Beauty Is Broken

It’s always been a man’s possession — and that’s why it failed.

Illustration by Ana Benaroya

I was 11 years old when I first recognized that men’s perception of beauty revolves around possession. I was walking home from school when a group of teenage boys started following me in their car. They were catcalling me, so I ran into a bank until they drove off. If that experience taught me anything, it was that beauty is about power: the pursuit of it and the consequence of it. Those boys might’ve thought I was cute, sure, but more enticing was the thought of control over someone else, someone obviously fragile: a pre-teen girl.

Beauty, like monstrous ugliness, comes with a hunt. Of course I wanted to be beautiful. But not followed on the walk home, not threatened to be pulled into a car. I don’t legislate beauty’s boundaries — (white) men do. They define it; they dictate; they own it, asking us to see ourselves in their eyes. When I’m getting ready to go out, determining how to look good, but not vulnerable, I think about the fact that men so rarely have this issue: how to be beautiful, but not breakable; something easily pursued.

I wonder how perceptions of beauty color the world for men, if it seems as glittering and dark and fragile as it does to me, someone assumed to be a woman. It’s not as if men can’t be considered beautiful. Is there a place for men in beauty other than the judge and executioner?

For as long as there have been men and women on this earth, the answer has been no. No ancient texts written by women on cosmetics survive — all the classics are by men, and most only discuss beauty in the context of a woman’s relationship to men. Ovid, the one classical philosopher that had anything positive to say, postulated that beauty labor was necessary, but to render it invisible. “Beauty neglected dies,” he writes in Ars Amortoria, but never let “your lover find cosmetic bottles on your dressing table: art delights in the hidden face.” Men want beauty, but they don’t want to see the work; they don’t want to see the space beauty takes up.

Other philosophers warned and regulated and mansplained the techniques women ought to use for beauty if they wanted to be desirable; this later extended to royal regulations on wigs, blushes, and perfumes. There were even beauty rules based entirely on the king’s masculinity issues. For example, when King Louis XIII of France was self-conscious about his male-patterned baldness, wigs became the vogue, and eventually symbols and arbiters of class, masculinity, and aristocracy (which were more or less the same thing at the time). The rules for women were simply meant to enforce men’s narrative foils.

Beauty was always used as a tool of critique for all genders. In Greco-Roman culture, men insulted other men by associating them with femininity and makeup. The Roman philosopher Cicero insulted his consul by making fun of his cerussatae buccae, which roughly translates to leaded entertainment, or makeup. Alexander the Great — who ran the largest empire in the world and was the ultimate symbol of masculinity — was often ridiculed in ancient texts for wearing kohl eyeliner. Ironically, while men were using makeup as a tool for mockery, cosmetics were beginning to be seen as an essential part of womanhood and the crux of a woman’s desirability: it was Plautus who famously quipped “a woman without paint is like food without salt.”

Men’s opinions of and approaches to beauty have always been laced with this kind of paradoxical judgement and masculine showmanship. Beauty has been a method to display the violence of masculinity and possessiveness throughout the empires; men lesser than Alexander used it, too. The Romans had an entire slave class who would apply perfumes to their slavers and their weapons before war; beauty rituals were as much part of violent practices as putting armor on. The Britons would use dyes and pigments, like woad, to make their bodies elegantly fearful, drenched in blue. So you see, what’s volatile about beauty when possessed by men is that they use it as this weapon to mark their territory: to remind everyone else in the room who’s in charge.

Jump forward to the 20th century and the story hasn’t strayed much: the production of beauty was absolutely essential, this time as propaganda to boost morale for soldiers and nurses. In WWII, the War Production Board kept cosmetics off the list of restricted wartime industries as they considered it so essential to boosting morale. After all, what’s the point of fighting if you don’t have something beautiful to fight for? The beauty industry was intertwined with the violence in other ways, too. Camouflage pancake makeup for U.S. soldiers was actually commissioned by the Ministry of Defense with Max Factor in 1938; he also worked with them previously on pancake makeup to conceal war wounds. A few years later, a soldier would write in VOGUE in 1941 that to look unattractive at the time was “downright morale-breaking and should be considered treason.”

Beauty, to men, was something they didn’t trust or want, especially in women. It was too powerful, too dangerous, so they needed to lock it up. In the Middle Ages, men put women in convents to “protect” the women from sins and men from sinning in response. Beauty needed to exist in a certain way; if it couldn’t be controlled, men got rid of it. This was evident in the 1700s too, when Parliament ruled that “women who seduce men into matrimony through use of lip and cheek paints could have their marriages annulled and face witchcraft charges.”

Placing beauty into an alternative lifestyle — jails, slavery, internment camps — never ceased. To early colonizers and rapists like Christopher Columbus, lacking beauty meant that one could never be worthy of love or basic human dignities. He writes as much in his early journals. President and slave-owner Thomas Jefferson perpetuated this abusive notion too, writing that race and power are structures where, “the difference is fixed in nature… And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races?”

Our struggle to control beauty, especially exotic beauty, has never gone away; it’s just become political. Beauty is understood in multiplicity: in race, in gender, in class. It’s about who gets to rule and who shouldn’t exist at all. The Third Reich took this thought to the bitter extreme, you’ll remember, with their eugenics program for the beautification of the Aryan race. Now, we use the unfamiliar to keep people out: out of our train cars, our planes, and if Trump would have it, our country. We control beauty by recognizing it only as the most patriarchal versions of ourselves: that is to say, in most of us we don’t see it at all.

From Ovid in 6 B.C. until now, men have approved of and sought beauty only if it could be impossibly paradoxically perfect: invisible, natural, pure, painful, effortless, divine and humanizing. Because beauty, for men, is about assimilation — not individualism. This is how beauty breaks down. And it’s one of the most obvious moments in which you can recognize masculine fragility: men are terrified of truly being seen to the extent that everyone else is everyday, all the time. They don’t want to be noticed because they know what that costs. Consider the plume of Axe body spray that emanates from any teen boy across America. Or my friend Tyler, who refuses to wear colognes that his female friends wouldn’t wear, because he’s more concerned with how his smell interacts with the aesthetics of the group. That always struck me as his feminist act: reducing the smell-space he takes up as an apology for all the men who consume the air with their plumes.

Men still reprimand women when they perform beauty incorrectly: when we pick apart people for their makeup application or lack thereof, on Instagram or content farms, for daring to be vain or frankly daring to exist at all. I think of Ovid every time I see the subway ads discouraging women from grooming in subway cars, as if it takes up more space than anything else. Men know that beauty is only meant to be performed privately, if you are so imperfect a human to have to ritualize it at all.

This is why they stay in the shadows to ask their questions about how to perform it well, why every time a man in my life has asked for beauty advice, it’s been via email or text message, like an illicit rendezvous for sex or satanic ritual. They’ll email and take me aside to ask in hushed tones what on earth is a toner and if moisturizer is really “a thing,” lest it look like they don’t know what they’re doing. Most men only use products that validate their egos: this is how we ended up with Man Wipes, as if their butts require some hardier material to wipe with. The men that do seriously have a handle on beauty use it as an opportunity to demean the women that don’t. Kerry Thompson, a beauty writer made this observation after several interviews with men in the field: “Some men in the field approach beauty conversations with misogynistic tendencies to neg: women do this too much, women don’t know this, women are idiots.” So the men that don’t “get” beauty and the men who do tend to do the same thing: clock in just to order everybody else around.

Beauty was always a possession — an ephemeral one never meant to be controlled by women. It’s been defined by the limits of men from the start. To possess. To pursue. To judge. Beauty has been gendered and controlled in a way that actually limits its own potential — it’s an insecure divide between men and women, a violent one.

The freedom surrounding men’s beauty industry isn’t without reason; when men are perceived to perform beauty badly, they lose elections and public trust. We know this from the JFK vs. Nixon debate and, decades later, the roasting of John Boehner’s bronzer-face on Twitter. Then again, when women are perceived to perform beauty incorrectly, they are fired, expelled, and killed. Women are gunned down, doxxed, followed home at night, harassed, demanded to smile, interrogated on their genitalia, gaslit, and stalked. This also applies to gender nonconforming individuals like me, who wrote this essay as if my own gender fluidity doesn’t qualify to be included or explored. Navigating gender and beauty as someone who is still exploring what my gender is is difficult, and it’s something I’d like to explore as privately as possible, but my love of beauty and bodies (and my work) is far too involved in it to not be mentioned at all.

So I’ve mostly decided being gendered a woman is enough. It isn’t, not really, but I can see myself in womanhood, and I embrace the feminine. At least it’s not as violent as its foil. So womanhood is where I go when I am exhausted by and afraid of fighting for my other options. I’m already followed home at night for looking like a woman. I know statistically that it would be worse if I ventured, visibly, to be anything else. This is the real gulf in the beauty aisle and in the history of beauty itself: beauty for men is a method to prevent humiliation, and for the rest of us, it is a matter of life and death, getting home or not having a home at all.

Beauty is failing us, because gender already has. But what keeps me coming back to it is that I still think it can be recovered. I think beauty can mean more than what it was ever meant to, that it can illuminate parts of people they didn’t know they had or deserved or even wanted. I think of the options it gives me on an everyday basis, the ritual and the retreat: I know there are days I would not be here it if weren’t for a small gesture of beauty I witnessed or did by myself. Beauty makes me question everything around me including my own body and what I can do with it, how I might better take care of it, how I might be destroying it in ways I wasn’t aware of. There is always more to know and use to find ourselves — again and again. So while it fails, as it does, somehow it’s worth the rescue.

We find each other, despite male ego, and in part because of it. It makes an accomplice out of all of us; it changes the game even as we are miles in and deeply involved.

Beauty teaches me time and time again that masculinity is a farce. Whatever I am, I am that thing imperfectly, femininely, and earnestly. Femininity isn’t any truer, but it is considerably less overrated, and it is kind. There’s an accomplice in every person who wants to be beautiful. There’s an accomplice in every person who knows what beauty means in this society and decides to defy it, even a little. I find sanctuary in this world of beauty, even as it is used to harm me and the people I love. Because other people I love finally get recognized and happy with who they are.

We are having conversations that are painful and necessary and true about what we value in bodies and what rhetoric we have had enough of. I don’t know if it means we’re winning, finally, or if it means we’re losing a little less than before. Given I’m going to die before patriarchy is over, I don’t think it matters too much if it’s the battle or the war. Because if beauty is about ownership, not aesthetics, what is the most unsettling, delicious thing about beauty now is this: we’re beginning to finally and unapologetically own ourselves. A man’s judgement doesn’t matter if he’s not the one in control.