• Faux-Naturel: On Self-Image, Progressivism, and the Schema of “Naturalness”

    On a Friday afternoon earlier this year, I returned to my apartment (or more accurately, to my bed) to celebrate the end of the week with an evening of mindless Instagram scrolling. My feed is a hodge-podge: people I know on vacation, people I don’t know on vacation, D-list celebrities endorsing collagen peptides and activewear, skateboarding memes, anti-skate memes, and many, many so-called lifestyle brands, from food and travel to fashion and beauty. 

    Even from this rather random sampling of account types, signals of our particular cultural moment’s malaise reveal themselves: everyone’s self-conscious about caving and buying AirPods, white people’s sudden interest in CDMX is waning, turmeric can solve everything. Key among these cultural trends, which we receive mostly via visual osmosis, is what I’ve come to call Naturalness Rhetoric.

    Naturalness Rhetoric takes many forms. It’s Glossier referring to itself as a “beauty ecosystem” that prioritizes “skin first, makeup second.” It’s @alyssainthecity, a writer and Instagram influencer, sharing that she swapped eyebrow pencil for microblading in her ongoing effort to scale back on harmful beauty products. It’s the period-proof underwear brand, Thinx, telling us that we need a “more sustainable period management system.” It’s celebrity makeup artist @NamVo and her “dewy dumpling” face look. It’s AOC sharing her skincare regimen on her Instagram stories

    This Naturalness Rhetoric is ostensibly meant to empower women: to tell us that we are enough, that we don’t need to enhance or modify or shrink or enlarge ourselves to be seen, accepted, loved. And therefore these messages seemed, well, positive — shouldn’t women be receiving messaging that tells them to feel beautiful in their own skin, to come as they are, to prioritize their well-being over their patriarchy-produced aspirational selves?

    Instead the rhetoric seems to go beyond positivity: many posts also make vague associations between being “natural” and being feminist, progressive, or something else quasi-political that I couldn’t put my finger on. Was embracing one’s naturalness the only way to be feminist, progressive, or something else quasi-political? 

    I knew, as a college-educated millennial woman living in a coastal US city with (some) disposable income and an incurable internet addiction, that I was many of these brands’ target demographic. Millions of dollars in research and algorithms were behind these posts appearing in my feed, and they were products I eventually bought in earnest. So why did the rhetoric make me feel so uneasy? 

    It isn’t that I disagree with the whole concept. I understand how embracing one’s naturalness could feel empowering to some women. To a certain extent, I feel empowered by the idea. But couldn’t it be equally empowering to play with your image, to jazz up your blank slate, to feel that you had the power to inhabit a different version of yourself on a night out? Shouldn’t the 2019 iteration of feminism include space for intentional artifice, too?

    ¤

    I needed only to look at the recent boom in skincare to confirm that in 2019, American culture is uniquely obsessed with “naturalness.” According to an NPD report released in January, the skincare industry is currently valued at $141.3 billion. Skincare products accounted for 60% of total US beauty industry gains in 2018. While skincare sales grew by 16%, makeup sales — for decades the frontrunner in the beauty vertical — grew by only 3%. And, products marketed as “natural skincare” accounted for over one quarter of annual skincare sales, up 23% from the previous year. 

    But the explosion of skincare-related content performed on Instagram shows that this craze is not actually about skin health itself, but about the aesthetic of having clean, clear, youthful skin — put another way, about crafting the illusion of naturalness.

    Take the no-makeup makeup trend, in which women reject heavy contouring and dark eye makeup in favor of a stripped down, made-to-look-natural facade. This is not achieved by actually not wearing makeup, of course, but rather by investing in products that give the appearance of no makeup. The obvious irony here is that while the movement purports to eschew the traditional beauty ritual expectations placed on women, adopting a faddy skincare regimen is just as — if not more — laborious and costly as lathering your face in heavy foundation every morning. 

    But this emphasis on naturalness extends far beyond “natural” skincare and makeup companies like Glossier or Drunk Elephant. Take For Hers, an online platform that provides women with prescription skincare, hair loss, birth control, and sex drive solutions, that launched last fall. For Hers is the women-centered spinoff line of Hims, which provides erectile dysfunction and hair loss treatments. As a whole, the brand strategy centers on encouraging people to abandon any shame they harbor about treating “life’s unmentionables.”

    The first line on the For Hers website reads, “To us, a healthy woman is confident in her own skin.” In an effort to destigmatize the treatment of these very human issues, the company positions itself as a warrior for every aspect of a woman’s naturally-occurring processes, encouraging her to tend to her acne, hair, and sexual health without shame. A key tenet of health, according to For Hers, is confidence — but a prerequisite to confidence, according to For Hers’ product suite, is acceptance of one’s naturalness.

    This type of language is peppered throughout numerous other so-positioned shame-busting products. The personalized hair care startup Prose claims to “create natural beauty” (can you “create” nature?); Glossier locates its Zit Stick in opposition to the shame-inducing spot treatments used “in secrecy, at home” (so what if I want to tend to my acne in private?); Thinx asserts that the company is “proudly busting taboos” with their period-proof undies. 

    The subtext of all this seems to be that in order to be powerful, confident, and a true feminine ally, a woman must reject anything cosmetic in favor of a performance of radical self-acceptance. With the right natural products and butt-kicking attitude, Naturalness Rhetoric seems to suggest, we might finally be able to smash the patriarchy.

    ¤

    I grew up in Seattle in the early 2000s — a Seattle still reeling in its grunge hangover, steadily rising in wealth thanks to Boeing and Microsoft (but yet to be fully culturally excavated by Amazon), and continuing to welcome transplants from other, more expensive art and tech cities. My own parents moved from Los Angeles in search of an affordable, slower-paced environment in which to raise their family. 

    “LA just felt so… fake,” my mom would always tell me as a child.

    In the overcrowded public high school I attended, the popular kids were in the outdoors club. We self-identified as “crunchy-hot” in our Birkenstocks, fleece-lined leggings, oversized flannels and thrifted Patagonia fleeces (sans bras, of course), and took great pride in the fact that we didn’t waste time on our appearances. No one who was anyone wore makeup or expensive clothes to school. The most surefire route to ostracization was looking like you cared — at all.

    One year, our high school threw an all-city dance. Knocking back Everclear shots in the parking lot beforehand, my girlfriends and I watched as a parade of private school and suburban girls strutted up to the entrance, fidgeting with the hems of their jewel-toned bodycon dresses. 

    “Oh my god, they all straightened their hair!” 

    “Check out that eyeliner!”

    “And they’re wearing heels!” 

    We couldn’t contain our laughter. Was there anything sadder than trying so hard?

    ¤

    Of course, 2019 is not the first time that the “natural” has been heralded as a feminine standard. 

    The first documented and widely distributed archetype of the American feminine ideal was the Gibson Girl, so named for the graphic artist Charles Dana Gibson who rendered idealized, poofy-haired young women in pen and ink illustrations over a 20-year period beginning in the 1890s. In 2013, the Library of Congress held a special exhibition called “The Gibson Girl’s America: Drawings by Charles Dana Gibson,” the contents of which I found archived online.

    Physically, the Gibson Girl was tall but voluptuous, with large but delicate facial features, a cinched waist, and long hair piled tidily on her head. But her physicality — her “simple gown” and “youthful purity,” as the exhibit’s curators put it — was only one element of the ideal she represented. More importantly, she displayed a budding independence that only the most privileged, educated women began to experience at the turn of the century. As such, she was often portrayed participating in various athletic and artistic hobbies, as dominant in courtship and marriage, and in positions rarely open to women at the time (for instance, Gibson’s 1902 illustration “When Women Are Jurors” presents an entirely female jury). 

    Central to the politically progressive character was the Gibson Girl’s appearance of effortlessness. In his 1904 drawing “The Jury Disagrees,” for example, the Library of Congress’ curators highlight her “natural appeal and ability to handle social situations with ease,” which, they say, “sets her apart from the [other] elaborately dressed ladies” in the frame.

    It’s interesting to note that this Gibson Girl is, ostensibly, of the same social standing as the other, more done-up women. The crucial difference, however, is that the Gibson Girl doesn’t make her audience feel her labor — again, her social power rests in her effortlessness, in her ability to check off all the classical beauty boxes while appearing completely natural. (I wondered: Was this not the same girl-on-girl one-upmanship I engaged with as a teenager, using my less effortful look to feel superior?)

    Through his drawings, the curators write, Gibson himself displayed a “progressive and positive outlook on women.” This struck me. Gibson’s work seemed a fine example of capturing a moment in time when formerly male-only spaces were becoming open to women. But was his chronicling of this aesthetic and political ideal, in itself, progressive? Or was it just the first example we have of someone deciding how socially conscious women should appear — and then, explicitly depicting and widely circulating this image? (It’s also not lost on me that this so-called “progressive” archetype gets her name from the man who recorded her.) 

    But I couldn’t get that riled up about late-Victorian women’s looks and behavior being policed — I was of course aware that they, like I, lived under capitalism and patriarchy, blah blah blah.

    More interesting were the rules themselves: in order to be coded as progressive, independent, and confident — whatever those nebulous words actually meant — a woman in 1900 had to represent nature, youth, purity, and ease. 

    Were these not the same themes, in some form, that had led me to berate my heavily made-up high school rivals?

    ¤

    I don’t remember where I was when I learned that my mother had gotten breast implants in her youth, but I remember that it felt like a confession. Her palpable shame at having to admit to me that ultimately, she had augmented her body to more closely fit societal beauty standards was only narrowly outpaced by the shame I felt in learning that I had a fake mother.

    It was right around the time I started shopping for bras of my own (read: right around the time I started forming body insecurities of my own), and the news of my mother’s fake boobs seemed to invalidate everything I had learned in sex ed class, everything my puberty bible, The Care and Keeping of You, promoted, everything my own mother had told me about accepting and respecting my body, just as I accepted and respected the rest of the natural world.

    “You are perfectly imperfect,” my mother would often coo. 

    “Bullshit,” I now thought. (And, at my worst, “Easy for you to say when you have a fake rack.”)

    My sister, seven years my junior, was presented with an entirely different hurdle: watching my mother make the decision to get her implants removed. It was 2008, and the times had changed: Hillary had made a solid run for the Democratic ticket and my mother no longer felt that her large cup size was serving her (plus, her 90s-era silicone implants, it had since been revealed, posed risks to her health). 

    My mother now felt that her larger breasts made her look heavier than she was, her back hurt with age, and, now in her 40s, her perfectly upright tits were conspicuously not natural. It had been twenty years since my mom’s first surgery, and my sister watched, amid our near-home foreclosure and my parents’ divorce, as my mom shamelessly saved up the $10,000 to get her implants removed. 

    Despite having entered my mother’s plastic surgery journey at very different points, my sister and I shared a secret fear that it, like so much else in the experience of having a body, was hereditary. Were we genetically destined to receive not only our mother’s small chest, but also her insecurity? Would we too pay tens of thousands of dollars to reconstruct ourselves, all in the hope of asymptotically approaching a (changing) feminine ideal? We decided jointly that we would resist the urge to manipulate our images as best we could — that we would never be one of those starved, overly made-up, totally fake women peacocking about, overcompensating for their own self-hate.

    What my teenage interpretation of my mother’s choice did not leave room for, however, was the possibility that it had been just that: her choice. I could read it only as a weak surrender to self-consciousness, the media, and men, and for several years, I felt that I deserved a stronger, more progressive model of femininity. Only much later — only once I began to consider augmenting my own body — did it occur to me that my mother’s decision could be a source of power in itself, and that my judgement of her might have been precisely what made me so susceptible to Naturalness Rhetoric in the first place. 

    ¤

    Naturalness emerged as a feminine ideal several other times throughout the 20th century, typically coinciding with moments of cultural upheaval and expanding rights for women. 

    Beginning in the 1910s, the suffragists incorporated color into their platform, strategically including white, which symbolized purity. In the following decades, capital f Fashion did their part to expand women’s choices: Coco Chanel, one of the first female designers, introduced straighter silhouettes, a stark contrast to the exaggerated femininity of earlier fashions. And in the 1920s, the flappers famously did away with their corsets, rejecting the by-men, for-men artifice in favor of a shape more true to form.

    Jump forward to the 1970s, when the second-wave feminists responded to the idea of hairlessness (which had been introduced in the 1920s, when razors created new standards for women’s body hair) by growing out their underarm and leg hair. 

    In doing so, feminists tied ideas of sexual liberation to those of naturalness and freedom: suddenly, a full bush and armpit hair became a sexy symbol of the counterculture. Those who complied with this aesthetic platform, therefore, earned a sort of special insider status among the feminists of their era. Conversely, a woman who continued to shave would have been seen as decidedly not progressive.

    Of course, market-driven actions and reactions have determined how women understand and behave toward their bodies for over a century. But these pendulum swings did much more than just redefine the aesthetic rubric: Each created a new social signifier for what it looked like to be considered a feminist, regardless of one’s actual beliefs or agenda. 

    I find it rather disheartening that, even when women took back the reins of their narrative (from, for instance, men like Gibson), they continued to prescribe rules for women’s looks and behavior. It seems, to me, to miss the entire point of “emancipation.” How could such blatant discouragement of critical thinking and individual choice possibly be framed as “feminist”?

    ¤

    Of course, naturalness itself was not to blame. Nor, even, were the past or present propagators of Naturalness Rhetoric. They just wanted to sell us stuff — which, after all, is relatively transparent. 

    It seems inevitable that, to a certain extent, women are going to continue to align ourselves with what we buy and how we present — that those choices, however shallow or market-driven, will continue to be a part of our identities. What seems dangerous, however, is when we begin to conflate our purchases with our ideology, when we begin to use products (and the appearances they imbue us with) as proxy for our political positions. And it all really tumbles out of control when we are being told to buy things precisely for the political position the things hold, when buying a look becomes the fastest, most reliable way to assert our agenda. 

    And that’s the thing: a lot of the advertorial Naturalness Rhetoric I’ve observed is overtly political — or, perhaps more accurately, has overtly politicized its products as a tool to snag sales. 

    Let’s return to For Hers. Taglines like “Give us science, give us freedom” and “Rebuilding healthcare with Her in mind” seem almost directly transposed from activist slogans. Or the ad, “As women who value our health, We’re here to do what we do best — Roll up our sleeves and get shit done right,” which evokes a certain Rosie the Riveter image that feels utterly empty, given the subject matter.  

    Naturalness, it is now clear to me, has been used as both an advertorial and a political tool throughout history. It has been heralded by resistance movements, fetishized by the beauty industry, weaponized and demonized and aligned with other female signifiers, whenever useful to control or to sell. 

    I had received it, semi-unconsciously, through advertisements and Hollywood and Instagram and ads for cheekbone highlighter and juice cleanses and sundresses made from 100% recycled material. And I had even employed it myself, on the ground: as a defense mechanism against societal pressures to look a certain way, as a tool to stratify other women, as a measure of wokeness (or at least, of brand awareness). 

    But always, Naturalness Rhetoric has been a reaction to something else: the patriarchy, war, a recession, political upheaval, women not having enough power, women having too much. At times — like, for instance, in 2019 — the pressure of naturalness has felt even greater than the pressure to augment yourself. Or, more perniciously, the pressure to augment yourself has been recast as a pressure to appear hypernatural — which, of course, requires augmenting yourself anyway. 

    Any liberation movement under capitalism is totally screwed — this we know. But if there were space to reconsider the whole point of emancipation — which is, ostensibly, to free ourselves from constraints — we might find that naturalness could be useful, could lend itself quite nicely to this idea of personal agency we feminists so ardently march for. 

    But naturalness will never work if it’s employed as an imperative. Like anything, it can only liberate if it’s offered as a choice.

     

    Photo: “Models: Sharon” by Jos van den Berg is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

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