Is It Appropriate to Outsource Emotional Beauty Labor?

I went to a wedding last weekend, and though it wasn’t a black-tie affair, it was a nighttime event at a beautiful historic estate, so I wanted to go beyond my normal look. I wound up wearing a lovely pink sheath dress, which called for heels higher than I normally wear, which called for wavy bombshell hair, which called for three shades of lip color, winged eyeliner, eyeshadow, and my personal pièce de resistance, the subtlest of false eyelashes applied to the outer corners of my eyes. It is probably the most effort I have put into my appearance for any single event since senior prom.

The wedding was a two-hour drive away, but only a 10-minute drive from the home of my gentleman friend’s father, so instead of driving from New York to Pennsylvania in our finery, we did our wedding prep at his house. As we walked from my boyfriend’s car into his father’s home, a good two hours before we had to leave for the wedding, the imbalance in our raw materials struck me. My materials: a dress; a shoebox containing shoes, high-heel comfort inserts, and two pairs of pantyhose (always have a spare!); shapewear; a curling iron; hairspray; dry shampoo; a hairbrush; makeup kit (foundation, concealer, blush, bronzer, loose and pressed powder, application brushes, eyebrow pencil, eyeshadow, liquid and pencil eyeliner, mascara, false eyelash glue, false eyelashes, toothpicks for eyelash application, eyelash curler, two shades of lip liner, lipstick); an event purse (breath mints, tissues, plus cell phone, wallet, etc.); a wrap; and a bottle of water, because I’d be damned if I went to all this trouble and then couldn’t enjoy the wedding because I was dehydrated.

His materials: a suit.

Now, this was a special occasion for people I’m terrifically fond of, and so I was happy to put special effort into my appearance—truly, I enjoyed the whole process. Weddings are one of the last rites of our culture, so pouring time and energy into our appearance to make sure we’re honoring the occasion seems like the right thing to do. And certainly all one really has to do to honor the occasion is show up nicely dressed and well-groomed; false eyelashes and all that were purely my choice. But the fact remains: I was putting a lot more labor into this event than my boyfriend. I accept that on a day-to-day level I put in more beauty labor, largely by my own choice, than he does, and indeed more than plenty of women. (I am, after all, six minutes above the national average in daily grooming minutes.) Still, that’s more along the lines of having to get up 20 minutes earlier than he does—not nearly an hour and a half of hard-core self-styling labor while he watches hockey.

And so I outsourced it. I couldn’t outsource the actual skilled labor—I suppose I could have had my hair professionally done, but that seemed excessive. But the “emotional beauty labor”—the low-level worrying about “do I look okay?” that underlies any event that requires a lot of smoke and mirrors to be pulled off successfully? The constant mirror checks to make sure that the lipstick isn’t smeared, the dress catching crumbs, the hair out of place? The attention to all the work I’d already done—the application of “skilled labor”—to make sure it stayed done? Yeah, I can outsource that.

“I’m wearing false eyelashes,” I said to my boyfriend, who then dutifully tried very hard not to stare at my lash line for the duration of my speech. “And I haven’t ever put them on by myself, and I’m worried they’re going to fall off and I’ll look like an asshole.” (This was said hurriedly in the moments before the wedding as the bride’s son was preparing to play Lohengrin on his electric guitar, because they’re cool like that.) “So could you keep an eye on them and just gesture to me—” I did a sweeping motion at the corners of my eyes “—if you see stray lashes?” He agreed.

Then I looked down and saw that the hanger strap of the dress was poking out at my collarbone. “And could you keep an eye on this too? This dress doesn’t stay on the hanger without the hanger straps but they keep showing. If you see them loose, just—” [insert dusting motion at shoulders] “—even if it’s from across the room, okay?” He said he would, and then I started in on a brief litany of all that could go wrong—smeared lip liner, teary mascara (it was a wedding! with booze!), pantyhose run, dress wedged at hem of shapewear—and then Lohengrin started, and I stopped, and two people who love one another were wed, and all of that was far more important than anything that could possibly go wrong with my look.

I didn’t think about how I looked for the rest of the evening, and excuse me if this is cynical, but I don’t think it was awe at the sheer force of marital love that was responsible for this. It was because I’d outsourced my worries. Now, I’m fully aware that there was an easier route through all this: Pick a lower-maintenance look. I could have done that, but I didn’t, and I understand that I’m the one who needs to ultimately be responsible for that choice. But dammit, am I crazy for thinking that sometimes it’s just not fair that “looking pretty” requires so much work, and that playing the feminine role requires such a greater amount of effort than the masculine role that it’s not the worst thing in the world to outsource that? We already outsource parts of it: manicures, haircuts, facials. We rely on friends and salespeople to let us know if a hemline is too high or a boot too clunky. Hell, in an ideal world the mere use of beauty products is outsourcing our beauty worries (I know it doesn’t always work that way, but sometimes it does—I don’t worry so much about looking wan if I’m wearing mascara, for example, because I trust that it’s doing its job). Does the possibility stop there?

Within traditional heterosexual relationships, the loose idea is that part of the “payment” of a woman’s beauty labor is in the guy’s wallet: She looks good, he foots the bill for dinner. (I actually think this is more common than the idea of “he foots the bill, she puts out,” but then again I’ve only dated a self-selected group who wouldn’t expect that, so I’m working with a biased sample.) Egalitarian relationships don’t work that way, and I'm in no hurry to re-create that structure in my own relationship, but that doesn’t really help when you’re an egalitarian couple functioning in a non-egalitarian world. My gentleman friend doesn’t expect me to perform femininity any more than I expect him to perform masculinity (though he’s far better at opening jars than I am), but when you’re taking on a shared role as A Couple, our private guidelines suddenly become very public. Nobody would have looked askance had I shown up in a nice pantsuit and my normal makeup, but the fact remains that people in couples have both private and public roles, and that simply being egalitarian doesn't erase the desire to fulfill certain roles. And part of my fear of failure is never wanting to fail in the role of a feminine creature. If I look particularly feminine, there’s a part of me that feels like I’ve succeeded. To be brutally honest, through all my feminism—and all my boyfriend’s feminism too—there’s a part of me that then feels like we’ve succeeded. It felt good to feel unabashedly feminine, and to feel like I wasn’t totally alone in the creation and maintenance of femininity, like it was a shared venture. I’m not sure what to think about the fact that this made me feel good. It seems like it shouldn't, as though I'm making some sort of Faustian deal on our behalf—a deal he didn't exactly agree to. And yet: I was beaming.

Is it okay to outsource part of our emotional beauty labor to our intimate partners, or is that asking them to take on an unfair responsibility? What about relationships between women: Should butch women absorb any beauty labor for femme girlfriends? How would this play out within same-sex couples who don’t ascribe to masculine-feminine roles? What about the financial cost of beauty work: Is it ever okay to have someone else subsidize your beauty work? When beauty is expected as a part of our public role, how much of it is really our own responsibility?