Blending in and standing out: Comfort and visibility in beauty practices

When I was about twelve years old, a schoolfriend said I had beautiful eyes. “You should outline them in black!” she said. Encouraged by the compliment, the next morning I attempted to follow her advice. I didn’t own any black eyeliner, so I tried to create the recommended effect by layering blue and brown eyeliner on top of each other. On the school bus, my friend smiled and gave me the thumbs up. I had succeeded!

The pleasure was short-lived. Over the course of the day the liners separated and smudged, leaving me with multi-coloured panda eyes. A boy with whom I was usually friendly passed me a note on which he’d written a humorous poem mocking my makeup skills. I was not a figure of beauty. I was a figure of fun.

Decades later, most days I still don’t wear makeup. Occasionally, though, I do apply it. Sometimes I regret it instantly: my skills aren’t necessarily up to the job, and I end up wiping it all off. Other times, knowing my limitations and working within them, I achieve a passable effect. On those days, looking in the mirror immediately afterwards I experience a thrill akin to the school bus thumbs up. I’ve done it! I look great! I should wear makeup all the time!

Photo by Sarah R. ( 
But still the pleasure tends to be short-lived. Later in the day I catch my reflection again. In the habit of touching my face freely, I have rubbed my eyes and smeared mascara underneath them. Not in the habit of reapplying, my lips are now devoid of lipstick except around the edges and in the creases. I look worse than if I had simply left my face bare as usual.

What these experiences bring home to me is the significance of discipline and surveillance, two key concepts in social theorist Michel Foucault’s analysis of power. Feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky’s landmark article “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power” memorably applies Foucault’s approach to the case of beauty practices. Bartky argues that the “docile bodies” theorised by Foucault can be seen clearly in what she calls “the forms of subjection that engender the feminine body”, including makeup but also gendered rules of deportment, posture, body shape, and dress.

Discipline refers to the way that repeated, small practices coalesce into habitual norm-compliance. The fact of repetition creates actions that can be performed without conscious effort. Each individual practice on its own looks minor, but together, they form a systematic and subconscious whole. Through discipline, Foucault argues, power is enacted on our bodies without requiring coercive enforcement. Conscious effort or coercive enforcement may be required for the process of discipline to begin; but once discipline takes hold it is self-perpetuating.

Since Bartky feminists are used to thinking of the disciplinary aspect of beauty practices in terms of actions that must be performed: removing body hair, applying makeup, styling hair. Beauty is understood as practices, appliances, and products to be mastered. But reflecting on my own use of makeup suggests that this is not the whole picture. Actions such as applying makeup, removing body hair, and hairstyling are necessarily intentional: they are time-consuming, they require equipment that must be consciously purchased and maintained, and so even when they become routine they lack the under-the-radar character of properly internalised discipline.

But beauty does require multiple unconscious disciplines. If you are going to wear makeup you need to look in the mirror repeatedly throughout the day, just to check things have not gone awry; you need to carry supplies with you, just in case they have; you need to become adept at speedy application. And significant beauty discipline is also required in all the things that must not be done. If you are wearing eye makeup you must not rub your eyes. If you are wearing freshly-applied lipstick you must be careful when eating and drinking so as not to leave a print on a glass or a smear on a napkin. If you are wearing foundation you must not pull your top over your head without taking special care. Using makeup frequently requires a great deal of skill, time, and money, but it also requires many acts of restraint. To the seasoned makeup wearer these may become unnoticeable; to the occasional user they are unfamiliar and thus startling. Using makeup infrequently is hard work, because the necessary acts of restraint have not been absorbed into the subconscious by the process of discipline. The occasional makeup wearer thus frequently fails and must confront her ineptitude.

The second key aspect of Foucault’s account of power is surveillance. When I wear makeup I am reminded of this ever-present gaze of the other. Makeup takes my face out of easy existence and transforms it into an object of appraisal. Without makeup my face is just my face: it may look better or worse (than other faces, or than itself at different times) but its appearance is not likely to be embarrassing or humiliating. As long as it is clean, my face without makeup can go about its business untroubled. When it wears makeup, on the other hand, my face requires constant attention. It needs to be inspected in the mirror at regular intervals. It needs to be “fixed”. It needs equipment. It draws attention to itself, not simply as part of a person but as a work of art, a product, as something adorned. A bare face says “This is how I am.” A face with makeup says “Don’t I look good!” This feels like a lot of pressure.

Women who wear makeup every day often report that they feel unfinished without it.  The use of the term “my face” to describe makeup, as in “I need to put my face on”, demonstrates this experience. For these women the thought of going out without makeup on may be shocking, humiliating, or unbearable. The condition of being made up feels normal, even natural; the condition of being bare-faced does not. It is reasonable to conclude that, for many women, the naked face feels like a face under surveillance: a face in which all the blemishes, dark circles, and wrinkles are exposed for all to see.

The point here is that whether a person is aware of being under surveillance depends in large part on whether her face looks normal to her, which is related to but distinct from whether her face conforms to the social norms of her particular context. Even if it is well-applied, a full face of makeup is not normal to me. If I’ve done a good job of application and maintenance my made-up face looks better than normal; if not it looks worse than normal. Either option makes me feel self-conscious and subject to surveillance. For other people, and other contexts, the opposite is true.

No claim is implied here about whether it is better or worse to feel at home in makeup. As Heather Widdows points out in her excellent book Perfect Me, my ability to feel at home in a bare face is helped by the fact that academic philosophy is a context in which women frequently do not wear makeup; indeed, Widdows suggests, it is a context in which wearing makeup may single a woman out for disapproval or judgment. There is plenty to be said about the normative implications of beauty, but this piece is not intended to be normative.

My thought is this: a significant aspect of beauty practices is comfort and visibility. Comfort relates to discipline: discipline makes some actions and inactions seem comfortable and others effortful. Visibility relates to surveillance: some beauty practices make us seem visible or hyper-visible, others make us feel invisible. Sometimes beauty practices aim at making the practitioner visible: she wants her appearance to be noticeable. But beauty practices can also aim at invisibility: at making a person blend in rather than stand out. Both make up and its absence can have this effect, depending on the person and context involved. 

The era of social media, selfie culture, and ever more Orwellian technology is a context of ever-increasing surveillance. In this context, it is hard to avoid feeling visible. It makes sense, then, that we might find solace in invisibility - however we manage to achieve it.

Clare Chambers (University of Cambridge) is Reader in Political Philosophy and a Fellow of Jesus College, University of Cambridge. Her field is contemporary political philosophy. She is particularly interested in contemporary liberalism, including autonomy, equality, multiculturalism and global justice; feminism, including the body, appearance norms and personal relationships; theories of social construction, including those of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu.


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