Beauty and truth and clothes

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve recently noticed that I care what I look like. More specifically, I care that I look good.

What is ‘good’? That depends what I’m doing.

Why do I care? That depends who I’m with.

Why do I care that I care? That, I’ve discovered, is a complex question.

The top two are related and easy to answer. Firstly, looking ‘good’ depends on being dressed appropriately, or being confidently inappropriate. I would be very happy to go to a board meeting in a ball gown, if I thought that was a good idea. If I had to do so because I hadn’t made it home the night before, I imagine it would be difficult (though not impossible) to carry it off in style.

Secondly, there are people I care more about impressing or attracting; but most people warrant some form of ‘being dressed’, and if I was going out for dinner with my best friend I’d probably enjoy it more if I was wearing my favourite clothes than if I was dressed in a potato sack.

What’s shocked me, though, is that I’ve found the experience of caring – of wanting to look nice – so difficult. It’s made me realise that for almost all my adult life I’ve fought a battle: Looking Good has captained one side, backed up by general aesthetic enjoyment. On the other side: Defiance, of everything that tells us we ought to look good and why.

These attitudes are so ingrained in me, and so tangled, that giving a couple of examples is the best way to explain them:


Wearing makeup is fun, and can make you look good. But wearing makeup – for me – has never been a simple business. My attack against makeup runs thus:

Why do only women wear makeup? Is it not because it is a tool used to attract partners by masking reality – something men, with their traditionally more powerful position (physical, economic etc), have never had to do? Is it not a tool to make the female face more generic, more conventional, and closer to an ‘ideal’ invented by marketing strategists? Is it not an industry entirely based on cultivating insecurity, inadequacy and self-hatred?

I can’t find an answer to these questions more accurate than ‘yes’.

Do I wear makeup? Yes.

In fact, I realise, I’ve always favoured makeup which looks ‘unnatural’. If I wear eyeliner it is thick with self-conscious flicks at the corners. Red is my favourite lipstick. The thinking behind this, if I’m honest, is that it is not ‘cheating’ if you are clearly wearing makeup. The problem is in the deception – the trying to look like something you are not. The question I’ll come to: is my problem with ‘trying’ at all?


High heels make your legs look longer, leaner and more elegant. They also make you taller, which can be a social advantage, especially when interacting in a (t)all male environment.

But how can we submit to wearing shoes which hurt? Isn’t it like wearing a hat with spikes inside? However good the hat looks, you’d be mad to wear it, wouldn’t you? High heels prevent you from being able to walk with ease, to jump, to cycle. In my most extreme moments, I’ve been sure that heels were invented by men to make it impossible for women to run away – a convenient state if you have an interest in keeping them in one place.

I like wearing high heels; they do look beautiful. Is there something wrong with my conception of beauty? Maybe.


Magazines, and not only magazines, but the media in general, thrive on telling people what they should care about. Though I accept that this happens to men as well – in different ways – the extent to which women are sold and then forced into a mould is both excessive and frightening.

What’s scary is to see the message – the fiction – become reality. Women’s magazines preach the Doctrine of Waxing, read to us from the Book of Shoes and hammer home their message of clothes = happiness = love with such relentless fervour that we want to believe and – hallelujah! – eventually we do.

Sex and the City, the dark prophet of the mirror-world, is the most insidious example of this. This book/TV show/film franchise has made such a mark on us that some people truly believe that they love shoes with the same intensity as their partner or friends or occupation.

This week I went shopping for shoes, and bought some which I love. But how can I reconcile loving a new pair of shoes with hatred of the Love of Shoes constantly being sold to me, not as an idea or a choice, but as something I already experience, by nature, because I am a woman?

What is becoming clear to me is that my enjoyment of the beautiful has, in the realm of dressing, crashed headlong into my desire to recognise and fight oppression.

In writing all this, I am not failing to notice that the idea of being ‘oppressed’ is itself unfashionable.

But when I look in the mirror I want to see something which is both beautiful and true.


There’s another strand to all of this, to which I alluded earlier: the desire not to try. Trying hard to get something contains within it the possibility that you won’t succeed, and is therefore a state pregnant with the pain of failure.

This is why single people find it difficult to admit that they are trying to find a partner (the implication: you will fail, and die alone), and also why trying to look good is difficult to admit (the implication: you will fail, and end up looking like a sorry and painted clown barred from the fairground of life).

[It is worth noting here that most people care what they look like to some degree. There are people who care more, and people who care less; but it is also probably a safe bet that the people who look good while looking like they don’t care, care most of all.]

The final question – which I am asking myself – is what’s the problem with trying? Ok, we all want to succeed without apparent effort, but I don’t mind people knowing that I work hard, or that I’ve made an effort to study.

Trying to look good is, for me, bound up with the complexities of looking good as a woman detailed above. The reason it seemed to warrant a whole post is that I don’t think I am alone. Because while I know a lot of women who, from varying positions on the spectrum of self-confidence, do maximise their beauty with thoughtful dress and careful grooming, there are plenty in the defiant camp too.

It is so old an argument, I shrink from admitting that, for me, it isn’t yet resolved. How do we reconcile the Feminist ideals of true equality and fighting oppression – in all its forms – with the enjoyment of creating ourselves as aesthetic beings? I’d love to find an answer because, having named the demons ten years into adulthood, I’m keen to kill them, and dance on their graves wearing sexy and well-chosen footwear.


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