The Transcendence of the Makeover

Makeovers are such a staple of movies targeted toward teen girls that it’s almost beside the point for me to call out specific examples. (Oh, fine, since you asked for my favorite movie makeover: Fran in Strictly Ballroom. Remember, though, I was a theater geek in high school so I sort of don’t have a choice here.) They’ve gotten sort of a bad rap over time—yeah, they send the message that we’re not really lovable until we fit a certain standard, and they set up the idea that the record-scratch moment has to happen or we’re doing it wrong. And it’s obvious but let’s say it anyway: How many actresses who aren’t conventionally good-looking to begin with are cast in these roles?

But Hollywood keeps on making makeover movies, and girls keep on loving them—and frankly, I keep on loving them too. As Rachel Rabbit White puts it in her roundup of the best makeover moments, “While there’s plenty to tease apart there culturally, it’s hard not to love a good geek to chic makeover montage, especially the rebellious or ill-advised.” (Word up, Prozac Nation!) Part of the fascination is projecting ourselves onto the character: What would we look like with enough attention from a small battery of dedicated team players (with a sassy gay best friend to boot!)? The chance to make ourselves over unapologetically is part of the enduring lore of prom movies too; for adult women, weddings supplant prom as our chance to “play
pretty,” judgment-free.

But our fascination goes deeper than just our own wishes to be made over—after all, we project ourselves onto movie characters all the time, so the makeover is hardly unique in that sense. At first look it seems like we’re collectively into the idea of transformation: changing into a form we’re not. The more I think about it, though, what we’re after is transcendence—going beyond, rising above, triumphing. That’s what is so satisfying about a good makeover movie: not seeing our heroine change into something new, but seeing so
mething revealed through change.

It’s rare that I ever wanted to look like anyone other than myself. Even in times of my life when I was unhappy with my appearance, the changes I wanted to make were tweaks to what I already had, not an essential change in form. In my fantasy-dream-makeover world, I look like myself, except plus or minus a number of things that are too boring to list here (#6: remove the colorless mole half an inch from my left nostril that nobody else has commented on, ever). And while I’m not trying to overestimate the resiliency of the self-esteem of the American woman, in talking with a good number of women about beauty, only rarely have I heard a wish to actually look like someone else. Most of us, most of the time, don’t wish to transform; we wish to transcend.

We wish to transcend the features that we think have held us back. We wish to become better than our troublesome thighs or inconvenient nose; we wish to triumph over what those features have personally meant to us. We wish to outdo ourselves, with what we already have—and if we want to outdo others, chances are we want to outdo them with what we have instead of what we don’t (isn’t that more satisfying?). In some ways it’s the basis of body image and self-esteem work: The entire idea is to go beyond, not to change essential composition. And despite the attention paid to women who do actually transform, much of the time that attention is done with a clucking tone, the undercurrent being: Honey, why don’t you learn to work with what you’ve got? There’s much to be critiqued about that form of judgment, to be sure, but at its heart is a well-meaning but harshly misdirected desire for our Heidi Montags to be more like our Jennifer Anistons. Isn’t the moral of most makeover tales that the makeover only helped its owner articulate what was already there? (Isn’t that why we have the term makeunder?) Transformation is linked to transcendence, yes, but the compositional change required by a transformation seems to me to be a route to the greater goal of transcendence. The focus on the tangible aspects of makeovers—the eyeshadows and push-up bras and blending of lipsticks—is understandable, given that transformation is an easier concept to look in the eye than transcendence. But our fascination with makeovers can’t be about the tools alone. They wouldn’t have such a hold over us if it were just a
bout the outer shift.

It’s fitting that the person who got me thinking about transcendence is the author of several books about what one might call transformation at first glance. When I interviewed my friend Carolyn Turgeon last year, amid a thoroughly appropriate amount of mermaid talk, I also asked her about makeovers. Her second book, Godmother, gave the fairy godmother’s account of the most famous makeover of all time, Cinderella; her third, Mermaid, delved into the oft-literal pain that transformation can bring, with our protagonist (whom you may know under another author as “The Little Mermaid”) bearing the sensation of knives slicing her legs with every step. You can revisit the interview here, but this part in particular stuck with me:

There are definitely makeovers in fairy tales. … I love powerful moments of transformation. I even have a tattoo of Daphne turning into the laurel tree. When people long to be something else, it speaks to this basic human condition of being earth-bound and longing for transcendence. There’s that Platonic sense: You were once whole, and now you are not whole anymore; you long for that wholeness you once had. You fell from the stars and you want to return there. Or just your plain old Catholic thing of wanting to return to God. Whatever name you put on it, there’s this longing to return to some sense of wholeness that you came from and that you’ll go back to someday. So my characters are longing for other worlds, places where they’ll be more complete.

This idea—wanting to be whole again—stayed with me as I read her new novel, The Next Full Moon. It’s a young adult book, carrying on the YA-lit tradition of outer transformation echoing the intense bodily transformation of the early teen years, but the hook here isn’t a makeover per se. Nearing her 13th birthday, our heroine, Ava, begins to sprout feathers, which of course are terrifically mortifying, and the book follows Ava from the feather-freakout stage to, well, transcendence, in every sense of the word. (I don’t want to give away the plot, but Carolyn’s turn of phrase from our interview “You fell from the stars and you want to return there” was a hint of foreshadowing.)

Just as teen makeover movies abound, YA makeover books aren’t exactly new. But what The Next Full Moon does is give us the essence of the makeover without the actual making over. The Grimm Brothers (and their many sources) gave us a handy template with Cinderella: Girl gets makeover, girl gets boy, sisters get eyes pecked out by birds. It was so handy that while plenty of feminist scholars have deconstructed Cinderella, we still keep going over the same old ground without asking for a new makeover tale. Turgeon takes the end goal of transcendence and creates a storyline around it in a way her fairy-tale precedessors never did. Just as Gregory Maguire’s Wicked took the underlying themes of imperialism and cultural autonomy already present in Wizard of Oz, The Next Full Moon takes what’s inherent in plenty of fairy tales—supernatural means of becoming our best selves—and distills it to its essence.

The story is original, but it stems from another set of fairy tales: Swan maiden myths have shown up in various forms throughout world folklore (they’ve earned their own spot on the Aarne-Thompson folk tale classification system), and in fact there’s another contemporary retelling that got some attention last year. The story that became Black Swan was originally set in the theater world but Darren Aronofsky specifically decided to place it in ballet, and I don’t think it’s just the good girl/bad girl theme that made Swan Lake a fitting choice of framework. In the film, Nina isn’t just encouraged to find her internal “black swan”; she’s encouraged to go above and beyond her mere technical talent to truly inhabit the role—to make it, and herself, whole. Both Black Swan and The Next Full Moon marry swan maiden myths to a chrysalis tale, each of our heroines emerging from transcendent experiences with a knowledge they didn’t possess before. They’re both changed by their experiences (as any good makeover should do, natch), but in each case they’re only discovering what is already there. I’d hardly recommend Black Swan as a metaphoric tale for teenagers on the cusp of young adulthood (I think the film works best as a horror flick, actually), but the ease with which The Next Full Moon presents the essence of the makeover without the breathless pandering of shoddier makeover moments makes me wonder why we haven’t seen more inventive YA retellings of transcendence. (The answer, of course, is that Miss Turgeon is a visionary, but that’s beside the point.)

Straight-up makeover tales aren’t going anywhere, nor do they need to. I just want us to keep our eye on the prize here: The goal is not to change, the goal is to reveal. And makeovers don’t actually make us transcend, of course. That’s part of why we both love makeovers and fear them—what if we look in the mirror and we look different but are still the same? A makeover doesn’t make us complete. But given that most of us aren’t secretly swan maidens, fairies, mermaids, or even werewolves, the makeover is the closest thing we’ve got. It’s an immediate, albeit brief, stand-in for the longer, harder work of transcendence, which often requires such unglamorous tasks like study, or meditation, or spiritual communion, or plain old age. And when you’re 13, everything feels so urgent—you’re in a hurry to grow up and transcend this damned acne-ridden, retainer-bound form. Makeovers are a fine shortcut. But we need to remember what they're a shortcut to.

Beauty and the Lazy Girl

My favorite beauty tips inevitably involve something that makes the beauty ritual go a little bit faster, or a little bit cheaper: toilet seat covers as facial-oil absorbers; baking soda as a face, body, AND hair scrub; tinted moisturizer, etc. I’d always thought I liked these sorts of tips because they were simple, as the majority of beauty tips out there involve more work than I’m willing to do. (I tried Jane Feltes’  cat-eye tutorial, but after a week of just making my eyes water and, sadly, not resembling Julianne Moore's YouTutelage, I gave up.)

Lo and behold: It turns out I’m not a simple woman, but a lazy girl. Before 2003, the “lazy girl” most often turned up in folklore (where the girl in question would either be redeemed through marriage/motherhood, or would be punished for her lackadaisical ways) or erotic literature (“Kolina is a very lazy girl and needs strict discipline”). Enter Anita Naik, a British writer who, in 2003, released a trio of guides for the lazy girl: The Lazy Girl’s Guide to Good Health, The Lazy Girl’s Guide to Good Sex (?!)—and, of course, the Lazy Girl’s Guide to Beauty. (Thanks to Ms. Naik, lazy girls now also have personalized guides to living green, becoming successful, living the high life on a budget, and having both a party and a blissful pregnancy, preferably not at the same time, because everyone knows it ain't a party til there's mai tais.)

The line wasn’t actually for women who were lazy, of course: It was just a down-to-earth catchphrase that neatly capitalized upon the spate of guides for Idiots and Dummies, seeming downright solicitous compared to those titles. The main effect the series had was that it made the terminology caught on: Everywhere from Cosmo to Seventeen to Refinery 29 to Prevention (which is geared toward women over 35, though lazy women just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?) has run guides for the lazy girl, usually focusing on fitness or beauty.

The term “lazy girl” reveals less about the low-effort shortcuts that are promised and more about what it implies about all the rest of the beauty advice we’re given. While we sometimes use lazy to mean leisurely (a lazy Sunday afternoon), most of the time when we use lazy—especially in work-obsessed America—we’re using it as a slur. When we giddily tout the guide for the lazy girl, it may seem liberating, but in actuality it’s an admonishment: We’ll let you get away with it this time, the lazy girl’s guide tells its readers. But don’t think you can get used to this.

Sometimes the advice really can be applied to the lazy—sleep with your hair in a bun so you wake up with no-labor waves; wear bright colors to distract from your less-made-up face. But much of the time the advice is downright industrious. At best, it’s about skipping beauty labor that, under other conditions, we’re assumed to perform. “I don’t curl my eyelashes,” confesses the Refinery 29 writer; “Use an illuminating cream-colored shadow on your eyelids, inner corner of the eye and under the brow to make your eyes look wide awake," writes Daily Makeover—the presumption being that this is a shortcut from our normal eyeshadow routine. At worst, it’s about encouraging us to buy more products, with an accompanying convoluted justification of how it actually saves us labor: We can spray our feet with callous softening spray for when we give ourselves pedicures; we can buy an ionic hair dryer; we can do at-home highlights (the idea being that we’re “too lazy to hit the salon,” as though laziness is what's preventing most women from getting professional hair color). 

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ve got nothing against a good beauty tip, and I’ve definitely got nothing against laziness, of which I have a long, mighty history. (ase in point: At age eight I announced to my family that I was dropping the first letter of parenthetical clauses that began with the letter “C” in order to save myself the effort. AND I STAND BY IT.) In fact, the very reason the spate of lazy girl tips jumped out at me is because it's the type of beauty story I'm most likely to read—in theory, it's geared specifically toward women like me, whose beauty routines are performed with a sort of no-nonsense attitude, not a mind-set of fantasy and play, and who thus are probably looking for a break here and there. And I actually appreciate the irreverence of the lazy girl’s guide over the sacrosanct attitude some beauty copy has.

I just don’t like the idea that by being minimal, I’m being lazy, as though not applying eyeshadow is in the same category as playing dumb when it comes time to tally up the restaurant bill (I’ll always pay my share, but please for the love of God don’t make me do the math, too many mai tais!) or calling a coworker to pick up a file instead of delivering it myself. I’m actively choosing “lazy” tips because I’m the opposite of lazy—I’m busy. My beauty labor is indeed labor, and I treat it as such—but the mere act of performing it is a sign I’m not lazy about it at all.

Debriefing: A Day Without Makeup

So I dipped my toes into my no-makeup-for-a-week resolution by trying on All Natural Day, author Rosie Molinary's body-image challenge. The rules: from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., nothing unnatural. No makeup, no hair products, no flatirons/curlers/etc. My reaction:

1) I became hyperaware of the ways in which I use various tools at my disposal. I had an uncharacteristic urge to wear perfume (also a no-no) because I felt so unadorned. I wore tights with a wild print; my updo was more teased than usual. (Teasing is natural, right?) I wonder if that's actually an odd sort of marker of self-confidence: While I do wear makeup every day to conceal flaws, when I was stripped of it I realized that I really do use makeup to enhance what's there already and had to find compensatory ways to showcase what's already there. Before I started this blog I would have taken a vaguely lazy route of assuming that was because I didn't trust that what is already there was "enough," and maybe that is part of it. But wearing makeup doesn't actually significantly change how I look; it just livens me up, tidies me up a bit, makes me feel a bit more vibrant, like fine-tuning an equalizer on a stereo so that the vocals come through more clearly.

2) I dressed up so that I wouldn't be tempted to "hide." Part of Rosie's direction specified not "dressing down," knowing that her students would be tempted to just throw on a pair of sweats to complete the just-rolled-out-of-bed look; they were to dress as they normally would. (Though don't college students go to class in pajamas? Or was that just the '90s?) I was planning on wearing my usual uniform of jeans and a sweater—but I took on the challenge to dress up a bit, because I was worried I'd just want to hide without "my face" on.

So I wore a black wool dress with the wild tights and wellies—and got more compliments on how I looked than I have in the past month. I'm not particularly into fashion, so pushing myself into doing something that, for me, was just a shade daring made me think about self-presentation. I think it's fun to put together a look that includes both clothing and makeup, and I love the feeling of being appropriate to the occasion. But my "occasion" was going to the office, not a grand ball; to look appropriate can totally mean wearing a body-conscious but conservative outfit, and nothing on my face. It was freeing to see that I didn't have to "match" as strictly as I'd previously believed.

3) I felt a bizarre (and probably one-sided) kinship with the men in my office. I kept hearing something Annika Connor said in our interview: "I sometimes feel bad for men. They don't get to wear cover-up! That must suck! They just have to look how they look." Yeah, well, me too. With the men I actually work with I didn't feel any different, but with men who just work on my floor and with whom I simply exchange coffee-machine banter, I sort of felt like we were on the same playing field.

I hadn't felt like we were on different playing fields before, of course. Casual relationships like those are formed on impressions; I don't know the names of most of the people on my floor, let alone any personal information about them. It's Dude With Tan, or Guy Who Always Puts Ice In His Water, or Man Who Helped Me Open A Quart Of Half-and-Half. (Am I alone in not being able to open a carton of milk properly?) And in those casual relationships, I guess without realizing it I was counting on a certain workplace dynamic: Introducing Autumn in the role of a younger-than-most-men-there woman who has an easygoing smile, playing opposite Dude With Tan who doesn't mind a little moment of respite from crunching ad sales numbers. I'm not a workplace flirt, but I'm also aware of what any social-ish interaction brings in regards to gender.

But on Friday, I found myself actually less aware of that potential dynamic, instead asking more genuine questions or just feeling more comfortable in silence. I felt more laid-back, less invested in bringing a bit of lady-with-lipstick vibe to these pseudosocial exchanges. I don't particularly like what that says about how I'd maybe been unwittingly treating such encounters.

4) I was surprised—no, shocked—to find that I really didn't feel more self-conscious. I fully expected that it would be on my mind when I talked with coworkers; instead, it really only crossed my mind in interactions when a colleague mentioned that she had actually worn more makeup than usual that day, just for fun. I was far more self-conscious when I was on the other end of the spectrum for my makeover. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising; certainly my face is transformed a negligible degree with my everyday makeup when compared to the difference between my everyday makeup and my bombshell look. But I expected to find that I relied much more on makeup as a crutch than it turns out I actually do—I thought it would color every aspect of my day, but it didn't.

I got an unexpected invitation to a dinner party that night, though—and it didn't cross my mind to keep the natural look. I had enough makeup rolling around in my purse to approximate my normal look, and I even took a trip to the drugstore to get what I was missing. Even there, I thought I'd be disappointed in myself for not keeping my natural look all the way through, but in fact I was able to appreciate my nighttime lipstick and mascara as a sort of transformation from day to night, from noontime sun to evening mystery. I didn't look much different than I would have any day of the week—but because I was doing it for night only, it took on a ritualistic aspect, giving me time to just think through what I hoped this dinner might bring. It gave me time to put on my "game face"—a face that is, after all, still mine.

Overall, this was an affirming experiment—but not only for the reasons I thought it would be. It felt good to let the world see my face as-is, with no apologies; I didn't feel any more or less confident, but I suppose the fact that I didn't feel less confident without my makeup crutch means my confidence reserves aren't depleted. But the biggest thing it did for me was show me, yet again, that my relationship with makeup doesn't have to be either/or. It doesn't have to be just about concealing flaws, or about having some wild sense of play. I know it might seem backward, but I think a lot of makeup I wear is actually to make me feel more like myself. I like bronzer because it makes me look like I've gotten more sun than I have—not because it looks sexy but because I'm happiest when I'm able to get some light. I like mascara because it helps me look alert even when I'm not quite there yet; I wear concealer yes, to conceal flaws, but also because it can help me mimic skin that doesn't show the signs of workaday stress, stress that's unnatural and isn't something I actively want to own.

I don't know if this is the effect that Rosie had in mind when she issued her challenge; she's not anti-makeup, but I'm guessing that the idea was to feel more comfortable in one's own skin at all times, in its organic state. I don't know if it did that, though I don't doubt that this is a part of getting there. I just know that it's sort of a relief to find that perhaps I've already done more work on reconciling my conflicting attitudes toward beauty and its accoutrements than I'd realized.