considered “trade secrets” by the FDA. Around 90% of the chemicals included in the label “fragrance” are synthesized from petroleum or coal tar. Toxic chemicals commonly found in products with “fragrance” on the ingredients list include acetone, phenol, toluene, benzyl acetate, limonene and formaldehyde. A 2008 analysis of 6 top selling laundry products and air fresheners found “nearly 100 volatile organic compounds were emitted from the products, and five of the six products emitted one or more carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants which the Environmental Protection Agency considers to have no safe exposure level.”
Act III: The Last Acceptable Discrimination
Society is increasingly frowning on discrimination and making fun of the attributes of people (well, unless you’re the President or those who find his behavior acceptable). Sex, race, religion, orientation — all are out for teasing. But fat? Fat seems to be the last area where you can discriminate, where you can make fun — because we all know that obesity is bad for you. But what if it isn’t?
A great article in the Huffington Post was going around Facebook recently titled “Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong“. The article talks about how obesity has grown in society, and notes the establishment response to it:
And the medical community’s primary response to this shift has been to blame fat people for being fat. Obesity, we are told, is a personal failing that strains our health care system, shrinks our GDP and saps our military strength. It is also an excuse to bully fat people in one sentence and then inform them in the next that you are doing it for their own good. That’s why the fear of becoming fat, or staying that way, drives Americans to spend more on dieting every year than we spend on video games or movies. Forty-five percent of adults say they’re preoccupied with their weight some or all of the time—an 11-point rise since 1990. Nearly half of 3- to 6- year old girls say they worry about being fat.
But, as the article goes on to note, the solution of dieting doesn’t work. Most people that go on diets gain it all back. Further, “the second big lesson the medical establishment has learned and rejected over and over again is that weight and health are not perfect synonyms. Yes, nearly every population-level study finds that fat people have worse cardiovascular health than thin people. But individuals are not averages: Studies have found that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy. They show no signs of elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance or high cholesterol. Meanwhile, about a quarter of non-overweight people are what epidemiologists call “the lean unhealthy.” A 2016 study that followed participants for an average of 19 years found that unfit skinny people were twice as likely to get diabetes as fit fat people. Habits, no matter your size, are what really matter. Dozens of indicators, from vegetable consumption to regular exercise to grip strength, provide a better snapshot of someone’s health than looking at her from across a room.
Our society wants to have someone we can intentionally hurt and look down upon. But why?
Act IV: The Screens
Earlier, I mentioned the young person we know that was addicted to Beauty YouTube. How many of us know young people that are addicted to their screens, and who seem to have no attention spans. How do we address it? ADD medication. Perhaps that’s the wrong answer. Perhaps we need to address the screens.
A recent study shows a connection between heavy screen use and ADD in teens. It’s not at the level of a causal relationship yet, but studies show that teens who spend a lot of time using digital media show an uptick in symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). That doesn’t mean parents should panic about teens texting at the dinner table; it just means that if your kid is a heavy media user, maybe you should have a conversation about why they like it so much. The study monitored ADHD symptoms in a group of nearly 2,600 high school teenagers. Students who used multiple types of digital media multiple times a day were roughly twice as likely to report new symptoms of ADHD over a two-year period than their less digitally active classmates, according to the study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Now, combine that with the images they are seeing — the prevalence of Instagram Face, the emphasis on weight, our leadership role models — and we wonder why kids today are as they are.
Take off that makeup, get rid of the fragrance, don’t worry about how you look, and pick up a good book. You’ll be much happier.