zadie smith looking critical

On Beauty, Or Why Zadie Smith’s Comments Aren’t About You

Author Zadie Smith came under fire from quarters of liberal feminist internet last week when she revealed she was critical of makeup — and the influence makeup culture had on young girls, such as her daughter. But Smith’s comments weren’t a personal attack at make-up wearers: just a critique of a culture that requires women to always appear presentable and beautiful, even from a very young age. 

In an interview with The Times, Smith shared that she was infuriated that her daughter — who is seven — was spending too much time looking at mirrors, and therefore imposed a fifteen-minute time limit on getting ready on her daughter. Smith explained to her daughter: “you are wasting time, your brother is not going to waste any time doing this. Every day of his life he will put a shirt on, he’s out the door and he doesn’t give a shit if you waste an hour and a half doing your make-up.”

Many bloggers took issue with Smith’s criticism. Jezebel wrote that someone as beautiful as Smith couldn’t understand the need for makeup. The Times implied that Smith had called young girls “fools” but did not provide a direct quote supporting this assertion. (This is the part of quote it seems the internet took the biggest beef with). Bustle scolded Smith for ignoring the therapeutic value of makeup. Essence chided her for ignoring that beauty routines made people feel good — “no more, no less.” Twittersphere was outraged with Zadie Smith, reiterating Jezebel’s point that Smith’s attractiveness made it hypocritical for her to have an opinion on makeup.

Underlying this outrage is a sense of personal injury that typically accompanies feminist critique of societally mandated practices for women (such as makeup, fitness or shaving legs). When someone criticizes the fact that women are expected, in all circumstances, to appear presentable and beautiful, their critique is taken as an attack on every individual who chooses to put on lipstick or remove their body hair. It is a classically individualistic, and arguably neoliberal, response to feminist critique:  if we chose to do something for ourselves, then we can divorce that practice from the structural context in which it is encouraged and it emerges. This response goes hand in hand with an uncritical approach to mainstream feminism: something can be sufficiently “feminist” if some women perform the practice in their individual life.

Makeup can be a calming ritual. It can be truly enjoyable for people of all genders. It can make you feel good. It can be an art form. It can take incredible skill and produce elaborate and masterful results. It can be fun, and many people can do elaborate makeup purely for their own enjoyment without even leaving the house wearing it. All of these things can be true, and it can yet simultaneously also be true that: makeup is socially mandated; increasingly expensive products exploit and profit off of creating insecurities in women; women are constantly socialized to appear beautiful to everyone in all circumstances (and not simply in the presence of, or to attract, men); men are almost never compelled to wear makeup regardless of perceived facial flaws; and young girls are socialized into caring about their physical appearance much earlier and much more so than boys their age.

Makeup cannot be beyond the realm of criticism just because we enjoy it and it makes us feel good. There are social contexts and structures which contribute to why we enjoy it and why it makes us feel good. Our existence in a misogynistic society operates in complex ways: we can subvert and reappropriate the tools of our oppression, but we cannot completely erase the patriarchal conditions of our existence through our own choices and enjoyment.

To lambaste Zadie Smith for expressing worry that her daughter could be forced to care about things that her son won’t be compelled to care about — things that could affect her self-worth, her spending, and her assessment of herself — is to fall into an uncritical and complicit liberal feminism. We can, and must, pass on a feminism that more rigorously interrogates systems (and does not see this critique as an attack on individuals) to the next generation of young people who will need it to navigate a sexist world.

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Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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