Why are we obsessed with looking flawless?

    Photo by The Heart Truth on Wikipedia, licensed under Creative Commons

    At 7:30 a.m. every Monday, my iPhone alarm jolts me out from under my cozy duvet and straight to the bathroom, where I begin the 65 minute long process that is my morning routine. I wash my face, brush my teeth, apply toner, moisturizer, eye cream, sunscreen – and this is all before makeup even comes into the picture. Today’s outfit – black jeans and an oversized gray turtleneck – sits perfectly folded on my chair as it does every morning, with my pre-packed backpack tucked neatly to its side.

    I take no shame in admitting that I work hard to maintain my image. Admitting isn’t even the right word: celebrating seems more apt. I relish in the fact I work hard to look damn good (if I do say so myself).

    And yet, today’s aspirational lifestyle seems to be more along the lines of “I woke up like this, flawless,” than “I woke up at 7 a.m. for my 9 a.m. class to do my makeup like this, flawless." Indeed, we seem to be in an era in which visibly trying to look good is an atrocity on par with actually looking bad.

    “I always spend time doing my hair, putting on makeup and picking out an outfit," SESP freshman Sam Milstein said. "Of course, who doesn’t? But I would never want to admit to that."

    Sam and I are not alone in the time we take to craft our appearances, so why are we made to feel like these efforts should go unnoticed? The findings of Duke University’s 2003 Women’s Initiative explored this question, specifically in a college setting. The study, chaired by Nannerl O. Keohane, describes the concept of “effortless perfection” as a means of displaying the pressure felt by college women to be simultaneously “smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular” all without “any visible effort.” Given the similarities between Northwestern and Duke (competitive, an emphasis on busyness, high-ranking, etc.), these findings seem to hold true on our campus as well. The study is still widely referred to today.

    I fully acknowledge that I am asking this question as a decidedly not effortless person, but what is so wrong with trying hard? Everyone knows you did not wake up like that, but you said you did, so we’ll just go along with it – am I missing out on some wildly elaborate, wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort of inside joke between society and many women?

    Kathy Peiss, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture” suggests that the effortless trend connects back to an old misogynistic view that women are deceitful and artificial. “I think there is a longstanding ideal and value placed in ‘natural’-born beauty, and those who work at it are somehow engaging in deception,” she said.

    It takes quite a bit of effort to get that lusted-after effortless look: messy bedhead sans-frizz, a natural-looking glow, “no-makeup” makeup and professionally slouched denim all seem to be prerequisites to nailing the “Oh this old thing? I just threw it on” look. In fact, an article on elle.com estimated that it costs approximately $119,448 a year to truly achieve the effortless look when you factor in hair care, makeup, skincare, exercise, nutrition and wardrobe.

    The 2017 Golden Globes proved just how popular the effortless trend has become. On the red carpet, stars wore “no makeup” makeup looks, foregoing the smokey eyes and red lips that usually dominate award show season for delicate rose and nude tones.

    In 2016, Sephora started offering 90-minute “no-makeup” makeup classes, in which women were taught how to apply makeup in order to look as if they were wearing no makeup at all. Because, ironically, it takes 90 minutes-worth of products to look like we’re wearing nothing at all. The class promises to “enhance your beauty with tips and techniques to create a fresh, effortless look with subtle makeup in soft, neutral hues.” The class is oddly nearly double the time of Sephora’s “bold smokey eye” class. We have become so obsessed with appearing natural that it takes longer to achieve that than to create a bold, fully done up look.

    Peiss said a part of this may come from old-time beliefs about makeup and its evils. Take, for example, the 1770 British law condemning lipstick and stating that women found guilty of seducing men into matrimony by cosmetic means could be tried for witchcraft. Likewise, in the 1800s, people viewed makeup as vulgar and sinful, worn only by actors and prostitutes. According to Peiss, looking effortless became almost a means of self-protection, a way of avoiding the disapproving glares that inevitably followed a woman with a made-up face. This does not mean most women did not wear makeup. Rather, they sought ways to do it in secrecy. To exemplify this, Peiss referred to the 19th-century obsession with skin whitening, which women often did secretly through powdering and painting.

    Still, the modern implications of effortless beauty cannot simply be ignored. Brigid Schulte, a reporter for the Washington Post, explores the unprecedented trend of being busy in the 21st century in “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.” Her research says that busyness has acquired social status – the busier you are, the more important you must be. It seems fitting that the newest aspirational lifestyle is one marked not by hours spent laboring over looks, but by a lack of caring at all – if you don’t even have the time to care about how you look and you still look good, you must be really important, Schulte explained.

    Look to the Kardashian women as prime examples of individuals who promote beauty that obviously required effort. Yes, they are rich and famous beyond many of our wildest dreams, but they’re also constantly slammed in the press for being “narcissistic” and “dumb.” And fittingly, today’s style icons (besides the Kardashian clad) are applauded for their effortless beauty – think Blake Lively, Alicia Keys, and Candice Swanepoel. Yet, maybe for the first time in what feels like forever, the Kardashian women might be onto something almost poetic and beautiful: ignoring the backlash and embracing the effort put in to maintain their images. Let’s give credit where credit is due: they worked hard. In the murky time that is 2017, at least on the front of effortless beauty, the Kardashians emerge as possibly the most truthful of us all.


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