With promises of liberation and empowerment from clean eating and makeup-free faces, this smells of just another unattainable beauty standard and health advertorial craze.
“Good morning!” The greeting, accompanying an Instagram photo posted last month by the actress Zooey Deschanel, appeared innocuous enough. But the hashtags that followed it—#nomakeup, #nofilter—have popped up online with increasing abundance even among non-celebrity women over the last few months, always captioning a woman’s makeup-free self-portrait. Perhaps this—along with a renewed emphasis on women’s fitness and health—are a cultural shift, a celebration of womanhood sans artifice. But the new natural’s emphasis on women’s bodies, not personalities, hints at yet another form of objectification.
Overwhelmingly, it is the body, not a woman’s personal happiness, that is the new natural’s focus. Women’s health and fitness magazines, with names like Self, Shape, and Women’s Health, exhort their readers to “sculpt fabulous arms, killer abs, and a tight butt” through meticulously detailed workout plans, and to “strip away the pounds … [and] get glowing skin” by subsisting on little more than green juice. An online search for “fitspo,” or fitness inspiration, brings up the same kind of headless, hipbone-heavy photos of nameless women’s bodies that first got the pro-anorexia crowd in trouble. “Gotta squat before I tie the knot,” one t-shirt marketed towards brides proclaims; “Bride with abs cut like her diamonds,” goes another. The message is clear: it is a woman’s decorative value, not her health, that should be the end goal of her exercise.
Perfection cannot be achieved through exercise alone, though, and this is where the new healthy begins to look suspiciously like the old dieting. Blueprint Juices, a popular line of juice cleanses available nationwide at Whole Foods, barely scrapes by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ recommended caloric intake for women attempting to lose weight at their six-juice, 1,040-calories-per day plan. (For women who exercise regularly, the recommended caloric intake is minimum 1,200 calories per day.) Tellingly, a February Glamour interview with Marissa Vicario, a health coach, advises women with prior histories of eating disorders to avoid juicing.
While this emphasis on fitness promotes a narrow vision of beauty, it does, at least, encourage a certain amount of agency over the fate of one’s physical self. (Though when it backfires—as it did in fitness blogger Maria Kang’s “What’s your excuse?” campaign—that agency is spectacularly good at promoting body shame.) Not so for the recent no-makeup blogs, magazine covers, and Twitter campaigns of recent months, where the bare or makeup-less face idealized invariably and naturally matches an even narrower set of what constitutes “pretty.”
Take, for example, last month’s cover of W, featuring Rosamund Pike, the star of the upcoming adaptation of Gone Girl, swiping away her makeup in a dramatic reveal. The differences between the two sides of her face are striking: the false eyelashes, removed; the eyebrow pencil, erased; the foundation smeared away, exposing the pinkness of the cheeks beneath it. But Pike still closely hews to Hollywood’s accepted image of female beauty: that is, she’s thin, blonde, and white. For those of us who do not exactly match these features—most women—whatever “empowerment” this image could have offered quickly disappears when it becomes clear that, like Zooey Deschanel’s celebrated selfie, no makeup is most publicly accepted when you’re already a movie star.
Spring’s #nomakeupselfie hashtag on Instagram, too, encouraged women and girls to consider our natural faces as something inherently unusual. Here, the pithy bids for empowerment were even less convincing; the hashtag campaign, ostensibly organized in an effort to raise cancer awareness, instead followed what is perhaps the golden rule of social media: that it is, out of all other content, women’s bodies and faces that drive traffic and garner the most attention.
“Social network statistics,” former Facebook employee Kate Losse wrote in her memoir, The Boy Kings, “indicate that men and women have different online viewing habits: Two-thirds of the photos viewed on social networks … are of women.” The #nomakeupselfie campaign was criticized for narcissism, but why? When women are clearly told again and again that their beauty, and the veracity of their beauty sans makeup, are all that matters, even personal moments will be transformed into efforts of self-objectification. To be female in public and online means to be judged. Social media’s broadcasting of the personal, paired with the strictures of natural beauty, means that not even in private can women pretend to be anything but naturally perfect.
Where has this sudden zest for natural beauty come from? Pop culture is littered with clues—“Sweatpants, hair tied, chilling with no makeup on,” Drake crooned in his 2009 hit, “Best I Ever Had,” “That’s when you’re the prettiest, I hope that you don’t take it wrong.” As Emily Matchar explained in her Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domestic, this emphasis on all things organic fits into a larger backlash against women’s liberation.
“This isn’t, of course, the first time home and hearth have been put on such a pedestal: The 1950s brought us the Happy Housewife, while the 1980s served up a minor flurry of media stories about ‘nesting’ and ‘cocooning’ among professional women,” she wrote. Juicing and no makeup are the natural outgrowth of the farmer’s markets, bread baking, and anti-vaccination efforts Matchar classified as the “new domestic.” A shared fear of “toxins” crops up among the urban farmers she profiled and the juice advocates hawking their wares. Natural beauty is simply the beauty myth repackaged and sold back to women under the guise of self-care.
Environmentalism has exploited women’s bodies in the past—PETA, especially, has a long history of degrading its spokeswomen—but when environmentalism moves “from the public sphere to the domestic,” as Matchar calls it, it disguises consumerism and objectification as political action. Juices, veganism, and modern apothecaries like Aesop might banish toxins from our food and skin, but they do little to preserve natural resources or combat dangers like air pollution.
Ultimately, it’s women’s bodies that are caught in the crosshairs, and while we may succeed, eventually, in toning ourselves to the exact specifications demanded by the male gaze, we will be makeup-free in a world increasingly inhospitable to our own existence. Fifty years after the heyday of the second wave, it has become something of a cliché to invoke “the goddess,” that earth mother supposedly within us all. “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” web theorist Donna Haraway famously declared in her Cyborg Manifesto, heralding an increasingly digitalized world, but today, the goddess has returned. Amid the selfies, fitness apps, and exhortations to be all natural, she remains a myth, sold to women as an exemplar of femininity. Robot, goddess: The options for women, digital or organic, always seem to be objects of some kind. As for me, I simply want to be human.
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