On Beauty: A Manifesto

 

On January 3rd, I woke up in excruciating pain, eventually landing in the emergency room. Just three weeks earlier, I had launched this blog.

I was excited about Athena Sleeps In and, shockingly, my friends encouraged me. I’m sure many of them were probably just egging me on, but what was surprising to me then–and surprises me now–is how many people told me they were excited for this blog. They claimed they were interested in my specific thoughts and opinions on not just beauty products, but the concept of beauty as a whole.

Apparently, when I set out to write about makeup, I had, unknowingly, also set out to write about the problem of “beauty,” something which preoccupies not just makeup enthusiasts, but anyone trying to negotiate their complacency in a consumer-driven culture.

……

As someone who has been, for all intents and purposes, a career writer for the past decade, I had stupidly thought that keeping makeup blog would be easy. After all, I updated my LiveJournal twice a day every day throughout high school and most of college; I’d blogged often before, whether it was for pay or just for bragging rights (hiii The MFA Years). In December, I filled a notebook with ideas for different kinds of posts I could write–reviews of indy brands and new drugstore launches, personal essays about body image, editorials & opinion pieces about the latest beauty-related social media shitstorm.

Had I not ended up in the hospital, that’s likely what would have happened, too–I still have a dozen drafts in my queue that I’d planned to post in January and February. Instead, my body humbled me, and I was reminded in a dramatically ironic way of why I am a makeup enthusiast in the first place. While I did not have the stamina to update a blog thrice a week while chronically ill and completing my poetry thesis (you know, just the culmination of my life’s work), I did, however, still have to keep going, somehow.

So I did what I’ve been doing since 2013, when I started seeking out a daily routine as intentional self-care. Each morning, sitting at my “vanity” (read: the thrifted end table that stores my makeup, plus the pink dollar store footstool I sit upon), I’d practice a kind of meditation. If I was in pain, it was usually just enough to sit for thirty minutes until the medication kicked in. If I was anxious (I was always anxious), working with my hands allowed my mind to take a break. Although I grimaced every time a (usually male) colleague commented on how I didn’t “look sick,” every time I did my makeup, I felt a little better inside, if not entirely transformed.

Which is to say: even as circumstances forced me away from this project, the idea of makeup as a magic act of survival was on my mind more than ever.

……

The cliche goes that, in makeup, the face is your canvas; a more precise feeling, for me, is that my face is a medium. My makeup technique involves as much awareness of the geometry in my body as it does the deftness of my hands or the tools it holds. Although, certainly, beauty plays a part in all this, it would be a mistake for me to say that I practice makeup in order to make myself beautiful. More than beauty, my personal makeup practice is about knowing myself.

……

The more time I spent away from writing about it, the more I questioned that word: beauty. I had hastily titled this blog “Athena Sleeps In: A Blog About Beauty, Inside & Out.” Something about that felt problematic to me, although I struggled to articulate why.

While I had no shortage of ideas of things to write about, much of my inspiration came from my desire to shop. Every day, I find new makeup brands with buzz, each with dozens of products that look compelling. Several times a month, my favorite companies launch something new–often entire collections, i.e., every type of makeup product imaginable, usually in multiple shades, tied together through an aesthetic concept. If I had Drugstore Brand’s Face-In-A-Tube, I was curious about the Holographic Eye Crust. Once I had Drugstore Brand’s Holographic Eye Crust, I was curious about Luxury Brand’s Diamond Shine Eye Crust.

Of course, I am a graduate student (in creative writing — specifically, poetry, so, you know, what is even an income?). I cannot afford to buy makeup every month. And, while I do believe I could churn out enough content to eventually attract PR, it seemed somewhat nihilistic to write about products just to get more products. It takes about a century to use up an entire eyeshadow palette, and furthermore, who is my audience if not fellow broke-ass bitches trying to love themselves?

Here’s another problem. A lot of people have given me a lot of compliments on my makeup; as someone who has been watching NikkieTutorials since 2014, I deeply appreciate it. But to date, my biggest makeup accomplishment is giving my sister a passable winged liner for her wedding reception. I’m really not the world’s greatest makeup artist and I have zero interest in becoming one. So what, then, is the point of me blogging about makeup at all, and why on earth do people seem (for now, if my analytics are any indication) to want to actually read my blog about makeup?

Against the advice of all industry professionals (both beauty and blogging), I have decided that the world does not need another makeup expert. I may even often be the example of a makeup failure–so be it. At the end of the day, I reject, as thoroughly as I can, that beauty should ever be judged objectively. I want to experiment with the relationship–or antagonism–between beauty and self-care. I want to undo the erasure that seems to be inherent in mass-marketed “beauty,” or, if I can’t do that, at least explicate the ways beauty has been weaponized to both empower and disenfranchise those people throughout history. And I want to find other people like me who share these feelings–I don’t want to aspire to be a part of the beauty community, but of its counterpublic.

……

Athena was not born, but famously sprung, fully formed, from the forehead of Zeus. Her mother was Metis, meaning “thought;” as the essence of wisdom, she was one of the original entities of the cosmos. And she became Zeus’s first wife–but, of course, we know that Zeus was unfaithful.

According to Hesiod, Zeus swallowed Metis in order to keep his philandering a secret from his other lovers. But Metis was secretly pregnant; her daughter, Athena–child of cosmic knowledge and the king of the sky–eventually found her way out from the nesting doll of her parents, emerging from Zeus’s head, dressed in full armor and brandishing a sword.

By the time Athena is born, the story of Metis is long over; Hesiod doesn’t mention her again.

The idea that Zeus gave birth to Athena is often interpreted as being an inversion–that is, that the act of giving life could be ascribed not to the offspring’s mother, but to their father.

It also shares striking similarities to the story of Zeus’s own birth; before Zeus became king of the Olympians, there was the ancient Cronus (the cosmic essence of time), who maintained power by swallowing all of Zeus’s older siblings, while continuously impregnating his mother, Rhea, through rape. Ultimately, Cronus was tricked into swallowing a stone instead of Zeus, causing all of his siblings to be vomited up in reverse order; Zeus, once the youngest, was now the oldest of the Titan children, allowing him to inherit the throne and become king of the gods. 

So what, then, should we make of Athena, love child of sky and thought, goddess of wisdom and strategic victory, who, against the patriarchal obsessions of the Ancient Greeks, still emerged, from a certain fate, as a woman? What should we make of Athena’s mother, Metis, the anthropomorphism of thought, who, cosmic as she is, was not killed, but rather, fully internalized by a king-god who stood to lose everything because of her knowledge? Somehow, despite the attempt to silence one woman’s voice, another was born, one who was revered because of her wisdom, rather than denigrated for it–why has this version of the story persisted, despite the astounding misogyny of the Western world?

……

I do not need to be beautiful to love myself. I do not need to be beautiful to be loved by others. Yet, as a woman/poet, I am utterly obsessed with beauty. This in and of itself is nothing original; if ancient myths are any indication, humans have been contemplating beauty since pre-history. But ever since my interest in makeup took root, I’ve wondered what it look like if we discussed makeup not as a product, but as a cultural artifact.  

If this blog isn’t sustainable, I’d like it to be because I’m doing right by myself–that, one day, I’ve simply run out of useful things to say about makeup as self-care. How wonderful would it be, that I no longer need to hone a self-care practice in order to survive–that a world without the idea of self-care could exist. But, until then, I need it to be understood that this blog is an extension of that self-care, and, therefore, an extension of the practice of survival.

I think of the conversations about makeup I’ve had with others: the women who struggle to feel at home in their bodies after sexual assault; the gender non-conforming and trans individuals who use makeup to fight against heteronormativity and body dysmorphia; the therapist who pushed me to love myself when dying would have been easier; the poet who changed my entire perspective by referring to her bright purple lipstick as “war paint.”

I write this blog to inspire, to heal, to stir change, to spark internal transformation.

Dear Reader, if I could ever have that effect on you, to make you feel seen or more whole, to help you discover your own war paint, your own battle strategy, your own goddess of wisdom and war: that would be my greatest success.

 

 

 

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