Writer Camilla Palmer wrote a reasonable and fairly positive column in last week’s The Guardian about her own decision to stop dyeing her hair and why she saw greying as an empowering act. Go, Camilla, I say. Sadly, as with so many stories on women’s appearance, it came with a dictatorial headline (“Why women should stop dyeing their hair”) that I doubt the writer would have used herself. My Facebook and Twitter feeds went nuts with anger or support for the sentiment. Some of the comments were predictably familiar. “I would take this a step further and encourage women to break free of make-up. Why is it socially unacceptable to look like ourselves?” is one example that, at this point in my career, I’ve seen in some guise at least a thousand times. Even after this many years of defending the legitimacy of beauty as a concept, or even just as a hobby, I was once again left wondering why on earth some people believe that the personal grooming choices of women are any of their damn business.
Anyone who takes an interest in beauty will know that this sort of blind judgement about what women do with their own heads is par for the course, and part of a much bigger picture that has a great deal more to do with sexism than it does feminism. It’s certainly not just about the colour of our hair. Actress Amanda Peet said in Lena Dunham’s newsletter this week, “It’s painfully obvious, but I’m still ashamed to admit this: I care about my looks”, as though she was owning up to a triple homicide. It’s hardly surprising, given the constant push-pull double standards imposed on women’s appearance, where we are expected to simultaneously possess beauty, while being wholly disengaged from maintaining, pursuing or enjoying it.
‘It’s painfully obvious, but I’m still ashamed to admit this: I care about my looks,’ said actress Amanda Peet, as though she was owning up to a triple homicide
And there are truly no winners, whether they opt out or in. Fat women are clearly in the midst of a depressive episode and should lose weight (but not so much that they look “gaunt” and “tired”); thin women must have an eating disorder and get a pie down them. Only women with unfeasibly proportioned curves à la Christina Hendricks are deemed “real” and yet, weirdly, are allowed about one big TV role every five years. Women who wax are pornbots dancing to The Man’s tune; those who don’t are unkempt bag ladies who’ve let themselves go. Women who love make-up should stop playing to the male gaze and down brushes for the good of feminism. The word “vain” is seen as the ultimate putdown and is a sort of shorthand for vacuous, self-centred and, well, a bit thick. A woman who dyes her hair or wears foundation just isn’t seeing the real world beyond the mirror; her interest in surface means she must surely lack depth. Meanwhile, to be “pretty enough not to wear make-up” is the ultimate compliment awarded by men who believe their approbation will finally break us free from the chains of nice lipstick, as though we give a single, solitary fuck.
I can handle open chauvinists who spout this crap out of fear, but I struggle with anything of the sort being deployed so wrongly in legitimate feminist discourse. To question expectations and pressures on women is always valid, and the conversation should never stop – I’ve made a career out of it. I myself am often troubled by aesthetic trends and norms (the modern obsession with contouring – the practice whereby mostly young women are getting up 45 minutes earlier to change the shapes of their heads before facing the world – is just one case in point). A broad variety of beauty ideals (including bare-faced or grey-haired) and the freedom to opt out of the mainstream is crucial in our increasingly homogenised culture, and anything that relieves the pressure or alters perceptions is a very good thing. I applaud Palmer for so positively describing another way. But, while dialogue around beauty is good for us all, any conclusion involving a prescriptive ideal or code of conduct is wholly unhelpful and the very opposite of female empowerment.
The moment I hear ‘Women should’ about literally anything that wouldn’t be applied to a man, I’m afraid I’m out. Telling me to wash off my make-up is as outrageous as telling me to pile it on
To tell women they must allow themselves to go grey when older is really no different from how, when I was growing up, all women were meant to mark their middle age with sensible shoes, a drastic haircut and a perm like a crown of cauliflower. No concessions are made for what suits a particular woman, never mind her entitlement to personal autonomy either way. I can’t dye my hair. I’m horribly allergic. But I would defend to the death those women who choose to contour, cover greys, dye their hair punk-rock pink, wear it to their waist or shave it to the scalp, just as I support the Taliban-ruled women who convened in underground Afghan beauty salons at great personal risk. Women have fought since the dawn of time for freedom and autonomy over their own bodies. Please do not try to justify your attempt to meddle in mine from either side of the fence.
Besides, one can write the most thoughtful, balanced and engaging piece in the world but, the moment I hear “Women should" about literally anything that wouldn’t be applied to a man, I’m afraid I’m out. Telling me to wash off my make-up is as outrageous as telling me to pile it on. And, while this sort of dictatorial tone has rightly been retired in relation to many other aspects of a woman’s life – it’s no longer acceptable to say women should or shouldn’t quit work to raise children, or change their name in marriage, for example – it’s still perfectly acceptable to tell them how they should look. My autonomy in deciding – as much as nature will co-operate – how I’d like to look is as much a part of my staunch feminism as my belief in reproductive freedom and equal pay. Those fixated on my love of beauty should see that there are way bigger fish to fry, and then get the hell out of my face.